Creating Cross-Boundary Teams

Instead of a single government entity trying to solve a problem, cross-boundary collaboration allows a whole group of players to tackle tough policy challenges.
by , | July 6, 2011 AT 5:00 PM

Cross-boundary collaboration, also known as XBC, is transforming the public sector. XBC is an approach for creating value from networks. These cross-boundary networks take a variety of forms, but share one underlying common theme: They all involve collaborating with "outsiders" to create value. These outsiders include civic groups, companies, nonprofit organizations, private citizens and employees of other governmental entities.

In a world governed by cross-boundary networks, what role does traditional government play?

The traditional concept of government is one of a centralized disburser of rules and monopolistic enforcer of those rules. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgates and enforces environmental regulations. XBC allows governments to transform this process by engaging more participants and encouraging them to enrich it by adding their own perspectives. XBC offers the promise of less control but better results.

Consider, for example, the problem of water pollution. In the past, prevention efforts focused on the big "point source" polluters, such as manufacturing facilities that dump toxins into a river. Government regulators can deal with such polluters relatively efficiently. Today, however, pollution is often the result of the action of thousands of small polluters, including households that improperly dispose of motor fuel, mercury thermometers and other household chemicals. Inspections and water quality monitoring can do little to detect these sources. Moreover, pollution likely occurs within the context of a watershed area that crosses several political boundaries. What can be done?

XBC offers the ability to work across boundaries with resources outside a normal regulatory structure in an effort to engage the community in reducing its own pollution. For example, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, a partnership formed in 2001 of government, industry and not-for-profit groups in the United States and Canada, is transforming this region from an industrial sewer into a haven for wildlife observation, recreation and education. Between 2001 and 2006, the refuge preserved 4,985 acres, completed more than twenty-five engineering projects to replace concrete infrastructure with "soft shore" habitats and leveraged more than $11 million in conservation projects.

Instead of a single government entity trying to solve a problem, XBC allows a whole group of players to coordinate their efforts to gang tackle tough public policy challenges. Technology also massively expands the potential for group action. Online XBC networks may enable all kinds of new models that have not been possible before.

This is producing profound changes in politics and society. Faced with the need to enact dramatic spending cuts in the face of a massive debt burden, the United Kingdowm enlisted public-sector workers and regular citizens in the process of identifying cost savings. More than 100,000 cost reduction ideas were submitted in response to the government's Spending Challenge initiative, 63,000 of these from public employees themselves. Dozens of the ideas were adopted by the government.

The challenge for governments is how to structure a governance model that invites wide and robust participation while realizing the public mission in a timely fashion. That process will stretch the thinking of all political parties. Changes in traditional political and governance relationships will be needed for XBC to deliver on its potential. Of particular importance is transitioning away from siloed legislative funding that establishes disincentives for cross-boundary collaboration.

Government is being asked to solve complex, 21st century cross-boundary problems with a management and workflow structure designed before the computer age. This outdated model limits organizational flexibility and the public sector's ability to quickly react to change. So what needs to change to realize all the potential benefits of XBC?

One change that would have a powerful impact would be to move towards a different model of how work gets done. By moving knowledge workers out of agency silos and developing a government-wide "cloud," or pool of government and non-governmental professionals, the right mix of skills and expertise could quickly be pulled into cross-boundary teams. This could help break down organizational silos and increase government-wide organizational adaptability. The workforce cloud model, enabled by quickly advancing communications and collaboration technology, would allow workers with the right skills to participate in cross-boundary networks designed to solve specific problems. It would allow the right structure with the right participants to be built to meet every challenge, rather than relying on old structures to solve new problems.

For more see the study, XBC: Creating public value by unleashing the power of collaboration.