Driving Impact Through Cross-Sector Collaboration

Kevin Miler, Civic Tech Manager, Microsoft in San Jose

As urban challenges become increasingly complex, costly, and inter-connected, cross-sector partnerships offer a promising approach to problem solving. Cultivating a shared sense of responsibility and striving toward collective impact can work wonders in the community, particularly when key partners are operating synergistically to take on interrelated challenges or create opportunities for community improvement.  To be sure, they are not a panacea, nor do they come without risk.  Competing priorities across sectors and across organizations (and, in some cases, even within organizations themselves) can lead to misaligned incentives, difficult partnerships, poor outcomes, or worse.  Varying levels of resources and organizational capacity can generate frustration.  Despite these and other risks, the potential of cross-sector partnerships to create real impact is too great to ignore.  Below, I’ve highlighted a few ways that organizations from different sectors can contribute and benefit from these partnerships.

Public sector agencies, often resource constrained, are wise to leverage their local and national partners to fill voids in capacity.  And resource constraints for local governments come in many forms—it’s not always a cash constraint.  Silicon Valley is an excellent example: while many local jurisdictions here have significant cash resources, it is incredibly difficult to hire exceptional technical talent in the areas of computer and data science, software engineering, and information technology generally, all the way up from entry level analysts to Chief Information (or insert other technical title) Officers.  Competing with Silicon Valley tech titans on salary and workplace culture is virtually impossible, but opportunities to leverage human capital from these organizations do exist through partnership.  Many private-sector and non-profit organizations are looking for ways to give back to the community and partner with local governments to create impact.   

Opportunities abound for private firms to contribute expertise and resources toward solving community problems.  Cities can act as living laboratories for piloting new technology and products, which can drive product improvement through iteration while contributing positively to the community.  Private companies can also learn a tremendous amount and create extraordinary opportunities for business development through partnerships.  At Microsoft Silicon Valley, our effort to engage deeply with the community in San Jose has driven substantive internal learning about how we can and should be thinking about business development in the future.  It has also created talent pipelines for our Innovation Fellows program and has led us to identify new organizations to partner with on high-impact projects in the community, all of which raise our brand visibility.  

For universities, cross-sector partnerships create opportunities to use the city as a laboratory for research and experimentation, which also facilitates evidenced-based policymaking and solutions in cities.  Universities also benefit from opportunities to provide practical experience to their students through the creation of talent pipelines, internships and collaborative projects with local governments, non-profits, and private firms.  Access to practitioners can complement academic research with real-world experience and insights.

Non-profits also have much to offer and gain.  Aside from offering resources and subject matter expertise, non-profits can take on the important role of a trusted advisor or intermediary between local governments and businesses—facilitating data sharing between cross-sector organizations is a great example.  In many cases, non-profits are also resource constrained themselves and can maximize their reach through robust partnerships.  Non-profits often focus on a core problem (youth education, homelessness, transportation, etc.), but our increasingly complex urban systems demand multifaceted approaches for sustainable, long-term improvements.  Collective approaches may be more likely to result in comprehensive solutions that address all facets of these challenge.  

Civil society organizations, including interest groups, community organizations, and others can be key partners as well and are often overlooked and underutilized.  They may provide boots on the ground, act as a liaison between organizations and the communities in which they operate, and they can provide key insights into what is working and what is not.  

Microsoft’s Technology and Civic Engagement Team is striving to lead on cross-sector approaches to urban problem solving in some of the most complex urban environments in the nation.  Our partnership with UI Labs in Chicago and SuperPublic in San Francisco are prime examples of our commitment to this type of collaboration. In San Jose, we’re investing significant time and resources to partner with City Hall, non-profits, and San Jose State University to drive community impact, and we recently announced a growing partnership with Joint Venture Silicon Valley, an organization devoted to tackling regional challenges through public-private partnerships.  In the coming weeks, we’ll highlight our cross-sector collaborations in San Jose in more detail.  

We’re always on the lookout for additional partnerships.  If you’re interested in working with us (regardless of sector!), please reach to me on Twitter @civtechkev

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