When collaboration fails

Collaboration is the cornerstone of good, efficient government, but misperceptions and underlying issues often paralyze interagency efforts to work together.

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.”

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