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4 keys to advancing environmental priorities through collaboration

The Biden administration is taking a “whole of government” approach to the challenge of climate change. In addition to rejoining the Paris Agreement, the administration issued Executive Order 13990, "Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis." This EO created a new National Climate Task Force comprised of leaders representing 21 federal agencies chartered with developing our national climate strategy.  

The environmental protection and regulatory landscape has always required the involvement and commitment of multiple public-sector organizations -- federal agencies as well as state, municipal and tribal co-regulators. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, works directly with state-level environmental agencies that are chartered with administrating the regulations that EPA puts in place.

These public-sector organizations are strongly committed to working together to improve air quality, protect waterways and protect human health. That commitment and passion is crucial to working effectively across organizational boundaries.

The co-regulatory environment, however, can present challenges in determining the best way to leverage technology.  Therefore, co-regulators must plan carefully, while acting purposefully and flexibly, when implementing systems to be used across the regulation ecosystem.  Based on our experience supporting the environmental regulatory community, we have identified four traits of successful co-regulator collaboration:

1. Well-defined roles and responsibilities. Because collaboration takes coordination, it is essential that agencies at every level share the same understanding of roles, commitments and resource constraints. Staff from smaller organizations often fill multiple roles. Meanwhile, EPA often takes the lead on cooperatively developed IT systems but must work closely with broad co-regulatory partners to meet the needs of all stakeholders.

One recent initiative focused on emissions reporting demonstrated the importance of defined roles, commitment to collaboration and flexibility. Applying an agile approach, EPA’s product owners engaged with the project team daily to enable a collaborative approach to establish priorities. Applying a user-centered design approach with robust industry and state end-user engagement enabled the product owners to make informed decisions, set realistic goals and determine what functionality was most critical to deliver.  

2. Early engagement with stakeholders across all partner organizations. New technology implementation requires the input of program and policy experts, management and the IT department. While program and policy personnel may be excited about a new cooperative approach, management must consider process changes and budgetary impacts. IT staff will need to understand the architecture and how it aligns with their agency’s security policies.

Agencies tend to have their own data-sharing approaches, preferences, strengths and weaknesses. Early understanding of objectives and a shared sense of value and buy-in across all stakeholders is critical to the adoption of any new environmental system. Engaging key stakeholders throughout projects also mitigates risk.  For example, in developing a widely used multitenant electronic permitting tool, EPA and state program staff worked to identify business requirements and priorities, then collaborated with state IT counterparts to explore system integration opportunities.  By continuously reconciling user requirements to common implementation parameters, the team has enabled broad adoption of reusable services, libraries and assets that reduce level of effort for onboarding new regulatory partners. 

3. Clearly defined use cases supported by statute. Developing a common definition of need between the EPA and its co-regulators is a hallmark of the most successful IT solutions. Stakeholders across all of the levels of government involved in a project must agree on the problem they are trying to solve and on its level of priority.

When developing a common definition of need between EPA and its co-regulators, successful collaborations should identify and address the most common/shared business needs between partners. Successful IT collaborations also seek to design and implement simple configuration-based customizations to address cases where statutory gaps and business requirements cannot be 100% aligned.

4. Flexible collaboration models. While some collaborative efforts meet the needs of a discrete set of stakeholders, others are made for wider adoption. As initiatives become more complex -- involving multiple states or industries -- the complexity of the technical solution scales as well. Smaller efforts might be effectively served by an off-the-shelf solution, but more extensive efforts -- those involving multiple industries or states, or with more complex data-sharing and compliance requirements -- require more flexible approaches.

Multijurisdictional efforts face challenges when multiple standards are in play. Alignment with national standards, where they exist, reduces complexity. Where teams identify variations in data standards or business processes, they must ensure the architecture accommodates those; otherwise, adoption is at risk. For example, solutions must address state-level statutes or regulations for processing applications or issuing permits within a specific timeframe – a requirement that EPA does not have.

Defining high-level requirements early helps determine the right balance within the architecture to meet stakeholder needs. Since this is not always possible, architecture flexibility becomes that much more important. Using APIs to share data across distributed systems can help resolve variability in data structures, data schema and business rules. When the project begins with unknowns, a rigid architecture can impede broader adoption.  The Interim E-Enterprise Digital strategy highlights the value of using open data and open data standards. 

While the challenges associated with climate change and environmental protection are daunting, public-sector leaders from federal, state, municipal and tribal governments are focused on achieving measurable outcomes. Tackling climate change requires continued cross-agency collaboration and the right enabling technologies. Taking these hallmarks of successful environmental collaboration into consideration, leaders across government will be positioned to work together more effectively.

About the Author

Jay Hadley is a senior vice president with CGI Federal.


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