A failure to “connect the dots” across multiple government agencies has become shorthand for high-profile lapses by the U.S. Federal Government. Poor interagency communication and collaboration contributed to the government failures surrounding 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, the attempted bombing of a commercial aircraft headed for Detroit.

But the need to reach across functional, departmental and agency borders isn’t limited to security challenges or crisis situations. “The day-to-day operations, run largely by career civil servants, also require a new kind of collaboration,” says CCL’s Bill Adams.

Despite the importance of working collaboratively, few leaders in government or elsewhere are trained to do so. Recent research by CCL found that nearly nine out of 10 senior executives surveyed felt it was “extremely important” for them to work collaboratively across boundaries. Less than one out of 10, though, felt they had the skills to do so effectively.

In federal government, this gap is apparent, too. Managers have learned to work vertically using a command-and-control leadership model. They work upward with senior colleagues and downward with direct reports, but not across organizational silos. At the same time, they face the pressures of legislative demands, press scrutiny and deeply entrenched organizational cultures.

“But privately, agency leaders tell us that the primary reasons government organizations fail to collaborate are behavioral: Many managers in the government are risk-averse, afraid of failure, and impose boundaries on themselves,” says Adams.

So what can be done to develop, support and improve collaboration within and among government agencies? How can government managers overcome outdated mindsets and self-limiting behaviors and replace them with more effective leadership?

“Individual leadership skills are taught and developed; new systems and rules are put in place in an attempt to help government agencies share information. The Office of Personnel Management includes ‘building and maintaining interagency coalitions’ as an Executive Core Qualification,” Adams explains. “But no one is focused on creating a collaborative leadership culture. That’s what CCL expects to change.”

To build capacity for partnering, collaboration and communication among senior government managers, CCL will be holding the first “Inter-Agency Leadership Program (IALP)” this June in Washington, D.C. Working with senior government managers — GS levels 13, 14, 15 — from across the 16 cabinet-level organizations, CCL expects to introduce a new approach to organizational leadership and create the practical experiences that will begin to build boundary-spanning capability.

Following a three-day working session, participants are assigned to a strategic-level project that requires them to cross boundaries and work collaboratively. For example, a team of personnel from USAID, the Department of Defense, the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services might be asked to recommend a response to a humanitarian disaster — powerful preparation for events such as the massively devastating earthquake in Haiti. With senior-level executive sponsorship and a CCL action-learning coach, these leaders learn by doing and develop strategic networks that may help them in future crises.

“By bringing together managers from the Department of State, Homeland Security, Treasury, Justice and so on, we are explicitly developing the relationships, the strategic networks that open the door to more effective collaboration,” Adams notes. “Over time and with enough involvement, we hope to spur a cultural shift that makes for a more effective federal government.”

Sharing Lessons Learned

Scott Derrick is passionate about effective government leadership – both professionally and personally. Today, he is the director of professional development for the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit advocacy and support organization for career federal executives.

Several years ago, as an auditor of human resources initiatives for the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO), Derrick saw the importance of developing both the technical and leadership skills of government managers. Reaching out to a few like-minded mid-career federal employees, Derrick founded 13L, a small group of managers focused on leadership development in the federal government. The 13-member group promotes effective leadership in several ways, including working to share information within and across agencies.

By design, 13L’s members work in different agencies. from Homeland Security to NASA to the Departments of Energy and Education. “Cross-functional and cross-agency perspectives are essential for effective government leadership,” says Derrick. “The ability to see different perspectives and share lessons learned is valuable for our members and we keep that in mind with the projects we undertake.”

“The challenges that the government and our country face are complex and interconnected,” Derrick continues. “Taking an interagency approach to training has several benefits, including increasing channels of communication, smashing silos and fostering big-picture, government-wide perspective and commitment.”

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