There is a special cohort of leaders who are spread out across the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNCS) Division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) who believe deeply in the power of intra-agency collaboration.

FNCS oversees many programs and services that help provide Americans with access to nutritious food, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program, and more.

As part of their capstone project for the 2018 FNCS Leadership Institute (LI), a group of 15 mid-career professionals “worked collaboratively” for roughly nine months with the goals of “identifying barriers to collaboration” and providing recommendations “to overcome barriers to collaboration within FNCS.” I was so impressed with their presentation that I’d like to share some of the highlights with you.

The members of the FNCS LI class began their presentation with a compelling story (told passionately by Gary Slate) about how FNCS responded in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in the Fall of 2017.

“FNCS worked tirelessly across program areas and geographic boundaries to provide nutrition assistance to millions of affected households. What made this response so remarkable is how quickly FNCS staff at the National and Regional Offices worked to answer State questions, solve unique implementation problems, and send staff to provide on-site Disaster SNAP assistance collaboratively. From daily calls with State administrators, to operating from a FEMA ship, to improvising in the face of destroyed infrastructure, FNCS rose to the challenge collaboratively, efficiently, and effectively to each of these unique disaster responses.”

I was struck by Mr. Slate’s next words.

“What if we operated with this spirit of collaboration every day? Disaster response has a unique way of bringing out the best in people. Of course, our day to day operations don’t require the same level of intensity, but we owe it to our customers to operate at that same level of collaboration each day.”

This is a powerful sentiment. FNCS programs touch roughly 1 out of every 6 Americans, and as Jan Rhodes, one of the presenters, said:

“The issues our customers regularly face, in many ways, also constitute a crisis, impacting the health and wellbeing of individuals and families. The face of hunger is diverse and our programs are equally diverse….But just as in our response to disasters, it is through collaboration, as ‘One FNCS’ that we can optimize the full scope of our programs to best respond to the diverse needs of our customers. This means breaking down organizational silos in order to collaborate across regions and across programs – putting the customer experience at the forefront.”

This was the central challenge these leaders chose to tackle as part of their capstone project. In the process, they conducted primary and secondary research, identified leading practices in and out of government, and set forth an integrated set of action steps for stakeholders at all levels of the agency.

Most impressively, however, they approached their capstone by deliberately working collaboratively to accomplish this in six cross-program, geographically diverse teams.

As the presentation continued, Kathy Pace spent some time making the case for the importance and potential impact of collaboration across FNCS.

“The word collaboration has been used so much that it may have lost its meaning. Simply stated, collaboration is two or more people working together toward shared goals. Put another way, collaboration is the action of working with someone to produce or create something. The ‘something’ that we at FNCS are working toward is ensuring the nutritional safety net for all Americans. Collaboration takes some effort and commitment: to be open to the views of others; to be willing to compromise; to take pro-active actions to ensure that we engage with and include stakeholders in decision making. However, collaboration is worth the effort because the end result is far superior to the results that we can attain on our own. And our mission to ‘do right and feed everyone’ can only be achieved through optimizing our ability to tap into the knowledge, skills, and abilities of all FNCS employees across the Nation.”

Do right and feed everyone. What a powerful mission.

And yet, as their opening story about the devastation brought by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria showed, collaboration in times of crisis is necessary, but it is not sufficient to fully realize the agency’s mission. Diana Ramos made this clear when she stepped up to the podium and added:

“When a 3rd grader walks up to the school lunch counter, they don’t care about which FNCS division helped ensure the carrot sticks are the right serving size, they care about the ability to get a healthy and wholesome meal. Food is a basic need, no matter why food insecurity appears in someone’s life, whether it is a natural disaster or other life circumstances, it requires our collaboration to address it as efficiently and effectively as possible. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to our State agency partners and ultimately the beneficiaries of our programs to forge these connections and leverage the full power of collaboration.”

They didn’t leave the audience with a hollow call to action. They also offered specific recommendations on how FNCS might begin to promote a culture where intra-agency collaboration is the norm. Jamie Slack outlined a persuasive and practical set of recommendations.

  1. Support structured collaboration across geographic and organizational boundaries.
  2. Formalize job shadowing and establish intra-agency rotations.
  3. Engage employees as internal stakeholders through participative decision-making.
  4. Adopt and normalize new and existing technology.

Toward the end of the presentation, I was curious to see if they would address a challenge (or excuse) I hear often in the course of my work. “Collaboration isn’t new and the ideas you are proposing aren’t new,” people say.

Diana Ramos answered this question for those in the audience who may have been watching and listening skeptically.

“We understand that these may not be new ideas or suggestions, but they are not being used consistently throughout FNCS and deserve more attention from all levels of the agency. The fact of the matter is the work we do feeds millions of people each day. This is no easy feat. We need to work together and collaborate to do what’s right and feed everyone. By implementing recommendations that we have outlined for you, FNCS will make immediate strides towards enhancing intra-agency collaboration.”

Collaboration requires a commitment to thinking and to acting differently. The members of the 2018 class of the FNCS LI clearly worked collaboratively over the last nine months to show their peers how they can come together–outside of national emergencies–to feed everyone.

As I like to say, leaders focus our attention (and resources) on the pursuit of a shared destination. If feeding everyone in America is that destination, I believe there were a lot of people in that room who were ready to start thinking and acting more collaboratively.

Bravo to the members of the FNCS LI Class of 2018.

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