By their nature, interagency groups include members who may not be familiar with each other's work, statutes, work cultures, or approaches to customer service, even though they serve common customer groups.
Sometimes the agencies have a history of conflict, and often they compete with each other for resources through the legislative budget process. Sometimes individuals put their personal stamp on the programs they operate, and personal conflicts and struggles over "turf" can drive wedges between different agencies. Lack of knowledge about each other's programs may make it hard to overcome these challenges.
Even with the best intentions, agencies bump into obstacles, such as different terminology for similar things, differing requirements for the use of funds, inconsistent databases, and conflicting directions given by their enabling legislation.
What's more, government is usually not set up to support interagency groups. Agencies are rarely rewarded for cooperating with other agencies. In the absence of a formal structure, interagency groups often struggle with their charge, authority, accountability, and challenges in applying resources toward shared goals.
Despite these challenges, most interagency groups produce better results than they could if they were not working together. Some of the benefits include:
Participants must know why they are working together and to whom they are responsible. It is well worth the time to clarify this up front, and to check in to reaffirm this understanding.
If multiple agencies and stakeholders have decided to work together on a project, and no one agency or stakeholder (such as the legislature) is in charge, then they must agree among themselves on the charge and authority of the group. A sample charge statement might look like this:
This committee will advise [Agencies A, B and C], regarding their services to [X customers] by developing:
The committee will present its recommendations to [A, B and C agencies] by [X date].
The charge statement tells the group what they are expected to accomplish, by whose authority they are working, and who is awaiting the results of their work. The participating agencies may also create agreements formalizing their commitment to achieving the group's shared goals.
Successful interagency groups need to include all the players with a strong interest in and ability to influence the goals of the group. Organizers should invite people whose point of view needs to be considered in order for the group to be successful. Some helpful questions include:
As the group reaches specific milestones it can reexamine whether the right people are at the table for the next part of the work. Checking on whether anyone else needs to be informed or consulted can be an agenda item at the end of each meeting.
In some cases different levels of work groups are formed to work on a common set of issues. For example, in an effort to update sanctions on impaired drivers, MAD facilitated the following groups, which met with different frequency over a year:
In the end, the product of these four groups' work was developed into legislation and all of the above participants were invited to watch the governor sign the bill into law.
Group members from different agencies need to formally introduce one another to their programs, customers, enabling legislation, terminology, and other significant features. In planning for the initial meeting, participants may provide some of this information up front, and they may need to spend some meeting time talking about their programs one at a time. The facilitator can provide a common format, so that each agency shares the same types of information, and so that a written record may be compiled. A helpful format might be:
As each agency or program is discussed, the group will need time to ask questions and note observations and insights about differences and similarities. A notetaker can keep track of these comments and the group leader or facilitator can then keep a record of the key points learned in each discussion.
The purpose of ground rules is to reduce the group's reliance on assumptions about how they will operate. For example, establishing a ground rule about how the group will make decisions lets everyone know up front how they will move from discussion to decisions, regardless of the various ways they may do this in their home agencies.
Ground rules should address the practical realities of interagency group work, such as:
MAD has found that strong leadership, commitment and support are needed to support successful interagency teams.
At least two kinds of leadership are essential for successful interagency work.
An outside facilitator can provide a third type of leadership - providing a process for developing clear goals, sharing information, and building the group's understanding of the complex system they are a part of. Sometimes group members have the skills to be able to do this, but an outside facilitator can allow all the group's members to participate fully, and also push the group to examine difficult issues, which may be harder for an agency representative perceived to have a vested interest in a particular program to do.
Interagency group participants need to have a high commitment to their shared goals, in order to overcome the more narrow focus of their home agencies. For every insight participants gain about the benefit to working across agency lines, it may seem that two other obstacles appear in the form of turf, statute conflicts, or lack of resources. Interagency-focused staff may feel out of step with colleagues who are less aware of the wider implications of their work. Or they may feel that their work on interagency committees is unnoticed and unrewarded in their home agencies.
The exciting thing about interagency work is the potential for individual agencies to accomplish more than they can do on their own, which often generates strong commitment by group members who share this vision. The challenge is to translate that commitment outside of the group and convince home agencies to commit what is needed to achieve shared goals.
Knowing and trusting one another makes a big difference in groups' ability to work together across agency boundaries. Often these relationships flourish because circumstances throw people together in other settings besides group meetings, such as other projects and community groups. When participants are meeting for the first time, it's helpful to create circumstances where people can become better acquainted with each other. Providing food always helps! Also, it's helpful to allow time to check in on what members have been working on in their day-to-day roles. Often these updates help people to find other ways in which their work intersects, and soon they are identifying new ways their programs might work together.
The biggest challenge for many interagency groups is moving from sharing information and generating ideas to agreeing on how to proceed. This is the point where agency commitment moves from theory to practice, and agency leaders must commit resources to support the interagency initiatives. They may need to realign staff, propose changes in statute, or identify funds that may be reallocated to support the initiatives.
Conflicts that may have been addressed early in the project may resurface at this time. Concerns about who will pay for what, losing control over programs, and tensions among customer groups may reappear, even though the participants worked to become a team.
No single approach will guarantee success at this critical point in an interagency project. However, being prepared for these difficulties increases your likelihood for success! A few points to remember at this phase of the work:
Also, when the interagency team comes forward with its recommendations, the time might not be right to implement the changes. Sometimes one or more agency's leadership is not ready, or the change needs to be sold to the next legislature, or more groundwork needs to be laid before new systems can be adopted. The group may need to wait for the right window of opportunity to open.
They say, "What gets measured gets done." Government agencies have increased their focus on measuring program performance both in terms of effort ("How much did we do?" and "How well did we do it?") and effect ("Is anyone better off?"), and this is especially helpful for interagency groups. Results measurement helps the multiple stakeholders to: