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Successful Interagency Groups

September 2015
Barbara Deming, Senior Management Consultant

What is an interagency group?

More and more state agencies are using interagency work groups to accomplish work that they cannot do alone. Usually each agency has a share of responsibility for meeting a population's needs, and the various agencies need to coordinate their efforts on behalf of their common population. Sometimes interagency groups include stakeholders, who add diverse perspectives and knowledge to the work.

Interagency work groups sometimes span levels of government, including state and local staff who hold different responsibilities in the same area of service, such as public health, environmental quality, or education.

What is special about interagency groups?

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.

Benefits

Despite these challenges, most interagency groups produce better results than they could if they were not working together. Some of the benefits include:

  • Better service to customers
  • Improved operations as agencies incorporate lessons learned from each other, leading people to slap their foreheads and cry, "What a great idea!"
  • Increased collaboration in areas beyond the scope of the group, such as joint conferences for service providers or placing information in each other's publications

Keys to success

Interagency groups are supposed to produce results that individual agencies cannot accomplish alone. Certain conditions can make or break their chances for success. Interagency groups must:

1. Have a clear charge, authority, and accountability.

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:

  • a shared vision of [X services]
  • strategies for achieving the vision and coordinating existing initiatives
  • recommendations for shared training, technical assistance and resources that will strengthen the capacity of [Agencies A, B and C] to meet the [X service need]s of their customers

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.

2. Involve the right people in the group.

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:

  • Who will be affected by the work of this group?
  • Who has expertise that this group will need?
  • Who has the information and authority needed from the involved agencies? (Some may lack authority, but are more familiar with the day-to-day process in question. A working group could include these "worker bees," who can then represent the group's work to management back at their home agencies.)
  • Should everyone participate as regular members of the group, or could some be consulted less frequently? (This may be clear from the outset, or may become clearer as work progresses.)

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:

  1. Four issue-based task groups chaired by members of the above staff group and including stakeholders for each of the issues, which reviewed data and considered possible proposals
  2. Working group of staff from key agencies, including Department of Public Safety, county courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys, which created proposals for consideration by Policy Group
  3. Broad stakeholder group that periodically met to hear updates and offer feedback on the work of all other groups
  4. Policy group of high-level agency decision-makers, which reviewed, revised and ultimately approved the proposals that came from the task groups and were refined by group 2

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.

3. Provide a structure for participants to learn about each other's work.

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:

  • Agency and program name, and how it is related to other programs within and outside the agency (organizational structure and significant connections)
  • Program mission - what is the purpose and who is the target population?
  • How is this program staffed?
  • How is it funded?
  • What laws govern its work?
  • What does this program do?
  • What key issues affect its success?
  • Trends affecting the way this program is operated
  • What would help to fulfill this program's mission more effectively?

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.

4. Set common ground rules for participation.

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:

  • Attendance and use of alternate members
  • Atmosphere of respect and equality
  • Value of diverse viewpoints
  • Communicating outside the group
  • Decision making
  • Meeting notes

5. Have a balanced three-legged stool of support: Leadership, commitment and relationships.

MAD has found that strong leadership, commitment and support are needed to support successful interagency teams.

Leadership

At least two kinds of leadership are essential for successful interagency work.

  1. Leadership in each agency must give permission to staff to represent the agency and discuss initiatives for potential interagency coordination. Agency leaders must show enough interest in the group's work to stay informed about its work, and to show up in person on occasion to see first-hand what is going on. At the same time, agency leaders need to delegate some responsibility to staff participating in the group, and ensure that those staff have the time and resources needed to be effective group members.
  2. Leadership within the group is key to keeping the team on track and making the most of meeting time. Internal group leadership can be a designated staff person from one of the participating agencies, or an executive team with responsibility for planning and convening meetings. They need not have greater influence than anyone else in the group, but their contribution helps everyone to participate fully. If relationships between individuals or organizations make this challenging, the interagency group may choose to clarify and establish who does what, and even draft interagency agreements to formalize roles or allow for sharing of data.

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.

Commitment

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.

Relationships

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.

6. Lay the groundwork for moving from theory to practice

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:

  • What the group is doing is DIFFICULT. They are asking their home agencies to enter unfamiliar territory and risk running into conflicts, sharing their "turf," and making mistakes.
  • A clear, compelling, and communicated vision for the benefits to be gained will help participating agencies, customer groups, policy makers and other observers to accept the proposed changes.
  • Agency leaders who are well informed about the interagency group's work over time will have the ability to plan ways to provide resources to the shared effort, once the rubber meets the road.
  • The group needs to know if someone who has the power to veto or undermine the group's consensus has decided NOT to be part of the process. This could be a person who used to have authority but still holds sway with a segment of the group.
  • Have patience and look for windows of opportunity. Sometimes it takes time for interagency group recommendations to wind their way through the multiple agencies, committees, organizations, etc. that need to consider the recommendations and commit to action. Changes at this level happen more slowly than changes within one agency. Some initiatives get labeled failures when they are actually on a ten-year timetable for success. Performance measures and goals may need a ten-year horizon.

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.

7. Measure and communicate progress

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:

  • Identify common outcomes: Naming a common target and identifying indicators of success can be a profoundly unifying experience, helping individuals to recognize how their collective efforts are working to achieve the intended results.
  • Recognize potential improvements: Seeing individual agency contributions in light of shared goals can reveal new opportunities for improvement, and measuring results over time can shed light on what's working well and what could be improved.
  • Value individual contributions: common measures provide a powerful tool for communicating with funders and others about the value of investing in specific programs.

See http://raguide.org for information on implementing results-based accountability performance measurement.
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