Education Commentary

Creating Effective Interagency Collaboratives

By Margaret Dunkle & Maggie Nash — March 15, 1989 10 min read

With an access to young people unrivaled by any other social institution, schools are being asked to play a greater role than ever before in serving the nonacademic needs of students, especially those who are classified as “at risk.” But because they are neither health nor social-service experts, educators are understandably hesitant to take on all of the complex social problems of such children.

Yet helping these youths succeed in school requires more than instruction in the three R’s. To educate effectively, schools must find new ways of working with the public and private agencies equipped to meet these other needs.

Developing integrated relationships with such groups is about as easy as dancing with an octopus, with each agency or organization a “tentacle.” The old ways of moving just don’t work, and it’s easy to get your feet stepped on.

Many cooperative efforts fail because each participant--looking at the world from its own vantage point--sees a different picture of the same child. For example, in looking at a high-risk teenager:

An educator sees a student in danger of dropping out;

A health-care provider sees a patient at risk of having a low-birthweight baby;

A social-service worker sees a client who may require public assistance;

A juvenile-justice worker sees a potential runaway;

An employment specialist sees a trainee needing multiple services; and

A community or religious leader sees the troubled offspring of a personal friend.

While each of these perspectives is valid, treating only one dimension of a young person’s problems often is not enough. Effective collaboration means agreeing on definitions and goals that give legitimacy to all facets of the child--and to the agencies dealing with each.

Once a common sense of direction is established, agencies can find ways to cross traditional boundaries. If everyone agrees that children need more health services and that these services should be offered in the school setting, school and agency staffs can work together to develop an appropriate program. If teachers are constrained from addressing sensitive issues surrounding aids and sexuality, for example, local health agencies can provide the personnel to lead classroom sessions.

Sharing resources also broadens perspectives. Schools and agencies must be able to draw on curricula, programs, and policies that work--no matter who developed them.

Related to the issue of perspective is the problem of language. Important information often does not reach all those who need it because it is written in the specialized language of a given sector.

An article about aids written by a doctor for other doctors may contain information that educators need to know. But few of them will ever see the medical journal containing the article--and those who do are unlikely to surmount the language barrier between health and education.

Similarly, few medical or social-service professionals understand education jargon or read education journals, even when the ideas are relevant to their work.

Participants in collaborative efforts--especially group leaders--must make a conscious effort to overcome such barriers. Whenever possible, they should use generic terms rather than those associated with a particular profession: “children,” for example, rather than “students,” “clients,” or “patients.”

In both speaking and writing, professionals must translate jargon and acronyms--the “Carl Perkins Act,” for example, or “excess morbidity"--so that people from different fields can understand what is being said.

In addition to its own perspective and language, each organization has its own distinctive structure--a different set of priorities, range of acceptable actions, and process for making decisions. Many cooperative efforts fail because they are not sufficiently flexible to accommodate the various needs and approaches of the different organizations involved.

Although almost everyone has some contact with schools, few outsiders understand how school systems work. The result is that educators are asked to do things that they cannot do. For example, while friction between school personnel and local health-department staff is often thought to be rooted in personality conflicts, it typically has a structural origin: Each group looks at its mandate and wonders why the other can’t be more reasonable.

On the one hand, health workers want to capitalize on the schools’ ready access to young people in order to provide health services. But on the other hand, the same compulsory-attendance laws that give schools this access also make them strictly accountable to parents and local school boards.

Few noneducators understand the need for schools to get parental permission for services to students or the power of a small number of vocal parents to derail a controversial program. Even fewer appreciate the degree to which education, unlike other public institutions, is controlled by local boards, rather than by a state or national body.

And just as few people outside the system know how schools work, few educators grasp the intricacies of other agencies and programs. When at-risk students need services from Medicaid or the Aid for Families with Dependent Children program, how many teachers or principals can refer them to the right office?

While schools should not be expected to provide all services, staff members should have a working knowledge of the mission and services of other agencies--so that they can steer needy students in the right direction. This can only happen when educators have regular access to the staffs of these groups. Coordination is especially difficult--and important--in addressing such concerns as alcohol and drug abuse or aids, where the stakes are high and the issues controversial.

Beyond broadened perspectives and improved communication, strong leadership is essential if joint efforts are to succeed: Leaders set the tone and provide the rewards that can either encourage or squelch collaboration.

Much more subtle than sending out a press release or handing down a vague mandate to cooperate with other agencies, effective leadership means putting an organization’s best people on the issue and giving them the authority, time, and resources to do the job.

It also means involving key middle- and upper-level staff members at the early stages. These line managers will later be responsible for implementation--and they will do a far better job if their input is taken seriously along the way.

And the career professionals will remain in the agency long after the current political leadership has moved on or been voted out of office. Cooperative efforts work when the participants--individuals as well as organizations--feel that they are equal partners and consequently invest themselves fully in the endeavor. Policy changes recommended by a blue-ribbon panel will be forgotten when the political winds shift unless the supervisors and principals responsible for implementing the changes are engaged throughout the process.

Coordinating collaborative efforts also requires “information disarmament"--sharing rather than withholding information. Successful collaboratives establish committees, hold regular meetings to communicate new developments, and publish directories of services and resources. These activities require time and hard work. But if they are neglected, crises invariably arise further down the road--when a leader trips over a neglected tentacle of the octopus and becomes embroiled in a turf battle with another agency.

All too often, administrators view such work as nice but not necessary. In fact, staff members who promote interagency cooperation may be penalized in the long run for neglecting their “real work.”

If school administrators or other agency heads or political leaders want cooperative ventures to work, they must reward these efforts just as they do other important jobs--with good performance evaluations, salary increases, promotions, and authority. Without these tangible rewards, even the most creative and dedicated professional will quickly burn out.

Revamping organizational reward systems may also be required for successful collaborations.

Interagency cooperation is much like preventive health care: Everyone believes in it, but few actually practice it. The payoff--created by a strategy of avoiding problems, not solving them--is long-term rather than immediate.

Professionals typically receive rewards for solving crises; schools and agencies need to provide equal incentive for preventing problems through effective collaboration. It is unrealistic to expect organizations or individuals to undertake cooperative activities unless they are rewarded for doing so.

Many of the turf battles between schools and other agencies originate in struggles for resources, program-by-program and agency-by-agency. Staff members and agencies are rewarded when they win more funds--and more services and programs--for their department. But they are typically not rewarded for identifying needed services in another department or organization, even when those other services are exactly what would help an at-risk young person succeed.

Planners of collaborative efforts must also build interdependence among group participants--by, for example, making sure that the staffs of only one or two agencies do not control the critical committees or tasks. In this way, all members of the group have an investment in the success of their counterparts from other agencies.

Sharing credit is essential to fos2p4tering the trust and flexibility necessary to develop new approaches and accommodations. A joint press conference to announce a new program is a good way to publicly acknowledge each agency’s involvement. No group can concentrate on serving children if it is worried that another tentacle of the octopus will snatch its due portion of credit--or if it is busy plotting its own theft.

While selecting a lead agency for an initiative--for example, a health organization to take the lead on aids issues--may appear to make good sense, this strategy will fail unless concrete provisions for rewarding the other players are built into the plan.

If a community wants to decrease the infant-mortality rate among births to teenage mothers, for instance, not all of the funds should be controlled by the health department. Involving schools in a prenatal-care program may mean creating a line item in the education8budget for a school nurse, improving health facilities in schools, or earmarking new funds for transporting students to and from health services.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has tackled the issue of organizational rewards by providing selected states and cities with funding to integrate the structure, financing, and delivery of services. With a broad child-welfare perspective, this initiative offers financial incentives for a wide range of agencies to cross traditional lines in serving children and families.

Another approach to fostering interagency efforts is to invite a neutral group--a branch of the mayor’s or governor’s office, or a nonprofit organization--to act as coordinator.

The Equality Center, a nonprofit organization that addresses crosscutting equity issues, has worked closely with both the state of Maryland and individual school districts within the state in developing successful collaboratives.

Maryland’s innovative interdepartmental committee on teenage pregnancy and parenting, for instance, now includes the departments of education, health, human resources, employment, and juvenile services, as well as the governor’s councils on children and adolescent pregnancy. And a low-cost, high-payoff incentive grant program has encouraged all 24 jurisdictions in the state to form local teenage-pregnancy committees and undertake projects ranging from creating teen drama groups to training agency staff and developing cross-agency directories of services.

No single agency--and certainly not schools--can address all of the interrelated health, social-service, and educational needs of at-risk children. But left to fend for themselves in the maze of agencies and regulations, these young people will become entangled in the tentacles of the octopus.

While we, as providers of the help they seek, may find dancing with the octopus complicated, more of us will need to learn the new steps of interagency cooperation if prevention and service programs are to work.

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Creating Effective Interagency Collaboratives