How Cross-Agency Collaboration Can Work for the Greater Good


photo of puzzle pieces being put together

by Jeffrey S. Reznick and Brett Bobley

Jeffrey S. Reznick is the chief of the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

Brett Bobley is the chief information officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the director of the NEH Office of Digital Humanities.

Note: The original, full-length version of this article appeared in the July 2016 issue of The Public Manager, a unique digital publication published monthly by the Association for Talent Development about federal government leadership that works.

Collaboration between like-minded federal agencies doesn’t make good sense, it makes great sense—strategically, financially, and managerially. A synergistic collaboration helps agencies:

  • achieve their respective missions and serve the public effectively
  • leverage their resources and use them efficiently
  • foster creativity and teamwork
  • expand learning and professional networks.

Yet, as many of us working in federal government realize, something so simple in concept and function, is often quite difficult to execute successfully.

We’ve been able to find collaboration success through our work at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM), by combining professional networks, advancing interdisciplinary research agendas, and making more widely known and publicly accessible a variety of research resources. How did we do this? What elements make up a successful interagency collaboration? Read on.

The Opportunity

Interagency collaboration can begin in different ways, mean different things, and involve a variety of activities, a report from the Congressional Research Service explains. Ultimately, the character of any collaboration depends on how it develops, why it exists, and who is working to achieve it.

The NEH is an independent grant-making agency in the executive branch dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities and in those social sciences that use humanistic methods. The NLM is the world’s largest biomedical library, also an executive-branch agency, and a unit of the National Institutes of Health of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Through conversations started via mutual connections, we learned about the work being done in our respective organizations specifically within the departments we oversee: the History of Medicine of the NLM and the Office of Digital Humanities of the NEH. From there, we established a joint interest and willingness to build something together under the well-known premise that two (or more) minds are greater than one.

Our key next step involved delineating clearly the complementary missions and interests of our agencies. This effort helped us define the roles of our agencies in a collaboration, how each could support the other in mutually beneficial ways.

The Office of Digital Humanities of the NEH supports research, education, collaboration, and interdisciplinary learning related to the broad and lasting impact of computers and technology on our culture and society. Its annual Digging into Data challenge is a unique program that supports humanistic inquiry into how digital technology is changing our world. Why, then, collaborate with the NLM? Primarily because it was a means to reaching a community of researchers who, as they study the history of medicine, are increasingly interested in methods and tools of the digital humanities.The NLM is a leader in the application of computer and communications technology to the advancement of health and improvement of the human condition. Its History of Medicine Division embraces the future as a steward of the past by documenting the history of human health and disease through a collection of traditional and 21st-century materials—from books to blogs, manuscripts to videos. Why, then, would it collaborate with the NEH? The methods and tools of the digital humanities, hold great promise to unlock the richness of these artifacts for the benefit of research, teaching, and learning about the human condition.

We also thought about the complementary resources each agency could bring to the table. The NEH could offer funding mechanisms in the area of digital humanities, a field that is increasingly of interest to historians of medicine and medical librarians who regularly use NLM historical collections, databases, and data sets. The NLM could offer deep connections into these communities, particularly through its National Network of Libraries of Medicine and its popular blog, Circulating Now. Additionally, the NLM could offer the resources of its History of Medicine Reading Room and state-of-the-art meeting space at the National Institutes of Health.

The Solution

By looking critically at what each of our program areas could contribute to a collaboration, we defined the terms of the memorandum of understanding between our agencies.  Securing the support of our leadership was essential as we defined these terms, as was emphasizing the strategic value of the collaboration for both agencies and the relatively minimal financial cost of working together.

Another step in crafting this memorandum was close cooperation with our respective executive offices, specifically legal counsel, to ensure mutual agreement on the format, content, and intent of the document.

Integral to the development of our collaboration has been our rapport, our mutual respect and support, and our clear and consistent communication. We modeled this relationship with and for our respective teams so that they also would contribute their skills to partnering with each other and with the other organizations that have become a part of our collaboration. Admittedly, the top-level support we received was a linchpin to our success, but our strong rapport has been—and remains—a key factor in the success of the initial collaboration and its subsequent reaffirmation.

The Results

Between 2013 and 2015, we worked with a network of national and international partners to convene two well-received symposia and one hands-on workshop, all to the end of creating and supporting an international conversation about big-data approaches to research in the humanities and social sciences.

Our collaboration took root around Shared Horizons: Data, Biomedicine, and the Digital Humanities, an international symposium held in April 2013, funded by the NEH through a grant to the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities of the University of Maryland, and co-sponsored by the NLM and Research Councils UK.

Shared Horizons, which has garnered widespread praise, brought together researchers from the digital humanities and bioinformatics communities to explore collaboration, research methodologies, and the interpretation of evidence arising from the burgeoning area of “big data” and biomedical-driven humanities scholarship. The success of Shared Horizons led us to collaborate again on a second symposium, An Epidemiology of Information: Data Mining the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.

Shortly thereafter, we discussed how we could leverage the momentum of our collaboration to develop a workshop uniquely for medical historians, medical librarians, and information technology professionals who are studying medical history and contemporary medicine. We facilitated a conversation between our colleagues at Virginia Tech and the Wellcome Trust, encouraging a collaboration around the workshop. Virginia Tech subsequently applied to the NEH for the necessary funding. The Wellcome Trust would lend support for selected scholars from the United Kingdom to participate; the NLM agreed to host the workshop and offer support in other ways.

In the early spring of 2015, NEH awarded a cooperative agreement to Virginia Tech to support the workshop Images and Texts in Medical History: An Introduction to Methods, Tools, and Data from the Digital Humanities. The organizations involved contributed to publicizing the event. Through its Twitter hashtag #medhistws, the event reached a wide audience, achieved broad and sustained engagement, and reinforced the foundation for future collaboration.

Bottom line: Strategically designed, mutually supportive, and impactful partnerships make great sense. In fact, they can have cascading effects that you may have never originally envisioned. They testify to powerful institutional synergies and the determination of colleagues to build and sustain a collaboration on multiple levels. The NEH/NLM collaboration is an example of one such partnership that has yielded effective public programming, sound financial decisions, and collaborative management. Our investment of time and effort was substantial, but it has yielded lasting dividends for everyone involved, especially the public we serve.

While our collaboration is unique in many ways, the approaches we took to build it, and the values we held to develop it, can operate in any agency culture to serve the greater good.

Further reading re: collaboration? Check out an earlier IDEA Lab post entitled – Innovation for a Safe and Healthier World: A Scientific Collaboration between CDC and the Georgia Institute for Technology