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Learn a lesson in collaboration from Green Bay's 'Cheeseheads'

By John D. Donahue and Richard J. Zeckhauser, Special to CNN
  • Green Bay Packers are owned by 111,000 shareholders in a nonprofit organization
  • Co-authors say public-private-nonprofit collaborations offer advantages
  • They say such ventures can make up for government's lack of money for more spending
  • Co-authors: Many of today's problems can't be solved by public or private sectors alone

Editor's note: John D. Donahue and Richard J. Zeckhauser teach at the Harvard Kennedy School and are authors of the forthcoming book "Collaborative Governance: Private Roles for Public Goals in Turbulent Times."

(CNN) -- Like any decent Chicagoan, President Barack Obama supported "Da Bears" in last month's National Football Conference championship game against the Green Bay Packers. But in Sunday's Super Bowl, the president should root all-out for the Packers.

Not just because Green Bay is closer than Pittsburgh to the Windy City. And not just to get in practice for the marathon of shifting alliances that is sure to mark the rest of his term. The main reason is that the Packers exemplify a model of public-private collaboration that represents the best hope for the nation, and for his presidency.

The Packers are an anomaly in America's famously mercenary sports world -- a nonprofit with unabashedly public purposes. Nearly 90 years ago the people of Green Bay hard-wired into the team's charter some key provisions that survive to this day: The team must be community-owned, with no single owner holding more than a sliver of the shares. (There will be some 111,000 owners with skin in Sunday's game.)

The stock cannot pay dividends, nor increase in price. Spare funds, and the entire proceeds if the team is ever dissolved (fat chance) go to charity.

The dynasty this oddball organization has produced has racked up a record number of championships. It has inspired a vast, rabidly loyal fan base. And, if it were created today, it would be flagrantly in violation of National Football League rules. Green Bay was grandfathered, grudgingly, when today's rules were set. But every other team, present and future, is bound to a more conventional private ownership structure.

The NFL rulebook reflects America's preference, in principle, for clean boundaries between the sectors. Public is public, private is private, and charity fills in the gaps. We want to know whether the ballot box or the marketplace is calling the signals. Too much interaction between business and government -- let alone interbreeding -- invites inefficiency, unaccountability, every manner of scary -ism, and distressing conceptual untidiness.

In practice, however, public-private collaboration is a big and growing part of how America operates. In the President's hometown of Chicago, city government made common cause with corporations, wealthy families and nonprofits to create the glorious new Millennium Park.

In Washington the Prescription Drug User Fee Act lays out a complex, periodically updated, and largely successful script for the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical firms to jointly shepherd new drugs -- safely and speedily -- to the patients awaiting them. Across the country, charter schools -- representing just about every imaginable hybrid of public and private organization -- expand our collective K-12 repertoire.

Collaborative governance is growing because many crucial missions cannot be accomplished by any sector acting on its own -- not government, not business, not nonprofits. And as we face daunting new challenges -- finding ways to power the economy without fouling the planet; fulfilling the pledge of health care for all; shoring up eroding infrastructure and struggling schools -- it's even more important to be open to any approach that can deliver the goods.

When government's will is divided and its wallet is depleted, the appeal of collaboration with the private sector expands.

Collaborative governance is nothing new. Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery was a textbook case -- a private expedition, with a loosely defined mission and multiple performance incentives. From de Toqueville to the present, observers have noted how Americans' knack for cobbling together pragmatic alliances offsets our weak suit of formal government.

Nor does public-private collaboration always benefit the public at large. Our research has unveiled triumphs aplenty, but no shortage of crack-ups and catastrophes. Indeed, professional sports is also the domain of one of the least appealing forms of collaboration -- localities ladling subsidies into stadium projects that swell profits for the super-wealthy, justified by iffy promises of public benefits.

And collaboration means a different -- not a diminished -- role for government itself. The public leaders responsible for orchestrating collaboration must be both open-minded and tough-minded, steadfast about goals but flexible on means, at once pragmatic and principled. Like a certain president we could name, on a good day.

Collaborative governance harnesses all of America's capacity -- public and private, for-profit and nonprofit, employee and volunteer -- to the pursuit of the common good. It unleashes the unpredictable resourcefulness of an entrepreneurial people. It reflects optimism -- but not naïvete -- about the potential for sharing responsibility while ensuring accountability. And it's our best hope for accomplishing many of the goals laid out in Obama's State of the Union amid the fierce constraints binding today's federal government.

Sometimes your team is a surprise, Mr. President. Game on.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.