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Busting the Barriers to Interagency Collaboration

Sergey Nivens/

GAO has issued a series of reports during the past three years identifying more than 80 areas where there is potential duplication and overlap in government programs, noting that “agencies face a range of barriers when they attempt to work collaboratively.”

On occasion, the Government Accountability Office breaks the mold by looking for things that work well and identifying why. A new report examines four cross-agency collaborative initiatives that overcame program overlap and the promising practices that led to their success.

GAO has reported for almost two decades on missed opportunities for collaboration between agencies that share accountability. In response to a new law requiring greater collaboration, GAO has been providing agencies more insights into what works. In 2005, for example, auditors identified practices that agencies used to “enhance and sustain collaboration,” and in 2012, it cataloged multiple interagency mechanisms across government.

Based on these earlier studies, GAO set out to identify how agencies apply these various practices, examining the following well-regarded interagency initiatives:

  • The Memorandum of Understanding Working Group, which is a joint Defense and Education department initiative to work with states to allow students who are military dependents transfer credits between schools in different states.
  • The Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which comprises 20 federal agencies and offices focused on reducing barriers for ex-inmates returning to their communities after their release from prison.
  • The Rental Policy Working Group, which was organized by the White House Domestic Policy Council to improve coordination of governmentwide oversight of subsidized rental housing properties and reduce administrative burdens on providers.
  • The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which comprises 19 federal entities that coordinate the governmentwide response to the needs of homeless individuals.

Addressing the Barriers

After interviews with staff and senior career executives, GAO distilled the recurring themes into four key elements to addressing barriers to collaboration:

  • Outcomes. Have partners clearly defined both short-term and long-term outcomes to be achieved?
  • Accountability. Is there a way to track and monitor progress, and do agencies have individual competency and performance standards for the staff involved?
  • Leadership. Has a lead agency or individual been identified? Will leadership be shared between agencies? Have roles and responsibilities been clearly defined and agreed upon?
  • Resources. How will collaborative initiatives be funded and staffed? Have participating agencies developed online tools to support joint interactions?

Leading Collaborative Efforts

Here are highlights of promising implementation approaches from the third of the four key elements—leadership.

Designate group leaders who exhibit “collaboration competencies.” GAO identified five traits needed in leaders of cross-agency efforts: (1) works well with people, (2) communicates openly with a range of stakeholders, (3) builds and maintains relationships, (4) understands other points of view and (5) sets a vision for the group. These competencies are reflected in the Office of Personnel Management’s executive core qualifications and in analysis such as the IBM Center report on collaboration across boundaries by Rosemary O’Leary and Catherine Gerard.

Ensure participation by high-level leaders in regular in-person meetings. Three of the four GAO case studies involved White House staff, signaling strong presidential support for cross-agency initiatives. “In one instance, officials told us that individuals were more likely to attend meetings because of the opportunity to interact with or brief high-level officials,” the report said. The homeless council, for example, set a goal of having at least three Cabinet secretaries attend each of its meetings—and achieved that goal.

Rotate key tasks and responsibilities when group leadership is shared. Auditors noted: “The MOU Working Group rotated the agency that hosted the group meeting between DoD and Education. Education officials told us that an official from the agency that hosted the meeting also served as the chair of the meeting. A DoD official told us that they used this approach because it provided a sense of ownership in the group’s activities.”

Establish clear and inclusive procedures for group meetings and activities. Participants in two of the four case studies told GAO that in their initial meetings, they made a point of defining upfront how they would interact. This included: “frequency of meetings, protocols for communication across agencies, whether group meetings will have an agenda, and whether stakeholders will take formal notes.” This was seen as especially important in interactions between agencies with different cultures, such as military and civilian agencies.

Distribute leadership responsibility for group activities among participants. GAO found that leadership responsibilities were distributed in all four case studies. “For example, a DOJ official who co-chairs the Reentry Council’s staff-level working group said that it intentionally distributed leaders of the subcommittees, in part, to distribute responsibility more broadly throughout the federal government and to allow for interaction and participation of a greater number of stakeholders,” the report said.

Similar implementation examples are available for the other three key elements of collaboration, so download the report to learn more.

(Image via Sergey Nivens/

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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