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Strengthening the Links in Government

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Over the past five years, the Obama administration has pursued a host of innovation initiatives that work to strengthen the connective links among and within federal agencies. The challenge? How do we solidify the best of them so they remain in place beyond the upcoming 2017 presidential transition?

The evolution of technology tools and social media has dramatically lowered the technical and bureaucratic barriers to working more collaboratively. In the first days of his administration, President Obama publicly placed a premium on collaboration. One of his first directives to federal agencies set the tone for how he envisioned his administration would govern, directing agencies to be “collaborative” and “use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across levels of government, and with nonprofits, businesses and individuals.”

Following are three examples, both large and small, of efforts underway in the federal government. They are at different stages of maturity, but when taken together, their cumulative impact on the federal culture is increasing in significance.

Community Capacity Building

One of the more encouraging set of initiatives in terms of changing the federal mind-set is collaborative capacity-building tools and communities that can be applied to a wide range of policy areas. These include:

The MAX Community. Over 150,000 federal employees have joined the MAX Community, a cross-agency electronic sharing platform, so they can work with colleagues in other agencies more readily than through traditional channels. This platform is one of the pioneer efforts in cross-agency collaboration, launched in the mid-2000s. One of its key attractions to federal employees is its secure authentication capabilities, so colleagues can verify who they are working with.

Office of Executive Councils. By statute, a number of cross-agency councils for mission support chiefs have evolved, such as the Chief Financial Officers Council and the Chief Information Officers Council. Each council previously had its own staff support. Today, there is a single office providing joint support to all of the councils. This not only creates efficiencies, but also increases the opportunity for cross-council collaboration.

Informal Communities of Practice

The General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovation Technology provides facilitation, training and coordination, and serves as a catalyst for cross-agency collaborative efforts. Its goal is to drive adoption, overcome legal and other barriers, help organize a “coalition of the willing,” and share best practices, and infuse them into the fabric of the government. Examples include:

Challenge.gov and other competition awards programs that crowdsource new innovations, such as the robocall killer app that the Federal Trade Commission recently launched.

The Public Participation Playbook smooths agencies’ approaches to involve citizens in their programs, and the cross-agency Open Data, Mobile and Community Experience communities of federal employees foster best practices and lessons learned in targeted initiatives.

Benchmarking mission-support operations. The various cross-agency mission-support councils are sponsoring a series of cross-agency benchmarking studies to better understand the commonalities and differences in the costs and delivery of common services such as human resources, financial management, real estate and information technology. These studies will help agencies better understand their own operations in the context of other agencies and identify potential opportunities for moving to shared services.

Technology and Innovation Capacity Building

In a recent FastCompany article, former federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, describes the Obama administration’s three-part systematic effort to build governmentwide and agency-level capacities for technology and innovation:

The U.S. Digital Service.  The first is the creation of the U.S. Digital Service in 2014 within the Office of Management and Budget. This is “a group of technologists who strategize about what projects should become government priorities and which people should work on them.” According to its website, the U.S. Digital Service “was launched to bring in the country’s brightest digital talent to transform how government works for American citizens and businesses by dramatically improving the way government builds and buys digital services.”

18F. The second is the General Services Administration’s 18F. This is a group of about 90 technologists and designers who take on jobs from any place in government that is in need of digital help.  It has informal ties to the U.S. Digital Service, but it is essentially a service agency.

Agency-level digital services. The third is a series of tech teams, ranging in size from five people to 50, that are being created in the two dozen largest federal agencies. These teams will work closely with the U.S. Digital Service for guidance and may turn to 18F for its services.

In addition to these organizational units, the administration created an IT talent pipeline into government via the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. First launched in 2012, the Fellows program brings top talent from the technology sector and has them tackle specific projects across the government for a six-to 24-month period. Of the nearly 100 fellows to date, nearly two-thirds have decided to stay in government. In August 2015, the president issued an executive order that institutionalized this program.

Individual Capacity Building

The administration has sponsored a series of other targeted initiatives to help develop the collaborative skills and competencies of individuals across government:

GovConnect. The largest capacity-building effort is sponsored by the Office of Personnel Management and is dubbed GovConnect. It aims to allow individuals develop their skills and professional portfolios by volunteering for project-based “micro-tasks” in other agencies or units. For example at the Environmental Protection Agency, one person working on pesticides policy had geographic information systems skills and applied to work on a part-time project in the IT office to map key facilities across the nation that were listed in the toxic release inventory.

White House Leadership Development Program.  In December 2014, President Obama announced the creation of a White House-level leadership development program for cross-agency collaborative leaders. The program was launched in early October with an inaugural class of 17 individuals who are high potential candidates for the career Senior Executive Service.

Performance Enthusiast & Ambassador Program. The cross-agency Performance Improvement Council has created a training and mentoring program to allow agency staff who are not working directly in performance offices to develop measurement and analytics skills that they can bring to their own workplaces.

Leaders Delivery Network.  The Performance Improvement Council is also sponsoring the development of a learning, best practices and mentoring network among the 100 or so agency-level priority goal leaders. These roles were created by law in recent years, and this network is intended to help them develop relationships across agencies and develop their skills as collaborative leaders.

How do we make these initiatives sustainable? Since many are relatively new, the administration may want to take steps to help sustain them during the transition to the next administration. Following are some examples used in the past to help bridge the transition:

Third-party case studies. Showcase a successful initiative in media or have a third party document the initiative in a case study. Something similar to this occurred in the Clinton-to-Bush transition in 2000 when a third-party case study was written for the IBM Center for the Business of Government about the value of the President’s Management Council. Career staff at OMB used that study to validate the value of the Council, and the Bush administration re-established it.

Executive orders. Have the president sign an executive order to cement an initiative in place. This was done toward the end of the George W. Bush administration in order to solidify its performance management initiatives by having each department designate a “performance improvement officer,” and created a cross-agency performance improvement council. Many of these elements were included in the update of the Government Performance and Results Act in 2010. More recently, this approach was used to formalize the Presidential Innovation Fellows program in August 2015.

Career champions. Recruit well-respected career-level senior executives to be champions for an initiative. This is how the MAX Community made a seamless transition from the Bush to the Obama administration. In this case, both OMB and agency career executives convinced incoming political appointees that continuing and expanding the community’s MAX platform was a good move.

Entrepreneurial leaders. Entrepreneurial career leaders in agencies can proactively reach out to their new political appointees to explain ongoing initiatives and how they can be helpful in implementing their political priorities.

Congressional support. Work with the appropriate congressional staffs to ensure authorizing language and/or appropriations are on tap. This helped the development the well-regarded Partnership Fund initiative, which was developed during the later Bush administration, and set the stage for its rapid implementation in the early Obama administration.

Continuing to develop the connective links for making collaborative governance possible is a key challenge facing the next administration. Building on the foundation of initiatives underway today may speed the next president’s success in achieving results that matter to Americans.

(Image via Marynchenko Oleksandr/Shutterstock.com)

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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