Shergold’s four principles to transform cross-sector work

By David Donaldson

Tuesday July 19, 2016

Cross-sector collaboration often results in failure, argues former PM&C boss Peter Shergold. He suggests four principles to transform the way the public service works with the private and non-government sectors.

Increasingly, governments are working in partnership with the private and non-government sectors to deliver services. But often those partnerships don’t work very well.

The history of cross-sector working in Australia “has been marked by failures of implementation, nerve and imagination”, argues Peter Shergold, former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

This should not be a cause for despair, but rather a learning opportunity, he argues. “I have the advantage of being able to draw my insights from a bulging volume of personal errors,” he admits.

It’s a widely acknowledged problem. Just yesterday Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull conceded that government doesn’t always work well with others. Explaining that he wanted all ministers to improve relations with small business, he highlighted one of the barriers to effective cross-sectoral partnerships:

“The government itself is a big business, it’s a big bureaucracy, if you like, and often finds it easier to deal with other big bureaucracies in the corporate world”, he says.

Although cost is a frequently cited driver, it’s not just about getting value for money. Shergold believes better cross-sectoral working in the public interest “has the potential not just to improve cost-effectiveness and ‘customer’ service, but also to widen and reinvigorate the participatory nature of democratic governance.” More inputs allows for more responsive government.

Writing for a new essay collection released by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, The three sector solution: delivering public policy in collaboration with not-for-profits and businessthe now-chancellor of the University of Western Sydney professes that on the topic of cross-sectoral collaboration he is “an enthusiast, albeit a person chastened by the experience of how difficult it can be to turn the easy rhetoric of reciprocated trust and mutual respect into substantive reality.”

The book arose out of a workshop held by ANZSOG mid-last year (Shergold’s original address, on which the paper is based, can be viewed below). It contains 17 essays on a range of issues in cross-sector working, including some of the biggest current debates, such as the impact of marketisation on public services and the gap between policy aspirations and achievements, as well as an examination of some of the new tools available to policymakers.

Four principles for transforming the public service

The former PM&C boss offers four principles for public servants to reshape the way governments approach these questions in future.

1. Public services must look outwards

“By being more open to experience beyond the public sector, they can significantly improve the creativity and productivity of public administration,” he argues. Although many large companies and charities are also encumbered by bureaucracy, competition for dollars means they have to innovate.

Their market experience “can teach the public sector to be more adaptive”, Shergold thinks: “operationalising new ideas early, piloting and evaluating new approaches and, on that basis, failing quickly, adapting progressively or scaling up methodically.”

2. Public services must embrace partnership

They need to work on policy ideas with universities, think tanks, research institutes and consultancy companies — and not just to pull together the evidence needed to make the case for a pre-decided policy.

Too often “public servants direct their research capabilities to identifying policy-based evidence to justify a political outcome that has already been decided,” Shergold thinks. “That is clever but unsatisfactory. There is far greater merit in actively working with collaborators in pursuit of evidence-based policy with which to influence political decisions.”

3. Public services must empower citizens

Cross-sectoral collaboration and ideas like self-directed care can help recipients become participants in government services. But this won’t work if the organisations involved design services with just their own convenience in mind.

“The fact that both government agencies and contracted community providers may find it financially more secure and administratively more convenient to agree on an inflexible block grant approach to service delivery does not mean it is in the best interests of the recipient,” he warns.

“Collaboration between the public contractor and the private/community provider should not become an excuse for mutual self-interest. The driving principles must be choice and contestability.”

4. Public servants must continue to extol public purpose

“The concept of public service, if not its institutional manifestation, remains profoundly persuasive,” he argues. At a time when trust in politicians is low, the public service ethic is an important part of maintaining faith in democracy.

Sensitive leadership required

So how do senior public servants make all this happen? Sensitive and subtle leadership, Shergold suggests.

“It will require the leadership of facilitation. Success will be judged by the extent to which cross-sector working can be fully exploited for public benefit. The old-style modes of behaviour were based on controlling, contracting, consulting and communicating. In the new world, the dominant form of authority will be collaborating, co-designing, coproducing … and communicating.”

Public servants require collaborative skills to ensure productive partnerships:

“Success will depend on public servants being appropriately trained in the skills of negotiation, discussion, empathetic listening and openness. It will require them actively to encourage innovative forms of cross-sectoral partnership, founded on citizen engagement and driven by the challenge of applying scarce public resources most effectively to the achievement of public good.”

Politicians have to play a stronger leadership role than they have historically, too.

But Shergold is an optimist, noting that Commonwealth and state government are already tackling some of these big public administration problems, introducing customer service improvements, performance-based commissioning, consumer-directed care, place-based funding and public impact investing.

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