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Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

Survey Results Provide Insights on Effective Partnerships

modified from an article by Janet Ady in NCTS Journal, summer/fall 2005

As environmental protection has become more complex, EPA has recognized that collaborative approaches are an effective way to achieve the Agency’s mission.  Partnerships with other entities with common goals can creatively and efficiently address public health and environmental protection goals.   As EPA has moved forward with collaborative problem solving and partnership efforts, so too have other Federal Agencies, particularly the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) of the Department of Interior (DOI).    

As partnerships and collaboration are integrated into policies and the way we work, it is increasingly important to develop a clear understanding of what variables influence their effectiveness.  To this end, FWS National Conservation Training Center’s (NCTC) Division of Education Outreach worked with the University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation to study FWS partnerships. 

Surveying Employee Perceptions

This broad-based study explored FWS employee perceptions of partnerships, and attempted to elicit specific skills that are used in successful partnerships and the factors that contribute to success.  The study was to determine at which stages less successful partnerships break down, what specific skills are lacking in less successful partnerships, and what obstacles hinder success.   Another goal was to identify tools and resources that employees could use to enhance their ability to develop and implement partnerships.  A supplemental study followed to examine the relationship between perceptions of partnerships and employees’ personal history, job characteristics, and partnership characteristics.

Pilot Testing

After initial interviews and pilot testing, 354 FWS employees completed the survey.  Respondents answered questions regarding their background, questions on their perceptions of partnerships, questions on both successful and less successful partnerships they have worked on, and questions on tools and resources required for success.  Data collection took place between September 2002 and August 2004.  Seventy-two percent of the FWS employees asked responded to the questionnaire.

Key Findings

One key finding was that employee perceptions of partnerships are generally positive.  They feel that creating and sustaining partnerships is an art affected by both the skill of the facilitator and the personalities of the partners.  They believe that partnerships do not always require formalization and are most successful when they occur naturally.  In general, these employees are confident in their partnering abilities and their role representing the FWS.

Successful Partnerships

Most examples of successful partnership were local in scale and small-to- medium in size, with less than nine partners.  Almost all partners in the examples used were actively involved in the partnership.  The goals of these partnerships included both resource conservation and relationship development.  The skills and abilities most responsible for success are based on connecting with other people at the table. Essentially, success is attributed to the ability to find the right people to partner with and then working toward developing a productive relationship.  Trust, along with effective communication, provides the foundation to developing a successful working relationship.  Knowing everyone’s responsibility in the partnership, finding common goals, and being flexible in how to achieve those goals are also important parts of sustaining a successful partnership. 

Common Obstacles

Interestingly, examples of both successful and less successful partnerships shared almost all of the same characteristics, including goal, size, and scale.  Additionally, several of the top obstacles identified as responsible for lack of success were the same as those listed as responsible for success.  Thus, when those skills and abilities identified as critical to success are missing, the partnership goals are not met. 

Finding Common Ground

The obstacles of working with antagonistic partners and dealing with disparate missions highlight the importance of finding common ground, both on a personal and professional level.  Additional obstacles to success include lack of time, personnel, and financial support.  Unfortunately these challenges are not uncommon in an era of increasing demands on both the resource and the employees working to protect it, and shrinking agency budgets where financial resources are stretched thin.  This highlights the importance of finding the right partners, persistence, and flexibility—all variables that employees felt were critical to success.

Importance of Relationships

Although some measure the success of their partnerships solely by the achievement of resource conservation goals (n=77, 43%), just as many mention the importance of the development and retention of a relationship with partners (n=77, 43%).  Additionally, several people indicated that they measure success by the willingness of partners to continue partnering and not by a specific end product.

Importance of Course Work

Several FWS courses were mentioned as being helpful in guiding people toward becoming a team player and encouraging creative problem solving.  Many useful suggestions to expand or improve existing training included not only what is taught but also how, where, and who is targeted.  Many employees described the importance of hands-on, interactive training that uses examples of actual successful and failed partnerships developed by  FWS employees.  Other suggestions included creating a partnership network or mentoring program where employees can connect with each other and share successes and challenges to benefit from others’ experiences and knowledge.

Employee Backgrounds

The supplemental study was designed to explore the relationship between perceptions of partnerships and the backgrounds of the employees. Variables such as time spent partnering and training attendance were examined. Employees who: have attended partnership training, establish their own partnerships, have a high correlation between job goals and partnership success, and spend a significant amount of time partnering share several perceptions.  They view partnering as a flexible process dependent more on relationships than on formalities that can lead to greater success than individual efforts.  They are comfortable with their level of training and believe they have the skills they need to feel confident representing the FWS. 

Differences in View Points

Employees who: have not attended training, work mainly in partnerships established by someone else, have a low correlation between job goals and partnership success, and who spend little time partnering tend to view partnerships as a time consuming venture that receives little support from their supervisors and produces all or nothing outcomes. The number of partnerships worked on, the employee’s supervisory role, their years with the FWS, and job location did not affect the employee’s perceptions of partnerships

Value of this Study

This study will provide valuable input as the NCTC Division of Education Outreach works with other FWS programs to develop training and technical assistance to those involved in FWS partnership efforts.   (Network News editors hope you'll find something useful too!)

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