Magazine article Public Sector

Working towards Working Together

Magazine article Public Sector

Working towards Working Together

Article excerpt

Since the mid-1980s the quest for more value from the New Zealand public sector has resulted in a series of reforms. Recently these reforms have included the transformation from New Public Management (NPM) to Better Public Services (BPS), as introduced in 2012. There has been a cultural and structural shift to a whole-ofgovernment approach, with a focus on results and outcomes and an explicit collaboration agenda, which provides opportunities for collaborative governance. Overall, it appears to have been a pretty steep learning curve for many.

In an attempt to evaluate why it's been so tough to change to a more collaborative, citizenfocused public service, we sought to identify the impediments to collaboration as understood by public service senior managers. The first theme to emerge from our research is that people (employees) are at the heart of the opportunity to collaborate, while the second theme was the requirement for a system-wide approach.

Collaboration - what does it really mean?

Collaboration means different things to different people. It can sit anywhere on a continuum that spans "cooperation" of some sort through to full "service integration". For example, some managers in our research equated networking with collaboration. Although networking may lead to collaboration, they are certainly not the same thing. Considering the various literature definitions and the intentions summarised through the BPS reforms, collaboration means to work together through a facilitated process of decision making - talking together and sharing resources (people, things and ideas) - to achieve a common purpose. Often it is a temporary arrangement, but on occasions it becomes more permanent.

If you have been to a work meeting in Wellington you will have heard of the apparent virtues of collaboration. But what does this actually mean and how does it play out? There are some key issues that have to be considered. First, even though many practitioners appear to intuitively understand the principles guiding collaboration, implementation continues to be a struggle. Maybe this "intuitive" understanding has in itself been a cause of complacency to date, almost like I get it, now what? It is time to go beyond the intuitive and superficial and to develop understanding that is "robust, reflective and operable - that can be explained, taught, coached and implemented".

We have to also consider if collaboration is always the right solution. In short, it isn't. It is best suited to complex problems that demand effort to achieve a change. There has to be a shared purpose rooted in an agreed problem definition; not an inherited pre-determined problem definition either, but one that has been identified through a collective, iterative and inclusive process, such as design thinking and which is highly likely to be systemic, or at least near-systemic. The desired outcomes determine who is involved in the process and trust is critical to success.

The apparent problems associated with collaboration across organisational silos are well versed, especially when we listened to many experts that initiated the early reforms. But to deliver the BPS outcomes, we need to go beyond in-house collaboration and focus on cross-sector collaborations, which are more complicated and challenging. This simply isn't an easy row to hoe.

You can think of collaboration like a chain: only as strong as its weakest link, at any given time and in any given situation. Sometimes an individual leader (anywhere in the system) stands in the gap and holds things together - but this is not a sustainable, long-term solution. Fundamentally, success is dependent on understanding all the parts of the package and each part working cohesively within the whole. We have to recognise that collaboration is not some linear process to follow and there is no road map. It is a complex adaptive system - so stuff impacts other stuff. If you are looking for one thing, you could miss another. …

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