Highly linked and centralized coalitions are less likely to adopt new evidence-based public health programs than ones that are less dense and have more decentralized structures. That is the conclusion of a study reported by Tom Valente and colleagues that is to appear in an upcoming issue of AJPH. [I had the opportunity to review an advance copy of the article courtesy of Tom.]
These important findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom that expects the adoption of new practices to be greater among dense coalitions than among sparse, or loosely connected, ones, and among ones with a strong central agency. In other words, tightly knit, hierarchical coalitions (think of the 'usual cast of characters' with a lead agency), and efforts to create and manage them, only reinforce the boxes they think and act in - aka groupthink.
The results are based on a study involving 24 communities targeted for interventions to promote the adoption of substance abuse prevention programs. In interpreting their data, the authors conclude: our results suggest that simply increasing network communication or connectedness, or both,among coalition members will not result in improved adoption of evidenced-based practices.
The findings should resonate with readers who work with diffusion of innovations models and serve as a wake-up call for the numerous funders and policy makers who insist on following an ideology of coalition and partnership development that rarely has theoretical, practical or empirical support. I'll let the authors words explain the rest:
Communities that are less dense may have weak ties to other organizations that provide access to resources and power, which can be mobilized to adopt evidence-based practices. Too much density indicates that connections are directed within the group and do not provide sufficient pathways for information and behaviors to come from outside the group. Too much density leaves a coalition ineffective at mobilizing the resources it needs to adopt evidence-based prevention programs...
The main finding from our study is that we should not assume increased communication in the form of network density will always benefit coalition functioning. In this case, it was associated with decreased ability to adopt evidence-based programs. System-level thinking and measures helped us reexamine naïve expectations about how community coalitions function and how to improve their capacity for the adoption of programs that work. [emphasis added]
Hopefully, it may help you and your colleagues reexamine some of your own assumptions about gathering for the common good.