Nov 08 2021

Imagine Nation ELC 2021: Feds Look to Make Interagency Collaboration a Reality

As agencies adopt hybrid work policies and technologies, federal IT leaders are looking to break down silos between and within agencies.

As agencies plan for a future in which hybrid work setups are much more the norm, the federal government is working to make collaboration across and within agencies more seamless and inclusive.

The government is moving ahead with plans to enable calendar sharing and chat functionality across agencies, with document sharing on the horizon, according to Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat.

During a panel session Monday at the Imagine Nation ELC 2021 conference, Roat noted that the Federal CIO Council launched a pilot program this year with the Small Business Administration, NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Education Department that was completed in July. Officials at those agencies were able to share their calendars and enjoy cross-agency chat functionality.

Following the pilot, the council set up a program management office to help facilitate these capabilities across government, and last week it has its first call to do so. “We are moving on this,” Roat said, adding that document sharing is next. She said such shifts will be a “game changer” for how the government operates.

The effort is emblematic of what panelists said was necessary to make collaboration more seamless and inclusive across government as hybrid work becomes the new normal. “We would like to get to a point where the silos of our organizations are not the things that are preventing us from being successful at our missions,” said Dan Pomeroy, deputy associate administrator at the General Services Administration.

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Breaking Down Silos via Technology and Culture

At the GSA, the Office of Governmentwide Policy has been directly involved in supporting the CIO Council to create interagency collaboration standards, Pomeroy said.

The office has also worked with some foreign governments and has been able to leverage solutions that have become much more common in government since the onset of the pandemic, such as videoconferencing. For example, the office is working with the Australian government on Technology Business Management. “That openness allows us to move in new ways,” he said.

The pandemic “amped up everyone’s capabilities to leverage video chat in a way we never leveraged it before,” he said, adding that interagency and intergovernmental collaboration enables efficiencies and economies of scale.

RELATED: How is the Defense Department supporting long-term telework?

Roat said the nature of the work and the need to work across government is not changing, but that the “how” of interagency collaboration is shifting away from email and more toward team collaboration platforms, such as Microsoft Teams.

Emailing attachments between agencies is “pretty painful,” Pomeroy acknowledged, and he said it is difficult to collaborate and ensure version control. However, he noted, technology platforms such as Teams and Google Workspace solve for those issues. The key is to remove barriers to using them across government agencies, he said. That work is ongoing with the recently established project management office Roat mentioned.

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Inclusivity, Accessibility Are Key to Hybrid Work Success

In addition to making it easier to collaborate across agencies, the speakers from the panel stressed the importance of making sure hybrid work setups are inclusive within agencies and meet accessibility standards under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“It’s more important than ever” to build accessible solutions for people with disabilities into digital services and tools, Pomeroy said, so that everyone within an agency is able to contribute and collaborate equally.

Agency and IT leaders must be proactive and lean into delivering those solutions, he said, adding that the “sin of omission is really the crux of the problem.” That includes ensuring videoconferencing tools have captioning and sign language interpreters.

“We no longer have the option to give any of this short shrift in this hybrid work model,” Pomeroy said. “In some cases, that means making financial investments where they need to be made.”

EXPLORE: How does culture need to shift to support hybrid work in the federal government?

The speakers also discussed the need to ensure that workers who are participating in a meeting virtually feel just as included as those who are physically in an office. Philip Wenger, chief of the budget systems branch at the Office of Management and Budget, said that it is the meeting leader’s responsibility to do so, and he advised having two meeting leaders so that one can monitor the conversation and engagement of those participating virtually.

“We need to think about how you engage people on the video calls so that they are not back-benchers,” Roat said. Some of that can be done via technology, such as placing cameras in a room to give those participating virtually more direct eye contact with in-office participants. However, she also stressed the importance of meeting leaders ensuring those on the call are not forgotten.

Team building will be both difficult and critical in hybrid work environments, Wenger said. “How do we make sure everyone has an equal voice?” Wenger said. “How do I make sure the person who is working remotely is as included? How do I make sure they get the same opportunities in their career?”

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