Governance Coalitions and the Role of Scale in Multisector Partnerships: Lessons from Obesity Prevention in Pennsylvania


  • Michael Rios


Governance, coalition, scale, health, obesity prevention


Given the emergence of obesity as one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United States, it is not surprising that a focus on healthy lifestyles has become a central issue for disease prevention. The recent convergence of health and the built environment opens up new possibilities for park and recreation professionals to participate in initiatives that focus on lifestyle physical activity. Although there is a growing body of literature on the promotion of coalitions and public private partnerships, little has been written about multisector partnerships that focus on health and the built environment. At the same time, there has been a lack of critical attention paid to the theme of scale in partnership projects—often meaning little more than resolution. Although scale is a key concept in cartography, GIS, and other forms of
geographic representation, some geographers suggest scale plays a critical role in political and social change.

To illustrate this point, this paper describes how scale is used by a statewide governance coalition, the Pennsylvania Advocates for Nutrition
and Activity (PANA), to create and implement policy and environmental changes related to obesity prevention. A governance coalition can be
described as an alliance between multiple sectors and between politically recognized levels of jurisdiction. In the paper, scale is used to explain the characteristics of organizational networks that operate at multiple territorial and juridical levels simultaneously. From this perspective, scale is consistent with a social ecological model of disease prevention that focuses on environmental and behavioral determinants of health—from the scale of the individual body to the larger environment that includes community systems and public policy.

PANA is also relevant as a health partnership case given that it explicitly targets environmental factors such as local parks and trails as a
strategy to increase lifestyle physical activity. Key aspects of partnership planning and implementation include an emphasis on open and honest communication, joint decision making, resource sharing, and the cobranding of related programs. More broadly, some implications for parks and recreation administrators involved with obesity prevention initiatives include:

• enlisting the participation of park and recreation interests and allied
disciplines from different networks and levels of organization;

• communicating the value of parks and recreation through prognostic
frames (e.g., quality-of-life, lifestyle issues, etc.) that address particular social issues or problems;

• stretching limited educational and promotional resources through coordinated and shared communication channels; and

• ensuring equal and balanced representation between various sectors,
institutions, and interest groups when forming partnerships that link
public policy to project implementation.