Key Questions for Forming Partnerships: A Review and Research Agenda


  • Luke Fowler School of Public Service Boise State University



partnership formation, collaboration, organizational choice


Partnerships receive significant attention in public administration scholarship, with the mass of this literature focusing on whether partnerships work, how to make them work, or how they fit into existing institutions (Provan and Milward, 2001; Vigoda, 2002; McGuire, 2006; Thomson and Perry, 2006; Andrews and Entwistle, 2010; McQuaid, 2010; O’Toole, 2015). Although partnership has been used variously by different scholars, in general, partnerships refer to formal arrangements between two or more organizations that are characterized by defined responsibilities, obligations, and/or governance structure, as compared to other forms of cooperative behaviors which may be more informal, unorganized, or involve few obligations. In general, existing scholarship on partnership formation argues that partnerships are a function of resource-exchanges, available partners, or fragmented authorities, and assumes a pragmatic managerial approach to these arrangements (Grady and Chen, 2006; Feiock and Scholz, 2009). However, scholarship is limited in linking these mechanisms together and explaining how organizations go from isolated and autonomous to integrated and interdependent. As such, it is difficult to determine how initial decisions in the partnership process eventually lead to success or failure in collaboration. Furthermore, much of this scholarship is written with a solely academic audience in mind, making difficult for practitioners, non-academics, or non-subject area experts to consume.

To remedy this, we use Cohen, March, and Olsen’s (1972) Garbage Can Theory (GCT) of organizational choice as a guiding framework to identify key issues that affect partnerships formation and tie this disjointed set of literature together. We then synthesize these issues into three key questions that can be operationalized by practitioners: 1) is there a problem that cannot be managed unilaterally?; 2) what new capacities are needed?; and 3) what partnership opportunities are there? From this perspective, forming partnerships unfolds in organized anarchies, where decision-makers must sort through ambiguous problems, solutions, and participants in order to determine if partnership is the right choice for their organization. In general, the purpose of this discussion is to identify and examine key issues that likely affect partnership choices made by practitioners and that can provide guidance to those who are considering engaging in collaboration or partnership. Finally, we discuss links between partnership formation and broader understandings of collaborations and networks.