Managers still find barriers to interagency collaboration

Tuesday - 12/20/2011, 7:21pm EST

Cheryl Steele, senior associate, Booz Allen Hamilton

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By Ruben Gomez and Michael O'Connell
Federal News Radio

Better collaboration can help federal managers use resources more effectively with constrained budgets, but many are skeptical that it can help agencies achieve mission success, according to a recent survey.

"Sixty-five percent of federal managers say budget pressures will increase the importance of interagency collaboration," according to a survey by Booz Allen Hamilton and the Government Business Council.

Survey respondents included managers from various agencies, including the departments of Defense and State. It also included leaders at nonprofit organizations. The study examined how agencies use "smart power," a concept that attempts to pull together several elements of the government — defense, diplomacy and development — to solve problems.

"[Smart power] helps to tackle that whole question of how do you do more with less." said Cheryl Steele, a Booz Allen Hamilton senior associate, in an interview with Federal News Radio. "It's about trying to look for ways to minimize overlaps or duplications of efforts — trying to ... leverage the resources, skills and capabilities of others."

But some managers responding to the survey worry that too many barriers threaten the ability to improve collaboration and help agencies solve problems. More than half said interagency politics is among the greatest threats.

"I had a federal government employee mention to me once that part of the challenge with interagency collaboration is that you're asking organizations that were developed with an explicit purpose to ... look outside of their stovepipe," Steele said. "In any organization, that can be kind of hard to do."

Respondents also listed ineffective lines of communication as a major roadblock to working more closely with other agencies. Steele advised leaders to address the problem by clearly explaining the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved.

"If I'm not ... communicating up front what I understand my role to be and getting a clear understanding of what you see your role to be, then ... an effective collaboration is going to be hard to get to," she said.

Respondents pointed to humanitarian assistance, stabilization and reconstruction and conflict prevention as areas where smart power can help the most.

"Those are areas where it's clear cut," Steele said. "There's a natural inclination" for agencies to act quickly. That sense of urgency "enables people move past a potential lack of trust, or challenges in communication. ..."

Implementing smart power

While many managers might like the idea of smart power, the challenge they often face is how to start using it in their agencies.

"First it takes a matter of understanding," Steele said. "What is the problem you're seeking to address? And how are you well positioned ... to do it? What do you have? What do you not have? And kind of understanding what else is out there. So it is about reaching out to other agencies. It's about gaining some insights."

Despite those challenges, Steele said many agencies are finding the right formula for implementing effective interagency collaboration.

"I think what we've seen over the past couple of years is agencies recognizing the inherent challenges around collaboration," Steele said. "It's not an instant cost savings. ... There's a little bit of ... an upfront investment that has to be made in terms of time and planning."

Steele said another sign that the idea smart power is taking hold in government is agencies are developing metrics to find out how it affects results. But, she said, doing that also can cause problems.

"Different agencies might have different ways of measuring success," she said.

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