Summer 2013
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The Public Manager

Collaborative Government Managers Succeed Where Others Fail

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Government managers struggling to cope with a perfect storm of a shrinking workforce, arbitrary budget cuts, and increased demands for service delivery are finding some new answers in an old solution—collaboration.

A recent round of in-depth interviews with the federal government's top human resources officials uncovered a daunting array of challenges facing federal managers and leaders—and government in general—in 2013 and beyond. The impact of sequestration, inadequate resources, increasing workloads, an aging workforce, and demands for improved government outcomes can seem overwhelming. (See Challenges and Opportunities for 2nd Obama Administration in the spring 2013 issue of The Public Manager).

Rather than bemoaning their fate, most of the government leaders I've talked with are doing what effective leaders tend to do: look for different and hopefully better ways of getting the mission accomplished. They understand that the answer does not lie in simple exhortations to employees to "do more with less." Instead, successful government managers are rethinking business as usual.

This forum provides an overview of a management "tool" that has been around for a long time but which is being rediscovered as government organizations seek new and more efficient ways of getting the job done. That tool is intra- and inter-organizational collaboration. As with all tools, to use it effectively one must understand what it is and how it works.

It Starts With Leadership

Not surprising to students of good public management, effective collaboration starts with effective leadership. The forum article on "Lincoln and the Art of Collaborative Leadership" by Russ Linden uses Abraham Lincoln's drive to enact the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 as an example. While President Lincoln had a clear vision of the goal desired, he also understood that he was not going to achieve that goal with force of will, but rather he needed to lay the groundwork, listen to the views of others, and make adjustments based on what he heard—and keep his ego in check.

A second forum article uses the example of a modern-day leader, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. This article by Nathan Meyers describes how Sebelius used a more directive form of collaboration to create a coalition of federal, state, and local government resources in response to an immediate threat in the potential H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic. As the immediate need was resolved, the secretary's efforts evolved into a long-term, ongoing collaboration among that network to develop a strategic approach to addressing and preventing future threats.

In the next article, Anne Teresa describes how even if one is not born with the collaboration gene, one can develop understanding and skill in managing collaboratively. These future leaders can be taught how to articulate a clear vision for success around which other individuals and organizations can rally, and how ensuring the right people are "in the room" can help avoid simply reinventing the wheel. She also discusses how a good management development program can and should build collaborative skills.

Peter Bonner's article on interagency collaboration makes the salient point that "bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration at all." His article stresses the need to take care in determining who is initiated into the membership of a collaborative forum or task force—those relationships can be critical to making the effort work. At the same time, how the work gets done—laying the ground rules and recognizing each agency's culture—is also important.

Building on Success


The other four articles in this forum give specific examples of successful collaborations. Collectively, they demonstrate that a focus on what has worked and an analysis on why and how it worked can be used to expand collaboration in government at a time when it is sorely needed.

Michael Filler's insightful analysis of the evolution of the federal government's efforts to develop an effective working relationship with federal employee unions demonstrates that a collaborative—rather than an adversarial—approach to labor relations can yield substantial benefits. He discusses labor-management partnerships established by President Clinton's executive order in 1993, the reasons for its revocation by President George W. Bush in 2001, and its reconstitution as labor-management forums by President Obama's 2009 executive order. He also gives specific examples of successful union-management collaborations—and outcomes—at the Patent and Trademark Office and the Naval Seas Systems Command, among others.

In describing a successful collaboration in the Department of Education to establish an ongoing student art exhibit program, Jacquelyn Zimmermann highlights the transformative nature of the department's win-win partnership with students and teachers throughout the country. She also shows that by building relationships with outside organizations, such as the National PTA and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, the department has been able to harness the energy and resources of those organizations in a way that accomplished a mutual goal with very little direct expense to the department.

The final two articles in this forum provide strong and convincing evidence of how collaboration initiated by three different government agencies has had a profound and beneficial impact on the public served. Kristie Jordan Smith discusses how a collaborative effort instigated by the Transportation Security Administration to develop a more tailored, risk-based approach to screening passengers at airports is making the process faster and less intrusive for many travelers.

Likewise, the article by Mark Johnston and Susan Angell provides a powerful example of the public value of a focused and sustained collaboration between the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development around a clear but tough-to-achieve goal—ending veteran homelessness by 2015. Although each department has different responsibilities with regard to helping homeless veterans, they have found that by working together and using an unambiguous bottom-line metric, they have reduced veteran homelessness by 17.2 percent since 2010.

When government fails, the impact can truly be catastrophic. Effective government managers and leaders are increasingly turning to the power of collaboration to succeed in a time of increased demands and decreased resources—and the American public should be very glad they are.

About the Author

John Palguta is vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to meeting the workforce needs of government by inspiring a new generation to serve and transforming the government workplace. Prior to joining the Partnership for Public Service in December 2001, John was a career member of the federal senior executive service and director of policy and evaluation for the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board—the culmination of a federal career spanning almost 34 years devoted to federal human resources management and public policy issues.

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