Getting federal agencies to work better–and together

December 4, 2013

(Courtesy of Zach Tumin)

Zach Tumin is co-author with William J. Bratton of the book “Collaborate or Perish! Reaching Across Boundaries in a Networked World.” He also manages Harvard University’s Belfer Center's Project on Technology, Security and Conflict in the Cyber Age and has held senior positions in government. Tumin spoke with Tom Fox about how federal agencies can improve collaboration and transparency. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership, vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What opportunities exist for the federal government to collaborate across boundaries?

A. From the U.S. Secret Service to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, federal agencies have long recognized that core missions require collaboration across boundaries. Today that’s essential. In our digital world--and as connected as we are by air, sea, land and space--threat and opportunity move fast. The key to success is to foster networks, be alert to their data and move in time. As former speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once advised, “Make friends before you need them.”

Q. What strategies can federal leaders employ to encourage collaboration and transparency among employees?

A. Managers need to set the course but then get the 'change vanguard' moving, as my colleague Steve Kelman has said. This means authorizing and enabling folks who are eager for reform to nominate initiatives, run experiments that can test and prove some new value, and then scale up the winners. It takes a shared vision, resources, cover from above, and performance that will deliver. Take stock of the assets that might be available, from people to platforms to political support. Persistence is key. It took the Air Force years to convert the first drone from surveillance-only to one that could also target--and then to add weapons so it could shoot. Everything about that first predator drone was built from existing assets. Reconfigured, those assets gave the U.S. a new advantage and transformed the battlespace. That’s the power of collaboration.

Q. How can federal managers use technology to connect employees who are located in another region or country?

A. No one has to tell managers that smartphones and tablets are the way of the world. Friends and family connect over them; commerce and industry require them. Today, opportunities exist to manage most collaboration with good enough security using some combination of social media, mobility and the cloud. It’s critical that enterprise security and business units collaborate to make this possible.

Q. How can federal leaders use social media to communicate more effectively with the American public?

A. There can be a great deal of fear associated with using social media among federal executives. Certainly, misusing it can have serious repercussions. However, it is an incredible way to engage the American public, learn how government is doing and improve performance. That can be scary, but it’s essential and ultimately rewarding.

What’s key is to sustain whatever level of engagement you promise, whether it’s a constant conversation or constituent service for a particular problem. That takes planning, resourcing and persistence. But used effectively, social media should help build support for federal agencies and their workforces. It’s critical that the nation understands the invaluable role federal workers play in keeping the nation safe, secure and among the most prosperous in the world.

Q. How can the federal government improve cross-agency efforts to help create greater efficiencies and diminish duplication?

A. First, collaboration has to pay. Everyone feels overworked. If collaboration takes work off your plate--if it helps you get a job done that you have to do anyway, only better, faster or cheaper--that’s efficient and earns support. But sometimes collaboration is important even when it adds work. That’s harder, and it will have to pay in some other way for people to put their shoulders together with yours.

Second, focus on a business problem that needs solving--not a 'boil the ocean' problem, but a specific situation. Make it something simple in the extreme and of non-debatable value, and create a plan around that.

Third, focus on your data and platforms. Can people actually collaborate who have to? Platforms for collaboration have rules and infrastructure that should take the friction out. That means making it easier to share information by standardizing data, opening platforms for sharing and making sure the governance is in place to assure proper use of data.

Fourth, get the right people involved. You need the right talent, the right executive sponsor and the right manager. Lastly, put the goals in a performance plan and create measures. Don’t settle for outputs. Focus on outcomes and measure. It’s the only way to take the victory lap.

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