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Memo to the President: Collaboration Across Boundaries

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Flickr user Patrick Poculan

Donald Trump enters office with an ambitious vision and many promises to keep. But he’ll quickly discover one important lesson: No current problem that matters fits within an individual government agency or, for that matter, any single level of government. The Trump administration will need a strong and effective strategy for collaboration across boundaries—between federal agencies, across levels of government, between government and the private and nonprofit sectors, and across global boundaries.

At a minimum, a failure to collaborate across boundaries will limit what the new administration can accomplish. At worst, the new administration would risk falling into catastrophic traps like those that captured recent presidents from both parties: the George W. Bush administration’s struggles with the Hurricane Katrina response and the Obama administration’s difficulties with the launch of the Affordable Care Act. In both cases, the failure to collaborate across boundaries brought enormous costs in dollars, lives, time, political capital and trust in America’s governing institutions. The lessons are clear: Success depends on building strong alliances and treating partners as genuine collaborators, instead of merely as subcontractors.

The upside of more collaboration is better allocation of resources and better results. The downside is missed opportunities and failed attempts at reaching the goals set out by the administration at its onset. Here’s a plan for improving collaboration in a way that the Trump administration must do to be successful.

Advancing the President’s Highest Priority Goals

Use the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act to promote collaboration. The requirements of the law provide a big chance to advance collaboration, including the definition of cross-agency priority goals and the operation of the Performance Improvement Council, chaired by the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management and including chief improvement officers from each agency.

Propose a revised fiscal 2018 budget. The budget provides an invaluable tool for supporting collaboration, which will help the administration achieve its highest goals. Baking collaboration in from the beginning will help produce results at the end.

Administrative Collaboration

Establish collaborative approaches. If federal agencies and their partners contribute to a cause (through dollars, ideas, staffing or facilities), the odds of success go way up. Putting skin in the game improves the odds for collaboration. This approach is likely to work much better than unfunded mandates.

Fully utilize the experience of civil servants. Federal employees, especially those in senior positions, have spent decades learning how to make large bureaucracies work and who their agencies’ most important partners are. The administration’s new team of political appointees would benefit greatly by developing strong relationships with career managers.

Make cross-unit collaboration a requirement for annual executive bonuses. The Office of Personnel Management has the chance to build collaboration into the set of criteria that defines who receives annual bonuses. Skills in collaboration need to be part of the qualification criteria for the Senior Executive Service.

Fund collaboration. OMB should create a pool of money to fund cross-agency collaborations on important priorities that involve multiple federal agencies—or single agencies with multiple state and local partners.

Publicize the Action Tracker. The Government Accountability Office should more widely publicize its Action Tracker, which identifies areas of fragmentation and could lead to better action in the agencies.

Accountability and Collaboration

Reinforce formal accountability systems. Focusing the government’s accountability systems on results that matter—especially on outcomes for citizens—could help reduce turf battles and promote collaboration.

Learning from the Recovery Act

Use the lessons of the past. The Obama administration’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board provides important lessons in using data tracking to promote collaboration. The board enabled anyone to see where Recovery Act funds were going—and it supported top-level efforts to promote cross-boundary work.

Environmental Policy Collaboration

Use E-Enterprise as a more efficient method of environmental enforcement. Traditional methods of environmental enforcement have left big gaps in environmental protection. New strategies, including remote sensing, continuous emissions monitoring and geographic information systems offer great promise. So, too, does the partnership between EPA and the Environmental Council of the States. E-Enterprise initiatives could revitalize the performance partnerships that proved effective in earlier years.

Additional Recommendations

Develop a robust engagement strategy. State and local governments are partners in many of the federal government’s programs. Treating them as such, instead of as just another group of lobbyists, would vastly improve the federal government’s ability to achieve results. The key is focusing on what to achieve, not how to achieve it—and developing appropriate metrics that drive success.

Create institutional capacity to work with intergovernmental partners. The federal government no longer has any mechanism to track the health of the intergovernmental system or to chart the role of state, local and nonprofit organizations to deliver national policy. Creating an advisory panel of state and local experts within the Domestic Policy Council and recruiting staff to OMB who have significant intergovernmental experience could greatly improve results.

Realize that if results count, management matters. Most domestic policy risks are not about bad policy but about poorly executed programs. Success depends on developing effective multi-sector strategies and building the federal government’s capacity to manage them. But like any important goal, collaboration requires early attention. Making strong investments in in relationship-building, laying a foundation of trust, and celebrating success early on will richly pay off for the Trump administration. Doing otherwise courts policy failure.

Members of the National Academy of Public Administration’s Collaboration Task Force contributed to this article: Thad W. Allen, Earl E. Devaney, Diane M. Disney, Parris N. Glendening, Jocelyn Johnston, Rosemary O’Leary, Robert J. O’Neill, Barry G. Rabe, Barbara Romzek and Joseph S. Wholey. The article is part of a series of Memos to the President, highlighting advice from leading academics and practitioners in public administration for the incoming president and his team. The series was developed by NAPA, the American Society of Public Administration and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Click here for more information and links to the full set of memos.

Photo: Flickr user Patrick Poculan

Donald F. Kettl is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Volcker Alliance. He is the author of many books, including Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America's Lost Commitment to Competence, The Politics of the Administrative Process, System Under Stress and The Next Government of the United States. Kettl is a two-time recipient of the Louis Brownlow Book Award of the National Academy of Public Administration. In 2008, he won the American Political Science’s John Gaus Award for a lifetime of exemplary scholarship in political science and public administration. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University and has held appointments at University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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