Breaking down the silos: Improving collaboration among city departments

This special report from American City & County highlights an exciting project we’ve been working on with the City of Olathe so we’re reposting here.

Olathe, Kan., builds a collaborative culture to improve service delivery
By Jeff Johnston

Nowhere is the image of a silo more familiar than in America’s heartland, where the tall structures that contain harvested grain function as essential hubs in the spokes of agricultural commerce. But, silos take on negative connotations when they describe government departments that function independently with limited interaction or coordination with other organizations.

As resources become more scarce and service demands increase, many cities and counties are breaking down their organizational silos to foster cooperation and collaboration among their internal departments. By coordinating the use of limited funds, equipment and staff, cities and counties are finding new efficiencies and maintaining or improving their service levels.

Olathe, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City, recently embarked on a journey to eliminate the organizational silos between its departments and build a culture of collaboration instead. Knowing that they could not just tell departments to work together, City Manager Michael Wilkes and Assistant City Manager Susan Sherman sought to develop department heads’ collaborative leadership skills and recognize those skills in their performance reviews. The city worked with the University of Kansas Public Management Center and the School of Public Affairs and Administration to develop a supervisory training program for its managers that, among other things, included practical exercises designed to teach supervisors the skills they need to be effective collaborators. Researchers at the university are measuring the effectiveness of the training program and tracking the city’s transition to its new culture.

A ‘Shift in Thinking’
For the last decade, Olathe has been on a quest to deliver exceptional public service and has been measuring its progress toward that goal with annual citizen surveys. The surveys, administered by locally based ETC Institute, gauge residents’ satisfaction with city services, including emergency services, parks, water and wastewater, street and building maintenance, and communication. As all departments have been working toward improving their survey results, however, each became inwardly focused on their individual operations. “We were doing so much as a rapidly growing city, a lot of people were just focused on what they did and not what other departments were doing,” Sherman says.

Although collaboration was essential for certain tasks, such as emergency planning and response, elsewhere it was not pursued. “Everybody is so task-oriented, and collaboration really takes time,” Wilkes says. “We get so focused on the task and accomplishing the task and checking the stuff off the list that we don’t look for those opportunities to collaborate with others.”

So, when Wilkes and Sherman set out to create a new supervisory training program for city managers, they wanted to incorporate collaborative leadership skills training into the program. “We’re not going to get [all] the people that we’d like to have; we’re not going to have all the resources that we need for all of the stuff that we need; so, we’re going to have to figure out different ways to deal with and address our problems, and collaboration and innovation are the ways we’re going to get there,” Wilkes says.

The city began working with the University of Kansas Public Management Center to develop the program that would start with the city’s executive leadership team and, over one year, bring together managers and assistant managers in groups representing each department for three days of training. The main goals of the program were to link the supervisors’ responsibilities to the city’s stated vision, values and mission, and to teach collaborative leadership skills.

“When we talk about collaborative leadership, what we’re really talking about is that we have to learn to align very different goals at times; we have to coordinate multiple partners; we have to learn to share information effectively; we have to learn to work through conflict so that we can achieve the best possible solution to these pressing public problems that are not isolated to any one sector,” says Heather Getha-Taylor, assistant professor in the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration. “We’ve realized that producing public value is best achieved when we overcome the fragmented and siloed approaches – when we can take an integrated approach and solve problems using expertise, resources and information that spans boundaries.”

The training program also aimed to change the mindset of department supervisors who were focused on being direct service providers and building up the capacity of their departments internally. “It represents a need for a shift in thinking,” says Jonathan Morris, instructor and program manager for the University of Kansas Public Management Center. “If local government has traditionally been the direct service provider, what we hope to address in this training is to get the leaders and supervisors to rethink their role and see themselves instead as the convener of multiple providers, as the collaborator of public and private entities or intergovernmental collaboration. So, as you begin to rethink that role, it requires new skill sets.”

A small group setting and specific exercises created an environment that encouraged collaboration. After the three-day training, participants met with their small groups independently to discuss how they were putting their new skills into practice and making progress toward a collaborative project with another department. Also, collaboration was added to the performance goals of managers, who needed to show how they were engaging other departments, Wilkes says.

Collaboration Pays Off
To measure the results of the training program, University of Kansas researchers are conducting a long-term survey of city supervisors. Participants not only report their immediate reactions to the training, they must report on changes in their behavior and results over time.

A final report is due in October, but preliminary survey results show that the training has been successful in showing managers the value of collaboration. “Those who participated in the training perceive collaboration as key to getting their jobs done, and they agree that collaboration is worth the extra effort involved,” Getha-Taylor says. “We see a strong positive relationship between participation in the training and self-awareness, listening and communication skills. Those are the key collaboration skills that we need to be developing.”

In practice, collaborative efforts paid off for Olathe last winter when it experienced some of the heaviest snowfall and winter storms in recent history. In preparing its snow response plan last year, the streets department for the first time worked with the fire and police departments to develop a snow-clearing strategy. Previously, the streets department created its plan independently and had divided its crews to focus on different types of roads.

By working with the emergency departments to prioritize route clearing and by strategically directing plows during and after storms, the city improved its performance even during one of its worst winters. “We were good at snowplowing before, but we were outstanding in the winter of 2010-2011,” Wilkes says. “We had more snow than we usually have in Kansas City, and we got better results from our customers than ever before. And, I think it was because we worked together in a way that we had never worked together before.”

Although collaborative efforts might take more time and the outcomes might not be clear at the beginning, Wilkes and Sherman have seen that the risks are worth the effort. To break down the silos, they say local government leaders need to brush up on a few skills and then arm themselves with a little courage to take the first steps. “The first thing to do is to jump in and try something. Take a little risk and try something you haven’t done before, and hope it is successful,” Sherman says. “But if it isn’t, learn from it and try again, and try again.”

Jeff Johnston is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.