Idea to retire: Technology alone fosters collaboration and networks

Many think the Internet guarantees networked government, as if information systems endowed agencies with a strong capacity to collaborate on important challenges. Many still think that computing reduces layers and blurs boundaries within and across organizations. It is true that some roles, tasks, and entire swathes of organizations have been automated (file handling, information sharing, printing) or externalized (email, social media, cloud services). However, computing is merely an enabler for networked organizations.

The fallacy that technology alone fosters collaboration and networks is so pervasive that I’ve written a white paper for the presidential transition recommending that the next administration include “management” as a key part of transition, specifically management to develop and sustain interagency collaboration.  This paper notes the technology’s inability to foster collaborative networks by itself, and highlights an emerging ecosystem of institutions that support effective and sustainable collaboration across agencies. In the ecosystem, each organization fills a niche or specific role. These niche organizations interact to implement policies and manage initiatives across the federal government. While some dimensions of the ecosystem focus on information technology, most reinforce and support the many organizational changes that make interagency initiatives feasible and sustainable over time.

Consider the technology for If technology alone could build collaboration, federal grants processes would have been streamlined in the 1990s. The federal government awards $600 billion in grants and other types of financial assistance to cities, towns, universities, colleges, and other entities. Yet only allows these organizations to find and apply for federal grants. The far more difficult work of simplifying application and reporting requirements, improving coordination across service providers, and improving service delivery—goals that were signed into law in 1999—remain a work in progress. and the streamlining of benefits programs across agencies tell a similar story. While technological innovation may be disruptive, institutional innovations progress slowly.

Central governments in several countries began in the 1990s to take a “whole of government” approach to leverage information technology (IT) and address problems that lie across jurisdictional boundaries. I wrote about some of these efforts and the resistance from those advantaged by bureaucratic structures in my 2001 book, “Building the Virtual State”. Since then, strong communities of practice among federal managers have worked for years to streamline grants, benefits, human resources, IT services, and other administrative functions. The federal government has made substantial progress, but institutional changes have not yet realized the potential afforded by digital technologies. 

Legislating interagency collaboration

One effort to promote institutional change is the Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA). The law requires the government to articulate a set of cross-agency priority (CAP) goals for the administration and codifies new roles, requirements, and institutions to support CAP goal achievement. Mission-focused goals and mission support goals encompass two different types of problems: the former brings together pockets of expertise to address interagency problems such as international trade, food safety, sustainable communities, disaster preparedness and intelligence sharing, while the latter focuses on streamlining administrative processes. The current set of CAP goals is presented below.

CAP Goals Fiscal 2014-Present

Mission CAP Goals

  • Cybersecurity
  • Climate Change
  • Insider Threat and Security Clearance
  • Job-Creating Investment
  • Infrastructure Permitting Modernization
  •    STEM Education
  • Service Members and Veterans Mental Health

Mission-support CAP Goals

  • Customer Service
  • Smarter IT Delivery
  • Strategic Outsourcing
  • Shared Service
  • Benchmark and Improve Mission-Support Operations
  • Open Data
  • Lab to Market
  • People and Culture 

GPRAMA provided the framework for infrastructure permitting modernization, which synchronizes permitting processes, review, and decisions. An online dashboard supports collaboration by listing the status of all permits and review processes associated with large infrastructure projects. However, success and sustainability still depend on the painstaking work of benchmarking across programs, developing timeliness indicators, and coordinating agency permitting processes. For example, recent legislation allows an interagency permitting council to centralize fee collection and direct resources where most needed.1 Meanwhile, CAP goal projects have struggled on sharing resources across jurisdictions, building shared processes for customers, and maintaining staff levels in a stringent budgetary environment. 

An emerging ecosystem of interagency institutions

In addition to focusing on technologies that support collaboration (e.g. dashboards, wikis, portals), we should focus on an emerging ecosystem of organizations that support collaboration. At the top, the Executive Office of the President is essential to sustained leadership. The president’s policy councils—the Council of Economic Advisors, National Security Council, Council on Environmental Quality, and Domestic Policy Council act on presidential priorities. Mission CAP goal projects are led by an executive from a policy council and an executive from a lead federal agency. The “management” side of the Office of Management and Budget is critical to the ecosystem and is responsible for CAP goals under GPRAMA.

This is an ecosystem that new political appointees with executive responsibilities should understand and use to work effectively between agencies. The ecosystem supports networked information technologies, but more importantly, it provides the skills, problem solving, and cohesion needed for complicated knowledge work across agency and department boundaries. Let’s retire the idea that technology networks government, and support the ecosystem of institutions that supports interagency collaboration in the federal government.

1See Title 41 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of December 2015, which creates a new entity, the Federal Permitting Improvement Council, among other developments.