The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

A Systematic Review of Public-Private Collaboration in Children's Services: Implications for Organizational Practice and Research

Sunday, January 20, 2013: 11:45 AM
Marina 5 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Alicia C. Bunger, MSW, PhD, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Crystal E. Collins-Camargo, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY
Emmeline Chuang, PhD, Assistant Professor, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA
Bowen McBeath, PhD, Associate Professor, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Brian Perron, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI

This paper presents results from a systematic review that identified, summarized, and critiqued quantitative measures of interorganizational collaboration (IOC) among children’s service agencies, as a step toward informing research on public-private partnerships in child welfare. Given the joint role of public and private agencies in child welfare, agency administrators in both sectors are required to document IOC, and collaboration-based outcomes for families. However, these efforts have been limited by scant scholarly attention to measurement of public-private collaboration in child welfare.  In the broader organizational literature, measures focus on structure and reciprocity of voluntary collaborative relationships.  However, public-private collaborations are distinct - they are often contractual (Van Slyke, 2007), and may not be reciprocal or mutually beneficial. This review examines IOC measures in children’s services and we conclude with recommendations for improving future context-specific measures for use in describing IOC, and predicting IOC-based organizational and client outcomes.


14 health, human service and public administration databases were searched for quantitative, peer-reviewed studies examining partnerships in children’s services.  Using combinations of the terms “collaboration”, “coordination”, “child”, “organization”, and “agency”, the initial search produced 173 titles.  Abstracts were reviewed and we eliminated qualitative studies (n=33), narrative descriptions (n=69), non-IOC research (n=27), evaluations without explicit measurement of IOC (n=9), and irrelevant publications (n=11).  This procedure yielded 24 studies with quantitative measures.  Full-text articles were reviewed, and methodological features were extracted (i.e., research question, design, level of analysis, and measurement approach).  Data were summarized and compared to theoretical and conceptual work related to public-private collaboration to infer suitability of these features for research on public-private collaboration in child welfare.


Nearly every study approached “collaboration” measurement in a unique way.  Studies capture descriptions of IOC activities (n=6), tests associations with antecedents (n=8), examines outcomes (n=6), and tests measures (n=1).  One study links antecedent policy interventions with collaborative practices, and outcomes.  Cross-sectional research (n=19) involving self-reports surveys administered to agency leaders, or staff dominated the findings. Responses were used to capture IOC as an agency-level behavior (n=8), a characteristic of overall system functioning (n=7), case-worker behavior (n=4), quality of families’ experience (n=3) or dyadic interaction (n=1).  Measures tapped 7 dimensions of IOC including types of collaborative activities (n=12), diversity or number of partners (n=9), interaction frequency (n=4), and social qualities.  Few (n=9) tested for multiple dimensions of IOC.


Children’s services research on IOC suffers from a paucity of theoretically-grounded empirical studies drawing from a common set of approaches to understanding and measuring the antecedents, processes, and consequences of IOC.  Similar to the broader inter-organizational relationship literature, existing measures in children’s services focus on collaborative structures, missing the unique qualities of public-private collaborations. In response to requests for context-specific research on IOC (Milward and Sandfort, 2011), we recommend that future measures tap issues of power, resource dependency, conflict, and brokering between public and private agencies.  By capturing these context-specific nuances of IOC, future research can more thoroughly test organizational theories related to collaboration and outcomes in human services, and advance best collaboration practices.