Why is Collaboration so Difficult to Achieve?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)


If a multisector response is necessary and no single agency can respond to slavery alone, we must have partnerships to succeed. So why is this collaboration so difficult? Ask anyone involved in the response to trafficking, and the odds are they will say working across agencies and professional sectors can be the most challenging work they encounter.

Collaboration is among the most popular words used today. Politicians state their desire to “collaborate with colleagues across the aisle”; public agency leaders plan to “work in collaboration with local community partners.” Everyone wants to do it, but what does it mean to collaborate?

Collaboration should be viewed as something far greater than cooperation or coordination, and we can distinguish the differences by examining how much effort or commitment the work entails and what the final results will accomplish.

Cooperation can require very little commitment, as little as saying, “My organization opposes trafficking, as does yours. We are cooperating in our opposition.” Coordination implies we are supporting and complementing one another’s efforts and at some level, usually means adjusting what, how, or when we do something to help both of us achieve our goals. In anti-trafficking work, this might include law enforcement sharing information (which they are loath to do with anyone) with a VSP (Victim Services Provider) about an upcoming anti-trafficking operation so the VSP can be prepared to assist victims.

Collaboration goes beyond cooperation or coordination. Collaboration seeks to create long-term relationships and new solutions for complex problems. Looking at how task forces are organized and the diversity of professionals and organizations needed to respond to trafficking, it is clear challenges are inevitable. In the earliest stages of task force creation, establishing a process for group decision-making is critical.

Various factors can contribute to this difficulty. First, each agency’s institutional decision-making system differs. For instance, law enforcement has a clear hierarchal structure and applauds quick decision-making skills, standards that may not transfer well to non-law enforcement organizations. Some organizations may have outdated systems that need to be adapted in order to offer an improved response. For example, a VSP who in the past has worked alone might need to adapt to work with other organizations so together they can more effectively serve the special needs of trafficking victims. Other barriers can include competition over funding, “turf wars” over which organization will handle specific duties, and last but not least, agreeing upon the agency that will be seen as the leader of the task force.

On top of these institutional factors, the individuals responsible for performing the work can bring their own impediments to collaboration, including a lack of desire to engage with organizations and individuals outside their own sector, a lack of belief that trafficking exists within the community they serve, or an inability to envision new ways of addressing problems. Individuals who lack patience or who cannot view problems from another’s perspective will find collaborative work especially challenging. Often these problems fester because in order to address them, some level of collaboration must exist in the first place!

So what is the best way to stack the odds in favor of success? First, those selected for collaborative work should be chosen for their collaborative skills, not necessarily their technical skills. A task force investigator who is not interested in collaboration should focus on investigating cases; another person from the police agency can engage in the collaborative work. The same can be said for VSPs, NGOs, or CBOs involved in the task force. Many good case managers and public outreach coordinators perform their jobs exceptionally well but don’t want to take on collaborative roles and should not be forced into a role they don’t desire. Also, working with others in a collaborative environment takes time—a lot of time. This requirement must be recognized by both the person engaged in collaborative work and by their supervisors and managers.

Organizations involved in anti-trafficking work realize that to be effective, they may have to change their policies and procedures to adapt to the greater good of the task force. Good collaborators can think creatively and see past the effort required to create change—to the increased effectiveness and efficiency that will result. Most importantly, good collaborators are willing to work with others and learn from them, in an effort to find new solutions to complex problems.

The level of inter-agency and cross-sector collaboration necessary for an effective response to human trafficking is uniquely demanding. Everyone involved must understand the challenges of this collaboration. My colleague Kirsten Foot examines this topic in detail in her book, Collaborating Against Human Trafficking: Cross-Sector Challenges and Practices.[i] Kirsten’s book is highly recommended for further study.

[i] Foot, K. (2016). Collaborating against human trafficking: Cross-sector challenges and practices. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

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