Interagency Collaboration: Beware!

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There are substantial and continuing pressures from many quarters of government toward collaborative work on space and Earth science missions. However, a new study, “Assessment of Impediments to Interagency Collaboration on Space and Earth Science Missions,” carried out under the aegis of the U.S. National Research Council (NRC), finds a host of reasons that space missions should, in general, not be performed in an interagency framework.

Through an examination of case studies, agency briefings, and existing reports, and drawing on the broad personal knowledge and direct experience of panel members, the NRC committee found that successful multiagency collaboration in Earth and space science missions is difficult to achieve, leading to more complexity, schedule delays and costs that are usually higher than missions undertaken absent collaboration. Advocates of collaboration typically underestimate the difficulties and associated transaction costs of partnerships, while assuming no increase in risk to meeting performance objectives.

The committee’s principal recommendation is that, in general, agencies should conduct research projects independently. Only under rather special circumstances should this rule be violated, such as when:

  • It is judged that cooperation will result in significant added scientific value to the project over what could be achieved by a single agency alone.
  • Unique capabilities reside within one agency that are necessary for the mission success of a project managed by another agency.
  • The project is intended to transfer results from research to operations necessitating a change in responsibility from one agency to another.

Good systems engineering and project management techniques are important in any space mission, but where multiple organizations are involved, even more attention must be paid to these factors. The inevitable creation of “seams” as a result of interagency collaboration is a source of technical and programmatic risks and thus requires proactive management and attention. In the event of a decision to proceed with collaboration, conscious steps to mitigate risk must be taken at every stage of development — from identification of the potential partner agencies and assignment of their respective roles through project definition, management and acquisition, to working with the administration and the Congress to ensure mission success.

For many good reasons, collaboration is not the norm for agencies pursuing Earth or space science missions. “Grass-roots” collaboration among agencies typically works better because it is based upon technical necessity and a desire to work together. The top-down forcing of collaboration for budgetary or other reasons may be necessary in some cases, but it is burdened from the beginning with considerations that lack working-level buy-in. Teams that want to work together far outperform those that are forced together. They also facilitate the application of the tools and techniques associated with good program and project management. Successful collaboration is more likely when each agency considers the partnership one of its highest priorities; such an understanding should be codified in signed agreements that also document the terms of the collaboration’s management and operations.

Impediments to interagency collaboration can result from sources both internal and external to the agencies themselves. Internal sources can include conflicts that result from differing agency goals, cultures and stakeholders, and agency-unique technical standards and processes. External sources can include the different budget cycles and layers of approvals for each agency — for example, for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which must first submit its budget to the Department of Commerce — different authorization and appropriation subcommittees, budget instability and changes in policy direction from the White House and Congress. These impediments affect mission success and alter cost, schedule, performance and associated risks.

The most serious impediments are external to the agencies. They are typically symptoms of conflicting policies such as different budget priorities by agencies, the White House and Congress toward the same collaborative activity that are often not made explicit at the beginning of proposed cooperative efforts. While there may be acknowledgement of the value of collaboration at a national level, at the implementation level decision-makers are often unwilling to prioritize collaboration above other agency mission assignments and constraints.

The commitment necessitated by interagency collaborations means there is a need for coordinated oversight by the executive and legislative branches of these special projects. Neither the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) nor the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is suited to the kind of day-to-day operational oversight needed to facilitate interagency collaborative efforts. Some other governance mechanism may be needed to facilitate decisions across multiple agencies and to be accountable for, and supported in, those decisions by the White House and Congress.

If the U.S. government wishes to encourage particular interagency collaboration, then OSTP, OMB and Congress must provide specific incentives and oversight support for interagency projects, including: cross-cutting of budget submissions; protection of funding for interagency projects and freedom to move needed funds across appropriation accounts after approval of a cross-cutting budget; multiyear authorizations; lump-sum appropriations for validated, independent cost estimates; minimization of external reviews that are not part of the project’s approved implementation plans; and unified reporting to Congress and OMB, as opposed to separate agency submissions.

Good interagency collaborations share many characteristics that are, in turn, the result of realistic assessments of agency self-interest and capabilities, and a disciplined attention to systems engineering and management best practices. The NRC committee found that successful interagency space mission collaborations, i.e., those that have achieved their mission objectives, are characterized by:

  • A small and achievable priority list.
  • A clear process to make decisions and settle disputes.
  • Clear lines of authority and responsibility for the |project.
  • Well-understood incentives to participate for each agency and its primary stakeholders.
  • Single acquisition, funding, cost control and review processes
  • Adequate funding and stakeholder support to complete the task.

The study strongly advises that all of the above be present in documented agreements. Though parties may still find collaboration attractive if their share of a mission is more affordable than funding it alone, they should nonetheless consider alternatives to interdependent reliance on another government agency. For example, agencies may consider buying services or pursuing the coordination of observations preferable to fully interdependent cooperation. Adherence to this guidance could help assure that future space missions achieve much greater success at much more affordable costs to U.S. taxpayers.

 

Daniel N. Baker is director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. D. James Baker is director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program of the William J. Clinton Foundation in New York. They were co-chairmen of U.S. National Research Council panel that produced the report on interagency collaboration from which this article was adapted.