As the coronavirus health crisis takes the wind out of every sail, leaving us all locked down and wondering when life can restart, it is easy to forget that some of the most important public ventures are very long-term affairs, which, however seriously disrupted, cannot be neglected. This is the story of one such venture, which, as soon as the health crisis is behind us, will once again loom large on our horizon.

Anyone who has visited Tel Aviv is familiar with Nahal Ayalon, the major transportation artery running through the city, consisting of a concrete channel for the waters of the 30-mile long Ayalon stream coming down from the Jerusalem hills, hemmed in on both sides by a major highway and railroad tracks. It is dry most of the year, as is the rest of Israel. In winter time, rain-water flows through, on occasion rising high enough to flood the road and halt traffic. The mayor of Tel Aviv is concerned about the danger to low lying neighborhoods: in one tragic case this past winter, an unusually wet one, a young couple drowned when their elevator flooded while stuck on the lower basement parking level of their apartment building. The mayor has been lobbying transportation and finance ministries for years to undertake a major restructuring of the river basin to avoid repeated flooding.

The twin railroad tracks running alongside the Ayalon stream are the only route through which trains can move from northern Israel to the south and to Jerusalem. It is truly the country’s proverbial bottle-neck. With just one track running in each direction, capacity is severely limited, forcing most Israelis to take to the road where traffic grinds frustratingly to a halt for many hours each day.

Twenty years ago, the transportation ministry began developing a major plan to add two railroad tracks to the existing ones, thus doubling train capacity along this strategic artery. Although the planning process addressed the need to solve the periodic flooding problem, the municipality of Tel Aviv believes that the proposed solution will in fact further narrow the water channel and increase the frequency and severity of the flooding. Now, as preparations are finally and belatedly under way to begin work on the ground, the mayor is withholding permission for work to begin.

There is broad agreement that expanding the rail capacity into and through Tel Aviv and solving the recurring flooding problem are both essential and inter-dependent projects, yet, the authorities have failed to collaborate. Instead, they have reached a stalemate by treating this as a conflict over power, credit, priorities, responsibilities and resources.
Failure to collaborate when common interests are at stake is not unique to this strategic infrastructure initiative. Nor is it a uniquely Israeli problem. The tendency of organizations to work in silos is well researched and documented. In fact, when The Wexner Foundation turned to the Israeli government seven years ago to ask how the Foundation could help Israel to improve the quality of its public service leadership, the primary response was: ‘teach us how to break down the silos and collaborate.”

Awareness of the problem is apparently in itself insufficient for overcoming it. The leaders of Israel’s public service, like their counterparts around the world, are well aware of the cost of working in silos, yet, breaking those silos is a daunting task. To quote professor Brian Mandell of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), faculty chair of the Wexner Senior Leaders (WSL) program, “collaboration is easy to say – hard to do.”

Nevertheless, this is a challenge which the Foundation, in partnership with HKS, has taken very seriously and with great optimism. The WSL program, now in its sixth year, has placed the challenge of collaboration at the heart of the curriculum: each year, the 40-45 senior cohort members representing a broad spectrum of Israel’s public sector focus their time and energy on learning, practicing and implementing a collaborative leadership culture, the essence of which is encompassed in the XBC (cross-boundary collaboration) framework developed at Harvard. Each year, teams of five or six cohort members representing different public sector organizations and professional backgrounds work on real public sector challenges mandated by the heads of their organizations back home.

Forty such projects have been tackled so far in such diverse fields as: increasing the number of women in college level STEM studies, streamlining the continuity of health care when patients transfer from hospital to community services, smart solutions to traffic congestion and protecting social security and tax benefits for employees when leaving or transferring from a place of work. Some were successfully implemented and others have served as catalysts for broader governmental initiatives, while some projects have remained on the drawing board. Regardless of outcome, working on these collaborative projects under the guidance of Harvard faculty provides an intensive learning opportunity for the senior leaders, helps them to build trust and gives them tools they can use when going back to their desks.

Seeing the senior leaders honing their collaborative skills at Harvard is exciting and inspiring. Yet, to achieve real impact, we need to get them to take these new skills and mind-set back home and to adopt collaborative practices as a strategic choice for addressing their most important challenges. The cumulative impact of a growing number of senior leaders (256 have completed the program) in Israel’s relatively small public service could amount to a systemic shift in the organizational culture, from working in silos to cross-boundary collaboration.

Roughly 1,000 senior leaders make up the higher echelons of the public service in our small country and 25% of those are now members of the WSL Network. We don’t know how many are needed to reach “critical mass,” but indications are that we are close: over the past year, the network has undertaken a range of steps towards creating a collaborative culture. They established several collaborative professional forums including:

  • A health system forum of senior leaders from the health ministry, the hospitals and the HMOs (community health care providers). These are the very people who are leading the campaign to combat Covid-19.
  • An HR forum for professional HR leaders throughout the public sector.
  • An innovation forum for those interested in promoting innovation in their organizations.

This past January, the WSL Network’s annual institute was entirely dedicated to collaboration. A number of collaboration case studies were presented by members for discussion, critique and peer learning. For example:

  • The CEO of a major mental health hospital is collaborating with the IDF and with the Israel Security Service on reducing rates of suicide.
  • The Director of Procurement for the Defense Ministry is collaborating with the Director of the Economy Ministry’s Small and Medium Business Agency to channel procurement to small local manufacturers and service providers and to assist them in meeting government tender requirements.
  • A senior director in the State Attorney’s office is collaborating with a broad range of regulatory and enforcement agencies to take offenders to court with a unified and consolidated indictment.
  • Even the Ayalon stalemate described above is now at the center of a collaboration between the district planning committees of Tel Aviv and of the Central District, both headed by members of the Wexner community.
  • Senior Leaders and Israel Fellowship alumni living and working in the northern periphery of the country announced the launch of a major collaboration to address some of the region’s most pressing issues and invited members working in key central government positions to join them.

And then came the Corona crisis. Within a matter of weeks, the Wexner Israel community has become a collaborative network on steroids. Wexner Senior Leaders and Alumni are working together to create instant collaborative projects bringing together ministries and organizations who do not normally work together: the health sector, military and defense, welfare, the treasury, police, foreign ministry, social security and many others are finding new ways to help each other out, with the Wexner community acting as matchmakers between supply and demand, cutting traditional bureaucratic channels, using the tools they learned at Harvard and leaning on the deep trust that this community has built up over many years. The gradual transition of the public sector from working in silos to collaboration has been accelerated by the urgent and critical demands of the Corona crisis, and the Wexner community has stepped up to provide the skills, the network and the culture to make it happen.

It remains to be seen if these new collaborative muscles continue to develop when the crisis is over. I am now more convinced than ever that even if the process slows down, we will continue to move in the right direction, as surely as the waters of Nahal Ayalon flow towards the sea.

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Ra’anan Avital is Director General of the Israeli Office of The Wexner Foundation.