Web extra: Otto Doll: How good collaboration happens

Otto Doll was appointed South Dakota's chief information officer in July 1996. He is a past president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers and is co-chairman of NASCIO's cross-boundary collaboration committee. Federal Computer Week contributing writer Brian Robinson interviewed Doll about what makes collaborative projects successful.  

FCW: How has the collaborative process evolved during the past few years?
DOLL: I think one dynamic we've seen is citizens being brought more outright into the process. So it's more than just the [government] participants being a party to the collaboration. We are starting to see a much larger group of folks being included. That obviously adds to the challenge about how you pull a collaboration off.

FCW: How has this dynamic changed the ingredients for a productive collaboration?
DOLL: Trust is paramount. The stakeholders and, eventually, the citizenry have to have a high degree of trust in what you are doing. On the flip side, there has to be a lot of leadership. The two work hand in hand. To gain trust you have to have accountability, and in a collaboration, that's a shared accountability.

You have to have a governance model that is going to allow for the sharing of accountability and, ultimately, there is a collective dedication from all involved to achieve the initiative you set out on.

[Experience] has shown me the importance of achieving trust among all the parties, then turning that trust ultimately into action. Then probably the last piece, which is the hardest, is how do you cultivate the trust so that it matures into a sustainable collaboration among the parties.

FCW: Why is that important?
DOLL: We are in a world where, all too often, we run off and do something and then are on to the next thing. We often don't put enough energy into an initiative for down the road. Invariably, an initiative has a life span of years and even decades, and you need to shepherd that and maintain those collaborative ties for an initiative to ultimately gain the advantages and benefits that are the reason you are doing it in the first place.

FCW: How do you cultivate that process?
DOLL: Part of it is not establishing the governance framework as something that appears, then everyone goes home, and it disappears. It's about establishing a process that allows you to continue over the years.

FCW: How do you make sure collaborations have staying power?
DOLL: You have to continually reassess the governance that you have in place for various initiatives and goals, because things do change and people lose interest. In state government, leadership changes every four or eight years, so there's a regular reevaluation of whether or not the collaboration is still achieving what it's supposed to.

It's always a challenge. People are always looking for the one-hit silver-bullet approach, and there's a lot of one-time money that is put into projects. And so there's a tendency to set the agenda to get things going, and then it all loses steam over time.

FCW: How has technology changed the way you put these kinds of collaborations together? Do technology considerations have to be upfront, or can they be left until a little later after other things have been sorted out?
DOLL: Technology to me has really helped the co llaborative process because it's given us a number of new avenues to promote more collaborative activities on the part of organizations. The ability to make use of the Web, even things like videoconferencing.

Think about it. Ten, fifteen years ago we had to get everybody around the table, and I'm not saying that it's still not useful to get people around the table to some degree, but it's frustrating to me when that's the only way people will collaborate. Collaboration is a people thing, it's something you do amongst people, and technology is there to infuse better collaborative techniques to allow people to do their thing better. And so I think that's what we gain from technology.

FCW: Is technology just a given, that people understand it's there when they need it, or should there be an understanding of the technology that will be used from the get-go?
DOLL: I think what we are finding is that...each [technology] takes a different skill set on the part of the participants in order to maximize their potential. Something as simple as everyone being able to do videoconferencing, where you have a traditional classroom setting. Until you've done that a few times, it's a pretty unique and challenging environment that people find themselves in.

I'll go even a little further back, when everyone was trying to participate just on conference calls, and you were the outlier while 3 or 4 guys sat around a table. It's a much different world being on that conference call out there than being around a table.

So the ability to turn around and use videoconferencing, being able to use something like SharePoint, where you are sharing documents or having people simultaneously doing things, or you are doing Webcasting so you are out there doing things across the Web, those types of facilities take folks a bit of getting used to. It's something that you do have to learn how to take advantage of.

FCW: How do the dynamics change when local governments and agencies enter into collaborations?
DOLL:  I think when you include the locals, the dynamic changes quite a bit. The locals are used to having both feds and state deal with them, but they are used to having the states deal with them more. So the first thing you see in the process is that right away someone is wondering if the state is the lead entity, is it the federal government, or is it more of a partnership among the entities? Or is the federal government, from the local perspective, just being a facilitator?

FCW: How would you deal with that? Is it something that needs to be sorted out before the collaboration starts, or is it worked out as the collaboration develops?
DOLL: I think it's one of those issues that you resolve upfront. Because a lot of [locals] will come in, and they are hoping or expecting that the state is going to be the leading entity and that it is going to have the answers and provide all of the funding. So that is one of the first things that you have to ascertain.

You also have to create the framework around the issues and the opportunities and the challenge that everyone wants to work on, and you have to determine what the best role is for the state or the federal government and for the locals themselves.

You also have to ascertain who is going to make the policy calls. And then who is ultimately going to actually accomplish what needs to be accomplished, and who is going to take the actions.

FCW: What will be the main hot-button issues during the next few years for these collaborations?
DOLL: One that comes to mind immediately is cybersecurity. That's been worked on to some degree, but I think it's something that will more and more take center stage. We most definitely in the states think that there needs to be much more collaboration and a general focus moving forward on how to deal with cybersecurity. We have been working a lot with the Department of Homeland Security on that.

I think there's also going to be a fair amount of work on the funding process in the [information technology] area between the feds and the states. The feds have always being able to steer money to a single project, even at times to a single agency. But that becomes problematic when you are trying to create enterprisewide solutions.

FCW: So when you talk about collaboration there, are you talking about a broadening of the discussion between the states and feds?
DOLL: You have to have more dialog. The normal complaint of state government is that the [federal] decisions come out of a black box, they come on down and then we have to react to them. So it's that whole process you've got to start changing [to] where there's more dialog, and you start working more collaboratively to ultimately solve the problems and challenges that we have.

FCW: And where would you say we are right now in getting to that level of collaboration and cooperation?
DOLL: We have had some discussions, but we are pretty close to the starting line, unfortunately. It's not like there hasn't been some discussion along the lines of intergovernmental collaboration and cooperation. But I really do think that we've just started that dialog because we haven't made a lot of progress, unfortunately.

FCW: Why do you think that is?
DOLL: These sorts of changes in behavior of people take time. We can all say the right things. But then to go back and actually change our organizations to be able to cope with many different stakeholders takes time to actually adjust. And one of the biggest challenges in government is that the leaders change out so often. So not only do I have to convince my staff, I've got to convince other agencies, the administration and the legislature.
I actually think it is going to happen generationally and, hopefully, it won't take that long. Young people are continually going to be fed into the workforce, and they are going to be much more in the mind-set of collaboration.

But myself,  I'm an impatient guy. I can't wait for the next generation or two to solve things.



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