A new face of interagency collaboration

The Urban Waters Federal Partnership's entrepreneurial spirit and flair for true collaboration should be a model for other cross-agency efforts.

steve kelman

Earlier this summer, I wrote a blog post ("Are agencies collaborating with each other more than they used to?") about a positive Government Accountability Office report on cross-agency efforts to improve government performance on a set of so-called cross-agency priority goals, which include cybersecurity.

However, most of the actual work to make progress on those goals involves a sort of parallel play, where agencies are working individually to improve their own performance and the collaboration part consists largely of cross-agency knowledge sharing and goal prioritization/visibility efforts (both of which are helpful and important).

However, in a recent executive education class at Harvard, I learned from class participant Alice Ewen of the Forest Service about a cross-agency effort that goes beyond parallel play to involve cross-agency delivery of a federal effort, called the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. I have had a number of conversations with Ewen, Surabhi Shah, director of the program at the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Water and Lisa Pelstring of the Interior Department to learn more about what the partnership has been up to.

Many cities' rivers and waterfronts have been polluted eyesores for decades. Canals and rivers -- including the Los Angeles River and rivers running through downtown Providence, R.I., and Seoul, South Korea -- have been paved over with concrete. Riverbanks have been lined with railroads, highways and factories, cutting communities off from their waterways.

With changing views of the benefits of cities, people have come to value the idea of making urban waterways a source of recreational and leisure activities, as well as a catalyst for economic revival. Those waterways can, in the words of an Urban Waters Federal Partnership document, transform "overlooked watersheds into community assets."

The partnership is one part of that broader movement, with a special social twist in favor of disadvantaged populations because many of these waterways -- think of the Anacostia River in Washington or the Passaic River in Newark, N.J. -- go through poor and underserved neighborhoods.

The idea for the partnership came from Lisa Jackson, President Barack Obama's first EPA chief. The White House Domestic Policy Council brought agencies together to launch it, but unlike most White House efforts involving agencies, the initiative to bring them together came from inside the executive branch, not the White House itself. Very early on, a decision was made to have career employees run the program to get greater buy-in and continuity.

Currently, the partnership has 14 federal agency participants, including EPA, the Forest Service, Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

The projects come from a playbook of techniques that have been developed to revitalize these bodies of water in a way that can be repeated in multiple locations. In addition to projects to open up urban rivers for recreational use, many involve what is called "green infrastructure" management of stormwater runoff. In urban areas where rivers are surrounded by paved land, stormwater flows faster and carries sediment, trash, debris and lots of contamination into the rivers. Cities have been building expensive facilities to catch stormwater before it makes pollution worse. "Green infrastructure" means putting in plants where paved spaces would otherwise be, allowing water to slow down and infiltrate into the ground.

The partnership's "secret sauce" for interagency collaboration has three ingredients. The first involves combining agencies' statutory authorities to undertake activities that no individual agency would have been able to do by itself. The second involves increasing political support for the efforts by bringing in more organizations and constituencies. The third involves a dedicated infrastructure for managing partnership efforts.

In terms of amalgamating authorities, EPA's legal authorities for water-related projects allow the agency to plan, convene people for talk and training, and monitor water quality, but it doesn't allow funding for implementing plans, say, for actually planting trees. But Forest Service legal authorities do allow for that, so many green infrastructure projects involve EPA planning and Forest Service planting. The Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs the Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) program, has a capability to provide partners with volunteers to work on partnership projects. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a congressionally chartered entity, has broad authority to fund projects with private donations, not limited by the statutory authorities of specific agencies.

Gaining support from multiple agencies provides the partnership with more political clout than any individual agency would have, attracting more attention and interest from corporate funders and mayor's offices than an individual agency would receive. Also, sometimes agencies have different constituencies that can be melded. For example, one partner had a poor relationship with a local agency whose cooperation was needed to move forward on a project, but another partner had a good relationship and was able to organize the necessary political support.

Furthermore, when there are multiple agencies, this also helps people at partner agencies lobby more effectively inside their own agencies. Multiple agency support tends to get the attention of more senior agency officials more easily than just support from inside the agency itself. In one situation, an aggressive policy recommended by agency staff was initially nixed by senior managers, but that position was reversed when the support of many other agencies for the aggressive approach was put into the mix.

Finally, the ability to combine legal authorities to provide both planning and actual implementation builds political support from local companies, which are attracted by an opportunity for employee engagement/volunteering and that like photo opportunities for inauguration ceremonies of activities they have supported financially.

A third element of the partnership's secret sauce is its own dedicated infrastructure for managing these efforts. Scholarly research on cross-organizational collaboration argues that having people whose job it is to work on a partnership promotes success because otherwise each participating organization is tempted to be a free rider and reap the benefits of the partnership without doing any work.

The Urban Waters Federal Partnership's solution is something called "ambassadors," who are typically local employees of a nongovernmental organization or nearby federal agency assigned to work on a project at one of the 19 partnership locations for one to two years at anywhere from one-third to full-time. They are usually funded by one of the partnership agencies.

A secret sauce for program delivery collaboration doesn't mean the agencies don't also use the knowledge-sharing techniques in which the cross-agency priority goals teams specialize.

"When we identify an innovative project," one agency Urban Waters participant told me, "we have an infrastructure to spread information about it, so we can try to socialize it to make it habitual. We can do this because we have a national partnership and not just 19 separate locations that don't talk with each other."

At a more micro level, Ewen told me that "being able to work with EPA and observe their process for standing up a new program was helpful for me. I could see analogies to how we could work."

The partnership is developing a national handbook for any location anywhere in the United States to implement an urban waters partnership.

One final observation that might apply to other cross-agency programmatic collaborations is that the partnership's participants are entrepreneurial in the sense that they actively explore their environment for opportunities not already being exploited. Many projects begin with a narrow focus and then accumulate new purposes over time. Thus, the East Capitol Urban Farm in Washington's Anacostia neighborhood started when Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service and EPA became concerned about a water quality issue, namely that impoverished people in the neighborhood were catching and eating contaminated fish from the Anacostia River.

The original idea -- developed mainly by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of the District of Columbia -- was to get fish seeded in a new location near the river for people to fish safely. But gradually this morphed to include a green infrastructure component for using newly developed agricultural land to improve management of stormwater, along with park space (for recreation but also part of green infrastructure) and a farmer's market.

With each new feature, the Urban Farm took on more uses and gained more constituencies, some of whom could provide financial support. With no dedicated budget or established organizational infrastructure, people working on the partnership needed to hustle to put together funding and capacity on an improvised basis. Not surprisingly, that kind of work tends to attract folks outside the bureaucratic mainstream.

As I learned about the Urban Waters Partnership, I was reminded of a blog post I wrote awhile ago on a cross-agency effort led by the General Services Administration to promote "citizen science," which similarly emerged despite a nonexistent budget with a lot of hustling and entrepreneurial leadership, in this case from Kelly Olson of GSA. Indeed, Shah and Olson -- two women a bit outside the standard mold -- remind me of each other.

This week the partnership is hosting its third Urban Waters National Training Workshop in Arlington, Va., which is bringing together 450 participants from across the country, representing all levels of government, the nonprofit world, community organizations, philanthropic groups and business.

I don't think I would go so far as to claim that cross-agency collaborations involved in actual program delivery are the wave of the future for government. But I do think that smart and mission-oriented government managers should be making them part of their toolkit to consider how better to deliver value to the public. Managers should look for entrepreneurial types in their organizations to do the cross-agency work.

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