Workplace Management

When collaboration fails

meeting image

Collaboration can lead to good results, but it's not always easy to accomplish. (Stock image)

Collaboration is the cornerstone of good, efficient government, but misperceptions and underlying issues often paralyze interagency efforts to work together, according to an Office of Personnel Management official.

Speaking at the Dec. 12 Federal Cross-Agency Management Series hosted by FedInsider, Kathryn Medina, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council at OPM, outlined why collaboration is so difficult in government.

The challenging nature of collaboration became the topic of a September 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office. The report set out to identify mechanisms the federal government uses to implement interagency collaboration as well as issues to consider when adopting these mechanisms. The report found seven categories in which key considerations arose: outcomes and accountability; bridging organizational cultures; leadership; clarity of roles and responsibilities; participants; resources; and written guidance and agreements.

Although the report contained good guidance from GAO, Medina said it neither identified or suggested fixes to the barriers to collaboration nor offered ways to measure the effectiveness of collaboration.
One of the notions is that collaboration is time consuming and raises questions of deadlines, timelines and whether everyone can get together at the same time, she said. “We’re OK with the number of people who might want to join [a working group] but we’ve got to agree to the rules upfront,” Medina said.

The lack of information also causes problems for collaborative efforts. Medina said in transitioning from a private-sector career to government, it was a culture shock when she encountered the many different people brought in to be in one particular team and understand what everyone brought to the table.

“I thought, ‘wow, how am I going to ever run my own meeting? I don’t even know who these people are. I need to figure out that on my own,’” she said.

Cultural issues too present their fair share of roadblocks. Communication problems and language barriers often stall progress in cross-agency collaboration. Simple things such as time zone differences easily turn into inconveniences. Should an employee in Hawaii, for example, be on the team if it means that setting meeting times will have to accommodate people who are five hours apart on the clock? What if the person is in Tokyo?
Even if no one explicitly says these things, they can lurk under the surface and color perceptions of collaboration, Medina said.

But those success stories where collaboration does happen, how does one measure its effectiveness? The secret lies in the leader, Medina said.

“The leadership is going to make sure everything stays on track, no matter how many people we have or the number of different perspectives or how tight the timeline is,” she said. Without that direction,  problems occur when no one takes charge and pushes for outcomes,  Medina said.

With collaboration, “ultimately, all you’re looking for is results,” she added.

Lastly, collaboration should not be thought of as a tool but more a mindset. When Medina joined OPM in 2009, she sat down with Director John Berry and asked what her focus should be to make the CHCO Council successful

“He said one word, and I’ll never forget this: collaborate,” Medina said. “That was it – we didn’t have a lengthy discussion about how, who, when and why. He didn’t need to say anything else to me. He wasn’t asking me to use collaboration by collaboration – he’s asking me to collaborate. That needs to be my mindset; that needs to be the way I operate.”

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.

Featured

  • Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event. Image: Shutterstock

    'Buy American' order puts procurement in the spotlight

    Some IT contractors are worried that the "buy American" executive order from President Trump could squeeze key innovators out of the market.

  • OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

    White House taps old policies for new government makeover

    New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

  • Shutterstock image (by Everett Historical): aerial of the Pentagon.

    What DOD's next CIO will have to deal with

    It could be months before the Defense Department has a new CIO, and he or she will face a host of organizational and operational challenges from Day One

  • USAF Gen. John Hyten

    General: Cyber Command needs new platform before NSA split

    U.S. Cyber Command should be elevated to a full combatant command as soon as possible, the head of Strategic Command told Congress, but it cannot be separated from the NSA until it has its own cyber platform.

  • Image from Shutterstock.

    DLA goes virtual

    The Defense Logistics Agency is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to eliminate its IT infrastructure and transition to using exclusively shared, hosted and virtual services.

  • Fed 100 logo

    The 2017 Federal 100

    The women and men who make up this year's Fed 100 are proof positive of what one person can make possibile in federal IT. Read on to learn more about each and every winner's accomplishments.

Reader comments

Fri, Dec 14, 2012

First define what collaboration is; what is its basis? Then figure out how to manage the autonomy.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group