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He had been called in to fix the botched Hurricane Katrina recovery in 2005, lead the international response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and manage operations during the 2010 BP Gulf Oil Spill. In each case, the president called and asked him to take charge because of his renowned interagency collaboration skills. He was asked after his presentation, “Now that you are retired, how do we find and train the next ‘Thad Allens’ in the government?” He said he didn’t have an answer. But in the past couple of years, an answer to this question has started to look more promising.
Public administration researcher Professor Donald Kettl at the University of Maryland has written several books examining the increase in the number and complexity of crossagency challenges that traditional government structures are ill-equipped to address. These span the policy spectrum and include: cybersecurity, food safety, climate change, international trade, health and wellness, as well as intelligence and law enforcement. In fact, in a recent assessment that he conducted of the underlying root causes of programs on the high-risk list compiled biennially by the Government Accountability Office, he found that agencies’ “inability to span boundaries” was the leading contributor to program failures.
Cross-agency leaders have emerged in times of crisis. Admiral Thad Allen was one. John Koskinen led the effort to stem the potential computer failures tied to Y2K in 2000, and Ed DeSeve coordinated the implementation of the $800 billion Recovery Act in 2009. The country was lucky these individuals were where they were at a time the president needed them. But how can government move more deliberately to create a cadre of leaders with enterprise-wide skills and experience? We shouldn’t leave these roles to chance any longer.
A 2012 report by Professors Rosemary O’Leary and Catherine Gerard surveyed federal career senior executives, asking what skills they saw as important to leaders of collaborative efforts. They said: “Our survey respondents surprised us.” They found that executives felt the most important were individual attributes, interpersonal and group process skills, and strategic leadership skills. Less important were substantive or technical
expertise. The authors asked “whether effective collaborators are born or made” and wondered “whether the individual attributes needed by collaborative leaders can be acquired.”