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Collaboration and Partnering Competencies

What’s The Buzz All About?

Pat Bonner, National Center for Environmental Innovation

Do you search out partners and work with them to solve environmental problems,? Do you see opportunities to make progress by collaboration when others see dead end controversies for their projects?   Even if you’ve invested time and energy developing it are you willing to change the name, repackage it and hand the leadership of a project to someone else if they can find resources to achieve the best environmental outcomes for the community and the Agency?

If you answered no, would you like to have said yes?   If you said yes, are you maximizing and taking full advantage of your skills?  Either way, now is the time for you to learn how to prepare for a competencies-based future.   Catch the buzz!


In August 2004 President Bush signed Executive Order 13352, “Facilitation of Cooperative Conservation”.  It defines cooperative conservation as:  “actions that relate to use, enhancement, and enjoyment of natural resources, protection of the environment, or both, and that involve collaborative activity among Federal, State, local, and tribal governments, private for-profit and nonprofit institutions, other nongovernmental entities and individuals.”

Among the things the Order mandated was better collaboration and partnering among five Federal agencies (EPA, Departments of Defense, Interior and Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Department of Commerce) and with external entities when making environmental and natural resource decisions   It called for the agencies to cosponsor a White House Conference on cooperative conservation, which took place in November 2005 in St Louis.  More than 1,300 attendees—most from outside of government—agreed that government staff and managers needed to improve their ability to partner and collaborate.

In his Action Plan, Administrator Steve Johnson has called on us to “…accelerate the pace of environmental protection by taking actions that produce environmental results and are accountable to the public… while ensuring that the best available science remains at the center of our decision making…Together with our state, local, tribal and private-sector partners, EPA will identify and foster approaches, such as Cooperative Conservation, that promote environmental stewardship and produce results though innovation and collaboration.”

Recent actions to advance Cooperative Conservation have heightened the focus on collaboration and partnering competencies.  On November 28, 2005, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) signed a memo directing the five agencies to incorporate collaboration and partnering competencies into the hiring, training and rewarding of Federal employees involved in natural resources and environmental issues, and to develop and submit action plans by March 31, 2006.  The plans outline the steps each agency will take to develop the collaborative knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors necessary to meet the objectives of the EO.   EPA’s plan provides examples from offices and regions of what the agency is already doing through partnerships and collaborative problem solving to set a demanding baseline from which we will build.  EPA’s plan also describes the kinds of actions we will take to enhance current staff and management competencies as well as actions for hiring, promoting, appraising, and rewarding current and future agency personnel.   

What are competencies?

They are observable and in important respects measurable human capabilities, necessary to achieve excellent performance and top quality results. 
These capabilities may include: skills, knowledge, abilities, attributes, motivations and commitments. 
Competencies are demonstrated through behavior.  For example, behavioral indicators of effective conflict management competency might be:

Why should you care about competencies?

As someone working directly with internal and external partners to solve environmental problems, you use collaboration, partnering and other related competencies to engage interests in effective problem solving.  Are you getting and taking credit for using these skills?  Are the potency and value of such skills recognized in your position description and your performance agreement?  Do you have any interest in enhancing those competencies? You can use the IDP and appraisal processes to enhance your personal competencies and to qualify for better assignments on your current job or for promotion.

Collaboration and Partnering-Related Competencies

In January 2006, the five agencies collaboratively reviewed the 27 OPM leadership (SES) competencies and identified eight that they all considered to be fundamental to achieving successful collaboration and partnering at various organizational levels:

We need to find ways to build on and strengthen these definitions to better recognize and value collaborative learning.  While they are OPM sanctioned, they are largely oriented towards internal management, not collaboration with others.  Fortunately, EPA is in the process of using our authority to revise and substantially enhance these definitions in the SES standards.  There will be future discussions on expanding the use of better and stronger definitions more widely across EPA.

Partnering - Develops networks and builds alliances, engages in cross-functional activities; collaborates across boundaries, and finds common ground with a widening range of stakeholders. Utilizes contacts to build and strengthen internal support bases.

Influencing/Negotiating- Persuades others; builds consensus through give and take; gains cooperation from others to obtain information and accomplish goals; facilitates “win-win” situations.

Interpersonal Skills - Considers and responds appropriately to the needs, feelings, and capabilities of different people in different situations; is tactful, compassionate and sensitive, and treats others with respect.

Creativity and Innovation -Develops new insights into situations and applies innovative solutions to make organizational improvements; creates a work environment that encourages creative thinking and innovation; designs and implements new or cutting-edge programs/ processes.

External Awareness - Identifies and keeps up to date on key national and international policies and economic, political, and social trends that affect the organization. Understands near-term and long-range plans and determines how best to be positioned to achieve a competitive business advantage in a global economy.

Entrepreneurship - Identifies opportunities to develop and market new products and services within or outside of the organization. Is willing to take risks; initiates actions that involve a deliberate risk to achieve a recognized benefit or advantage.

Problem Solving - Identifies and analyzes problems; distinguishes between relevant and irrelevant information to make logical decisions; provides solutions to individual and organizational problems.

On July 7, OPM changed several of the 27 SES competencies.  The following is the changed version of the Conflict Management competency – Encourages creative tension and differences of opinion.  Anticipates and takes steps to prevent counter-productive confrontations.  Manages and resolves conflicts and disagreements in a constructive manner.

What’s next?   EPA’s Collaboration and Partnering Action Plan Implementation

Since EPA personnel at every level are called upon to work collaboratively with internal or external partners, nearly everyone will be affected.  Eventually, the competencies will cascade down from the SES positions through managers and into staff performance agreements.  They will need to be revised for application to different non-managerial, non-supervisory positions and grade levels.   They will help drive recruitment, hiring, promotions and rewards. 

The following groups at EPA have received briefings on the Competencies Plan: the Human Resources Council, National Partnerships Council, Innovation Action Council and Collaboration Practitioners Network.  The next steps are:

Work with the interagency competencies workgroup set up under the Cooperative Conservation initiative to carry out a draft interagency approach which lays out options for next steps to implement collaboration and partnering, which can include:


For more information about collaboration and partnering competencies, please email the following contacts:
OGC/CPRC --Jeff Lape (lape.jeff@epa.gov)
OPEI – Pat Bonner (bonner.patricia@epa.gov)
OARM – Sharon Ridings (ridings.sharon@epa.gov)
Also see: http://www.cooperativeconservation.gov/library/EPACompetencyPlanrevised.pdfExit EPA Disclaimer

Thanks to Jeff Lape and Phil Metzger (OGC-CPRC),  and Johari Rashad (OARM) for their help in preparing this article.

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