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Report: Agencies Should Learn to Share

Tight budgets and an increasingly complex world make collaboration on delivering services more important than ever, officials say.

Functions ranging from payroll to procurement to human resources management could be more efficiently performed by experienced specialists within agencies or by other government entities, a new report asserts.

The time is ripe for strategic collaboration to move agencies along a continuum from single lines of business to multiple and interagency lines, according to “Helping Government Deliver: Transforming Mission and Support Services,” released Thursday by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte. The key, said two agency leaders during a panel discussion, is to let the agency mission drive which services are shared.

“The problems of government can’t be solved by a single entity, and tight budgets are not going away,” said Judy England-Joseph, a strategic adviser to the partnership and a veteran of the Government Accountability Office. The challenge is “not to use a single line of business, which exists today, but to integrate many lines of business” in a strategic way that in the long run “changes the way we operate,” she said.

Four examples profiled in the report, which England-Joseph described as “breaking the mold, folks out there swimming against the tide,” include NASA’s Shared Services Center at the John C. Stennis Center in Mississippi; the Energy Department Office of Environmental Management’s Consolidated Business Center; joint operations between the City of Charlotte, N.C. and its surrounding Mecklenburg County; and, as a promising agency, the Homeland Security Department.

NASA has shown success, the report says, by bringing four administrative support services to one facility to serve 10 centers around the country. Energy has combined expert support and mission functions in a single site to manage closure of contaminated nuclear sites.

The North Carolina managers who share a region have exchanged contracts to exploit each other’s expertise, leaving the county specialists in parks and recreation, for example, to handle both the county and city parks, while the city’s law enforcement teams sell services to the county.

The vast federal DHS was included to showcase its recent efforts to share services between headquarters and component agencies in biodefense, screening and vetting functions and cybersecurity.

Successful sharing of services, the report said, hinges on the achieving the following:

  • Creation of a clear and compelling business case emphasizing financial benefits as well as the potential for non-financial benefits;
  • Focus on activities and processes that organizations have in common across the agency and rallying support for new ways of doing business;
  • Implementation of an organization-wide plan for effective governance if one does not exist already;
  • Encouraging trust by rounding up stakeholders early and paying attention to people and culture;
  • Continuous performance measurement to create accountability and improve operations; and
  • Recognizing the importance of experienced leaders.

Strategic decisions on who should perform which services “must come from the mission side,” said Ellen Herbst, the Commerce Department’s chief financial officer and assistant secretary of administration. “Commerce must get better at weather forecasting, enforcing patent rights and helping businesses export, so all the hiring and housing of employees at their desks is necessary but we want to be working with people who are really good at it. You have to start the conversation with how to be customer-centric in delivery, or you will miss the conversation.” Many managers, she added, fear losing control, so “you have to create a vibrant buyer-seller community with good information flow and best practices.”

Rafael Borras, until recently the DHS undersecretary for management, said though none of these service-sharing ideas are new, “financial pressures have forced the federal government to look inward.” The information revolution over the past 20 years has given the federal sector greater knowledge of private-sector practices, he added.

Managers at Homeland Security, which was stood up in 2003 with the merger of 22 agencies, eventually “got tired of being everyone’ piñata,” Borras said, and so component leaders “were willing to experiment.” His boss, former Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Congress “gave us time and space without interference.” That meant the chief officers for finance, operations, information technology and human capital “were willing to cooperate as we moved” support functions around to reduce duplication and make the headquarters a model for the component agencies.

Ira Goldstein, national director of Deloitte Services LLP and a former top GAO official, said one key to success is allowing the agencies autonomy. “The Office of Management and Budget needs to be more than an enabler, but a watchdog,” he said. “OMB has limited bandwidth to rely on, so it should set guidelines and get Congress to buy in.” But it’s the agencies, Goldstein said, that must execute.  

(Image via Sebastian Duda/Shutterstock.com)

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