Solving major challenges—such as the worst pandemic in 100 years and its severe economic fallout—requires an unparalleled level of cooperation and collaboration among agencies, different levels of government, political parties and the private and nonprofit sectors. Yet, the federal government frequently operates in organizational silos that make it hard to work across jurisdictional boundaries to leverage resources and coordinate efforts to serve the public more effectively. To respond to current and future challenges, there must be increased coordination across government and sectors.
Political polarization has stymied progress on major policy issues and contributed to 21 full or partial government shutdowns since 1976, including the longest-ever shutdown—34 days—that ended in January of 2019 and resulted in disrupted services to the public and to state and local governments.
In a recent GAO report, ten of 24 surveyed federal agencies reported that they do not have a designated employee responsible for ensuring compliance with a presidential executive order that requires agencies to consult with state and local governments when making rules that will directly affect them.
Congress has appropriated roughly $4.5 trillion of economic relief and stimulus across sectors in response to the pandemic, dwarfing the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s original cost of $787 billion, requiring cross-sector collaboration at a scale never seen before.
103 federal agencies—from the National Institutes of Health to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—have been activated to respond to the pandemic.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CONGRESS
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Federal agencies responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in new and innovative ways while navigating complex challenges and collaborating across government. To better deal with current challenges and be prepared for future crises, Congress should build on cross-agency success stories, replicate best practices, take stock of lessons learned, provide sufficient staff, infrastructure and resources for existing and new coordinating capabilities, and create more joint funding opportunities for interagency collaboration.
Formalized educational opportunities for lawmakers and staff can enrich their understanding of how policies work in practice, the importance of cross-agency collaboration, and how congressional oversight can help make programs more effective. Opportunities for members and staff could include agency and field visits, fellowships, shadowing programs, presentations and conferences.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION
Public-private partnerships are a valuable tool for tackling big problems, but real or perceived barriers can discourage agencies from using them. Administration guidance that taps into the wealth of expertise in each agency and leverages existing resources could be valuable in spurring cross-sector innovation.
The federal government’s website for monitoring goals and results is a valuable resource but could better inform future collaboration efforts and support the work of different policy and management councils. For example, information supporting council decision-making, outlining interagency council activities and summarizing lessons learned and outcomes will increase transparency and showcase the impact.
Gathering a wider variety of perspectives, including those of regional employees and program implementors, will result in more informed and better policy decisions. Interagency and policy management councils can enhance their decision-making by engaging stakeholders from regional offices across the country as they discuss issues that impact the workforce.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FEDERAL AGENCIES
Interagency collaboration is essential for an effective federal response to a host of challenges, so it is vital that agencies bring the right people to the table. Implementation teams should have designated leaders, roles and responsibilities, and work together to ensure that outcomes align with the vision of policy and management councils. Career senior executive-level officials should be deployed to help implement cross-agency initiatives to sustain momentum across leadership transitions.
As policymakers introduce more data and evidence into decision-making, bringing in employees with evaluation expertise on the front end will help ensure that initiatives and policies are results-driven, meaningful and relevant. This collaborative effort can ensure that lessons learned are captured and shared to inform future work.
Effective collaboration between constituent service representatives in congressional offices and federal agencies will lead to more timely, accurate and honest communication and have a big impact on how the public experiences government. Agencies should offer orientation services to congressional district or state office staff to foster strong working relationships and ensure that the public is well-served.
Approximately 85% of all federal employees work outside of the Washington, D.C., area. Federal Executive Boards support these employees and played a critical role in helping agencies respond to the pandemic. Funding FEBs through the Office of Personnel Management or the Office of Management and Budget would consolidate oversight, management, priority-setting and implementation of management issues affecting federal regional offices across the country.