Partnerships and collaborations (or alliances and networks, depending on the favored term of choice) are increasingly used throughout the public and private sectors to design and deliver goods and services. Effective partnerships drive outcomes that are greater than the sum of what individual entities can achieve alone. In our research work across the country, we are seeing a rise in the use of partnerships as a key crosscutting strategy to address issues of equity and inclusivity, meet aggressive energy targets, and grow a more robust clean energy economy. As more and more utilities and other energy efficiency program administrators (PAs) work to establish partnerships with key stakeholders such as community-based organizations (CBOs), municipalities, educational institutions, and other organizations, there is a tendency to focus evaluation on the intended outcomes of these partnerships, with little attention focused on the attributes that make these partnerships successful. This is a missed opportunity as measuring “how much” a partnership achieves does not tell the full story of its vitality and adaptability. We need to understand what makes a partnership strong, yet flexible enough to evolve to meet the ever-changing challenges of our time; and, in our experience, the best way to do this is by focusing evaluation on the attributes of the partnership itself rather than on its intended outcomes alone.
While there may not be a standard, prescriptive rubric out there to develop or identify a successful partnership, one thing is certain. Truly effective partnerships don’t just happen; they require intentionality. Collaborating members need to be on level ground, understand how the partnership furthers their strategic interests, and establish a baseline of trust and mutual respect right out of the gate. While every engagement is unique and must be treated as such, throughout our experience we’ve identified five fundamental attributes that are foundational to successful partnerships:
Clearly articulated and shared goals. Having a shared vision that all parties are committed to working towards is essential. While allies may have different motivations for achieving their goals, their desired outcomes should be articulated. The end-goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based (SMART) and be documented as the partnership is forming, including specific delineation of deliverables associated with the goals and their timelines.
Clearly defined roles and responsibilities. In an effective partnership, the sum is greater than the parts—but only if the parts coordinate, perform within their roles, and fulfill their responsibilities. In doing so, the partners accomplish more together than they would independently.
Open and frequent communication. Communication is key. Establishing a mutually agreeable communication plan and schedule is imperative as it reinforces knowledge sharing, accountability, and transparency. It also provides partners with a predetermined time to share valuable information that enhances transparency, builds trust, and ultimately leads to more effective alliances.
Common measures and synthesized data. Common goal-based metrics ensure all partners actively track progress and accomplishments. Establishing processes to record and accumulate data create consistency and help maintain data integrity across collaboration efforts. This facilitates open access and understanding of collected data for all relevant organizations. During this process, it’s important to differentiate between indicators that measure program impacts and measuring the effectiveness of the partnership itself. In data collection and tracking plans, organizations should identify which data are key to assessing their impacts (i.e., performance indicators).
Mutual trust and respect within shared decision-making. Successful partnerships require mutual trust and respect between all involved parties and are predicated on nonhierarchical relationships. Partnerships often necessitate information sharing between multiple parties. The degree and dimension of trust will be dependent on the nature of the relationship(s) between parties; however, in all partnerships it is essential that all parties feel confident in the safe, secure transfer of the information they share over the lifecycle of the collaboration.
Partnering to Advance Energy Equity
We have seen a number of recent examples of policy makers taking steps to prioritize energy equity across the country, with PAs looking to community alliances to aid in addressing these challenges. Utilities and PAs are increasingly tasked with ensuring that both energy and non-energy benefits of their programming are realized by as broad a share of their customer populations as possible. Partnering with third party organizations that already serve underserved populations within a utility’s service territory is an attractive and effective mechanism for expanding their reach. We have seen examples of these types of partnerships being leveraged to achieve policy goals related to energy equity in Illinois, Massachusetts, and California:
In Illinois: Climate and Equitable Jobs Act
The Illinois general assembly recently passed (Sept 13, 2021) the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, which fosters equitable economic and job growth across the state and directs benefits to low-income communities and communities of color. This legislation furthers highlights the need to spread the benefits of energy efficiency more broadly throughout the state, a goal that Ameren Illinois has worked towards for a number of years. Since 2018, the utility has been running the Market Development Initiative (MDI) that is designed to promote new economic and EE opportunities for diverse individuals and communities. Community partnerships are a central component of the MDI, which engages with these community partners to drive customer engagement of EE messaging and delivery.
In Massachusetts: Municipal Partnership Initiative
The Massachusetts Gas and Electric Program Administrators (PAs) began deploying the Municipal Partnership Initiative in 2020 in collaboration with municipalities and community-based organizations across the state. Through establishing partnerships with local municipalities, the overarching goal of the Initiative is to leverage their local knowledge, trusted relationships, and expertise to increase awareness and participation among residents and businesses previously underserved by PA energy efficiency programs.
In California: Workforce Education and Training (WE&T) Program
Set forth by the California Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan (CLTEESP), the vision of the WE&T Program is to provide the human capital necessary to achieve California’s economic energy efficiency and demand-side management potential through training and job placement opportunities for the California workforce. In the California IOU’s 2018–2025 energy efficiency business plans, PAs continued to highlight partnerships with third party and community organization as a key strategy to addressing the workforce development needs of hard-to-reach population throughout the state.
In our experience, PAs leveraging partnerships with other organizations to deliver energy efficiency programming are typically in rapidly evolving environments where their desired outcomes may be both hard to measure and will be realized over a long-time horizon. Under these circumstances, a developmental evaluation approach (i.e., evaluating a program alongside its development) can provide important insights to program teams as they iterate on the intervention.
Through developmental evaluation, we can test the theory of the partnership: Do the interventions lead to the intended outcomes? Additionally, we can provide an important framework that may aid PAs and partners in developing stronger and more effective partnerships over the long haul. To the right, we illustrate one example of how, at the outset, developmental evaluation can help partners both understand how to cultivate the key attributes outlined above and continuously assess the health of the partnership. This example provides some tangible outputs that evaluators can use to assess partnerships with regard to each key attribute.
The establishment of partnerships is only one step in helping advance energy equity through the more extensive and equitable distribution of the benefits of energy efficiency. As the collaborative efforts in Illinois, Massachusetts, and California highlight, effective interventions require a skilled workforce to implement them. As Opinion Dynamics Vice President, Dr. Ellen Steiner noted in a recent blog, through programs that aim to support workforce development, “the energy sector is positioned to accelerate the movement towards a green economy, ensuring communities disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change are not left behind.” An admirable and lofty goal—one that will only be realized through partnership and collaboration.