Working Across Agencies: Cross-agency work gets virtual

Reorganizing government for collaboration among agencies isn’t a simple thing. The backbreaking effort to collect 22 agencies under the Homeland Security Department has shown that.

“You are not going to do a physical reorganization of the whole government,” said Mark Forman, executive vice president at Cassatt Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif.

“You have to do virtual reorganization,” said Forman, former Office of Management and Budget administrator of e-government and information technology. “That’s what collaboration and e-government in the back office allow you to do.”

He added that he did not mean “using the Internet to publish information or let people get self-service. It’s what you do in the back room, how you get agencies that are essentially overlapping and redundant in their functions to work together so there’s a better policy result.”

David Wennergren, Navy CIO and co-chairman of the CIO Council’s best practices committee, put it this way: “Regardless of the line of work you’re doing as a federal agency, you are in a networked world. The problems that you’re trying to solve and the advances you are trying to make cross all the traditional organizational boundaries and stovepipes.”

In an e-Utopia, government is a seamless enterprise, with its component agencies meshing flawlessly together amid criss-crossing business lines.

In the future, cross-agency collaboration will be second nature, said Karen Evans, Forman’s successor as OMB administrator for e-government and IT.

But cross-agency work isn’t just about rolling out technology, Evans said. “It’s about business relationships.”

It also hinges on building the right management structure to make efficacious collaboration happen.

Among OMB’s 25 e-government initiatives, the government’s most conspicuous cross-agency undertakings, those that have fared well to date have developed the proper management structure to promote collaboration, the General Accounting Office has said.

Management culture remains an obstacle to collaboration, said Linda Koontz, GAO’s director of information management.

Funding cross-agency initiatives is another complicated issue. For now, a pass-the-hat approach has proved workable—if approached strategically and creatively, observers say.

But as e-government initiatives become institutions rather than experiments, less ad hoc modes of funding will have to be explored.

The familiar cultural barriers also loom large: Old attitudes are deeply stitched into the fabric of government.

Managers of the E-Rulemaking project, which involves 12 government agencies, kept a focus on a common goal to overcome entrenched agency cultures as they rolled out the portal.

“Agencies dropped their baggage and histories to focus on coming together for one common goal,” said Selene Dalecky, the Government Printing Office’s project manager for E-Rulemaking.

At the Homeland Security Department, changing the culture requires a significant shift in approach, said Lee Holcomb, Homeland Security’s chief technology officer.

“The traditional culture that comes out of the military and intelligence community is built around the concept of need to know,” Holcomb told a panel on cross-agency collaboration recently in Washington. “Quite frankly, if we need to share information, we need a mindset of need to share. And that’s very hard to achieve.”

Certainly, adroit communication among partner agencies is crucial for collaboration. E-Rulemaking’s managing partner, the Environmental Protection Agency, set up a monthly newsletter, online collaboration tool and contact database to communicate with partner agencies.

“Knowledge sharing is absolutely crucial,” Wennergren said. “Cross-agency initiatives can’t be successful if people are still in the mode of hoarding information.”

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