Wisconsin and Minnesota find ‘opportunity’ in ‘crisis’

Sometimes history happens—and nobody notices.

Two weeks ago the governors of Wisconsin and Minnesota challenged 200 years of precedent by announcing that, to cope with the financial crisis, they are directing their states to look for ways to share and consolidate services with each other.

It is virtually unheard of in the American system for states to look for ways to share services without a federal mandate. Also extraordinary is the fact that Wisconsin’s governor, Jim Doyle, is a Democrat while Minnesota’s governor, Tim Pawlenty, is a Republican—meaning that the effort crosses party lines.

Some of the services they’re looking at sharing, like pooling prison food and road salt purchases, or consolidating, like call centers and licensing functions, are so simple as to be almost no-brainers … but no two states have ever attempted this before.

What’s so exciting, says Nancy Southern, director of Saybrook’s Organizational Systems program, is that this is more than just a way to help weather a national crisis: it’s a first step in thinking about how the entire country functions.

“It’s a real opportunity to look at the possibilities for collaboration across state borders, and find all the places where it can create much greater efficiency,” Southern said. “There’s no reason why we couldn’t have looked at this years ago – the potential for improvement was always there—and the fact that we’re looking at it in a crisis makes it no less of an opportunity.”

It’s the kind of breakthrough that students of Organizational Systems are trained to look for, she said.

“We all have these mental models, these beliefs and assumptions about what’s right and what’s possible,” Southern said. “In this case, the whole U.S. was constructed in terms of separate states, it’s not only a legal separation but one that’s part of our civic heritage, and so people always think of states as needing to act independently, within their boundaries—when in fact the opportunities for them to collaborate may be significant. That’s what makes this really exciting: if it works out, it really could be a new model for providing better, more sustainable, services at a lower cost.”

This isn’t a guarantee that the experiment will work out, of course: politics can ruin any good idea. But the basic premise, Southern said, is sound practice. “You could look at this opportunity in a similar way that collaboration occurs across departments in a business, colleges within a university, or different organizations under one umbrella,” she said.

If it’s an idea whose time has come, there may soon be more like it. Southern thinks this won’t be the only good idea to be uncovered by our economic crisis. “People are beginning to look for new forms of collaboration as a way of reducing costs while still achieving goals for growth and improvement,” she said. “I also think the Obama administration is going to see collaboration and new ways of working across boundaries as a way to promote the kind of change that’s really needed. It’s very exciting.”