Agency collaboration founded in personal relationships

Thursday - 12/13/2012, 6:01am EST

Jason Miller discusses his article on The Federal Drive

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The interagency National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center had a major problem on its hands back in October. It had evidence that counterfeit air bags not only didn't work properly, but they could engulf the driver in flames.

The center had to figure out how to get word out to the public, auto mechanics, car companies and law enforcement authorities in a coordinated, but fast way.

Lev Kubiak, the director of the interagency National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, said that's when he saw the real benefits of cross agency collaboration.

The center leaned on its relationships with many of its 21 federal and international partners to get the word out about the dangers of the counterfeit air bags.

Lev Kubiak, director, National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center

"It was that physical proximity that developed the professional intimacy that allowed us to handle in a very short amount of time a problem we'd never seen before, and to get some solution out so we could at least notify the public," Kubiak said Wednesday at the Multi Sector Leadership in a Digital World conference sponsored by the George Washington University and the FedInsider in Washington. "We have now subsequently notified law enforcement. We have notified our partners at the center. We have notified the world customs organization and foreign customs administration so they are aware of this activity, and we are working with the DHS fusion centers so they can notify the local police as well so they can have this for accident investigations."

The Intellectual Property Coordination Center's example is but one of several that show the extent and dependence agencies are having on each other.

A growing interdependence

The Chief Human Capital Officer's Council combined forces to create the HR University and make the sharing of training courses easier and cheaper for the government.

The departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs are working together to reduce homelessness among veterans. The two agencies also are collaborating with state and local governments and private sector organizations.

"Sometimes, multi-sector leadership isn't something you work toward, but it's forced upon you," said Dennis Blasius, director of field investigations for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "The way we do accomplish what we do is by leveraging all the potential partners we can recruit. First, we do that with all 50 states. We have a state designee program. We are actively involved with the attorney generals with most of the 50 states and the consumer protection agencies at the state level. We rely on them heavily and in some cases we actually contract with them to do some of the investigations for us. We rely heavily with our federal partners. We don't have a criminal investigative staff, so we have to rely on agencies that have that expertise to assist when our cases turn into crimes."

Blasius added that multi-sector approach lets CPSC, which has less than 600 employees with the responsibility for more than 15,000 products, keep its head above water.

"I spend a lot of time working on these relationships trying to reinforce them and making them better than they are because that is the future for me professionally and personally and for our agency," he said.

Creating that personal relationship with partners is one of the main tenets of collaboration, according to several federal officials.

Getting to know your partners

Kubiak, who has been the director of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, for about 15 months, said when he first arrived at the center understanding the needs of the 21 different partners was difficult because the bimonthly meetings were too big and too informal.

Instead, he said he's been meeting one-on-one with each of the members at their offices to understand how the center could improve.

"Anytime you are able to establish in a non-crisis moment, there's an old saying I've heard that you never want to meet your fellow solider in the foxhole for the first time, so when you are in a crisis situation it's always better to have established some connectivity or some professional or personal relationship so that you can rely on that so people know there's an honest broker, shared mission, shared activity and it helps you get to the issue more quickly," Kubiak said.

For the HR University, the CHCOs already had a shared mission, but not necessarily a strong relationship.

Kathryn Medina, the CHCO Council executive director, said among the first things she did started working for the council was to improve the website, send out updates via email bulletins and improve the relationship of the council with the Office of Personnel Management.

Kathryn Medina, executive director, CHCO Council

She said those efforts paid off when the council came together in 2010 to create the training resource portal, and again in 2011 to develop the new employee performance appraisal system, known as GEAR.

"When we were working with the different agencies on GEAR, we did sort of an environmental scan to see who had performance management specific training," Medina said. "It turned out one organization — and I'll not name them — had several million dollars worth of performance management training. They had really made a significant investment in performance management and they were willing to share that with us through HR University, completely free."

She added the agency shared the training courses not because someone told them to, but because they understood what the council was doing with GEAR and HR University.

"They understood that somehow it was their responsibility to hand over that millions of dollars worth of training because that was the way to make sure the community had the training it needed for performance management," Medina said.

HR University now has more than 16,000 registered users and has helped save the government about $35 million, she said.

Number of homeless veterans dropped

HUD and VA started to collaborate to reduce veterans homelessness based on a presidential mandate. But the two agencies have taken the charge to heart.

Lisa Danzig, HUD's chief performance officer and director of the office of strategic planning and management, said HUD and VA have worked together in a number of areas, but none more important than data sharing.

"One of the actually major steps forward we've made in the last year is to create a data sharing agreement between VA and HUD," she said. "Everybody has their own way of collecting the systems and everyone has their own data sets so it made it very hard to talk collectively to talk about what was happening. I think it took us almost a year to get through the legal and technical dimensions of how to match very private information such as Social Security numbers of veterans, and ensuring on a regular basis we are getting a report to reflect how many veterans, who we are serving, who's exiting the program and what's happening. So now that we have that established, there's a wealth of information that we are aligned on in terms of who we are serving and how we are going to move forward with that information."

A recent report from HUD and VA highlighted their progress. The research found veterans homelessness dropped by 18 percent over the last two years, and chronic homelessness among all citizens dropped by 7 percent in 2012.

Danzig said VA and HUD also meet regularly using the HUDStat process to bring the cities — Los Angeles, New York and Las Vegas — with the highest number of homeless veterans together to discuss best practices and progress.

Medina said besides the personal relationship, leadership is the second key ingredient to successful collaboration.

"The leadership will make sure everything stays on track, no matter how many people you have on your group, no matter how many different perspectives and no matter how tight your timeline," she said. "If you don't have that leadership and you've focused on being so collaborative that there are 25 people in the room but nobody is driving to that result, you will have a problem."

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