Tackle problems, not mandates, with collaboration

Agencies succeed not when they comply with directives but when they solve problems

As agencies near the April 7 deadline to publish their plans for complying with the Open Government Directive, activity is reaching a fevered pitch -- not just at the agencies, where people are working hard to respond to the directive’s milestones, but in the cottage industry that has grown up around anticipating what those plans will contain.

Issued in December 2009, the directive identifies three principles of open government: transparency (public access to government information), participation (engagement of stakeholders and the public in the policy-making process) and collaboration (cross-agency or intergovernmental work on delivering services).

Of those three components, the one I’d most like to address is collaboration. Not because I think the others are less important – indeed, the National Academy of Public Administration’s work in those areas demonstrate a strong belief in both the value of increased access to government data and the importance of public engagement to successful policy-making.

The reason for focusing on collaboration is due at least in part to the fact that it is the least well defined, while the directive spells out in great detail expectations for transparency, and the framework for public engagement in federal policy-making is well-documented.

In addressing collaboration, the directive sets audacious goals that fall into three areas: (1) collaborate better, (2) collaborate more, especially on core mission activities, and (3) propose management and policy changes that further support 1 and 2. However, figuring out how best to accomplish those goals is left to the agencies to decide.

Yet collaborative approaches to problem-solving and service delivery hold immense promise for radical improvement in the effectiveness of government agencies.

In the more than two years since NAPA founded its Collaboration Project, we’ve learned a few things about successful collaboration. What we often see is a reluctance to use collaboration to address the most critical challenges facing an agency, when, in fact, the approach presents the greatest opportunity for real progress.

Collaboration is a path to achieving results. Rather than focusing on simply achieving compliance with the Open Government Directive by checking the box on collaboration, agencies have a great opportunity to identify a real problem and use collaboration to solve it.

When coming together to solve substantive problems of shared concern, it is much easier to make a compelling case for others to get involved. Often, a natural community already exists, with the collective members well-versed in all aspects of the issue. Assuming the problem relates to the core mission of the agency (and it should!), there is a greater likelihood that the agency's leaders will champion the effort. It also becomes easier to enroll the myriad officials responsible for ensuring that security, privacy, accessibility and other mandates are met when they see the initiative as addressing mission-related goals.

So, with only a few weeks left until the open-government plans are published, I’ll tell you what I’m anticipating: The agencies who already have their hands full — responding to crises and facilitating economic recovery while trying to modernize and transform — will view collaboration not as an unfunded mandate but as a vital component of success in solving their most challenging, mission-critical problems. Now that’s good government.

About the Author

Lena Trudeau serves as Vice President at the National Academy of Public Administration. In this capacity, she leads the National Academy’s service delivery organization, supervises the conception and execution of strategic initiatives, opens new lines of business and drives organizational change. She has recently worked on studies for the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of State and the National Park Service. In addition, Lena is a founder of the Collaboration Project, an independent forum of leaders committed to leveraging web 2.0 and the benefits of collaborative technology to solve government's complex problems.

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