Many of the problems that the federal bureaucracy has created or found itself embroiled in could have been avoided or fixed had key agencies collaborated in advance.
The State Department's woes surrounding its contract with Blackwater Worldwide for security in Iraq at least could have been lessened if its ceaseless turf battle with the Defense Department hadn't gotten in the way of coordination. These are the two agencies jointly charged with stabilizing that fragile democracy, after all. Similarly, a better pre-existing relationship between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Guard and other groups that form the federal response to natural disasters could have helped improve the rough days and weeks along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. And, of course, it was the disconnect among the various agencies charged with keeping the nation safe that terrorists exploited in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The stovepiped, internally focused hierarchies of the 20th century keep breaking under the weight of 21st century challenges.
Since Sept. 11, more federal officials have come to recognize the value of networks, rather than hierarchies, as organizational models. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies have taken a page from the incident command structure used by wildland firefighters to create centralized commands that gather agents from a variety of organizations into one place to coordinate a single government function across agencies. Homeland Security "fusion" centers have cropped up nationwide to coordinate state, local and federal agents in key metropolitan areas as they seek to prevent terrorist attacks.
In fact, similar networks have long existed in the federal bureaucracy, although they have tended to be unheralded and underappreciated. They are the 28 regional Federal Executive Boards, all in metropolitan areas outside the Beltway, which have been chugging along since the 1960s.
FEBs connect senior federal executives and military commanders of all agencies in a metropolitan area. They typically have an executive director who serves as the staff coordinator for the board. Some are more active than others, depending on the interest of the local executives and the willingness of agencies to contribute money to cover expenses. The salary for the executive director, for example, depends on such voluntary support.
At their best, FEBs create strong connections among the local leaders of federal agencies that can be tapped at critical times to improve the federal response to local problems. Perhaps the best example was set by the Oklahoma FEB, which played a key role in the recovery following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. With Executive Director LeAnn Jenkins as a guiding force, the FEB helped federal agencies there get back on their feet. The board subsequently set the standard for other FEBs and emergency response planning.
Networks such as those with FEBs at their hubs create lateral connections through which information can flow across organizational boundaries, rather than forcing information up chains of command and then back down other chains. In the 21st century, it takes too long to move information through those stovepipes. Or to borrow a phrase, if you want to connect the dots, don't send them up the chain of command. Create immediate connections to others who need to see those dots, or they won't be connected until it's too late.
Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.