Tuesday, August 17, 2010
I’ve been reading federal agency Open Government plans over the past few weeks. Many plans don’t describe what agencies are doing to improve collaboration – between agencies and programs, or with the public.

One of the better Open Gov plans for collaboration is the one by the Department of Agriculture.  It sets out four goals: (1) create an environment that fosters partnerships in program and service delivery; (2) seek out innovative ideas; (3) create incentives to collaborate; and (4) use technology to support collaboration.  It offers a series of specifics, such as creating an award as an incentive to collaborate, its efforts with the President’s Food Safety Working Group, and its “Apps for Healthy Kids” as a tech tool to encourage collaboration.

Interestingly, GAO has published a series of reports on interagency collaboration practices. While its reports focus on national security agencies, some of its “lessons learned” are applicable in civilian agencies, as well.   A key element underlying the national security emphasis on collaboration has been congressional interest.  GAO notes that the 2008 and 2009 Defense Authorization Acts directed national security agencies to better coordinate.  One of GAO’s reports was prepared to help foster better congressional oversight.

In that report, GAO concluded:  “Strengthening interagency collaboration – with leadership as the foundation – can help transform U.S. government agencies and create a more unified, comprehensive approach to national security issues at home and abroad.” 

GAO identifies four opportunities for strengthening interagency collaboration in the national security arena, but could actually be relevant in other arenas as well:

Develop and implement overarching, integrated strategies to achieve common objectives.  “Overarching strategies can help agencies overcome differences in missions, cultures, and ways of doing business by providing strategic direction for activities and articulating a common outcome to collaboratively work toward. . . .Without having the strategic direction that overarching strategies can provide, agencies may develop their own individual efforts that may not be well-coordinated with that of interagency partners, thereby limiting progress in meeting national security goals.”

Interestingly, these findings for national security agencies --made in the context of on-the-ground collaboration efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan – are parallel to similar findings GAO made in an earlier report on civilian collaborative efforts in areas such as Defense-VA health care and wildfire management.

Formalize coordination mechanisms to overcome organizational differences.  “Agencies have different organizational structures, planning processes, and funding sources to plan for and conduct their national security activities, which can hinder interagency collaboration.  This can result in a patchwork of activities that waste scarce funds and limit collaboration.” 

GAO’s example of this patchwork focuses on how DOD’s regional combatant commands and the State Department’s regional bureaus cover different geographic regions.  This mis-alignment is repeated in budgeting, staffing, and planning areas as well.  GAO concluded – in an understatement of its difficulty – “It is important that there be mechanisms to coordinate across agencies.”  GAO’s case study of DOD’s U.S. Africa Command found – encouragingly -- that it “has undertaken efforts to integrate personnel from other U.S. government agencies into its command structure . . .”  It also found that “Funding is budgeted for and appropriated by agency, rather than by functional area (such as national security or foreign aid).”  Maybe this is not a blinding insight, but its is clearly a major barrier to interagency collaboration.

This agency-by-agency focus in the budget, GAO concludes, “does not provide for the needed integrated perspective of government performance envisioned in the Government Performance and Results Act.”  While GAO didn’t come out and recommend a change in the budget process, but some in the media interpreted it that way!

Develop a well-trained workforce.  In a related study, GAO concluded that: “Federal agencies do not always have the right people with the right skills in the right jobs at the right time to meet the challenges they face, to include having a workforce that is able to quickly address crises. . . . . . Our work has found that personnel often lack knowledge of the processes and cultures of the agencies with which they must collaborate.”  GAO found in its Africa case study that a lack of training “resulted in a number of cultural missteps in Africa because personnel did not understand local religious customs. . . .”

“Furthermore, some interagency coordination efforts have been impeded because agencies have been reluctant to detail staff to other organizations. . . “ because they are short-staffed or because “interagency assignments [are] often not being considered career-enhancing or recognized in agency performance management systems. . .”

In response, GAO recommends increased training opportunities, such as the National Security Professional Development Program, and better strategic workforce planning efforts.

Share and integrate information across participating agencies.  “U.S. government agencies do not always share relevant information with their national security counterparts due to a lack of clear guidelines for sharing information and national security clearances.”  GAO cited the creation of state fusion centers as one effort to improve collaboration in homeland security and found that “To facilitate information sharing, it is important to establish clear guidelines, agreements, and procedures that govern key aspects. . . “ 

GAO was realistic, though, in its assessment:  “Agencies may not share information because doing so may be outside their organizational cultures or because of political concerns, such as exposing potential vulnerabilities within the agency.”  The DOD hierarchical approach, for example, hinders sharing military plans with other agencies in the formative stages because the plans have to first be formalized and approved by the Secretary of Defense before they could be shared.

GAO Director John Pendleton, who led this series of studies, was interviewed about the challenges of collaboration on Federal News Radio.  He said “The bottom line is people.”  He understands the difficulty of getting systems to work together, but he recognizes that “having good people can sometimes make all the difference.”  This is true in civilian, as well as national security, agencies!