Mar 02 2022

How to Make Federal Cross-Agency Collaboration a Success

As agencies stand up interagency tools for sharing calendars and documents, here’s how they can maximize their cooperation to benefit citizens.

Late last year, the federal government started moving ahead with plans to enable calendar sharing and chat functionality across agencies, with document sharing on the horizon, according to outgoing Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat.

The federal CIO Council has established a program management office to help facilitate these capabilities across government and work through the technical, policy and cybersecurity considerations needed to make this happen.

While this kind of collaboration perhaps should have been common before 2022, the federal government should be commended for starting and following through on this initiative. How can federal CIOs ensure that it is successful as it is rolled out across government?

The technical means for this kind of collaboration are within reach for agencies. The coronavirus pandemic has also spurred technological developments that should make the process easier, as agencies are all now working from the same baseline and largely all using cloud-based tools from Microsoft, such as Teams and Office 365, for productivity and collaboration.

Educating users, breaking down silos between agencies, and ensuring security and compliance controls are in place are more challenging tasks for IT leaders. However, they are not insurmountable obstacles. If CIOs and their teams can make this kind of interagency collaboration successful, they will benefit themselves through greater efficiency and will also be able to deliver better services for citizens.

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Technical Hurdles to Cross-Agency Teaming Are Minor

From a purely technical perspective, enabling the sharing of calendars, chat and documents between agencies is not that difficult. In the past, this kind of cooperation might have been inhibited if agencies were running vastly different versions of software, which would have led to significant compatibility issues.

That may have been an issue a decade or so ago, but it is no longer the case. The pandemic has pushed agencies to aggressively adopt cloud-based tools for collaboration.

The widespread shift to telework that happened in 2020 and 2021 as a result of the pandemic forced many agencies to upgrade their IT infrastructure to support cloud-based productivity tools. That work enabled users working remotely to connect with colleagues and systems on-premises.

This lends itself naturally to enabling such communication between agencies. Sharing common platforms in the cloud should make interagency collaboration pretty seamless from a technical perspective. IT administrators may need to modify some security controls to enable sharing or disable access to certain files, but it is not very complicated.

RELATED: How will hybrid work evolve in government in 2022?

IT Leaders Must Address Data Sharing and Security

Technology may be the easy part of this equation, but there are other concerns IT leaders need to address.

One is educating the workforce on the do’s and don’ts of interagency collaboration. For example, users should not download sensitive material to their desktops and they should not email or download files from personal devices. IT admins should work to ensure that users only have access to the files they absolutely need.

Security and compliance concerns should also be addressed. Once a connection has been established between agencies, IT and cybersecurity leaders must put in place policies on how that information will flow, especially if data covered by HIPAA and other personally identifiable information is being shared in documents.

If agencies do not know who is going to be viewing information on the other end once it leaves their agency’s IT environment, that’s a potential problem. IT leaders should ensure that whoever is receiving information from the originating agency has all the security controls in place to remain compliant with the controls of the originating agency.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: How can government agencies improve customer service?

Depending on the agency, there may already be systems in place to collect and maintain log data on who is accessing certain types of data. Each agency that connects with another needs to be able to collect log data on who is accessing the originating agency’s information. All of this will require data silos to be knocked down and for IT leaders to trust their counterparts at other agencies, which may not be easy.

This kind of cross-agency collaboration may reveal inefficiencies in an agency’s processes. IT leaders and program managers should not see that as a threat or problem. Instead, it may reveal opportunities to reassign workers to more high-level tasks.

Agency collaboration could also open opportunities to be more efficient about how the work of government gets done. For example, workers at the Agriculture Department might learn things about land use from colleagues at the Interior Department that can help improve a program. Or workers at the Department of Health and Human Services might be able to accelerate research by connecting with workers at the Energy Department.

At the end of the day, the government teams truly interested in collaborating with colleagues at other agencies are going to try to improve the missions they are working on. They will thrive and won’t seek to block these kinds of interconnections. This approach will quickly identify pockets of people within the government who are embracing change and looking for ways to advance capabilities within their agencies.

This article is part of FedTech’s CapITal blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #FedIT hashtag.

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