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Pulling Together 5

SECTION TWO: Building Collaboration

The full range of issues created by hazardous waste sites can be adequately addressed only when agencies work together. The complexity of dealing with a Superfund site includes perceived vs. real health threats, various remediation options, links between exposure pathways and health outcomes, and risk communication, to name a few. The involved agencies each have their area of expertise, as discussed in the Roles and Responsibilities section. Therefore, agencies must learn to work together to leverage their strengths to the greatest advantage of the community as a whole. At its core, interagency collaboration holds the promise of accomplishing something jointly that one agency alone cannot accomplish. This section will provide the following:

  • Definition of Interagency Collaboration.
  • Benefits and Uses of Collaboration.
  • Challenges to Interagency Collaboration.
  • Factors for Success.
  • Links to Worksheets.

Definition of Interagency Collaboration
There is no standard definition of collaboration, and agencies and individuals engaged in addressing public health and environmental protection at hazardous waste sites may have their own unique definitions. Common to most definitions are shared labor, a shared purpose or goal, and joint ownership of the work, risks, results, and rewards.

Levels of Joint Action

Networking: exchange information.

Coordination: exchange information and link existing activities for mutual benefit.

Cooperation: share resources for mutual benefit and to create something new.

Collaboration: work jointly to accomplish shared vision and mission using joint resources.

Pulling Together defines collaboration as a "...process by which groups come together, establishing a formal commitment to work together to achieve common goals and objectives."

A standard definition of collaboration is less important than a common understanding of the expected relationships and actions among the participating partners. The definition listed under "Levels of Joint Action" (see side box) may be useful in clearly identifying and articulating your expectations and agreements. This clarity will help preempt problems associated with misconceptions or unfounded expectations. 

Benefits and Uses of Collaboration
Collaboration enables us to accomplish jointly something that one agency alone could not. Many funding agencies have recognized the power that collaboration can bring and are now calling for interagency collaboration as part of the criteria for grantee selection. Following is a list of collaboration benefits:

  • Better use of scarce resources conserves limited capital.
  • Cost and effort are not duplicated. Fragmentation among services, programs, and initiatives is reduced.
  • An agency can create something in collaboration that it could not create on its own.
  • Higher-quality, more integrated outcomes for end users.
  • Integration of diverse perspectives to create a better appreciation and understanding of the situation.
  • Improved communication among agencies, and between agencies and their constituents.
  • Increased trust and understanding among individuals and organizations.
  • Potential for organizational and individual learning.
  • Better ability to achieve important outcomes.


Four major uses of collaborative processes in resource and environmental management are:

  1. Building understanding by fostering exchange of information and ideas among agencies, organizations, and the public and providing a mechanism for resolving uncertainty.
  2. Providing a mechanism for effective decision making through processes that focus on common problems and build support for decisions.
  3. Generating a means of getting necessary work done by coordinating cross-boundary activities, fostering joint management activities, and mobilizing an expanded set of resources.
  4. Developing the capacity of agencies, organizations, and communities to deal with the challenges of the future.

Case in Point
At a site in Sonoma County, CA, the perceived threat of well-water contamination sent a panic through some members of the community. By working closely with the state department of health services, ATSDR, the Water Quality Control Board, mental health providers, and community leaders, the local health department (LHD) not only was able to improve the health risk messages being sent to residents, but they have also made inroads into rebuilding some of the community''s trust. Coordinating activities with these other agencies enabled the LHD to better access resources and respond to their community''s needs. For more information on this project, refer to the Sonoma County West College Avenue Site case study.

Challenges to Interagency Collaboration
Too often we expect self-sacrifice from individuals and organizations as they move toward coalition solutions. If we understand that people and organizations may be motivated self-interest, then we can approach a situation by looking for strategies to lessen territoriality and consider self-interest. It is also possible to minimize the effect of territoriality and self-interest by appealing to a larger good.


Most public health and environmental protection professionals are acutely aware of the challenges and failures of collaborative efforts. If collaboration offers so much promise, and there are numerous pushes for collaboration, why does it not happen more and why does it not always work? There are many "how to" guides for collaboration that outline effective, and not-so-effective, strategies. Nevertheless, it is helpful to step back and look at the broader context in which collaboration is expected to function.

Russell Linden, author of Working Across Boundaries: Making Collaboration Work in Government and Nonprofit Organizations (2002), outlines four levels of "hurdles," or challenges to collaboration: individual, organizational, societal, and systemic.  The hurdles that may be most challenging in interagency collaboration at hazardous waste sites are the organizational and systemic.  A few of the challenges mentioned by practitioners at hazardous waste sites are discussed below.  If honestly acknowledged, the barriers of fragmentation and "turf" can be overcome.

Individual Hurdles
One of the primary hurdles often identified as a barrier to collaboration by agency personnel working at hazardous waste sites is "turf." Practitioners use this term to include not only the need to define and protect one''s space but also the fear of losing control, autonomy, quality, and resources. 

"From a narrow, constituency standpoint, collaboration is distinctly undesirable, because it threatens to blur the agency''s mission and the agency''s political accountability for pursuing it."  Eugene Bardach

Organizational Hurdles
The agencies involved at hazardous waste sites have unique missions, goals, and authority. These differences are intended to be complementary; however, when coupled with different rules, cultures, and values, interagency collaboration can be challenging.  For example, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state environmental agency staff are often trained as engineers while Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and state public health agency staff are trained in epidemiology or health education. These differences in professional background, expertise, and perspective can create enormous challenges in both understanding and valuing the contribution of the other agencies. Approaching Superfund as a complex puzzle of health, environment, economics, and community relations makes the value of bringing in a diversity of expertise more intuitive.

Case in Point
One of the lessons learned from the 3M/Dynacolor (3M) and GE/Black & Decker (GE) Sites in Monroe County, NY, was that differing agency roles and responsibilities in the cleanup process create challenging obstacles to collaboration. While the LHD''s work with state agencies allowed each agency to become more familiar with the others'' responsibilities, operations, and capacities, it was a challenge to collaborate on the project because their roles and responsibilities in the cleanup process and public accountability were so different. In the future, the LHD felt that by insuring more buy-in from other state agencies, rather than assuming their involvement in the process, they would be better able to overcome the "agency roles" barrier. For more information, refer to the 3M/Dynacolor (3M) and GE/Black & Decker (GE) Sites, Monroe County, NY case study.

Additionally, agency officials often do not want to give up control over resources and may fear that their missions will be compromised. NACCHO workshop participants stated that these concerns can greatly affect the sharing of information, causing agencies to communicate only when necessary, be guarded with information, and worry that information could come back to haunt them. 

Systemic Hurdles
Systemic hurdles are critical to recognize in considering interagency collaboration at hazardous waste sites. Public health responsibilities and services are fragmented among hundreds of state, federal, and local agencies with responsibilities for the 10 major federal environmental and health laws. The piecemeal development of laws governing hazardous waste sites adds another layer to the fragmentation of authority. This fragmentation creates a large barrier to and greater need for interagency collaboration.

There are times when interagency efforts that depend on increased relationships and risks might make things worse instead of better. It is important to consider the following factors and the barriers these collaborations pose:

  • Ideology—Potential collaborators have substantially differing ideologies, values, and/or beliefs.
  • Leadership—Either no one has enough power to bring the key players together or the "wrong person" leads the meetings.
  • Power—Power must be shared even if it is not equal among members.
  • History—Potential collaborators have a history of past conflict or failure.
  • Competition—Potential collaborators maintain existing competition.
  • Resources—Lack of necessary personnel, time, and skills to contribute to the effort.


"Collaboration is only a tool, and like any tool, it works well only when applied to an appropriate task." Russell Linden, 2002

If any of the factors above are present, agencies may want to consider starting their work together with less intensity (e.g., through sharing and networking) and working to build the necessary relationships and trust prior to engaging in a collaborative effort with a greater level of shared resources, risks, and rewards.

Factors for Success
As stated in the introduction, NACCHO developed the Pulling Together tool out of a series of interagency collaboration workshops.  The following represents a summary of practitioner perspectives on factors contributing to success:

  • Long-term relationships with each member of the team.
  • Openness and acceptance of ideas and opinions.
  • Each person appreciates the contributions of everyone else.
  • Issues and problems are identified and resolved early and continuously, as necessary.
  • Everyone works hard to continually keep the team up to date and informed.
  • Various agencies'' members appreciate the differences between them as being overall necessary and helpful.
  • Support of management demonstrated by providing guidance, training, and direction to intra-agency staff.

Numerous research efforts have been undertaken in the past decade to identify the critical factors for success in collaboration. In Working Across Boundaries: Making Collaboration Work in Government and Nonprofit Organizations, Russell Linden provides a framework for collaboration, which includes the following:

  • The basics are in place.
  • The principals have open, trusting relationships with one another.
  • The stakes are high—task is important, results are visible, consequences are large and will be felt directly.
  • The participants include a constituency for collaboration—a group who strongly believes that a collaborative effort is in their interest, who want to support it and have influence over the other parties involved.
  • The leadership follows collaborative principles.

These factors were identified in all of the research reviewed and confirmed by practitioners. Public health and environmental protection officials working at hazardous waste sites consistently pointed to the essential role of personal relationships and trust in effectively working together. Central to Linden''s framework is the importance of relationships, trust, and leadership. Linden describes the following key elements, termed "the basics," for sustained collaboration:

  • The parties have a shared purpose or goal that they care about but cannot achieve on their own.
  • The parties want to pursue a collaborative solution, now, and are willing to contribute something to achieve it.
  • The right people are at the table.
  • The parties have an open, credible process.
  • The initiative has a champion, someone with credibility and clout who makes this a high priority.

Regardless of front-end planning and developing relationships for collaboration, the long-term nature of most hazardous waste site cleanups often leads to personnel turnover that can cause a loss of established relationships, trust, and valuable institutional memory. As such, it is important to address personnel turnover in your communication plan so that the impact to the effort is minimized.


"Trust and confidence form the soil from which collaboration grows. The essence of collaboration is joint effort towards a common goal, which means we are reliant on each other. If we don''t trust the other to follow through, if we don''t have confidence in the other''s abilities, it won''t work. It''s as simple, and important as that.  Detailed memos of understanding won''t replace mutual trust and confidence."  Russell Linden, 2002

Linden offers the following checklist for evaluating your collaborative efforts:

  • Discussed the parties'' interests and goals regarding the collaboration?
  • Agreed that there is a compelling, shared interest that the parties want to pursue, now?
  • Felt comfortable asking questions, discussing doubts and concerns?
  • Got people at the table who can speak for all of the stakeholder organizations?
  • Considered forming a smaller core group to take on certain leadership and management tasks (if the number of people involved has grown into the double digits)?
  • Spent time in the early phases getting to know one another?
  • Periodically asked if the process is clear, and if the parties are comfortable with it?

All the worksheets have been designed to help facilitate and improve your collaboration efforts, so go to Section Four  and select the worksheets that will be most appropriate for your situation. They can be used individually, in their existing groups, and/or in the sequence provided.