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Sustainable Development e-News


Partners Extraordinaire

By Cornelius B. Pratt, USDA Forest Service

Cornelius Pratt

In the more than five years that I have been in the Forest Service, I have observed that we frequently use the word “partners” in many of our discussions, deliberations, and tęte-ŕ-tętes.  Its variants: stakeholders, collaborators, constituents, communities, parties, key players, and even target audiences.  There is compelling reason for their use: Public agencies’ legitimacy and success are dependent on the quality of the relationships that they nurture with a wide range of partners.  The Forest Service, more than many, is an agency whose effectiveness in fulfilling its land-management mission is increasingly linked to its ability to manage stakeholder relationships.

One of the three respondents in this issue’s “Special Feature” asserts that “partnership is the secret of success for our agency.”  That conclusion is telling for at least three reasons.  First, it reflects the potential value of groups and organizations with which we as a government agency do business.  Second, it reminds us of our inherent vulnerabilities—that we are, for the most part, as effective as our partners and stakeholders enable us to be.  Third, it focuses our attention on resource constraints, which are diminished whenever we work collaboratively to pool our resources and to maximize the economies of scale, or magnified whenever we work independently.

But what is a hallmark of effective partnerships?  Symmetry—that is, the (high-level) consistency between an organization’s mission, vision, goals and practices and those of its partners or collaborators.  It is, therefore, imperative that agencies be broadly cognizant of such common areas before they consider signing memoranda of understanding with other organizations or groups or cementing other forms of partnerships.  Indeed, the wider the range of commonalities, the higher the probability that substantive benefits will accrue to all parties. 

Some strengths of symmetry: 

§      It helps build the capacity of local communities.  As Elizabeth Estill, a deputy chief in the Forest Service, puts it in a recent internal memorandum titled “Lower Mississippi Restoration Coordination,” “I am intrigued by the possibility of developing a governance system that is locally driven to solve environmental problems at a scale that makes good economic and ecological sense.”  An illustration: The mission of Casa Pueblo, one of Puerto Rico’s grassroots, community-driven organizations, is to develop that form of bottom-up governance on the ground.

§      It provides opportunities for working together to promote a better understanding of one another, especially if partners intend to hold consistent views on resource management or to promote similar business cultures. This does not assume that organizations do not have their own viewpoints or attributes.  Similarly, it does not assume that organizational differences and demurrals, whatever they might be, are always detrimental to collaboration.  Rather, it assumes that differences and complaints, if they exist, can even be tapped to nudge all parties toward developing initiatives for accomplishing the common good.

§      It gives an organization a wide berth to surrender some of what it really wants to get more of what it wants.  Understandably, organizational behaviorists have offered us an aphorism: “Organizations get more of what they want when they give up some of what they want.”  The point here is that a wider range of commonalities among partners makes such organizational sacrifice only occasionally necessary—at best.

§      It establishes a heightened acceptance of a community with common goals and of partners as a unit—with a common identity, a collective vision, a shared value system.  Of course, there could be occasional truculent responses to sensitive issues, but the demonstrated common ground among parties will make such sticky matters promptly resolvable, with partners participating in decision-making as peers.

§      It involves all parties in all phases of an activity as a collaborative initiative, and leads to broader mutual influence, to a better alignment of interests, to stronger relationships, and to a more effective response to community needs.  A manifestation of asymmetrical, non-mutual control is the propensity to muffle, if not to silence, others and to stifle open discussion.  Yet, first-rate organizations, not to mention nations, are oftentimes evaluated on the extent to which they tolerate—and even spur—competing worldviews.  Thus, because partnerships thrive better in equal relationships and in symmetry, partners are wont to be proactive in how they respond to issues and to be involved in them with an unabated burst of passion.

§      It produces more than the collective results of organizations working separately.  The synergy among partners—that is, the social capital—fosters pooling of resources for results, leading, again, to maximizing the economies of scale by bringing the best ideas to bear on an issue or a challenge.

§      It diminishes the compulsion on the part of a partner to bend to accommodate a straying partner—if one emerges.  In the normal course of undertaking organizational operations, each party accomplishes its everyday activities as a member of a (cohesive) network without the need to fine-tune its actions specifically to respond to the demands of others.   

A word of caution: all partners need not be chiseled from the same stone.  In fact, one partner may understandably hold views that might be antithetical to those of other partners; another could engage in practices that might draw a raspberry from others. But they should strive to respond to issues corporately and to take actions within the framework of a common interest, both with the fortitude of equals and the ebullience of dedicated environmental stewards—and all in non-paternalistic, engaging ways.  That way, they can all continue to contribute to their collective mission, and, in the process, become even more to one another partners extraordinaire.

The writer is on the staff of the National Office of Communication, Washington, D.C. Beginning August 2006, he will serve as Presidential Professor of Strategic and Organizational Communication at Temple University. 

Pratt held academic posts at Howard University (2005-2006), at Michigan State University (1991-2002), at Virginia Tech (1983-1991), and at Weber State University (1981-1983).

He holds a master’s and a doctorate from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.

He and his wife, Charlotte, have two grown sons—one of whom lives in Boston, the other in New York City.

Return to SDe-News Summer 2006

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    Last Modified: Wednsday, July 19, 2006