Report: Federal Agencies Must Be 'Better Connected, More Collaborative'

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Agencies need to work together and with the private sector to improve how they manage IT systems, data and their workforces, researchers say.  

The  federal government has not achieved the level of collaboration that is necessary to prepare for the challenges of work in the digital age, a new report found.

“The value of collaboration cannot be overstated, yet it is an area where the government struggles,” said the report released Wednesday by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and professional services firm Ernst & Young LLP.  Better collaboration within agencies, across the federal government and between government and industry is one way agencies can improve how they manage their information technology systems, data and their workforces as the president’s management agenda laid out, according to the report. 

“The federal government will change dramatically in the next decade because of technology advances and more data will become available and then, of course, the demands on federal employees will change,” said Katie Malague, the Partnership’s vice president for government effectiveness and a co-author of the study. “Our report describes what a better connected, more collaborative federal government can accomplish.”

First off, the Partnership and Ernst & Young said that as technology gets more complicated, communication within agencies is paramount to ensuring employees have “a common understanding of the problems they seek to solve together.” As a result, this will make policies and programs more successful that can better serve the public, they said.

For example, the National Science Foundation’s program managers, data scientists and technologists aim to share information and make decisions together as they evaluate grant proposals. “Too often in government, technologists create technology without fully understanding how people are doing their work,” said National Science Foundation Chief Information Officer Dorothy Aronson in the report. “I can only imagine what a research scientist thinks when they’re evaluating a proposal, and I can only help them with the things I know about.”

Success in the future of government work also depends on collaboration across agencies. Often agencies operate in isolated silos and miss out on learning from others, said the authors. 

For instance, Malague told Government Executive that the Veterans Affairs Department’s use of artificial intelligence to combat the high-level of veteran suicides can be used governmentwide. She said the Internal Revenue Service could apply such technology to finding a way to automatically detect tax filing errors. 

The report also said that agencies should share more data and personnel to better understand and tackle nationwide problems. For example, “to thoroughly understand the drivers behind unemployment, agencies may need to analyze data housed not only at the Department of Labor, but also at the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation,” said the report. 

As for personnel, the report highlighted President Trump’s May 2019 executive order that called for a rotation of cyber-related employees among agencies. This works to “enhance the level of expertise in the federal workforce.” 

Lastly, the report said that agencies could benefit from working with the private sector because the government often lags behind in technology and cybersecurity in comparison. The report showcased how the Defense Department launched an exchange program in April 2019. In this initiative mid-career civilian employees are detailed temporarily to the private sector to learn new skills and best practices to bring back to the agency.

Partnerships with industry are also mutually beneficial, the report noted. For example, Mapbox, an online custom map service, used the U.S. Forest Service’s data to create a mobile phone application that alerts land managers, community organizations and the public of where environmental stewardship is happening and where work is needed.

The Partnership and Ernst & Young conducted their research from May to September 2019 by interviewing agency leaders and outside government specialists as well as hosting a brainstorming workshop for them. Malague said that from the various forms of collaboration the government can accomplish “tasks as simple as analyzing federal data or as complicated as resupplying the International Space Station.”