The government of the future operates seamlessly across boundaries to address complex challenges in a hyperconnected world. Increasingly, business and government executives manage an enterprise that works across organizations to tackle “wicked” problems, those that demand expertise and solutions brought together from disparate sources. Examples of such problems include economic development, intelligence sharing, disaster preparedness and recovery, and a range of social, environmental and financial issues.

Many think the internet makes networked government inevitable as if networked information systems equate to networked government. Many still think that information technology dis-intermediates within and across organizations, reducing layers and blurring boundaries. It is true that some roles, tasks and entire swathes of organizations have been automated (file handling, information sharing, printing) or externalized (email, social media, cloud services), but information technologies are merely an enabler for networked organizations, here defined as ministries and agencies with strong capacity to work across boundaries to solve important challenges.

A recent white paper I was asked to write for the United States presidential transition recommends that the next administration include “management” as a core part of transition planning, specifically the management required to develop and sustain cross-agency collaboration. Careful observation of the US central government shows that an emerging ecosystem of institutions to support cross-agency collaboration has been forming since the Clinton administration of the 1990s, as the inability of technology alone to foster collaborative networks has become starkly apparent. This ecosystem of institutional support is necessary for cross-agency collaboration to be effective and sustainable.

In an ecosystem, each organization fills a niche or specific role. These niche organizations interact to form the supportive mesh of the ecosystem. The organizations below connect to translate policy formulation to implementation and management of cross-agency initiatives and to support integration and streamlining of management systems across the federal government. While some dimensions of the ecosystem focus on information technology, most others reinforce and support the many organizational changes necessary to make cross-agency initiatives feasible and sustainable over time.

The U.S. Capitol Dome is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 9, 2012.
Image: REUTERS/Larry Downing

Digital services are a trending topic. Consider the technology for a central government grants management system called Grants.gov. If technology alone could build collaboration, US federal grants processes would have been streamlined in the 1990s. The US federal government awards about $600 billion in grants and other types of financial assistance to cities, towns, universities, colleges and other entities. Yet Grants.gov is a portal, however important, that allows organizations simply to find and apply for federal grants.

The more difficult management challenges of simplifying application and reporting requirements, improving coordination across service providers, and improving service delivery – goals that were signed into law in 1999 – remain a work in progress. The streamlining of government benefits programmes across agencies, using the platform Benefits.gov, tells a similar story of breadth without depth of integration. While technological innovation may be disruptive, institutional innovations progress slowly. Central governments in several countries began in the 1990s to take a networked governance, an enterprise, a “whole of government” approach to leverage IT and address problems that lie across jurisdictional boundaries.

I wrote about some of these efforts and the resistance from those advantaged by bureaucratic structures in my 2001 book, Building the Virtual State. Since then, strong communities of practice among dedicated, expert government managers have worked for years to streamline governments’ administrative functions and lines of business across areas as diverse as grants, benefits, human capital, IT services, acquisitions and others. Many governments have made substantial progress, yet institutional changes have barely caught up with the potential afforded by digital technologies, including cloud services, social media and other more recent digital developments.

Legislating cross-agency collaboration

Some countries have legislated cross-agency collaboration with varying success. In the US, the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) is primarily viewed in terms of enhancing performance management. But the law also requires the White House and the Office of Management and Budget to articulate a set of cross-agency priority (CAP) goals for the administration and codifies new roles, requirements and institutions to support their achievement as well as that of agency-level strategic goals.

Two types of goals – mission-focused and mission support – encompass two different types of problems. Mission-focused collaboration brings together pockets of expertise, know-how and information to address problems that lie inherently across agency boundaries, such as international trade, food safety, sustainable communities, disaster preparedness and intelligence sharing. Mission support focuses on streamlining administrative processes. The current set of cross-agency priority goals is presented below.

Modernization of infrastructure permitting processes across agencies is a success. The initiative is meant to “institutionalize interagency coordination and transparency by formalizing interagency coordination policies” to synchronize review and permitting processes and decisions (performance.gov). Legislation provided the legal basis, timeline and deliverables for the project. A permitting dashboard is the underlying technology platform to support collaboration by making visible to the public the status of all permits and review processes associated with large infrastructure projects.

But it is the painstaking work of benchmarking across programmes, developing timeliness indicators and helping agencies coordinate permitting processes that underlie success and sustainability. For example, recent legislation allows for centralized collection of fees thereby allowing an interagency permitting council to direct resources where most needed.

Cross-agency priority goal projects have struggled most not on sharing technology, but on sharing resources across jurisdictions, sharing information when it is restricted to a particular agency, building shared processes for customers, and maintaining leadership and staff in a stringent budgetary environment.

An emerging ecosystem of cross-agency institutions

Rather than focusing exclusively on the well-known technologies that support collaboration (e.g. dashboards, wikis, portals), government managers should focus also on an emerging ecosystem of organizations that supports cross-agency collaboration. In the US federal government, the Executive Office of the President is essential to sustained leadership of administration initiatives that cross agency boundaries. The president’s policy councils – the Council of Economic Advisors, National Security Council, Council on Environmental Quality, and Domestic Policy Council – translate presidential priorities into action.

Mission-focused, cross-agency priority goal projects are co-led by a policy council executive and an executive from a lead federal agency, often a career official. The “management” offices of the Office of Management and Budget are critical to the ecosystem and are responsible under law for performance management, including cross-agency collaboration. Other government-wide administrative function policy agencies are located at Treasury, Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration.

Cross-agency management councils include the President’s Management Council, which convenes agency chief operating officers (deputy secretaries) and agency heads from two management agencies. The chief executive officer councils include those for chief acquisition, financial, information and human capital officers, and focus on building administrative system coherence, specifically, organizational and institutional rules and practices to leverage networked technologies.

A Performance Improvement Council includes the performance improvement officers of each agency (both created by GPRAMA). These groups work with the Office of Management and Budget to implement cross-agency goals and improve performance management using internal consulting, coaching, training, and “convenings”: cross-agency summits, problem-solving sessions and working meetings to share knowledge and promising practices. These new roles and organizations – and the network they form – are the primary ingredients of the “glue” of coherence to support cross-agency collaboration. They are like pollinating bees – brokers and integrators connecting a large, often unwieldy set of government organizations. An ecosystem of institutions has emerged to support cross-agency collaboration. Successful innovators recognize it and the work it does and use it to support sustainable cross-agency collaboration.