'Boundary spanners' key to breaking organisational silos

By David Donaldson

June 6, 2016

“Break down silos” is a mantra oft-repeated in government, but what if they’re an inevitable part of large organisations?

Machinery of government changes frequently just move the boundaries around, or even create new ones, argue the authors of a study on so-called “boundary spanners”.

“Boundary spanners play a delicate role — they are both mechanisms of collaboration and leaders within government.”

An alternative approach to trying to eliminate all silos could be to accept that some boundaries are inevitable and that we should instead be focused on working across them effectively.

Putting more resources towards appointing and training boundary spanners — people who work across organisational and sectoral boundaries to broker relationships and cultures, whether between departments or between sections of individual agencies — would help overcome silos and promote collaboration between disparate parts of the bureaucracy with overlapping responsibility, the researchers argue.

The research, although yet to be published, found an appreciative audience at a recent Canberra forum. The researchers, UNSW Canberra’s Gemma Carey, ANU RegNet’s Melanie Pescud, University of Canberra’s Assistant Professor Fiona Buick and UNSW Canberra’s Eleanor Malbon, will have more output in coming months with a piece titled “Preventing dysfunction and improving policy advice: the role of intra-departmental boundary spanners”.

Negotiators and solution brokers

Bureaucratic boundaries are difficult to escape. Departments are often designed not in accordance with any “rational” plan, but to suit cabinet dynamics. Yet even in the most cleanly designed machinery of government setup different agencies and branches inevitably do work that overlaps with others’. Beyond formal distinctions, cultural differences can get in the way of smooth relations.

While most previous studies have focused on barriers between departments, the authors argue those within agencies are just as important:

“Our research has found that without dedicated intra-departmental boundary spanners significant role confusion and dysfunctional practices arise. In turn, this has serious implications for the quality of policy advice given to cabinet.”

There are two types of boundary spanner, they argue: those who have a dedicated role and mandate for working in multi-organisational/multi-sector settings — of whom there are relatively few — and those who naturally undertake boundary spanning activities in the course of doing their work. They typically:

  • Build sustainable and effective relationships and networks
  • Communicate and listen “deeply”
  • Understand, empathise with multiple perspectives and resolve conflict
  • Build trust and broker solutions between different parties
  • Manage through influence and negotiation

Such roles tend to be fairly flexible, allowing the staff member to drop in and assist where necessary; for this reason it’s also a job that requires a large amount of trust. “This set of skills makes boundary spanners indispensable for overcoming structural barriers, supporting coordination and brokering cultural differences,” the essay’s authors argue.

MOGs can create new problems

The importance of such people is demonstrated by the machinery of government change which saw Indigenous Affairs, the Office for Women and Regulatory Reform and Finance being absorbed into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Institutionalised boundary spanners who had worked with both the original central and line agencies were removed when the merger occurred. But the change did not remove the barriers, but moved them inside PM&C.

“By failing to retain and re-shape these boundary spanning roles, far more dysfunctional practices emerged,” the authors write. It created the problematic situation in which staff were required to brief both the minister and prime minister, who have very different briefing requirements.

Interviewees — a mix of “legacy” PM&C staff and people from the absorbed portfolios — used the metaphor of “changing hats” to explain the experience of juggling the different briefing demands of the minister and prime minister:

“If the Minister for Women is bringing forward a submission to Cabinet we prepare that submission, we do the briefing for the minister to speak at Cabinet and then we put our hat as Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet [on] to provide briefing to the Prime Minister which may be critical of the Minister for Women’s submission … Sometimes I have to go ‘hang on, I’m not looking at this like PM&C’.”

Carey et al think the original setup should have been “formally re-shaped as an intra-departmental boundary spanning group who performed an important bridging function.”

“In this research we found that within the context of structural change, intra-departmental boundary spanners play an essential role, particularly in preventing dysfunctional work practices. Intra-departmental boundary spanners, in the context of PM&C, play a delicate role — they are both mechanisms of collaboration and leaders within government.”

In the case of central agencies, “it appears that boundary spanners contribute to high quality policy advice, organisational functioning and effective government,” they argue. “Hence, intra-departmental boundary spanners need to be nurtured and not removed during restructuring.”

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