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Partner Choice in Emergency Management

Scott E. Robinson Ph.D.
Bush School of Government and Public Service
Texas A&M University

DRAFT: Please Do Not Quote Without The Author’s Permission

April 20, 2010

Successful emergency planning and response requires the cooper-
ation of a broad array of partners. The literature on collaboration
and social networks provided conflicting predictions about how orga-
nizations choose partners. One tradition focused on the powerful role
of similarity (or homophily) as predicting partner choices (Lazarsfeld
& Merton. 1954, McPherson & Cook. 2001). A contrasting tradition
argued that rational organizations will choose partners both unlike
themselves and unlike their other partners to ensure that each collab-
oration provides access to unique resources (Burt 1995, Burt 2005).
This article starts with the question of how an organization whose
primary responsibilities are not focused on emergency management
choose partners when they respond to and prepare for emergencies.
Using a survey of school districts in Texas immediately following Hur-
ricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the article assess the priority of
partner choice. The results indicate that school districts choose part-
ners largely on the basis of strategic difference though there is some
evidence of homophily.

1 Introduction
Descriptions of collaborative public management and the emergence of policy
networks have become a prominent component of policy research (e.g. Rhodes
1997, Adam & Kriesi 2007). While the existence of such networks is hardly
news to people who have been studying policy implementation, research into
the dynamics and processes involved in these policy networks has recently
opened a number of new research questions to investigation (Robinson 2007).
Researchers have now begun to differentiate types of networks (Agranoff
2007), the impact networking behaviors on policy outcomes(Provan & Milward
1995, Meier & O’Toole 2001), and the administration management skill set
needed within policy networks (McGuire 2002, Koppenjan & Klijn 2004).
This article focuses attention on a relatively understudied question within
policy network research: why does a collaborative manager choose the part-
ners she or he does? Once managers become aware of the possibility of
seeking resources (of various kinds ranging from financial resources to in-
formation) it also becomes clear that there are many options for potential
partnerships. It is not a matter of whether there are partners in the envi-
ronment. Now it is a question of which of the many options will most help
the collaborative organization. Given that collaboration is a costly activity
(Burt 1995, Burt 2005), one starts to consider the costs and benefits of each
potential partnership. While there is little guidance within the collaborative
public management literature on the choice of partners, there are theories of
individual social networks that provide some initial guidance (Lazarsfeld &
Merton. 1954, McPherson & Cook. 2001).
The article is organized as follows. Section 2 will provide a general model
of partner choice followed by a review of issues related to why organizations
may choose one partner rather than others. Section 3 will describe data
on school district emergency management partnerships following Hurricanes
Katrina and Rita that are useful for identifying patterns of partner choice
along with operationalized predictions. Using these data, Section 4 presents
a test of these predictions. Finally, Section 5 gives the conclusions.

2 The Dynamics of Partner Choice

Advice about collaboration and the construction of policy networks tends to
be of a general nature. There are many books and studies available to tell

people that collaboration will help solve problems ranging from budgetary
pressures to better information about policy problems. Beyond the general
advice that collaboration can be helpful, there is not much specific advice
about with whom exactly an organization should partner. This lacuna in
the literature is a by-product of an often implicit assumption that the costs
of collaborative partnership are low or non-existent. It is only when one
considers collaboration as a costly activity, and therefore creates an implied
collaboration budget, that one stops to consider whether one should prior-
itize a specific partnership over others. This section of the article builds a
general model of partner choice that acknowledges the cost of collaboration
and incorporates the sorts of factors that may be relevant to the sequential
choice of partnerships.

2.1 A General Model of Partner Choice

Reading the literature on collaborative public management one seldom sees
any reference to the costs of collaboration. One is left with the triumphal-
ist conclusion that collaboration is a magical strategy that managers have
available to solve all sorts of problems. In fact, one may quickly wonder why
managers who are not collaborating extensively are not doing so. Any ab-
sence of collaboration is seen as a lack of imagination or energy on the part
of the manager.
However, a simple explanation is available. Collaboration is difficult and
costly. Partnerships involve investments of time (and sometimes other re-
sources). When one is collaborating, one is not managing the day-to-day
internal operations of an organization. Furthermore, a manager only has so
many hours in the day to collaborate with other organizations (in addition to
all of the internal demands on his or her time). Every partnership consumes
some of these scarce resources. The acknowledgment of the costs of col-
laboration and the scarce resources that managers consume in collaborating
leads to the need for managers to budget her or his time spent collaborat-
ing (Burt 1995, Burt 2005). Alternatively stated, a manager has to target
resources to maximize collaborative advantage without being drawn into ex-
pensive, but inefficient, partnerships (Huxham & Vangen 2005).
In simple terms, a manager (of organization i) will partner with an orga-
nization (j) where the expected utility of the partnership exceeds the costs
of the collaboration (in terms of time and other resource investment). The
model assumes that the costs and the benefits of any relation are specific to

the identity of each partner.

Eu(ri,j ) > ci,j (1)

The available theory to specify the expected utility of partnership r be-
tween organizations i and j is sparse. As a result, it is difficult to specify the
exact content of that component of the equation. Instead of a fully speci-
fied model, I propose three sets of factors that could influence the utility of
the partnership. First, there are characteristics of each source organization
(β i ) that may make collaboration with any other partners either easier or
more difficult. Examples of such characteristics could include the creation of
boundary spanning components of the organization (Thompson 2003 (1967))
or slack resources within the organization. Second, there are characteristics
of the partner organization (γ i )that can similarly make partnership with
them more or less costly. Finally, there are characteristics of the relation
between the two actors (δ i,j )that can make their specific partnership more or
less valuable. For example, the specific nature of the partnership (formal or
informal, possibly by degrees) or the relative similarity of dissimilarity of the
two organizations can make the partnership more or less valuable. It will be
on this last possibility that this article will focus.

Eu(ri,j ) = f (β i + γ j + δ i,j ) (2)

A partnership is efficient if the expected value of the partnership minus
the costs of that relationship are greater than zero. One should partner if:

f (β i + γ j + δ i,j ) − ci,j > 0 (3)

Alternatively, we expect partnerships where the benefits are larger than
the costs. One should partner if:

f (β i + γ j + δ i,j ) > ci,j (4)

The complexity of the expected value of collaborative partnership should
make it obvious that trying to study each component simultaneously would
be a poor place start. In the absence of well-developed theory to help fill
in the various components of utility function, significant exploratory work is
needed to build a foundation for a fuller model of partner choice.
This article then simplifies the model by ignoring characteristics of the
initial actor (β i )and the potential partners (γ i ), and only looking at specific

characteristics of the partnership itself (δ i,j ). The resulting model for this
article is:

f (δ i,j ) > ci,j (5)

For organizations that have scarce resources to devote to collaboration,
it is not enough to know that a partnership will be worth the cost. Instead,
one will want to prioritize partnerships that will generate more utility than
other potential partnerships. For example, if you can only choose one partner
(ri,j ), you will want to choose the partner with the largest utility net of the
costs rather than all other potential partners (ri,∼j ).

f (δ i,j ) − ci,j > f (δ i,∼j ) − ci,∼j (6)

We should expect that organizations that only partner with one organi-
zation will choose that organization from whom they have the most to gain
in partnership. If you can choose two organizations, you would expect the
two most valuable (net of the costs) partnerships. The order of partnership
can help provide some insight into the relative value of different partners.
I strongly encourage research into the importance of other components of
the fully general model (equation 4), but illustrate the model here by focusing
only on these limited components (equation 5).
In the following subsections, the article will discuss two traditions from
the theory of social networks that generate expectations about how joint
characteristics shape the probability of observing a collaboration between
two parties.

2.2 The Homophily Principle

A time-honored tradition within the sociological analysis of social networks
focused on the propensity of actors to seek relations with other actors who
are like them in important ways. This literature reinforced the folk wisdom
that “birds of a feather flock together”. The logic of such partnerships is
that actors who are similar to each often share values and modes of com-
munication. Since we are more likely to meet people who are like us (due
to geographical sorting or even similarity of the needs that motivate us to
venture out among other people), we are more likely to create relationships
with people who are like us in key ways. It may also be the case that any
collaboration with a similar partner is easier to sustain than would be the

case if partners had to communicate across a language barrier or mediate
conflicts over fundamental values.
In terms of the general theory of partner choice elaborated in 2, the
homophily principle suggests that costs of any partnership (ci,j ) are reduced
by similarity between the actors.
These theories of homophily generate a simple proposition for partner
selection in the process of building policy networks.

• Organizations will seek partnerships that are like them in ways impor-
tant to a specific policy domain.

2.3 Structural Holes

The aphorism “opposites attract” provides a contrasting set of predictions.
Rather than predicting that people seek people who are like them in key
ways, this aphorism predicts that people will seek partners unlike them in
important ways. The logic of such partnerships is that differences tend to
compensate for each other. In inter-personal relations, scholars may seek co-
authors that possess different strengths so that the partnership can jointly
produce research of higher quality than either party could have done inde-
pendently. Compensatory strategies create heterogeneous networks of actors.
The advantage of partnering with organizations unlike oneself is they key
to Ronald Burt’s theory of structural holes (1995; 2007). Burt’s focus was
on the development of networks between private, for-profit organizations. He
wanted to build a theory of strategic partnership with which one could better
assess the potential benefit of various proposed partnerships. He noted that
a partnership could be redundant. If two potential research partners possess
exactly the same skill set, adding the second identical partner does not add
new skills to the network. If there were costs associated with adding the
second researcher with the identical skill set, it may not be advantageous to
do so.
Burt used the term “structural hole” to describe the advantage created
by partnering with organizations who could contribute uniquely to the net-
work. The unique contribution becomes of a source of leverage to the unique
actor. An organization that is the only provider of a particular resource
within a network has an advantage over organizations within the network
that all provide the same resource. The absence of connections to people
with similar unique contributions to the network are the “structural holes”

that inspire the title for Burt’s original text (1995). Organizations that want
to maintain power will maintain the structural holes around them while or-
ganizations that seek partnerships may want to identify partners who possess
these unique resources.
In terms of the general theory of partner choice elaborated in section 2,
the structural holes principle suggests that the benefits of any partnership
(δ i,j ) are reduced by similarity between the actors.
The theory of structural holes generates a simple proposition for partner
selection in building policy networks.
• Organizations will seek partners that are unlike them in ways important
to a specific policy domain.

3 Data and Models

The previous section reviewed literature on social networks to generate propo-
sitions related to partner choice in policy networks. Two traditions generated
opposite expectations about the propensity of actors to partner with others
like or unlike themselves. This set of contrasting expectations provides a
rich opportunity for empirical research. In practice, do organizations tend to
partner with actors like or unlike themselves? The key to operationalizing
any hypothesis motivated to address this question is identifying the types of
differences that are relevant in a particular case.
This article will provide a specific context in the form of emergency man-
agement networks following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The following
section will provide a description of the data followed by a section localizing
the previous propositions to the context of emergency management.

3.1 Data
In the weeks following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Fall of 2005, school
districts across Texas struggled to provide services to hundreds of thousands
of students who had either been displaced within the state or entered the state
fleeing the devastation in other states. School districts, not often focusing
on emergency response, found themselves with a variety of questions about
how to provide services for these students. As a result, many school districts
sought help from other organizations. From some organizations they sought
financial resources; from others they sought information.

The uncertainty in the period immediately following the hurricanes pro-
vided an opportunity to study partner selection among these school districts.
To whom did these districts turn for assistance? With the support of the
National Science Foundation1 , we sent a survey to every K-12 school district
in Texas within weeks of Hurricane Katrina (with Hurricane Rita occurring
in this gap). As part of the survey, we asked each school superintendent to
identify the sorts of organizations with whom they collaborated in the after-
math of the hurricanes. Superintendents could choose among six different
types of organizations: police, fire, and first responder organizations; non-
profit and relief organizations; community and religious organizations; other
school districts; government relief and welfare organizations; and business
organizations. For each actors, superintendents could report whether they
collaborated with this group. The survey of approximately 1200 school dis-
tricts in Texas ended after three waves of self-administrated mail instruments
for a response rate of approximately 60%.2

3.2 Assessment of Partner Choice

The data described in the previous section provide opportunities to test the
propositions generated in section 2. The survey’s questions about the type
of organizations with which district’s partnered provides a basis on which to
test the propositions. To the extent that the homophily principle is correct,
we would expect that school districts are more likely to partner with other
school districts than with non-education organizations. This leads to the
following hypothesis.

• In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school districts were more
likely to report collaborating with other school districts than other
types of organizations.

To the extent that school districts follow a structural holes approach to

partner selection, we would expect school districts to seek partnerships with
partners with different competencies than they have internally. Without
The survey and the subsequent analysis were supported by NSF CMMI-0553124 and
Assesment of the comparability of respondents to non-responding districts shows
that responders are slightly larger than non-responders, but not by a substantively large

theory (or even much in the way of empirical observation) to guide a prior-
itization of partner selection among the non-school district organizations, I
propose instead the following general hypothesis.

• In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school districts were more
likely to report collaborating with types of organizations other than
school districts.

In addition to the relative frequency of partner selection, equation 6 offers

insight into the order of selection of partners. We would expect that when
organizations choices are constrained that the selection they make will reveal
preferences about each partnership. When a district can only select one
partner, they will select the partner with the highest expected benefit (net
of the costs of the partnership). When a district can select all but one of
the potential partners, they will like leave out only the partner with the
lowest expected net benefit. Based on the homophily and structural holes
propositions in section 2 I propose the following:

• (Homophily A) In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school

districts will report collaborating with other school districts when they
may only choose one partner.

• (Homophily B) In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school

districts will not report collaborating with other organizations unless
they have also reported collaborating with school districts.

• (Structural Holes A) In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school

districts will report collaborating with types of partners other school
districts when they may only choose one partner.

• (Homophily B) In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school

districts will not report collaborating with other school districts unless
they have also reported collaborating with the other organization types.

4 Results
The following series of tables present the school districts’ reported collabo-
rative partnerships with various organization types. Overall, we can initially
see the diversity of partner types and their relative frequencies (see Table

Organization Type Percent Partnerships
Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations 69%
Local Community Religous Organizations 59%
Other School Districts 49%
Nonprofit Relief Organizations 48%
Government Relief and Welfare Organizations 33%
Business Organizations 24%

Table 1: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type

1). The overall evidence provides mixed support for both the homophily and
structural hole strategies. The most frequently reported partnership is with
Police, Fire, and First Responder organizations. This is definitely an orga-
nization type that is different than the school districts in a variety of ways
and offers distinctive competencies. The propensity of partner with these or-
ganizations indicates a structural hole strategy among the superintendents.
The third most commonly reported partner were other school districts - the
partner type most like the school districts themselves. This relatively high
ranking represents a homophilic tendency. The second most common part-
ner was local community relief organizations. This organization represents
an element of difference (these are not school districts) and an element of
homophily compared to other non-local organizations. The relative high
proportion of the local community organizations represents, then, a mixing
of homophily and structural hole strategies.

4.1 Initial Choice

By looking at the districts where partnership activity was constrained to one
possible partner we get a second view of the priorities of the district officials.
If a district can only partner with one organization, it is likely to choose
the partner that offers the greatest net benefit. The relative proportion of
partnerships among those districts who only choose one partner should then
indicate the frequency within which a partner is preferred to all others. Table
2 reports these choices.

Organization Type Percent Partnerships
Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations 47%
Local Community Religious Organizations 4%
Other School Districts 27%
Nonprofit Relief Organizations 4%
Government Relief and Welfare Organizations 18%
Business Organizations 0%

Table 2: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type (Districts Report-

ing One Collaboration)

The evidence of a mixed strategy among school districts in the overall rate
of partnership is reflected among those districts who only report partnerships
with one type of organization. If you only choose one partner, you are most
likely to choose a police, fire, or first responder group - evidence of a structural
hole approach to seeking unique competency. However, the second most likely
partner among those who only have one partner is the most similar group of
other school districts - evidence of a homophilic tendency. It is interesting
to note that only two of the partner types are chosen by more than 20% of
the school districts. This represents a strong attraction to the few partners
types that are chosen by these highly constrained districts.

4.2 Follow-up Choices

Partner choices when there is a partially constrained resource, that is where
a district only reported partnering with two or three partner types, provides
a third lens through which to dissect the partner choice process. Table 3 il-
lustrates the proportion of partner type selections among those districts who
chose two partner types. At this point, the partner types chosen begin to
spread out - with the notable exception of business organization who are still
largely ignored. The pursuit of unique competency is still supported with the
police, fire, and first responder organizations being the most frequent selec-
tion. With two choices, the local organizations that are partially homophilic
(in the local connection) and partially possessing unique competencies come

Organization Type Percent Partnerships
Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations 67%
Local Community Religious Organizations 51%
Other School Districts 35%
Nonprofit Relief Organizations 29%
Government Relief and Welfare Organizations 17%
Business Organizations 3%

Table 3: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type (Districts Report-

ing Two Collaborations)

in second with over half of these districts reporting a partnership. Part-

nerships with other school districts come in third and well behind - a weak
showing for this homophilic partner type.

Table 4 provides a similar illustration for the districts who reported three
partner choices. Partnerships with police, fire, and first responder organiza-
tions become almost certain among these districts. Following closely behind
are the relatively common partnerships with local community religious or-
ganizations. Nonprofit relief organizations overtake other school districts
with 57% to the other school districts proportion of 54%. Altogether this
provides stronger evidence for districts seeking unique competencies rather
simply seeking partnerships with organizations like themselves.

4.3 Final Choices

The final look at the evidence focuses on the final choices of school districts
who reported partnerships with most of the partner types. Here our attention
shifts from asking which organization type the districts chose to partner
with to the organizations with which the districts chose not to partner. Low
values in this analysis represent the rarity of non-partnership. Table 5 reports
the proportion of districts not reporting a partnership with each type of
organization among those districts who reported partnerships with five of

Organization Type Percent Partnerships
Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations 85%
Local Community Religious Organizations 73%
Other School Districts 54%
Nonprofit Relief Organizations 57%
Government Relief and Welfare Organizations 27%
Business Organizations 5%

Table 4: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type (Districts Report-

ing Three Collaborations)

Organization Type % Absent Partnerships

Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations 11%
Local Community Religious Organizations 15%
Other School Districts 38%
Nonprofit Relief Organizations 20%
Government Relief and Welfare Organizations 55%
Business Organizations 62%

Table 5: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type (Districts Report-

ing All but Two Collaborations)

the four of the types. Organizations in this set reported leaving off two
types. What is interesting is which types were most likely to be left off.

The evidence from Table 5 is consistent with the results from the assess-
ment in the previous tables. The least likely partner type to be left out of
a districts partnership portfolio is police, fire, and first responders. Follow-
ing closely behind (in being unlikely to be left out of a district’s reported
network) are local community religious organizations and nonprofit relief
organizations. Only in fourth place are other school districts who among
school districts that only leave off two types are left off over one third of the
time. Business organizations and other government organizations (interest-

Organization Type % Absent Partnerships
Police, Fire, and First Responder Organizations 7%
Local Community and Religious Organizations 2%
Other School Districts 12%
Nonprofit Relief Organizations 11%
Government Relief and Welfare Organizations 32%
Business Organizations 37%

Table 6: Proportion of Partnerships by Organization Type (Districts Report-

ing All but One Collaboration)

ingly similar to school districts in their government sector type) are most
likely to be left out of the network.

Table 6 reports the frequency with which an organization type is left off
when school districts report collaborating with all but one organization type.
Interestingly, these organizations are more likely to leave off police, fire, and
first responder groups than local community and religious organizations - a
first for all of these analysis. Again other school districts come in fourth
behind nonprofit relief organizations with government relief and welfare or-
ganizations and business organizations coming in last - each being left off
around one third of the time.

5 Conclusions and Discussion

The results of the tables in section 4 illustrate the tension between structural
hole and homophilic strategies among school districts collaborating following
a natural disaster. There is strong support that school districts seek partner-
ships with organizations unlike themselves. The most frequent partners, the
first partners chosen, and the partners least likely to be left out of a network
are police, fire, and first responder organizations and (most commonly) local
community religious organizations. These are organizations that are unlike
the school districts in important ways and offer a variety of services that the
school districts may not be able to provide internally. Trailing relatively far

behind in the partner choice process are the most similar organizations, the
other school districts. There are organizations with whom it would seem-
ingly be easy to partner. There are other organizations that share important
characteristics with the district including technology and professional iden-
tification. Despite this similarity, other school districts are not attractive
partners to these school districts. Other government organizations which
share a governmental sector with the school districts but not technology or
professional identity are also among the last partners to be chosen and among
the most likely not to be chosen at all. Only the least similar organizations,
the business organizations that are in different sectors and only rarely bear
any similarity in professional background and mission with the school dis-
tricts are chosen less often that other government organizations. This may
very well be a case of the school districts not only seeing business organiza-
tions as different (and thus difficult to partner with) but also offering little
in obvious advantages - unlike the first responder organizations and local
community organizations that could provide services more obviously useful
to the districts.
This initial study of partner choice serves only to demonstrate the sorts
of dynamics one might anticipate in partner choice processes. Here the focus
has been on characteristics of the partner dyads. Organizations that were
similar were not more likely to be chosen than those that were different.
In fact, the most likely chosen partners were quite different than the school
districts. Instead, school districts seem to be selecting for difference - at least
difference of specific sorts.
There are a variety of directions that research into partner choice could
take. First, one could assess the impact of agent characteristics on partner
choice. In this case, do school districts with different characteristics choose
different partner types? It could be that the size of the district or its internal
planning capacity affect the expected utility of partnering with different types
of others. Districts with well-developed internal planning capacities may see
less advantage in working with other school districts. Districts with less well-
developed planning capacities may see great benefit in collaborating with
other school districts as part of an effort to pool similar planning capacities.
Information on partner characteristics could also help explain partner
choice. The expected utility of a potential partnership likely depends on
the unique contributions of those partners. Partners that offer resources or
information that, say, school districts need following a natural disaster are
likely to be attractive partners. Those potential partners with either the

slack to donate the resource or the facilities to coordinate activities will be
more attractive than those whom have to be coaxed into working with the
school districts.
It may also be the case that the nature of relationships affects the ex-
pected utility of different relationships. Based on the logic of Granovetter’s
“strength of weak ties” (Granovetter 1973), one might expect that some sorts
of relationships are most valuable if they do not involve frequent or intense
relations. It could be that the preference for difference observed in these data
would be quite different if one looked instead at more intensive relationships.
The findings reported in this article are be heartening. School districts are
seeking different sorts of organizations with whom to partner in the aftermath
of a large natural disaster. As these school districts sought to accommodate
large new enrollments and, in some cases, to respond to closures and flooding
in their own communities they sought organizations unlike themselves as
partners. While these organizations could have circled their wagons and
looked only within their own number for partners, they reached out to a
wide variety of potential partners.
Seeking these new partners can raise additional questions. What sort of
complications arise as organizations partner across professional boundaries
(e.g. education officials working with public health officials), sectoral bound-
aries (e.g. public sector education organizations working with nonprofit or-
ganizations), and across levels of government (e.g. local education officials
working with state and federal emergency management officials)? How does
one manage across differences like these? As much attention as scholars have
paid recently to issues of collaborative public management and policy net-
works, a great deal of work lies ahead. We must move beyond again pointing
out how common and how important networked public policy is and asses
how to manage and implement policy within these settings.

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