Events of recent years and certainly those of today demonstrate that we live in a period of unprecedented uncertainty. From the federal government’s perspective it is clear that its decades-long structure of a web of stove-piped organizations, outdated decision-making procedures, and much of today’s strategic planning processes inhibit effective governance. These processes are often fragmented across agencies and when interagency collaboration does occur it often relies on informal, ad hoc or reactive efforts that are usually temporary and easily weakened or eliminated.
The current federal agency structure is largely vertical, based on separate appropriation dynamics, separate Congressional committee oversight (with some overlap) and a culture of considering agencies as distinct entities, each with its own authorities and agency head.
However, it is obvious that today’s problems are largely horizontal, and often inhabit thematic seams between or among agencies. Those problems require a structural reality to address them which is cross agency and horizontal in nature. An improved structure would include cross-agency mechanisms in place that can be strengthened, developed and modified over time as necessary.
Effective strategy, actions and results depend increasingly on cross agency and multiple agency collaboration, not only on an informal, superficial level but on a more structured, ongoing permanent basis that enables effective longer term planning and results-driven operational decision making. Agility and working across agency boundaries needs to become more the norm than the exception.
The federal government requires a more unified view of its challenges and opportunities, and more unified and improved tools to meet them. This is particularly true in the area of strategic foresight, which helps us think long term and look broadly across the horizon. The problems and issues that require thought and action are not accommodated neatly within agency boundaries.
There have been some worthwhile developments in interagency planning to address particular problems. For example, several years ago the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Housing and Urban Development coordinated their efforts to eliminate chronichomelessness among veterans. Substantial progress resulted. Other similar examples include the coordination of over 200 programs across 13 agencies to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and another to streamline the permitting process for large infrastructure projects such as bridges and ferry terminals.
These examples of real cross-agency problems and efforts to solve them clearly illustrate that current agency boundaries and stove-piped structures cannot adequately address today’s issues. Another welcome development that takes a step in the right direction has been the creation of cross-agency priority goals mandated by the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010. This legislation recognizes that many important federal challenges cannot be effectively handled by individual agencies. It will be interesting tomonitor and evaluate the effectiveness of this relatively new cross-agency coordination mechanism as it matures.
A decade ago, a particular example of interagency collaboration around the effective development of strategic foresight was the Department of State-led Project Horizon. The need for strategic foresight for agencies whose missions have significant global components had become quite clear. Globalization and the rapidly evolving challenges of international affairs converged into global challenges that contained not only diplomatic and military components, but also economic, commercial, legal, health, environmental, homeland security and others.
Although the participating agencies shared highly interrelated goals, they lacked coordinated plans to achieve them, creating both vulnerabilities and operational inefficiencies. Project Horizon brought together senior executives from agencies (17 in all) with responsibilities for aspects of global issues to conduct long-term, interagency strategic planning using scenario-based planning techniques. To include a top-of-government perspective, the White House National Security Council also participated.
The Project yielded a structured set of interagency strategies and action plans to develop interagency capabilities and tools, organizational models, training requirements and goals frameworks. A key structure that emerged was the creation of an Interagency Strategic Planning Group which met quarterly and provided a formalized venue for integrating analyses and institutionalizing interagency planning. Various agencies took the lead on issues where they had the logical knowledge base, thematic mission and structure.
Interagency groups similar to those established by Project Horizon could be created in goal or theme related areas to undertake foresight activities that would provide the basis for linked, tightly coordinated agency work.
To achieve effective foresight, federal agencies could focus on several areas of interagency collaboration that might yield the most benefit. Possible areas of benefit might include the following: