At the DigitalGov Citizen Services Summit last Friday, Jacob Parcell, Manager, Mobile Programs at the General Services Administration led a panel on the challenges and benefits of Inter-Agency work. The other panels were on performance analysis, customer service across channels, and public private partnerships.
“The challenges are real,” said Parcell, who quoted President Obama’s famous salmon quandary: “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater,” Obama said. “I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”
However, the benefits of Inter-Agency work can be enormous. The panel also tackled when to use a top-down versus a bottom-up approach and suggestions for improving inter-agency work.
Lakshmi Grama, Senior Digital Content Strategist at the National Cancer Institute, knows this from her recent spearheading of a working group to create a content modeling solution. There was popular content all over government sites, from events to press releases. She knew it was not something that just one group could solve, so she harnessed the power of a 10 agency working group to produce two content models in just six months. “When people find value, they’ll work together.”
Alec Permison, Applications Manager, Census.gov, at the U.S. Census Bureau, works on apps that pull data from multiple agencies about things like employment and economic indicators. A major challenge is that agency data can be in a many different formats. “We want an app that’s slick, but that still ensures the quality of the data.” The end product allows citizens to access information directly, “without waiting to hear it in the news.”
One of the agencies that is used to supplying information is the Department of Labor (DOL). Mike Pulsifer, Lead IT Specialist at DOL said his agency has over 300 data sets that are public and available to developers. The have a commitment to using open source.
Denice Shaw, Associate Chief Innovation Officer, Office of Research and Development, Environmental Protection Agency, knew the problem of nutrient pollution needed an unconventional solution. Many agencies needed the data, and although sensors existed to measure the problem, it was expensive to do so. However, by pulling together multiple stakeholders, including other agencies and academia they were able to lower the cost.
Top-down approach vs. a bottom-up approach
According to Parcell, both approaches can work. When you use a bottom-up approach, “if you can find the things people are interested, you can get more people involved.”
Grama says “the top-down approach is familiar. The top might not know about the details, they are more interested in the end product.” She also sees a lot of Web and social media folks using a bottom-up approach to figuring things out. The challenge is to articulate why it’s important to top management.
Improving inter-agency work
What can we do improve the quality of inter-agency work? Grama thinks it would be beneficial for government workers to carve out time specifically to think about innovation.
Agencies can also strive to think beyond their silos, since ultimately we work for the taxpayer. If you do work for another agency, “the taxpayer benefits even if your own agency doesn’t see the direct benefit,” said Pulsifer.
What has been your experience with inter-agency work?
Alison Lemon is a Knowledge Manager for the SocialGov Community and a Senior Analyst for Social Media with the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health.
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