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Jane Fountain discusses research with students in the classroom

Fountain has released a report, Implementing Cross-Agency Collaboration: A Guide for Federal Managers, in partnership with IBM. The report offers practical advice for federal managers working to implement more effective cross-agency collaboration.

From electronic tax returns to online government documents, technology is increasingly an essential tool for governments large and small. As digital governance continues to rapidly evolve, there is an urgent need for research that addresses the impacts these fundamental changes have on nations worldwide—research that can help legislators make informed decisions about the future of online infrastructure.

Jane Fountain (far left in photo), UMass Amherst professor of political science and public policy and director of the National Center for Digital Government (NCDG), has focused her career around issues related to institutional change and government reform. Founded in 2002 with support from the National Science Foundation, NCDG researchers work at the intersection of government and information technologies, examining technology’s critical role in the transformation of governments. Fountain has advised groups around the globe, from the World Bank to governments such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Japan.

“If researchers are consciously examining the effects of new technologies on society, and the ways that countries develop policies to incentivize some behaviors and to disincentivize others…we can help to guide policy makers, and decision makers; we can help make the public aware of the world they live in,” says Fountain.

Fountain recently released a report, Implementing Cross-Agency Collaboration: A Guide for Federal Managers, in partnership with the IBM Center for the Business of Government. The report offers practical advice for federal managers working to implement more effective cross-agency collaboration and focuses on two levels of analysis: interpersonal and management skills, and organizational processes. Often the largest of governmental concerns, such as crisis management and food safety, do not fall under any one agency’s jurisdiction and thus require joint decision-making. The Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act of 2010mandated such collaborations, but as Fountain points out, provided little guidance on how to achieve them. Fountain says that while many government officials are willing to work across agencies, organizational hurdles often make it difficult.

“Over the past 20 years what we’ve found is that it’s great to have the technologies that allow agencies to again, share data, share knowledge, email one another, but what tends to stand in the way of collaboration are legal and political (and other bureaucratic) challenges,” says Fountain.

In one Center initiative, open access expert Charles Schweik—professor of environmental conservation and public policy and NCDG associate director—has organized the Workshop in the Knowledge Commons.  Projects are addressing issues of ‘openness’ (such as open access media, open education initiatives, and open source software) and involve faculty from diverse disciplines across campus. In one project, for example, researchers are investigating the degree of unequal access to broadband service, ways to mitigate the inequities, and what role government should play in the process.

“We have a need for rural broadband access—there are many rural areas that are underserved because the population is so sparse it’s not profitable for a company to supply those areas. But we also have many inner city areas where people aren’t being served. So there’s no one simple answer, really,” Fountain explains.

NCDG collaborators are also working with several institutions worldwide surrounding the “internet and the global south.” Spearheaded by Martha Fuentes-Bautista (Communication), doctoral candidate Sreela Sarkar (Communication), and visiting doctoral fellow Diego Canabarro, the project aims to work with nations across the global south as they define their role in the global governance of the Internet. The project focuses on Brazil, India and South Africa, and includes a formal partnership with the Center for International Studies on Government at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.

“The project brings together research and helps governments understand what their alternative paths are to help them make more intelligent decisions. It’s a great way for researchers to keep in touch and to share knowledge, to share research, and to develop collaborative projects across countries,” Fountain explains.

As a member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Innovation Council, a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, and former Chair and current member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government, Fountain advises on a range of governance issues. In the classroom, Fountain is training the next generation of social scientists to better understand digital infrastructure and its impact on society. She teaches a host of related courses including organization and institutional theory, public management and technology, power and governance.

“These institutional changes take a long time…they play out over decades, so this is not an experiment that we can do in the lab over a few months. We need to observe it, and maybe shape it a little bit, in real time,” Fountain says.