Intergovernmental cooperation: Overcoming obstacles

Working together requires commitment and strategies to overcome difficulty. The same is true for local governments.

Last week, we introduced the topic of intergovernmental cooperation and some of the reasons local government units might work together on a variety of projects. Today, our focus is on how to accomplish this cooperation.

One of the first things citizens and elected officials must do is to unload the baggage. Local government, and the services it provides, are not just the responsibility of elected officials, their hired staff and the citizens who elect them. Rather than blame when something goes wrong, we all need to do what we can to maintain ongoing communication and work together to solve the problems of today and tomorrow.

Events which took place 30 years ago, or even last week, are not relevant. We have to learn to put the past behind us, and act in ways that build trust today. This doesn’t mean we will always agree. We simply can’t afford to let our disagreement on an issue prevent us from working together. True champions win by keeping their sights set on the finish line, not by focusing on the bumping that happened in the crowd on the last curve.

Communication is another crucial element of successful working relationships. In any venture where participants are working toward the same goal, it is critical to gather good information and to share it. I heard a true story a few years ago about three professional fishermen. They were competing with each other and many others in a summer-long competition. What was unique about these three friends was that while they fished and competed individually, they also worked together as a team. They shared information about where the fishing was best, what methods and equipment were most effective. One of them won the competition that year and the other two finished in the top five. Each one did better as part of the team than they would have alone.

Another important element of communication is to understand the interests of all parties. If I’m working with a group and the goal is to maximize the benefit for all involved, I need to understand what each of the partners feels is important. Only then can we design solutions that best meet the needs of all the partners. Often, when we seek to understand the interests of all partners, we learn that we share many more interests than we thought before we started. These shared interests often provide the basis for early progress which we can build on as we tackle the tougher issues.

Cooperation, whether between governments, or between individuals on a board, in a business, or in a family, requires that we understand what others interests are, why these are important, and that we keep our eyes on the purpose. We need to be inclusive, share information, and deal with problems as they arise. Perhaps most important though, is the need to maintain a cooperative spirit, to keep working toward a solution that is best for all involved.

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