Rules of engagement

Collaboration at work

This article draws on interviews with government officials involved with three programs:

1. The Environmental Information Exchange Network, which enables federal, state and local environmental agencies to exchange data.

2. The Global Justice Extensible Markup Language Data Model, which supports data sharing among justice and law enforcement agencies at all levels of government.

3. The U.S. Puget Sound Partnership, in which federal, state and local governments work together to restore the environmental conditions of the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington.

— Brian Robinson

Higher level collaboration

People often resort to e-mail and conference calls to manage the long-distance relationships necessary for completing certain projects, but neither of those technologies supports true collaboration.

“You do need those face-to-face meetings,” said Melanie Morris, chief of the Data Integration Division at the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. “I think it would be very difficult to have collaborations and stay engaged if this were all done through phone conversations and over the Web. It’s just not as effective, because you need to see someone’s body language.”

The early details of the collaborative Global Justice Extensible Markup Language Data Model were forged in three-day meetings that included dinner and drinks, said Paul Embley, chief information officer at the National Center for State Courts. He is also chairman of the Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative task force, which was responsible for shepherding the data model. Now that the program is well-established, program leaders collaborate primarily via conference calls and e-mail messages every few weeks. However, they still meet face-to-face two or three times a year, he said.

In-person meetings are especially important at the beginning of a project, particularly when people from local agencies and organizations are involved, said Mark Rutledge, director of business development for government and education at McAfee and former Kentucky CIO.

“Once they have the opportunity to connect with people personally, business becomes much easier,” Rutledge said.

— Brian Robinson

When federal, state and local government officials get together to work on a project, they bring a lot of baggage, not least of which are suspicions, misperceptions and poor communication skills.
However, cross-government collaboration remains an important, if sometimes elusive goal, officials say, especially in areas such as the environment, homeland security and law enforcement — and particularly since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“There’s a big difference between what existed in the 1990s and now,” said Theresa Pardo, deputy director of the Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany in New York. “Then people saw the need, but there was no real movement to make collaborations happen. Now there are new positions being created [in government] where people have the formal responsibility for collaboration.”

That is not to say collaborating has become easier or more common. The federal government still has a tendency to dictate programs to state governments, and states do the same with cities and counties, observers say.

Otto Doll, South Dakota’s chief information officer and co-chairman of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ Cross-boundary Collaboration Committee, said he hears a lot of talk about collaboration but has seen little action.

Nevertheless, federal, state and local officials who have taken part in successful ventures have identified some underlying principles that can ease the launch and improve results of collaborative efforts.
People often talk about the importance of developing trust at the start of a project, but trust must be nurtured throughout its life cycle. The variables that foster or hinder trust, such as governance, policy and funding, remain active until the project is completed.

However, establishing trust is especially critical in the early days.

For example, it’s important, that people working on a program understand clearly what roles the federal, state and local participants play, Doll said. Those roles will evolve over time as needs arise, but the
primary responsibilities associated with those roles should be established from the beginning.

“Funding, policy setting [and] decision-making all have a lot of influence on the level of trust you are going to garner from the participants…and the sooner you can get those things decided the quicker the participants in the collaboration will bond,” Doll said.

Trust will erode if the stakeholders do not feel they have a say in major decisions about a project’s direction. That decision-making process must be as transparent as possible, and participants must understand at every step how decisions will affect them, said Linda Travers, deputy assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Information. Travers is co-chairwoman of the Exchange Network Leadership Council, which governs the Environmental Information Exchange Network (EN).

The network, now a decade old, is an intergovernmental program for passing data among EPA, states, tribes, territories and other partners.

“Whenever we jointly decide on something, we make sure an analysis is done on what that means for all 50 states, tribes and other partners and that they understand what the impact is for them,” Travers said.
However, trust can be lost as a project expands and new people get involved.

There was no mistrust or suspicion among those who initially worked on the EN, said Melanie Morris, who heads the Data Integration Division at the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and was one of the founding EN members. But as other partners were brought into the project and awarded grants for EN-related development work, they grew suspicious that the funds came with strings attached.
“That did catch us by surprise,” Morris said.

The good news is that, in some cases, mistrust can be dispelled fairly quickly.

In early 2001, as the partnership behind the Global Justice Extensible Markup Language Data Model (GJXDM) was being formed, there was a lot of mistrust, said Paul Embley, CIO at the National Center for State Courts and chairman of the Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative task force responsible for shepherding the GJXDM.

The goal of GJXDM was to develop an XML schema for justice and public safety communities so they could easily share data and information with one another.

In the early stages, the partners weren’t able to compromise on anything. But later a group of three or four key stakeholders got together and agreed that the program deserved their support and ought to go forward.

“Trust needs to be built and demonstrated,” Embley said. “When a few people decided to put their differences aside for the greater community, others saw how that worked and that brought them into the fold.”

Establish governance early
One of the most important questions to answer early on is who does what.

A governance framework addresses that by defining the responsibilities of each participant in a collaborative project and describing the decision-making process. Even in a true collaboration, in which decisions are made by consensus, that process must be well-defined, state and federal officials say.

A governance plan is a component of most successful intergovernmental collaborations and often the primary key to a successful collaboration, said Mark Rutledge, director of business development for government and education at McAfee. People find it easier to contribute to decisions when they know who is making those decisions and when.

A formal governance document is not required, at least not in the beginning. For example, the governance plan for the environmental network grew from a network blueprint document that established its conceptual design.

“The development of that document, which set the details for the high-level components and technologies, was critical,” Morris said. “It was the building block of the EN, and it was vital because we didn’t want to develop it in a vacuum. We didn’t want an EPA dictum. Those details were hashed out in a true collaborative effort.”

Four state and four EPA managers were appointed to a network steering board that oversees and manages the framework, policies and procedures of the network operations as set out in the blueprint. Several other groups were established to manage other aspects of the network.

However, it is also important to avoid imposing too much governance, at least in the beginning of a collaborative project. Embley said a fairly loose approach to governance contributed to successful intergovernmental meetings in the early days of the GJXDM.

“If we had had too much governance too early, we would probably have ended up like most other standards organizations — weighed down by procedure — and it would probably have taken a lot longer,” Embley said. “In some ways, the lack of structure allowed us to be entrepreneurial and to try different things.”

Create an outreach plan
If there’s one thing everyone involved in collaboration agrees on, it’s that there can never be too much communication.

In the planning stages, project leaders must establish confidence among the participants. Leaders must also ensure that everyone is encouraged to contribute once the project is under way. 

For example, EN project leaders make a point to circulate all project-related documents so people can comment. The documents include information about how they were developed, whether they are at the draft or final stage, and o portunities for people to respond. 

“Documentation is extremely important, but it has to be produced within a framework that people understand and under ground rules that everybody understands,” Travers said.

EN project leaders also hold regular teleconferences and briefings that allow stakeholders to provide live feedback. A detailed Web site with blogs, message boards and up-to-date information on technical, policy and management issues supports the project. 

Good communication was especially important in the success of the U.S. Puget Sound Partnership. That project, which relies on participation from Washington state, city, county and tribal governments, aims to restore healthy environmental conditions in the sound by 2020.

The partnership, formed in late 2006, has a legislatively mandated 40-member board to oversee a planning process that involves many outside stakeholders.

The project team uses extensive Web-based communications, including e-mail, blogs and videoconferencing, in addition to workshops and other live events to keep people in the loop and solicit their feedback.

The partnership probably would not be able to reach its goal of having a cleanup plan finalized by the end of 2008 without the enabling communications and information technologies, said Paul Bergman, the program’s communications director.

Those technologies have also proved critical in getting public backing for the project’s goals. “It’s essential that you tell the public what’s involved and tell them the truth of what’s going on,” Bergman said. “There were signs the public didn’t understand early on what we’re trying to do, and they needed to if we’re going to get the support for the project.”

Pick the right people
Collaborations are all about interactions among people, so selecting the right team members is crucial, experts say.

One challenge is finding people who want to participate. In some cases, the people you want on the team will leave because they prefer to work in a more formal structure, Embley said. Others will get involved at the start but won’t bother to attend meetings if they don’t get their way.
Another challenge is finding people with the right expertise and experience.

EN project leaders initially allowed EPA and the Environmental Council of the States to choose representatives for the project on their own. Later they decided to define specific selection criteria, weighing such factors as geographic diversity and technical or business skills. Those criteria were published in a Network Planning and Action Team report, which is the basis for the present EN governance model.

It’s critical that leaders put the necessary effort into choosing the right people at the start of a project, Morris said.

“If you don’t have the right people at that time, then these collaborations will not get done,” Morris said. “At first, you need people who are motivated and have vision and who are not naysayers. You don’t — at that stage — need bean counters, though they will be needed later as you get down into the details.” 

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