Wednesday, December 4, 2019
Making a collaboration stick is hard, often frustrating, and worth all the effort

In his 2008 book on the next government of the United States, professor Donald Kettl eloquently zeroes in one of the defining challenges of government today: ”It is becoming increasingly hard for government to solve problems because the problems themselves confound the boundaries created to solve them.”

In other words, we can no longer solve societal problems, for example raising individuals out of poverty, via the traditional bureaucratic model of separate agencies and programs that address the different elements of poverty: health, education, housing, etc. Instead, we need to organize solutions around the individual — not the agencies and programs.

However, efforts to use cross-agency collaborative approaches often end in failure when they collide with the prevailing (and powerful) bureaucratic model, that focuses on separate funding streams and accountability for compliance with the rules of individual programs. So what can be done to create problem-solving cross-agency collaborative networks that are sustainable in a hierarchical world?

Dismantling the success stories

The concept of “collaborative governance”— that is, working jointly across the traditional boundaries of governmental agencies, and between the public and private sectors — has proven an effective strategy for implementing policy initiatives over the past two decades in an increasingly interdependent environment.

The descriptive terms for these phenomena vary — collaborative networks, partnerships, horizontal government, boundary spanning, joined up government, and more.

Many cross-agency collaborative efforts that were initially successful have common characteristics

University of Kansas professor Rosemary O’Leary has studied how government has steadily increased its use of collaborative approaches in lieu of the traditional hierarchical and bureaucratic approach. According to her, the explanation for this shift is that most public challenges are greater than any one organisation is able to handle, requiring new approaches to addressing public issues such as housing, pollution, transportation, and healthcare.

In addition, she says that technological advances have helped “organisations and their employees to share information in a way that is integrative and interoperable.”

Despite the potential benefits of cross-agency collaboration, it is difficult work and oftentimes frustrating.

The highly lauded cross-agency New Zealand Results Programme, for example, was abandoned in a recent change of government. Likewise, the Canadian Service Canada and the Australian Centrelink programs that integrated the delivery of services horizontally across different government agencies in the 2000s were slowly dismantled over time.

What makes collaborations work?

Many cross-agency collaborative efforts that were initially successful have common characteristics. Typically, they were led by a small team of charismatic leaders who are successful even with limited legal authority or resources.

Also, many efforts were built voluntarily, bottom-up and not mandated, top-down. This was the case, for example, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Urban Partnership initiative to reduce traffic congestion. And many successful efforts tend to be around a finite project vs. open-ended program. A good example was the two-year long cross-governmental effort to ensure computer operations survived Y2K.

In addition to a reliance on personalities, trust, and the willingness and energy of volunteer participation, there are several institutional reasons why the collaborative approach can be difficult to sustain. For example, there are typically no embedded routines, and solutions tend to be one-off and designed for a seemingly unique situation. Also, the lines of accountability are often unclear — but this becomes immediately clear when something goes wrong!

In addition to these institutional challenges, individual public servants who engage in these collaborations often find that their career progression is stunted when compared to their peers within a traditional bureaucratic structure — the reason being that most public institutions assume a bureaucratic model when it comes to pay for performance personnel systems.

As a consequence of these institutional and personal challenges, collaborative initiatives typically run out of steam in the face of the more enduring hierarchical systems. This is equally true in the public as well as the private sector.

The common goal

In his 2007 book on corporate bureaucracy and the use of collaborative networks, Rutgers professor Charles Heckscher observes that a bureaucratic culture is a highly rational, disciplined, and rule-based system. The norms of bureaucracy centre around stability, homogeneity, conformity, deference, and an inward focus. In addition, performance is centred on the boss, who sets targets and evaluates performance.

In contrast, in a collaborative culture, people are interdependent with others and are intolerant of those who don’t pull their own weight. Their measure of performance is not the boss’s judgment, but rather “what is expected in collaborative enterprises is performance that helps others and moves everyone toward achieving the collective mission and goal. It is, in short, a notion of performance as contribution,” as Heckscher writes.

Explicitly recognising the need and value of both bureaucratic hierarchy and cross-agency collaborative networks is an important step in giving these networks both legitimacy and sustainability

In traditional bureaucracies, trust is based on the belief that others will stick to their defined roles and assigned statuses. In collaborative enterprises, trust is based on the belief that everyone is working toward a collective goal, which constitutes a community of purpose. In this framework, there is little expectation of long-term security or stable membership and members do not expect to control their own areas or have their own resources. The use of consensus is vital and dotted lines are everywhere.

3 traits of successful collaborations

Even with the difficulties of creating and sustaining cross-agency networks, they are being created and they can be successfully sustained over time. For example, the use of Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goals in the U.S. provide some lessons.

In 2011, the U.S. Congress legally authorised a governance structure to develop and implement a set of cross-agency collaborative projects, such as streamlining the permitting and approval process for infrastructure projects across a range of regulatory agencies. This new law provides institutional legitimacy as well as new governance frameworks, new administrative routines, enhanced staff capacity, and new capacities to measure and assess progress.

An assessment of the first set of CAP Goal projects found that, at the operating level, goal leaders took three steps to ensure their initiatives were sustainable. They:

  • Created full-time teams. Some CAP Goals initially had no full-time staff. Several of these initiatives, such as Customer Service and STEM Education, were finally staffed with a full-time person from the White House Leadership Development Program in 2016 and they began to demonstrate greater progress. Having dedicated talent matters.
  • Used interagency agreements. CAP Goal leaders and staff members were rarely in place for the full four-year period of any of the 14 CAP Goals. Consistently ensuring a written understanding of agreement among stakeholders, early on, helped ensure some continuity.
  • Encouraged resource sharing. Agencies that shared resources tended to be more committed to participation.

In addition, the assessment found that standardising back office administrative support functions — often via the use of shared service arrangements — also made it easier for agencies to work together because it was easier to share staff and other resources.

The CAP Goal approach has survived the transition between presidential administrations and is increasingly accepted as the U.S. federal government’s “way of doing cross-agency business.” In fact, the current set of 14 CAP Goals serve as organising construct of the President’s Management Agenda.

Towards a dual operating system

The CAP Goal system, however, is not a substitute for the traditional hierarchy.

Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, in a 2012 article, promotes the use of a “dual operating system” in the corporate world. He observed that the current hierarchical operating system needs “an additional element to address the challenges produced by mounting complexity and rapid change.”

He writes that the solution is to create “a second operating system, devoted to the design and implementation of strategy, that uses an agile, networklike structure and a very different set of processes.” He observes that this new operating system would run in parallel and should complement the existing hierarchical system — allowing the hierarchical system “to do what it is optimised to do.”

Hecksher’s insight into the use of a dual operating system in the corporate world is probably applicable in a government setting, as well. Explicitly recognising the need and value of both bureaucratic hierarchy and cross-agency collaborative networks is an important step in giving these networks both legitimacy and sustainability.

Kettl described, in 2005, how Julie Gerberding, the director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) introduced a governance model that attempted to incorporate both approaches. Under her leadership, the CDC’s 16 centres and offices operated in a traditional organisational hierarchy in normal times but in a health emergency, such as the flu pandemic or the SARS outbreak, they switched to a cross-centre collaborative network.

While this approach was not sustained at CDC after Gerberding left, it does serve as a model for how a dual operating system might work in government.

(Picture credit: Death to the stock photo

This blog post first appeared on Apolitical.