Key Features of Cross-Agency Collaboration Mechanisms

How do you organize a cross-agency collaborative effort to get results no single agency could accomplish on its own? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has developed an inventory of “mechanisms that the federal government uses to lead and implement interagency collaboration,” along with a self-assessment checklist to consider when using them.

GAO’s latest study on collaborative governance is based on an analysis of more than 300 past GAO reports covering issues such as homeland security, agriculture, and health, as well as a series of interviews with experts on the topic.

GAO previously reported in 2005 on eight “key practices to enhance and sustain interagency collaboration,” including leadership, trust, and organizational culture. That report lays out how network managers should behave. But it was largely silent on the structural mechanisms for organizing such collaborative efforts. In 2010, a new law requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to develop and implement cross-agency priority goals that rely on a great degree of collaboration. These more formal collaborations require mechanisms for accountability, measures of progress, and resource sharing. This spurred congressional interest in understanding more about various mechanisms that the executive branch might use.

OMB identified 14 cross agency priority goals in the 2013 budget and has begun to implement them. These include goals such doubling exports, which involves more than eight contributing agencies and over 40 programs within these agencies; and improving cybersecurity, which involves virtually every agency in the government. How should the executive branch best organize these agencies and programs to achieve results?

The new GAO report catalogs a dozen specific mechanisms the government currently uses to collaborate across boundaries, ranging from special presidential assistants to the use of social media technologies. More significantly, the report offers a self-assessment checklist (Appendix III) of seven key design features that collaborative network leaders need to consider when using these approaches. These features include:

  • Outcomes and Accountability: Have short-term and long-term outcomes been clearly defined? Is there a way to track and monitor their progress?
  • Bridging Organizational Cultures: What are the missions and organizational cultures of the participating agencies? Have agencies agreed on common terminology and definitions?
  • Leadership: How will leadership be sustained over the long-term? If leadership is shared, have roles and responsibilities been clearly identified and agreed upon?
  • Clarity of Roles and Responsibilities: Have participating agencies clarified roles and responsibilities?
  • Participants: Have all relevant participants been included? Do they have the ability to commit resources for their agency?
  • Resources: How will the collaborative mechanism be funded and staffed? Have online collaboration tools been developed?
  • Written Guidance and Agreements: If appropriate, have participating agencies documented their agreement regarding how they will be collaborating? Have they developed ways to continually update and monitor these agreements?

The GAO report also provides concrete examples of the various collaborative mechanisms it has cataloged, ranging from the federal government’s climate change activities, to the use of working capital funds, to the federal response in 2007 to the pandemic flu scare. It also describes how some collaborative mechanisms are used for various purposes, such as policy development, program implementation, oversight, and information sharing.

Interestingly, in a recent blog post, my colleague Dan Chenok notes that effective collaboration in networks used to implement results-oriented initiatives should rely on more than just practices and mechanisms. He says that government leaders should move beyond collaboration to “joint management.” He observes that “successful leaders in government can follow the enterprise model of the private sector, using technology and information to manage ‘jointly’ across agencies – building from collaborative networks to shared operations.”

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