Complex Situations Demand Preparation for Collaboration

By Diane M. Disney

Historically, higher education in this country required mastery of a core curriculum (English, history, math, foreign language, science, and so on) as well as a major field of study, which had limited choices within a set structure.  Some notion of the core remains, but the “major” has been transformed.  In the 1970s students began to fashion their own majors, often with some exotic results.  But as time passed, institutions began offering multidisciplinary majors, which ensured that a graduate would know a lot about one area but also something about others with which there might be interaction.

Critics can and do argue about this evolution, but it has worked to prepare graduates to deal with a world in which everyone must be able to deal with people who have specialized in areas outside their own expertise.  And so it is with government today.

Citizens expect two critical things from their federal government:  safety (in all senses) and the freedom and structure within which to innovate and flourish.  That requires that the government be able to address such cross-cutting concerns as food safety, homeland security, immigration, and medical care.  To meet these needs, the government must have employees with a depth of knowledge in each area, but also those who know enough about additional areas to be able to communicate effectively across barriers.

The military recognized this imperative in the 1980s, when the Goldwater-Nichols Act was passed to alleviate problems of inter-service rivalry by (among other things) changing the development requirements for one to reach its top levels.  People wishing to become flag or general officers since then had to have a master’s degree (to ensure depth of knowledge), a graduate program in national security decision-making (from a senior service school, such as the Naval War College), and a joint assignment, meaning a time working beyond their specific service with people from other services.  This meant that the military officers achieving senior ranks by the mid-1990s were collectively very different from their predecessors in their world view and their preparation collaboration.

To make sure that the civilian leadership would be equally prepared, DoD developed the Defense Leadership and Management Program (DLAMP) in the late 1990s, requiring a defense-focused MBA, a national security decision-making program through the senior service schools, and a one-year rotational assignment outside one’s department or occupational specialty.  Among the highlights was the mixing of civilians with military members in the national security courses to the benefit of both sides.

These approaches served the Department well, but rapid developments around the world are bringing changes.  Goldwater-Nichols is being studied for revision, and DLAMP has morphed into a next generation.  Still, the concept of preparing prospective leaders for tomorrow’s world, rather than today’s, prevails.

One of the concomitant strengths and weaknesses of the federal civilian personnel system has been its silos.  For example, individuals would enter the financial management field and spend their careers there, becoming more and more specialized but perhaps acquiring blinders to others’ interpretations of the world.  Requiring rotational assignments, say at the GS-12 or 13 level, on the other hand, could open their minds to alternative views of the world and enable them to work on cross-department or agency task forces and do the other collaborative things that are required to resolve complex problems.

The military system has long had rotational assignments, but it too had silos of service and occupation, hence the need for joint training.  It also needed opportunities for military members to learn how their civilian counterparts thought and to work with them on advancing important issues.

Nothing about the work of the defense department is simple.  And its employee profile ranges from welders to policy analysts, pilots to surgeons, intelligence operatives to day care providers.  Virtually any type of occupation found in the country can be found in the Department of Defense, so the employees need to know how to collaborate with each other for everything to work.

So, too, will be the situation facing the next presidential administration.  As the next President begins to assemble the team to take office in 2017, he or she needs to recognize that, while it will remain important to have people with great depths of knowledge in certain fields, it is equally important that ALL incoming appointees have the education, background, and temperament to be able to collaborate across specialties.  Only then can they advance an agenda that succeeds in promoting the safety, security, and opportunities that the citizenry expects.


Diane M. Disney, Professor Emerita at the Pennsylvania State University, was formerly the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy.  She is working on a panel of the National Academy of Public Administration to recommend strategies for the next president to improve collaboration across the boundaries that too often frustrate the effective operation of government.  For more information about the panel and the NAPA project, please click here.


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