How is effective interagency leadership in the federal government like a platypus? We recently met with a group of learning officers from the Executive and Legislative branches to discuss interagency leadership. The people with whom we spoke are dedicated civil servants passionate about making the federal government more effective through the development of its human capital.

“…for government to be effective, it can’t exist in silos. You have to be able to form a platypus.” She told us about this ‘platypus,’ “a new ‘critter’ combined of various parts to accomplish a specific task,” formed prior to the First Gulf War. This ad hoc team was comprised of people from various federal agencies and allied countries who came together quickly to address Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Most had no prior experience working together but learned to work collaboratively to address this international emergency. Fortunately, the ‘platypus’ was a success, driving the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait.

CCL’s research clearly indicates that in order to be effective, organizations must encourage boundary-spanning behaviors. Yet, how can federal leaders work effectively across boundaries and the typical silos inherent in any large organization, all while dealing with the additional pressures of legislative demands and press scrutiny?< CCL’s most recent white paper on boundary-spanning leadership cites our research which finds that 86% of senior executives felt that it is “extremely important” to work across boundaries, yet only 7% said they are currently very effective at doing so. Nowhere is this more important, yet so lacking, as in the federal government.

The officials with whom we met cited many impediments to working across organizational boundaries within the federal government. Legislative and budgetary factors contribute to a lack of interagency collaboration; however, the primary reasons they cited are behavioral: many managers in the government are risk-averse, afraid of failure, and impose boundaries on themselves! The good news is that these behavioral restrictions can be overcome with a focused intervention.

We propose an interagency leadership initiative in which senior federal managers from various agencies and departments come together in a common setting, gain self-awareness through assessments for development, learn about leadership and team dynamics, and then work together in interagency action learning project teams on projects of strategic interest to the federal government. In the process of working on these projects, participants will form strategic networks across agency boundaries and learn by doing as they work collaboratively on a problem of vital interest to the nation.

Let’s build a new ‘platypus’ and develop a model for interagency collaboration where we assist our senior public servants develop boundary-spanning behaviors which in turn make our government more effective for our nation.

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