Collaboration is king, but ‘healthy silos’ may still have their place

By Stephen Easton

Monday October 26, 2015

There is a keen awareness in the public sector that agencies can no longer exist as islands, but significant groundwork must be laid down before bridges of collaboration can be built. And it must be remembered that while silos get a bad rap, there remains value in demarcation.

Building the bridges of collaboration stronger and wider means building trust and sharing power through inclusive governance structures, as well as developing mutual commitment to shared purposes. But mandarins find it hard to share power and it takes time and effort to build trust and a shared language with other tribes. It’s much easier to just pull your own exclusive levers.

Mark Evans
Mark Evans

Mark Evans, head of the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, summarised for the IPAA ACT Division’s recent conference what senior public service executives said when asked why silos are still prominent:

“Because we are successful and powerful, and we have the capacity to act. Because it’s easier than working across boundaries. Because we all speak the same language and they don’t speak like us. Because we don’t trust the others.”

Collaborative governance means partnerships between public, private and civic organisations that achieve otherwise-impossible outcomes for the public, Evans says, quoting one of the top experts on the subject, Kirk Emerson. Contrary to the zealous pursuit of silo-breaking reforms, Evans says the research indicates collaborative governance is as much about “how you build healthy silos” as building trust and increasing opportunities for collaboration.

“The key is how we can get them to share that expertise and resources with other parties and governments,” Evans says.

The ACT’s top public servant, Kathy Leigh, has made the point that inter-agency teams are only valuable because their members bring different skills and experience together from different organisations. Too much time spent in an amorphous cross-agency space can mean those specialist skills atrophy.

“Whether you’re collaborating within government or outside it, we all have to remember to leave our egos outside the room.”

At federal level, the increasing frequency of machinery-of-government (MoG) changes means seasoned public servants have a better understanding of the tribal cultures on their neighbouring islands than in the past, says Department of Employment secretary Renee Leon.

While MoGs can be stressful, Leon allows herself to joke about their upside: “I think we’re actually quite well placed these days for that kind of cross-departmental work, because we’ve all been MoG’d in and out of each other so many times that the people in the other department used to be our colleagues a month ago or a year ago, and we all do understand the pieces that we’re jointly working on.”

Leon shares the view that mutual trust and shared objectives are the foundations of collaboration. Her department is trying to break out of the old public service paradigm, she says:

“Whether you’re collaborating within government or outside it, we all have to remember to leave our egos outside the room. Recognise that those other people, whether we call them stakeholders or partners or competitors, they actually probably know a lot of stuff that we don’t.”

Jobactive: case-study in public-private collaboration

The outsourced employment services model established in the Howard government — which resulted in the department “micro-managing” providers — has recently undergone a renovation. Through its new jobactive contracts, the department is now less focused on making providers jump through hoops and follow specific processes, says Leon. It now takes more of a partnership approach and pays for results, rewarding the best performers by sending more business their way.

Renee Leon
Renee Leon

Leon says the laissez-faire approach is “a bold new experiment” in service delivery which leaves providers to get on with it “pretty well in any way they like” within “broad parameters about integrity and accountability”.

“There’s a joint charter that’s about maintaining reputation and integrity, and making sure that we’re working together, so that their industry’s viable and that taxpayers’ money is well spent.”

It’s early days in this attempt to put the focus on outcomes, take a market stewardship approach and encourage innovative, collaborative service delivery.

“We encourage the providers to innovate, because that is how they’ll be able to do better in terms of producing outcomes,” says Leon. “We encourage them to collaborate with each other; this is a more tricky thing to do because obviously they’re competitors in their own region.”

The department rates providers against each other using a points system with incentives for collaboration built into it, she says. Providers might work together to funnel unemployed people towards big job generators like major construction projects.

Leon says they’re trying to overcome the lack of commercial instinct for collaboration partly by being the neutral party, “auspicing the conversations between them and potential employers through our own state network.”

In the youth employment space, the department is offering more money but also expecting 25% better results, and pushing providers to innovate and collaborate on “innovative youth trials” — a new grants program that encourages organisations to team up with other local youth support services and help young people overcome barriers to work, focused on disadvantaged students.

“We’re collaborating with the sector by giving them access to our data, letting them know how they’re performing, giving them access to the labour market analysis that we do as a department, and giving them the freedom to go and get the outcomes that we want,” says Leon.

She is confident the incentives are now aligned to discourage providers from abusing of the system, as a Four Corners report in February found happening to Job Services Australia. If something similar came out about the new system, she commented, ministers would be likely to clamp down on the freewheeling approach and demand a return to strict micro-management.

Technology and data sharing also helps reduce the risk of providers rorting the system.

“We share data with Centrelink, and we’re working on sharing it with the [Australian Taxation Office], so that in the background we can tell whether someone’s got a job or not without having to go through a whole lot of prescriptive checking via the providers,” the Employment secretary explains.

Permission to fail, Minister?

In a sign that risk appetite discussions within the public administration profession are having an impact, Leon admitted it might not all go according to plan. She hopes the current push in public administration circles towards a greater acceptance of risk will keep her bold experiment bubbling away:

“It’s kind of implicit in what I’ve said that we’re taking some risks around this, and often risk is what gets in the way of these types of freer collaboration being permitted to continue.

“I think the public service is often criticised as being risk averse and I’m sure you all know where a lot of the risk aversion comes from in the system, and that is how bad it looks for the minister when there’s some critical story on the front page.”

“We’re giving it a go, and we’ll learn from it and report on it in a transparent way, and put the learnings to use in what we do deliver.”

She also took a gentle swing at ministers who “overpromise” and then scramble to keep everything looking good, even when it isn’t. Public servants should remind ministers that sometimes things will go wrong and “you only get success by being prepared to take risks” to get less cumbersome, restrictive programs off the ground.

Departments could also help their political masters craft speeches that will “lay the groundwork” for them to explain later that some experiments have negative results, she suggested.

The Employment secretary explains the innovative youth trials are just that — trials — with the freedom for grant recipients to try new things and even if 50% don’t work, the learnings will have value.

“And that’s one of the features of government decision-making that would enable us to collaborate outside of government much more … if we were prepared, and if ministers were prepared, to say: ‘We don’t know how many jobs this will create; we’re giving it a go, and we’ll learn from it and report on it in a transparent way, and put the learnings to use in what we do deliver.”

“New Zealand is ahead of us in this space,” said Leon, explaining that the NZ social services department has a block of money it can spend with no policy proposal or special budgetary fiddling, just to trial new initiatives that aim to cut the nation’s welfare liability.

Having also embarked on a new round of stakeholder consultation — communication being the bedrock of any productive relationship — she says the challenge is not in asking the questions but listening to the answers.

“They may well tell us things that we find uncomfortable, that don’t mesh with our paradigm, that are going to cost more money, and I think that willingness of the public service to hear what really happens on the ground from private sector and community sector providers is one of the barriers that we can all overcome in order to get better at this, at the same time as convincing our political masters that it’s worth trying things and failing fast if you need to, in order to learn and improve.”

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