On Food Safety, Collaboration Can Be Hard to Swallow

By Barbara Romzek, Jocelyn Johnston, and Rebecca Yurman

Recently, Chipotle Mexican Grill temporarily closed its doors nationwide after hundreds of people became ill from the food at several of its 2,000 restaurants over a period of months. Stories like Chipotle’s – food-borne illness outbreaks in quick-service restaurant chains – have become very common. Though Chipotle is ultimately responsible for serving tainted food, public health officials from a number of federal, state, and private agencies work together to investigate and prevent further illness. So, how do these agencies find common ground and overcome challenges under the pressures of rapid response?

Food safety matters provide yet another window with which to view decentralized governance and reliance on third party delivery. The salience of food safety failures is high. People can and do die quickly and in large numbers when the policy fails.

Through a new partnership with the National Academy of Public Administration, American University’s School of Public Affairs is working to provide expertise and evidence-based strategies on key issues that the presidential transition teams will face later this year. We found that collaboration is a major issue that cannot be underestimated, and yet it is so easily overlooked during times of transition.

In theory, it’s a straightforward idea: working together to accomplish common goals. But the reality of collaboration between vastly different organizations and agencies is far more complicated. Implementing big policies, such as food safety, at a time when pressures are high is not easy or without its “pinch points.” The challenge of achieving accountability for public services that are compounded by collaborative networks is a long-standing one.

Knowing this, a team of experts at the School of Public Affairs set out to identify what works and what hasn’t, using food safety and health care as the common thread. Jocelyn Johnston, a public administration and policy professor and Ph.D. candidate, Rebecca Yurman, interviewed 80 officials at various agencies and levels of government. The insights we found and are preparing to publish will help new collaborators anticipate problems before they arise.

Food Safety: A closer inspection

In the American political system, different spheres of government—Federal, state, local—have their respective areas of responsibility, authority, and expertise. As a result, the need for collaboration in the management of food safety is especially critical. In recent years, states have been assuming the primary responsibility for federal domestic food safety inspections, while the Food and Drug Administration’s role has become increasingly concerned with oversight and policymaking as opposed to regulatory activity. Meanwhile, Congress authorized FDA to rely on private companies for inspections and certifications of food entering the U.S. As food safety regulation is increasingly outsourced to states and nongovernment entities, it means that FDA manages from a distance.

The level of integration and complexity of these relationships across state and federal boundaries and across public and private sector organizations is challenging, particularly with human health at risk. Collectively, they are responsible for setting food safety standards, conducting inspections, ensuring that standards are met, and maintaining a strong enforcement program to deal with those who do not comply with standards.

During our interviews, one common “pinch point” that repeatedly came up was the challenge of maintaining relationships across often fragmented food safety authorities. “The devil is in the details and relationships become paramount,” said one interviewee.

Collaboration between federal and state managers, in particular, is complex and dependent on building bridges through stronger relationships. In fact, it’s further complicated by the amount of variation from state to state. As one federal official put it, “If you’ve been to one state, then you’ve been to one state.” Imagine the challenges agencies face when implementing food safety policies in different parts of the country that adhere to different state laws, all at the same time.

For example, Oregon and Pennsylvania permit the sale of unpasteurized milk, but federal law prohibits interstate trade. This means that inspections take both sets of regulations into account, depending on where the product is to be sold. Further complicating matters is the widespread impact factors can have. For example, the illnesses that affected Chipotle sickened more than 500 people in more than a dozen states from Washington to Massachusetts.

Within any large network of complex organizations, obviously, there are many opportunities for misunderstandings when implementing sweeping change, such as food safety regulations. Personal connections are the key to building trust and shared norms, and move collaboration forward. Our other research on collaboration has identified that underlying agency rivalries or jealousy cause tension and ultimately breaks down trust.

It’s clear that some senior managers within federal agencies have a strong desire to collaborate and work with states as partners and equals. There are still others who need strong encouragement to develop respect for state programs and their state counterparts. Actors in any collaboration can find ways to stall or even put a stop to state initiatives. Good relationships among collaborators can ensure that program managers have the opportunity to articulate their concerns. Conflict, which can impede successful collaboration, is a pinch point that can be avoided.

When it comes to relationships, how do collaborators know they’re on the same page during times like this? From our research, we can offer this advice:

  • Consider expanding joint federal training opportunities for states and local counterparts, as well as for the private sector.
  • Develop clearly written, well-established guidelines that all people in the collaborative network can follow.
  • Strengthen relationships by establishing a clearly defined set of shared goals for the collaboration that all actors can strive toward.
  • Establish regular communication strategies, such as a weekly phone conference, between managers of federal, state, and local counterparts within specific regions.

The challenges to working collaboratively goes far beyond relationships,  turf-battles and hierarchy. There are also tensions between formal and informal accountability, cross pressures of rhetoric and reality, financial pressures, and even staff turnover. All of these add to the pressures of sustaining a collaboration that can be held accountable for performance. I realize that collaboration moves far beyond the issue of food safety. We continue to learn more about ways to make successful collaboration for policy work easier to stomach. And I welcome comments about your experience and insight.

Barbara Romzek, Dean and professor, School of Public Affairs at American University, is recognized for her expertise in the area of public management and accountability with emphases on government reform, contracting, and network service delivery. 

Jocelyn Johnston is a public administration and policy professor for American University’s School of Public Affairs. Her current research focuses on government contracting, public management, and intergovernmental programs and policy.

Rebecca Yurman is a Ph.D. candidate in American University’s School of Public Affairs, Department of Public Administration and Policy. Her research interests include regulatory policy, contract management and other issues in public management, federalism, and food safety policy.

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