Roadmap To Successful Partnerships For Government Agencies

Partnerships make sense in a time of limited resources. Here's how to create a successful collaboration.

Sabra Horne

October 13, 2023

Partnerships and collaboration are integral to public sector innovation. Whether it’s NASA and SpaceX achieving new levels of capabilities in aerospace innovation, the U.S. and NATO supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression, or harnessing the power of artificial intelligence in government use cases across multiple agencies, examples of successful partnerships abound. In fact, the Department of Defense recently recognized the importance of successful partnerships to mission success by asking each office to track partnership status. With my 15 years  in government roles that all demanded a strong approach to partnerships, I will provide a roadmap to what makes a successful collaboration and how to mitigate the challenges we inevitably face in the process of trying to do good work.

Background on partnerships - What, exactly, are they?

A partnership is neatly defined as the intentional willingness to explore, find and execute mutually beneficial efforts, with each partner bringing mission focus to the collaboration. These can entail a variety of activities, whether a collaborative project, a technology, a strategy, joint communications, or combined processes. A partnership requires that two or more organizations are involved and that each party benefits to some degree in achieving their mission goals.

Partnerships make sense in a time of limited resources. Leveraging two or more sources of funding, brain power and agency capabilities allows us to achieve more. Partnerships also make the most of both public and private capabilities, technology, tools and ideas to support government missions at a new level. They extend our existing resources to make up for potential gaps, whether in workforce skill sets, knowledge, or capacity. With partnerships, we can access authorities and resources not available to us alone. Often partnerships allow us to achieve our goals  more quickly and effectively than we could on our own, while allowing us to raise the bar on quality of our outputs, achieving even greater mission impact.

The most successful partnerships are built with purpose, strategy and a clear understanding of how to navigate the inevitable hurdles that can create roadblocks to a successful collaboration. 

General principles

Successful partnerships start with establishing an understanding of each other’s goals, aligning how those goals match with your agency’s goals, and building trust to ultimately benefit from each other’s strengths. By learning about each other, partners can anticipate what will go well and what may not, to discover the best ways to benefit from each other’s strengths. Most importantly, how can this partnership provide mission impact in a way that would otherwise be impossible?

Be comfortable and show optimism and confidence in the collaboration, speaking freely and comfortably whenever possible, illustrating enthusiasm for the potential together. Partnerships can be found in the most surprising places, if you start the conversation with a willingness to find common ground for mutual benefit. Here’s how to get started:

Finding a Good Match

--Who are the potential partners who could help further your goals, and at the same time, benefit from working with you?

  • Consider teams or organizations with offerings that seem complementary, but not redundant to what you have to offer. 
  • Are they working on something compatible with what you are working on? 
  • Are they collaborative, transparent and forthcoming, dependable and well organized? 

Do Your Homework 

--Understand your objectives and boundaries for collaboration: 

  • What are your goals?
  • Identify specific areas of potential collaboration
  • What is the most you are comfortable with doing? 

-- How do your strengths and weaknesses match up with your potential partner’s strengths and weaknesses? Ideally, you should each make the other stronger.

  • What does the whole effort look like? If you have six areas for potential, how will you distribute that evenly so neither partner is overburdened? 

--Think of potential areas of collaboration

  • Can you meet some priority need you have by partnering? 
  • What aren’t you able to make happen that perhaps they can?
  • How does the partnership provide mission impact that you could not achieve without the partnership?

During the engagement

--Approach the first, and every meeting, with optimism and enthusiasm.  Your attitude sets the tone for the engagement and significantly increases the likelihood of your partner(s) mirroring your collaborative approach.

--Signal your desire to create a partnership

-- Lean into the conversation, rather than showing hesitancy or mistrust

--Share information freely and transparently to establish trust

-- Discover each partner’s goals, seeking areas of commonality or complementary goals

-- Explore potential opportunities for collaboration:

  • What could each of the specific areas of collaboration look like?
  • What could be potential roles and responsibilities, capitalizing on each other’s strengths and shoring up weaknesses?
  • Are there specific areas that each partner must be responsible for, or can’t be responsible for?
  • Find a role and responsibility for each partner, so that everyone has skin in the game

-- Determine highest priority opportunities so you can optimize everyone’s resources 

-- Make the best use of limited resources by deciding on one initial opportunity as a pilot to test the partnership 

-- Craft a strawman detailing the specifics for everyone’s consideration and comment

-- Seek input from each partner about potential challenges in the strawman and recraft the proposed partnership to address these challenges

Avoiding Pitfalls and Measuring Success

-- Solidify the agreement, either informally or formally–  preferably both.

-- Document your agreement, either informally or formally, to establish consensus on:

  • Specific actions and deliverables
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Timelines

- Anticipate challenges, roadblocks, unplanned incidents. Almost no project goes according to plan. With that in mind, try not to let small problems break trust or throw the project off, unless a habitual pattern arises, then reassess and address transparently.  Watch for:

  • Project changes differing from the agreed upon plan that could signal early a divergence from the agreement
  • New project goals being established without your knowledge or agreement
  • Missed deadlines with no explanation or heads up prior to the deadline
  • Missed or slow communications
  • Key partners being cut out of communications
  • New partners brought into the agreement without your knowledge or agreement
  • Lack of transparency around who is being informed of the partnership
  • Lack of transparency around how the partnership is being characterized
  • Create plans for addressing challenges- your own plan and a partnership plan

-- Devise metrics to measure the success of your partnership, both quantitative and qualitative

  • Define what success looks like with the partnership (increased output, delivery of capability, increased access or connections?)
  • Does the partnership meet priorities within your own organization?
  • How does the partnership provide mission impact that you could not achieve without the partnership?
  • Compare metrics of execution before and after the partnership
  • Once the project is completed, discuss the success and failures of the partnership, how it could be refined, and if a future partnership would be fruitful

Give this roadmap a try as you think about your next opportunities in driving collaborative innovation within your organization and let me hear about your results, including both challenges and successes at


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