How-To: Tips for Building a Collaborative Environment

After completing the February Open Government Directive Workshop, we realized that it’s much easier to think about collaboration and build collaborative practices into an agency’s open government plan it’s done in a collaborative environment.

(Final results of the teams’ collaborations are posted at the top of the OpenGov Playbook and the teams offer great suggestions for agencies that are finalizing their draft open government plans.)

In the spirit of “open-sourcing” our method, here are some of the collaborative elements of the February OGD Workshop that you may want to include in your collaborative projects at your agency or organization:

Small Teams: Collaboration is effective when group size is manageable for the team leader. We suggest 12 as the maximum. With more members than that, a team leader should have assistant team leaders.

Friendly Competition: Sometimes we put forth our best effort when we’re competing with another group. To harness this element, we had three in-person teams and one online team competing with each other to present the best ideas at the end of the day.

Invite Great Participants: Although our workshop was open to everyone, we wanted to make sure that we’d attract a collaborative group rather than one that’s interested in networking only. The price of admission for this workshop was writing a few sentences about what skills or ideas a participant would like to bring to a group. This filtered out the folks that weren’t there to collaborate.

Responsibility AND Authority: We gave the four team leaders the responsibility for the success of their team AND we gave them the authority to succeed. This meant loosening control so that they can determine the direction and choose the particular methods that their teams would use to collaborate. Responsibility without authority would put team leaders in a tough position.

Public-Private: We recognize that the public and private sectors both offer valuable (and complementary) expertise on open government, so we ensured we’d have nearly a 50-50 split.

Online and Offline: We had one online team working in parallel with the in-person groups. This allowed more people to join in the collaborative process from outside the Beltway.

Inter-Agency: We made sure to draw from an inter-agency crowd to maintain a diversity of perspectives.

Cross-Team: During lunch we allowed the three in-person teams to mingle and cross-pollinate ideas from one team to another.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up: As the workshop organizers, we aimed to push “power to the edges”. We provided the resources and just enough structure so the team leaders could focus on their teams.

Tight Feedback Loops: Tight feedback loops kept our teams on track. Every hour we encouraged the team leaders to ask for the participants’ feedback on their team’s process; this conversation about the work process is different from a conversation about the work product. At different times, we were able to interject feedback from outside observers on the team’s process.

Asynchronous and Synchronous: Online collaboration before and after your in-person meetings is critical for making the most of limited face time.

Common Operational Picture: We used the wiki on the OpenGov Playbook so that many editors could work on the same document at the same time. This wiki also serves as a central directory of links to effective open government practices across the Web. Many of your colleagues may have never used a wiki—invite them test one out—it’s a lot simpler than they would expect.

Build on Previous Events: We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel so we put the emphasis on “synthesis, synthesis, synthesis.” There has been so much great writing and ideation about open government over the past year that what’s required now is combining and prioritizing the ideas that are already available via agency’s public engagement processes, draft agency open government plans, GovLoop, blogs, and the OpenGov Playbook.

Experiment and Iterate: This workshop was our third in a series, so we’ve been refining our process over time. We aren’t afraid to fail; we have been willing to learn in public, build momentum, and improve the process by building one event upon another.
Provide Food: Food is key to maintaining energy throughout the day. Because the workshop was an entirely volunteer-run event without a budget, we had all the participants chip in $10 for their own lunch. The price was low enough that no one was excluded from attending, and by not providing a free lunch, we had participants who really wanted to be there.

Team-Building: We had a happy hour after our event to help folks unwind after an intense day of collaboration. Socializing like this is also critical for building a sustainable community of participants for future workshops.
What did we miss? What collaborative elements do you add to your events? We welcome any suggestions or additions in the comments section.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply


Building on tight feedback loops: focusing on one- or two-liners to describe our top ideas. Most of us tend towards TMI – Too Much Information. My group leader was great about keeping us on track time-wise by continually reminding us to keep our language simple and focused on our key messages.


Very well thought through…I love the tips.

Some other ones I’ve seen that I like:
-Good music to set the tone
-Everyone introduce themselves at the beginning in-person
-Explaining the rules up-front

Keith Moore

The level of time gone into developing both the OGD workshops and the tips on collaboration post the workshop is real evident of a genuine commitment to help advance collaboration with structure, discipline, and purpose.

We at Gov Loop I say should fully endorse, promote and advance this formula for collaboration.

Great work Lucas.


One quick amendment to idea #9 from the online team, Team 4:


It’s not so much an open platform for “Public-engagement apps” that we are proposing, but rather an open/social platform where citizen developers can contribute apps that they make from the data sets in our data.gov catalogue…i.e, computer scientists, digital media developers, design students – anyone really – via outreach efforts such as this one:


That is what I mean about needing simple language to express our key messages: it’s so easy to mis-communicate some of these new ideas….

Andrew Krzmarzick

I thought of one you missed, Lucas 😉

A Great Leader (yes, that’s you!) Someone has to set the vision and invest the energy to move a collaborative endeavor forward…and you have certainly been a committed, driving force for helping agencies to implement on the OGD effectively. Many people have ideas; not as many people execute. You have been dreaming AND doing…and I just wanted to join in the applause from Steve, Keith, Megan and others. Keep up the great work and let us know how we can continue to help!

Bret Martin

I like this post. There is so much more collaboration with government since Obama became president. This is just the beginning, and the results are exciting but TMI (Too Much Info) is looming. We need to start linking posts together by a well-defined set of “system” tags. I’m good at data analysis and records management. Let me know if I can help.

Andrea Schneider

Lucas, I want to nominate you as Member of the Week. Your contribution to the entire OGD has been inspired and passionate. You have gone with a compelling need we had to “just get started” and to let each workshop be a “work in progress”.

You are a perfect example of a leader, with a vision, not afraid to fail. I am very impressed with your results and the ball you have gotten rolling. It’s a wonderful piece of work!


Gary Berg-Cross

Good list as noted before. Another factor I’ve seen discussed on effective collbaoration is development of an effective if lightweight governance/organizational approach.

Organizing for collaboration to build collaborative practices into an agency’s open government plan will be a bit time consuming, and dynamic.

Players and roles change over the space of such an effort and the various follow on efforts of any one workshop.
So some respected/neutral organization and/or agreed upon person may be needed to design and manage an inclusive process.