Monday, August 30, 2010
The Obama Administration wants agencies to promote collaboration. Agencies have developed plans and initiatives. But how do you really do it? A new IBM Center report explores case studies of effective collaboration in natural resource agencies using stewa

A new IBM Center report, Strategies for Supporting Front Line Collaboration: Lessons from Stewardship Contracting, by the University of Oregon’s Cassandra Moseley, describes how the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have been using stewardship contracting as a way of getting collaboration to happen on the front line, in the field, between the agencies and local communities.

The Obama Administration’s Open Government initiative places a strong emphasis on increasing collaboration.  But how do agencies do this, especially on the front lines of government in the field?  Dr. Moseley examines, via a series of case studies, the efforts to increase front-line collaboration in two natural resource agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.




 She found that the success or failure of front line collaboration, especially with community-level stakeholders, was oftentimes driven by an “agency’s culture, policies, procedures, and incentives. . . “  The role of headquarters in successfully promoting collaboration seemed to be more effective when it promotes and encourages collaboration rather than attempting to direct or require it.

By examining the experiences of both agencies in implementing a special authority, called stewardship contracting, she identified four strategies that seemed to foster successful collaboration.  She concludes that while stewardship contracting authority is necessary in this case, these strategies are applicable in other agencies as well.

Strategy 1:  Create time and space for collaboration to develop and mature. Robust collaboration requires significant investment in time, money, and social capital.  Collaboration is an evolutionary process.  Initial steps may involve months or even years of talking and only result in small concrete accomplishments at the beginning.  Over time, as collaboratives build trust and facility working together accomplishments grow.  However, efforts to rush collaboration early on can risk failure.

Strategy 2: Change the rules to encourage collaboration.  This can be done in several ways:

  • Prioritize funding for actions that have been collaboratively developed. When field managers reach broad agreement with partners, agency executives should fund it, if at all possible. Building agreement only to have an agency leadership unwilling to implement it demoralizes staff and partners and lowers trust.
  • Expand local discretion so that field staff have the authority to stand by the agreements they reach.  It can be difficult for senior executives to feel comfortable because they may be devolving authority at a moment of change and uncertainty.  In addition, field staff collaborating with external partners may develop solutions that are locally appropriate but different than the senior executives might have envisioned.  Nevertheless, local decision space is critical if field personnel and, especially, partners, are going to be willing to invest time and resources in collaboration.
  • Update existing procedures to support collaborative processes.  These procedures might include requiring early engagement in planning processes, revising grants and agreements systems and paperwork to create more efficient for developing memoranda of understanding and obligating fund for agreements.  It may also include clarifying conflicts of interest, such as the extent to which collaborators can engage in contract development and contactor selection. Engaging with field-level stakeholders in modifying the rules can help ensure that procedures work for partners not just the agencies.

Strategy 3:  Provide incentives to staff to collaborate – or consequences if they won’t.  This can be done in two ways:

  • Provide formal guidance that requires that the field units collaborate but does not prescribe exactly how that collaboration is to occur. Requiring collaboration can be challenging because one cannot define exactly what the collaboration will look like. On the other hand, providing no guidance creates sense of insecurity and allows people who do not want to collaborate avoid doing so.  One approach is to provide field staff something specific to collaborate around—such as in this case, stewardship contracting—rather than simply telling them to collaborate in general or than prescribing how to collaborate.
  • Align organizational and personal performance measures so that they support collaboration, or at least do not run counter to collaboration.  Performance measures that emphasize high production but neglect quality will likely create disincentives to collaborate.

Strategy 4:  Build the capacity of both governmental and non-governmental partners involved in a collaborative effort.  Understand where in the organizations these investments need to be made.  For example:

  • Create a cadre of well-trained procurement and agreements personnel that they can support programmatic goals with timely, high quality, innovative contracts and agreements.  As collaboration depends, agencies are called upon to engage in more complex formal arrangements—contracts and agreements—with their partners.  Slow, cumbersome contracting and agreements processes can frustrate and drive away partners; poor processes cost the agency and its partners’ time and money.
  • Attend to the organizational and financial health of your partner organizations by providing funding for community capacity building. This is particularly important when there is a significant interdependence between the partners and the agency and you are working with historically underserved or disenfranchised populations. 
  • Develop and conduct training that engages agency personnel and non-governmental partners in the same training sessions.   Joint training can help create shared understanding of the opportunities and limits of particular opportunities and authorities.  Peer-to-peer learning can also help to transfer lessons from early adaptors to other agency staff. 

The encouraging conclusion of her report is that, while agencies’ behaviors are often driven by their hierarchical arrangements, when an agency’s leadership commits significant energy and resources to focusing the organization – rather than only individuals – on the value of collaboration to the mission, collaboration can flourish.