by Ben Kowalczyk, SF2014
Three months into my fellowship with the City and County of San Francisco it has become abundantly clear how important collaborative cross-sector partnerships are for effective governance and policy making. I come from a background in community-based policy advocacy, working for three years on various economic justice campaigns. In our work we were constantly attempting to penetrate City Council and City Hall either because we were advocating for more equitable investment of public dollars or because we were lobbying legislation with the purpose of building an economy that worked better for working people. In all of my experiences we relied heavily on allies in elected office and those positioned in bureaucratic agencies, however, our approach very much emphasized mobilizing pressure from the outside. It was due to significant political mobilization both amongst stakeholders and the community at large that we were able to garner champions in city government. In fact, our end goal was always to move “inside” decision makers even though at times it was very difficult or impossible to do so. To achieve our goals we would constantly hold strategy sessions and conduct power analyses of organizational decision making so that we could reach the right folks on the inside.
With those experiences as my backdrop, my transition into city government working in government affairs for a large public agency has felt at times surreal. Now I find myself much closer to “inside” decision makers and much further removed from the community mobilization that impacts our agency’s decision making. It has been an incredible learning experience thus far to experience such a significant shift in my perspective of local political issues and to better understand the obstacles that are present in the realm of city government. In many instances the obstacles are completely inverted from those that I experienced in the private nonprofit realm. For example, working for community-based organizations you are always searching for funding sources, and now my agency searches for community organizations of capacity to give money to. When advocating for policies in the community we were always in search of elected officials and bureaucrats to be our allies, now at my agency we are looking for stakeholders to push our agenda from the outside.
This drastic perspective shift from community work to government work and the corresponding change in challenges and opportunities highlights the ever-present need for cross-sector partnerships in order to effectively develop and implement policy. There are many things I have already learned working for the City that I wish I knew when I was a community organizer. Likewise, there are certain challenges that face bureaucratic agencies that call for outside allies to provide support and mobilization (sometimes support means being challenged on decisions that you were compelled to make but didn’t want to). In recognizing these contrasting opportunities and strengths, it is important to work towards deconstructing the barriers that prevent collaboration between those on the inside of government and those working on the same issues out in our communities. Working in isolated silos will never be effective, whether you are trying to implement a policy as a bureaucrat that never received community input, or if you are a community organizer that is without a friend in city hall to champion your initiative. I think that my organizations both current (public sector) and past (private nonprofit) have been more successful building cross-sector working relationships than most, however, working on both sides I am reminded every day how much each sector needs the other and how much more effective we could be.