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What’s the Recipe for Good (Collaborative) Relationships?

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Is there a recipe for successful cross-agency relationships that are enduring? Or is each initiative so dependent on context and personalities that there is no way to offer general principles of success?

Happy Valentine’s Day! Today in particular there are all sorts of advice columns about improving relationships. Well, A new IBM Center report by Dr. Jane Fountain, Implementing Cross-Agency Collaboration: A Guide for Federal Managers, offers advice on successful cross-agency relationships. She says there is a recipe for success, but that it depends on a number of factors.

Federal agencies and academics have long noted the impor­tance of cross-agency collaboration. But recent changes in law and advances in technology have led to a new environment that makes managing cross-agency initiatives far more achievable. The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 requires the development of government-wide priority goals and greater coordination and collaboration among agencies. But “requiring” is different than “doing.”

Dr. Fountain has been an astute observer of cross-boundary relationships in a wide range of policy areas over the past two decades. She has found that effective collaboration consists of two dimensions—the right people skills and a consistent set of organizational processes. She believes that interagency collaboration is sustainable if, and only if, leaders make strategic use of both elements to manage in a networked government.

The Right People Skills. Fountain says that people skills are key to developing trust, norms, and connections essential to effective multi-agency initiatives. Relationship skills must be developed for effective manag­ers and teams. Team-building skills are those used by managers willing and able to work across jurisdictional boundaries to develop effective professional relationships and cohe­sive working groups.

Skills needed by effective managers include active listening, fairness, and respect—qualities that produce trust in a cross-agency collaborative initiative. In cross-boundary teams, managers must build informal relationships outside regular hierarchical channels. Teams function well when productive communities based on trust and profes­sional experience form around a problem, project, or practice.

There are good guides on how to do this, and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management has developed some criteria for what characteristics effective “goal leaders” – sometimes called “network brokers” -- need to have to successfully lead GPRA cross-agency priority goals.

In addition to effective managers and teams, cross-agency collaborative initiatives need effective organizational processes. Fountain describes seven processes that seem to always be present in successful collaborations.

Key Organizational Processes. Leaders must also build the institutional and organizational processes that allow cross-agency actions to be sustained over time. These include:

  • Set significant goals with milestones
  • Specify roles and responsibilities
  • Formalize agreements among key parties
  • Develop shared operations
  • Obtain adequate resources
  • Create effective communication channels
  • Adapt through shared learning

Interestingly, these same processes are reflected in a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that examines best practices in implementing interagency collaborative mechanisms.

What Should OMB Do? Dr. Fountain ends her report with a recommendation that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provide leadership in creating the insti­tutional incentives and environment that foster cross-agency collaboration as a way of doing business, instead of the traditional approach, which has been to treat cross-agency initiatives as exceptions to the rule.

Specifically, she recommends that OMB develop management guidance for cross-agency collaboration. This is not unprecedented. In 2012, OMB developed useful guidance to agencies on their use of evidence and evaluation.

She says that OMB should develop similar guidance to agencies encouraging the use of collaborative approaches. A knowledge and experience base exists among federal managers and executives, but it has not been well-articulated and shared. Agency managers require lessons learned, best practice, guid­ance, and training to support cross-agency collaboration.

Fountain says that OMB, for example, could produce templates for shared budgets based on successful cross-agency experience. As noted above, GAO has begun to identify mech­anisms and processes used in cross-agency collaborative projects, but these have not been cod­ified or evaluated. Having an OMB-approved toolkit that includes templates and models of processes that have worked—including shared budgets—would help leaders of cross-agency initiatives navigate new waters.

. . . So now that you’ve got the recipe, get cooking on your relationships!

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John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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