Public sector agencies working together has long been a panacea of public administration, but achieving it comes with high transaction costs.
This is the premise of a new book by two academics – Australian-based professor Rodney Scott and Ross Boyd – looking at the New Zealand public sector, called Targeting commitment: Interagency performance in New Zealand.
The researchers point out the challenges to interagency collaboration include the time and effort spent communicating and co-ordinating multiple agencies.
“Feedback seemed to be really important – a lot of solutions didn’t work on the first try, and public servants learned from lead indicators and were able to adapt,” Rodney Scott, an adjunct associate professor at the University of New South Wales, said.
The downsides of interagency work typically involve too many meetings and people involved, with consensus decision-making progressing too slowly.
But while most research has focused on how to make collaboration easier by reducing “transaction costs”, Scott and Boyd examine why some collaboration succeeds even in situations when collaboration is hard.
The book looks at 10 examples of successful interagency collaboration in New Zealand, including in addressing policy problems such as long-term unemployment, enrolment in early childhood education, infant vaccination and physical abuse against children.
It also examines rates of high school completion and criminal reoffending, among other areas.
The researchers found that New Zealand experimented, in the process of failing, succeeding, and learning how to do things better, in each policy area.
Setting goals and committing to achieving them shone through as one of the key elements of success.
“A target doesn’t just clarify what problem is being solved, it also sets the level of ambition,” said Boyd, a fellow at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.
“Governments tend to have lots of priorities and these change over time. Committing to only a few goals and sticking to them over five years was needed to make a significant shift to what had been persistent problems for many years prior.”
Former New Zealand prime minister Bill English says in a foreword that governments were facing slowing economics, ageing populations and very high levels of public debt following the coronavirus pandemic.
“The hard problems of entrenched disadvantage and public agency siloes have been pushed into the background for now but in time will appear as large challenges than ever,” English said.
“The behaviour of government and public agencies will influence the long-term effects of these challenges for individuals and households dependent on support. Policymakers need to understand more than ever what they want to achieve, whether they are achieving it and how to organize themselves to sustain success.”