How to create cross-agency networks that work

A recent book identifies eight guiding principles for fostering collaboration between organizations, writes IBM’s John Kamensky.

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration.

The Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal unveiled the first set of cross-agency priority (CAP) goals as required by the Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act of 2010. Seven of the goals are mission-related, such as doubling the number of U.S. exports by 2014, and seven focus on mission support, such as closing critical skill gaps in the federal workforce. They are all detailed at

The law also requires government to designate the officials who will lead each of the goals. Many are senior White House officials. For example, Michael Froman, deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, is responsible for the goal of doubling exports.

How will the CAP goal leaders undertake their tasks? According to, Froman will work with eight agencies and across more than 40 programs that have a role in moving that goal forward. He faces a real challenge in creating a network spanning those agencies and programs while also engaging key players in the private sector. So how do you create a network that works?

A friend just sent me a copy of the book “Networks that Work,” by Paul Vandeventer and Myrna Mandell. The book includes a set of guiding principles to keep in mind. Even if you are not a CAP goal leader but are involved in managing or creating such cross-organization or cross-program networks, the book is a valuable resource.

Vandeventer and Mandell’s eight guiding principles are:

  • Focus on creating a shared purpose.
  • Start with pre-existing relationships.
  • Make sure members assess their tolerance for risk and are empowered by their organizations to act on their behalf.
  • Respect organizational and institutional autonomy while establishing common ground.
  • Ensure upfront time, resources and organizational commitment from key players.
  • Build new types of relationships, with an emphasis on equal partnership among participants.
  • Expect, even embrace, areas where conflicts are likely to occur, and develop an understanding of how to resolve them and establish common ground.
  • Secure needed resources for operations.

The book includes case studies of three kinds of networks to provide insight into how those principles work in action.

  • Networks for cooperating. Such networks share best practices, create common agendas and build momentum. They are the most common form and the least threatening to the organizational autonomy of their members. For their example, the authors cite the North American Alliance for Fair Employment, which serves as a clearinghouse for 65 organizations on the issues of economic restructuring and casual work arrangements.
  • Networks for coordinating. Such networks pursue joint service delivery, develop joint policies and engage in activities that require mutual reliance. This form of network is seen as a moderate risk to members’ organizational autonomy. For example, the California Partnership unites dozens of groups across the state in the fight against poverty via policies adopted statewide.
  • Networks for collaborating. Such networks come with a higher perceived risk to the organizational autonomy of their members. They involve representatives who have the authority to bind their organizations to network decisions and reach agreement on ways to play their roles within the larger system. For example, California’s Water Forum brings together developers, environmentalists, water purveyors and agricultural leaders to address the management of the water supply in the Sacramento area.