Breaking down silos is one of the biggest challenges any public official faces. Recent advances in technology make it easier than ever to reach across boundaries.

Cross-boundary collaboration, also known as XBC, can dramatically improve performance.

Case in point: In 2009, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched an open competition with a $40,000 prize. The prize money would go to the first team to locate 10 red balloons placed around the continental United States. Riley Crane, who led the winning team from MIT, recognized that the very nature of the problem expanded beyond the scope of his own network and institutional affiliations, so he reached into the public sphere by creating a social network dedicated to finding the balloons.

Not only was there a financial incentive offered to anyone who found a balloon, but the person who invited the balloon finder to join the network and the person who invited them and so on would all share in the prize money.

Within days, over 4,000 people from around the world had formed a collaboration network dedicated to this single task. Remarkably, only 8 hours and 52 minutes into the contest, the team from MIT reported the correct location of all 10 balloons.

Imagine trying to find these 10 balloons using only a team of public employees from the Department of Balloon Finding. Without reaching outside the walls of government, the task is nearly impossible. That's why XBC and the Internet are essential. Any effort to build a team would have missed the 10 people that mattered most to solving the problem.

A new study from Deloitte's GovLab in collaboration with Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center looks at how public officials can leverage this power. XBC: Creating public value by unleashing the power of cross-boundary collaboration, uncovers a myriad of approaches that create public value and connect the people that matter most to solving pressing public challenges.

Social media and the Internet are rewriting the rules around how governments can create public value by inviting citizens, nonprofits and the business community to participate in delivering results.

There are four key benefits of XBC:

  1. Do more with less. Budget shortfalls and massive debt threaten government's ability to deliver public services. XBC can leverage limited tax dollars and tap into a large, motivated network to create public value at a lower cost.
  2. Turbocharge innovation. XBC shifts the source of strategic advantage from in-house expertise to an organization's ability to connect, find and mobilize external resources. In a rapidly changing world, knowledge itself quickly loses value, but the ability to quickly create relationships with the right people can make an organization more innovative and nimble than ever before.
  3. Deliver mission more effectively. Collaboration technologies, social media and the Internet have dramatically lowered the transaction costs of connecting large numbers of individuals and organizations. The enhanced collaboration opportunities can radically improve mission performance.
  4. Tackle "wicked problems." Traditional approaches involving government agencies implementing siloed programs to tackle big problems are beginning to show their limitations. Instead of going it alone, organizations can build structures of people and organizations around accomplishing specific objectives.

XBC has generally been applied in three distinct modalities: to connect, to innovate and to execute. These are important ways organizations can collaborate across boundaries.

Following 9/11, it was clear that silos between various intelligence agencies had failed to connect the dots. Intellipedia was created as a secure, participant-driven intelligence networking site that fosters a community network of connections across organizational boundaries among security agencies. Collaboration and sharing are made easier through XBC technology.

One doesn't necessarily need to be "solving a problem" for XBC to be beneficial in discovering new and better ways of creating public value. The "Apps for Democracy" contest held by the District of Columbia invited developers to make use of city data to create innovative, useful applications of whatever sort they could imagine. Application developers could creatively come up with "problems to solve" making use of the data that city procurement officials had not previously imagined. For an investment of $50,000, the District of Columbia government received 47 apps, worth an estimated $2.2 million.

XBC can also mingle low-tech and high-tech activities. D.C. street sweepers are now equipped with cameras with vehicle-recognition technology that enables them to issue parking tickets, thus generating revenue and reducing scofflaws without burdening public safety budgets.

Collaboration can be a challenge, but the techniques of XBC that are emerging offer great promise for governments to discover innovative ways to deliver results. This study lays out a path for the thoughtful application of XBC by government.