Collaboration between groups may be based on an idea or an existing need. Many creative-minded individuals have phenomenal success when building an idea from concept to fruition because they partner with others who embrace the same philosophy and ambitions. A great example of this is when communities address blight remediation and bring life to bland concrete downtowns with murals or interactive art installations. Community leaders and artists come together to make it happen. But what happens when two agencies need to communicate existing needs or strained business processes? It’s less exciting than painting a mural, but the result of effective collaboration can be just as rewarding.
Ruminations of interagency collaboration began when I assumed a supervisory role in government. While I had experienced success as a manager in the private sector, navigating the bureaucracy of public sector management initially resembled an impatient mouse traversing every wall of a circuitous maze. There were extra rules, protocols, and chain of command in government, and it took time to learn which aspects were universal and which were idiosyncratic. I had observed many positive inter-agency relations as I learned the ropes, but when I stepped into leadership, the rules seemed to change. I found myself at the mercy of a director with no desire to encourage collaboration unless it resulted in political gain.
As the supervisor of line staff, I recognized an immediate need to resolve issues occurring between my staff and the line staff of another agency. I was pleasantly surprised when the supervisor of the other agency was receptive to a meeting. I later learned I was the 7th supervisor of my staff in a twelve month period, and the other agency had grown weary of instigating dialogue to improve mutual business processes. The biggest problem, however, was that their business function involved time sensitive, legal transactions. They also needed documents to be detailed, accurate, and occasionally redacted for confidentiality reasons. Tensions were high between the two camps. The other agency was making demands that seemed to fall on deaf ears, and my staff (as directed by my six predecessors) were told our database was not sophisticated enough to accommodate these demands and to therefore not engage with the other agency. When I came into the picture, I thought ‘Really? Ignore the conflict and expect it to go away?’
Bits of William Ury’s wisdom on negotiations trickled into my mind, and I decided to step to the other side to learn what the other agency needed and what limitations were actually in our way. My first meeting was one on one with the other agency’s supervisor. I was pleasantly surprised to learn she was not unreasonable or demanding the impossible. We promptly agreed to bring together line staff from both agencies and created an agenda to address specific concerns from both sides of the table. On meeting day, I assured my staff there would not be any such nonsense as pitchforks, but it became clear to me that I was also asking them to change a long-standing cultural attitude of ‘us against them’ fostered by other supervisors.
The first meeting went exceptionally well. Each side of the table offered logical solutions to make the work-flow more efficient. Equally important, they put faces with names and began forming healthy professional relationships. As we acknowledged each of their requests, we also realized we could cut out unnecessary steps on our side. The situation was a win-win except for one item that required the consent of each agency’s director. Within an hour of adjournment, my phone rang with the good news that the other agency was on board with our plan from their director all the way to line staff. I eagerly set an appointment to meet with my director to share the good news that we were on the path to continuous improvement. I unwittingly walked into the mousetrap avoided by my six predecessors as I heard the following words thundering in my ears: “Do you work for them or do you work for us? Whose side are you on?” I did not have the buy-in I expected, and it became clear. Successful interagency collaboration requires stakeholder buy-in from everyone in the chain of command.
I would like to say I was able to employ more of Ury’s tactics and successfully change the director’s mind, but I realized success does not mean a project is executed exactly as planned. The majority of our work processes were resolved, and the two agencies ultimately developed a higher level of respect for one another.
The unexpected response I received begs the question, however, whether interagency collaboration is more effective when a process is instigated from the top. It seems logical that if the boss is in agreement, there shouldn’t be any issue, right? Not so fast. As previously stated, interagency collaboration requires buy-in at all levels. Many leaders at the top of an organization are well intentioned but may not fully appreciate the logistical limitations of existing business practices. Effective interagency collaboration is predicated on buy-in as well as communication, and it is every leader’s responsibility to trust line staff to openly explore ideas to improve the way we do business.
Resistance is not inevitable, but it is quite common. Despite everything I learned from Ury in graduate school, I surprisingly discovered my best collaboration tools while attending improv classes at Pan Theater in Oakland. Yes, you read that correctly. In order to further develop my career in local government, I sought counsel from amazing teachers who help students think on their feet in a way showcased on the television show ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ David Alger, Director of Pan Theater, explains “We block (resist) ideas, offers and forwarding action to: stay in control; stay in the known; avoid being changed; to avoid risk; and to protect our ego or self image.”
Perhaps the biggest complaint about government is that employees and agencies do not always work collaboratively, yet interagency collaboration is fundamental to effective governing. It’s time to set aside egos and skip the question: Whose idea is it anyway?