How Breaking Down Silos in Government Can Make Things Worse

Sometimes attempts to collaborate create unforeseen problems.
August 2019
Washington State Capitol
Washington State Capitol (Shutterstock)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Knowledge is the currency of the realm,” says David Ager, a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School.

“The beauty of government is that you share,” according to Sarah Razor, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Administrators.

Both are true and work best when they work together. But sometimes governments apportion ideas and information like a covey of 6-year-olds with one toy. And we’re not just talking about data-sharing here, although that’s a critical element. Rather, we’re talking about the broad area of intragovernment collaboration. Collaboration is the road governments need to be on to find solutions to problems that bedevil multiple agencies and departments. Unfortunately, that information road can be full of potholes. Sometimes attempts to fill the ruts create new holes.

Ager points to a 15-year-old article -- “How to Build Collaborative Advantage,” by Morten T. Hansen and Nitin Nohria -- that highlights four big challenges to collaboration: the competitive edge, where agency heads are concerned about handing over the secret sauce to another agency that is vying for the same budget dollars; the time factor, in which sharing successful practices takes up too much staff time; the search barrier, which is when government staffers find it difficult to locate the people who have the knowledge they seek; and the confidence issue, where people are not willing to seek help from others because they’re afraid of revealing their own inadequacies.

When governments set out to resolve these collaboration challenges, they may discover that their cures have unforeseen, negative side effects.

Five years ago, for instance, the state of Washington set up “goal councils” under its Results Washington program. Each council was made up of a group of agency directors, with the idea that these directors could work collectively on the state objectives that intersected with their overlapping work. From 2014 to 2018, each of the goal councils met monthly to examine progress and collaborate on action items. 

While the goal councils resulted in some solid accomplishments, they also led to a problem: The set memberships left out potential players who might have had an important role in addressing the problem in question. So while some silos were broken down, new ones cropped up. 

Now, Washington is trying another approach. On a case-by-case basis, state officials are bringing in agencies as well as external groups to work together on specific objectives set by the governor. Recently, the state set up a collaborative working group to come up with improvements to its reentry programs for recently released prison inmates.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to solve all its issues with collaboration, though. There is still the ongoing issue of siloed budgets. While agencies may buy into the idea of collaboration, there’s a lingering risk that agency budgeters may feel that “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable.” “The way we budget contributes to the problem of siloing,” says Inger Brinck, director of Results Washington.

Another way states and cities have attempted to make for more collaborative government is to create a number of new departments to clarify roles. But these can create still more delays in procuring information.

For example, Dallas has both a geographic information services department and a communications and information services department. But to get, say, an informational map from the GIS department, one can’t necessarily go directly to GIS, or even CIS. It has to start with a query to another division within CIS, called the Enterprise Data Management Division.

Similarly, new positions dedicated to greater effectiveness, while helpful, have the potential to build even more walls. These new titles include chief human capital officers, chief evaluation officers, chief program management officers, chief risk officers and chief data officers. While such new positions provide significant benefits, they can also carve out new fiefdoms.