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Collaboration Doesn't Mean Consorting With the Enemy

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In today’s toxic political climate, notions of collaboration sometimes carry the suggestion of World War II traitors who worked to support the enemy forces.  In reality, however, the “other” is not an invading force but rather another governmental agency, a nonprofit, or a business that shares the need and desire to make progress in a given area.  Collaboration is something that requires one to look beyond short-term boundaries to see a greater good or a goal that cannot be reached when stakeholders work on their own.

A few weeks ago Don Kettl and Robert O’Neill presented a clear case for collaboration in the federal government with four very straightforward recommendations for the next president, ranging from the transformation and elevation of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs to the creation of a special track within the Senior Executive Service to focus on “cross-sector, intergovernmental and multi-program skills.”  Expanding that list requires looking to the past and to non-federal sources for ideas.

Let’s begin by looking back four decades to when President Gerald Ford signed into law the Joint Funding Simplification Act of 1974.  This was designed to simplify life for state and local governments that received funds for given projects from multiple federal agencies or from multiple divisions within a given agency.  It was intended to streamline recordkeeping and administration by adopting such approaches as requiring only a single federal audit and making progress reports to only a single agency.  For anyone managing a large project, as in transportation or construction, this had the potential for tremendous saving in aggravation, efficiency and cost.

For the governmental entities, it could save money that would have been spent on duplicative activities (such as recasting financial data to fit different forms) and redirect that to the project itself or to other worthwhile purposes.  It would, however, have required that the federal agencies or subdivisions lower their resistance to collaboration to agree on standard forms and procedures.  Still, on its face, the act seemed sensible and eminently doable.

Unfortunately, five years later the General Accounting Office (as it was then known) reported only the most minimal success because of flaws in its implementation.  The few places where it was tried (notably the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Chattanooga Human Services Department, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and three others) found it highly successful in simplifying the federal grant process and improving internal management.  It simply was not tried in most places.

Still, GAO believed enough in the law’s purpose that it recommended renewing the legislation but ensuring that joint funding was institutionalized within agencies’ missions, that rewards and incentives were created to encourage staff involvement, and that the Office of Management and Budget would provide training, guidance, and conflict resolution.  With that recommendation, the act was reauthorized for another five years, but its elements never became standard procedure even though it had been approved by both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Whatever the reason, the core ideas of this act, simplification of governmental reporting requirements for grant or contract recipients, remain valid.  Because this offers nonpartisan benefits, this is one area where the next president can work effectively with Congress to create a sound process to benefit the federal government and its many grantees and contractors.  Heeding GAO’s advice from 1979 can provide sound guidance for the implementation.

While this act worked from the federal government downward, many states have since developed a process that can be extended upward to the federal level.  Some three dozen states have now enacted legislation permitting public-private partnerships (P3s) for transportation projects.  Essentially, the state retains ownership of a bridge or road, a private entity does the work, and then the private entity receives a return on its investment over time, such as through tolling.  Both sides leverage their strengths and more infrastructure projects go forward than could have with either side acting alone.

Such examples of collaboration across sectors and levels of government definitely require some attitudinal adjustment on all sides.  But the enhancement of both efficiency and effectiveness leverages their strengths and improves society for all of us.

Diane M. Disney is Professor Emerita of Management and former Dean and Chancellor at the Pennsylvania State University.  She is also working on a panel of the National Academy of Public Administration to recommend strategies for the next president to improve collaboration across the boundaries that too often frustrate the effective operation of government. This post first appeared on the National Academy of Public Administration's T16 blog

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