On Balance: Lessons in Effective Coordination from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges – An Organizational Perspective

July 2012

The challenge of producing the systemic changes that are needed to boost educational attainment and economic competitiveness across the country falls heavily on entities that coordinate public postsecondary institutions. Coordination of postsecondary education, whether of a single system of institutions or across an entire state, requires strategic leadership that draws on formal and informal authority to influence the priorities and activities of locally governed colleges and universities with strong traditions of autonomy. Many states are actively moving to improve postsecondary coordination – including the redesign of formal governance structures. This project was undertaken to help states improve the coordination function. It consists of a case study to tell the story of one coordinating board and a self-assessment tool that draws on the case study findings and aims to help other states better understand their own challenges and opportunities with respect to postsecondary coordination.

Dimensions of Effective Coordination
The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) has a reputation as a coordinating entity that works effectively. Its reputation rests on three key accomplishments that can be viewed as three essential functions of an effective coordinating body.

1. Mission focus. It helps constituent institutions stay focused on a mission of value which, as a public organization, must be a mission that serves a valuable public purpose.
2. Large-scale policy. It facilitates change at a large enough scale across the set of constituent institutions to make a difference in the accomplishment of the mission.
3. Relationships. It balances the needs and interests of a variety of state and local participants and  constituencies by mediating relationships effectively.

This case study explains, using a framework that can be applied to other states, how SBCTC has managed to accomplish these three essential functions of coordination.

Explanatory Factors in Effective Coordination
We found the explanation of SBCTC’s effectiveness in the relationship among three sets of factors that should be considered by anyone looking to help a coordinating entity perform the three essential functions noted earlier.

State political and economic context. The political culture of a state shapes expectations about the role of government, the degree of centralization of power, the level of legislative oversight and the function of interest groups – expectations that affect how postsecondary education operates. These cultural dimensions of state contexts change slowly if at all. Economic aspects of a state’s context may change more readily as industry sectors shrink and grow, state fiscal circumstances improve or worsen, and new economic arrangements are introduced.

Institutional design. Coordinating entities have certain formal powers by design – and the design of institutions reflects the state’s culture. Design elements, or formal governance structures and rules, can be changed, given sufficient time and political will. Many states are making or considering such changes.

Organization and leadership strategies. The leaders of coordinating entities are constrained by culture and structure and must devise strategies accordingly. Organizational strategies are more or less effective depending on their conformance to the expectations for performance inherent in the culture and the governance structures. The best formal structures can be wasted, or undermined, by poor leadership and poor choice of strategies. Conversely, gifted leadership can overcome serious deficits in formal power. Unless the formal design is s o flawed that even gifted leaders can’t make it work, attending to organizational leadership offers more and shorter-term opportunities to increase effectiveness of the coordinating function.

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