Wednesday, February 19, 2014
GAO has issued a series of reports over the past three years identifying more than 80 areas where there is potential duplication and overlap. It observes that “agencies face a range of barriers when they attempt to work collaboratively.”

On occasions, the Government Accountability Office breaks the mold for its reports and looks for things that worked well and then tries to identify why, and then highlights those factors.  A new report examines four successful cross-agency collaborative initiatives that overcome program overlaps, and identifies four sets of promising practices that they use in order to be effective.


Background.  GAO has reported for almost two decades on missed opportunities for improved collaboration between agencies to achieve results for which they share accountability.  With a new law requiring greater collaboration, GAO has been providing agencies insights on what works.  For example, in 2005 it identified practices that agencies used to “help enhance and sustain collaboration” and in 2012, it cataloged multiple interagency mechanisms in current use across the government.

Based on these earlier studies, GAO set out to identify how agencies went about applying these various practices.  It looked in depth at four well-regarded interagency initiatives:

  • The Memorandum of Understanding Working Group between the Defense and Education departments, which works with states to allow military dependents who are students to transfer credits between schools in different states.
  • The Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which is comprised of 20 federal agencies or offices, focusing on “reducing the barriers that exist for the reentry population” of ex-inmates returning to their communities from prison.
  • The Rental Policy Working Group, which is organized by the White House Domestic Policy Council, improves coordinated governmentwide oversight of subsidized rental housing properties, and reduces administrative burdens on providers.
  • The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which is comprised of 19 federal entities, coordinates a governmentwide response to homeless individuals.

In interviews with staff, and well-regarded senior career executives, GAO identified recurring themes, which it distilled into effective approaches for addressing four barriers to collaboration, which GAO had identified in its earlier studies.


Four Key Elements of Effective Collaboration.  GAO focused on key considerations for implementing interagency collaborative mechanisms in four areas where it had identified barriers:

  • Outcomes:  Have partners clearly defined both short-term and long-term outcomes to  be achieved?
  • Accountability:  Is there a way to track and monitor progress, and do agencies have in place individual competency and performance standards for staff involved?
  • Leadership:  Has a lead agency or individual been identified?  Will leadership be shared between agencies?  Have roles and responsibilities been clearly defined and agreed upon?
  • Managing Resources:  How will collaborative initiatives be funded and staffed?  Have participating agencies developed online tools to support joint interactions?

For each of these four elements, GAO identified a series of specific implementation approaches being used by the four case study agencies, and illustrated the various approaches with examples from these agencies. 


Promising Approaches to Leading Collaborative Efforts.  Following are highlights of promising implementation approaches from the third of the four key elements: Leadership.

  • Designate group leaders who exhibit “collaboration competencies.”  Based on interviews with agency officials, GAO identified five competencies needed by leaders of effective cross-agency collaborative efforts:  (1) works well with people, (2) communicates openly with a range of stakeholders, (3) builds and maintains relationships, (4) understands other points of view, and (5) sets a vision for the group.  GAO found these five competencies are reflected in the executive core qualifications for career senior executives, as described by the Office of Personnel Management, as well as in the literature, such as the IBM Center report on insights by senior executives on collaboration across boundaries by Drs. Rosemary O’Leary and Catherine Gerard.
  • Ensure participation by high-level leaders in regular, in-person meetings.  Membership of three of the four case studies included White House staff, signaling strong presidential support for the initiatives.  GAO noted: “In one instance, officials told us that individuals were more likely to attend meetings because of the opportunity to interact with or brief high-level officials.”  The homeless council, for example, set a goal of having at least three Cabinet Secretaries attend each of its meetings – and achieved that goal.
  • Rotate key tasks and responsibilities when group leadership is shared.  GAO notes: “The MOU Working Group rotated the agency that hosted the group meeting between DOD and Education.  Education officials told us that an official from the agency that hosted the meeting also served as the chair of the meeting.  A DOD official told us that they used this approach because it provided a sense of ownership in the group’s activities.”
  • Establish clear and inclusive procedures for group meetings and activities.  GAO found that participants in two of the four case studies told them that in their initial meetings, they made a point of defining upfront how they would interact.  This included: “frequency of meetings, protocols for communication across agencies, whether group meetings will have an agenda, and whether stakeholde3r will take formal notes.”  This was seen as especially important in interactions between agencies will different cultures, such as military and civilian agencies.
  • Distribute leadership responsibility for group activities among participants.  GAO found that leadership responsibilities were distributed in all four case studies. “For example, a DOJ official who co-chairs the Reentry Council’s staff-level working group said that it intentionally distributed leaders of the subcommittees, in part, to distribute responsibility more broadly throughout the federal government and to allow for interaction and participation of a greater number of stakeholders.”

Similar implementation examples are available for the other three key elements of collaboration, so download the report to learn more!


Graphics Credit:  Courtesy of adamr via FreeDigitalPhotos