12/13/2013 03:21 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2014

Getting Federal Agencies to Work Better -- and Together

Zach Tumin is co-author with William J. Bratton of the book "Collaborate or Perish! Reaching Across Boundaries in a Networked World." He also manages Harvard University's Belfer Center's Project on Technology, Security and Conflict in the Cyber Age and has held senior positions in government. Tumin spoke with Tom Fox about how federal agencies can improve collaboration and transparency. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership, vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What opportunities exist for the federal government to collaborate across boundaries?

A. From the U.S. Secret Service to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, federal agencies have long recognized that core missions require collaboration across boundaries. Today that's essential. In our digital world-and as connected as we are by air, sea, land and space-threat and opportunity move fast. The key to success is to foster networks, be alert to their data and move in time. As former speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once advised, "Make friends before you need them."

Q. What strategies can federal leaders employ to encourage collaboration and transparency among employees?

A. Managers need to set the course but then get the 'change vanguard' moving, as my colleague Steve Kelman has said. This means authorizing and enabling folks who are eager for reform to nominate initiatives, run experiments that can test and prove some new value, and then scale up the winners. It takes a shared vision, resources, cover from above, and performance that will deliver. Take stock of the assets that might be available, from people to platforms to political support. Persistence is key. It took the Air Force years to convert the first drone from surveillance-only to one that could also target-and then to add weapons so it could shoot. Everything about that first predator drone was built from existing assets. Reconfigured, those assets gave the U.S. a new advantage and transformed the battlespace. That's the power of collaboration.