Collaboration-minded feds see barriers to working together

Nevertheless, mid-level managers are forging new relationships and building bridges across departments and agencies.

Earlier this year, a human resources specialist at a federal agency put out a call to her comrades at other agencies: Could someone share a competency model -- a list of expected skills and abilities -- for staff attorneys? Such lists are pro forma HR documents, used to evaluate candidates for jobs and to develop training programs that help employees gain required skills. Not exactly classified material.

A manager at another department wrote back to say he saw no reason not to share his department's skills list for attorneys with her. But another official at the department overruled him, saying the list was for internal use only. The manager could tell the HR specialist how the department developed its list, but couldn't share the list itself.

In other words, one federal agency told another to go reinvent the wheel.

The encounter illustrates the frustrating bureaucratic obstacles standing in the way of rank-and-file employees and managers who see interagency collaboration as a key way to making government work better. When they reach out their hands to like-minded people at other agencies, they discover those hands often are slapped. That can be because agencies are loath to share information with each other, their bosses want to stay focused on their own offices' issues, or officials at different agencies don't trust one another.

"Traditionally, we've been dominated by our stovepiped departments and agencies," says James Locher, president and chief executive officer of the Project on National Security Reform, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes interagency collaboration in defense, diplomacy and homeland security. "There are probably hundreds of thousands of people at the GS-14 and GS-15 levels who are out there trying to make interagency collaboration work. They're doing it despite the system and often at some risk to themselves."

In the September issue of Government Executive, Brian Friel explores how savvy civil servants across government are building bridges between departments and agencies. Faced with challenges that require cooperation, front-line and mid-level managers are finding ways to cut through red tape and bypass their bosses' myopic mind-sets to connect with people in other agencies who have the know-how to get things done.

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