Working Jointly in the New Zealand Public Sector – We Have Come a Long Way and Not Got Very Far
Derek Gill is an IPANZ Board Member and a research associate at the VUW’s Institute of Governance and Policy Studies. He has practical experience of joint working, as well as being a policy practitioner. He has also studied joint working in the public sector. The views expressed are the author’s personal take and are not the views of any particular organisations.
Working jointly across public agencies has been described as the holy grail or the philosopher’s stone of public management. Joint work is particularly important in New Zealand where, by world standards, there are a relatively large number of small public agencies. The Public Service Act 2020 has introduced a legal mandate for public joint ventures, and the Office of the Auditor-General recently reported on the difficulties experienced in the operation of one of the new joint ventures focused on family violence. IPANZ therefore decided to focus attention on this important set of developments.
IPANZ commissioned a literature scan as there is extensive international literature on what makes joint working successful generally, including several studies from New Zealand. This scan also explored the evidence on joint ventures and is available on the IPANZ website. IPANZ then convened a round table that included a range of thought leaders for a discussion on joint working generally, and joint ventures in particular. A number of comments from the round table are included in quotation marks.
Joint work comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, but regardless of the precise form, there are four practical questions that must be addressed: why engage in joint work, with whom and on what, how, and with what structure? Addressing these questions successfully requires an understanding of a fifth question: what works? In order to support more effective collaboration in the New Zealand public service, this article poses a series of propositions in answer to a sixth question – what needs to be done?
Why Work Jointly?
Joint working is necessary because boundary crossings are inevitable. Governments divide themselves into manageable administrative units, and invariably problems cross agencies’ boundaries. Joint work can be between central government agencies, between central and local government or civil society, and across international boundaries through international regulatory co-operation (Gill 2021).
Working across boundaries is difficult: the transaction costs of collaboration are typically high, so high levels of commitment are needed. The challenge of joint working is not new or unique to the New Zealand public sector. It is a challenge around the world and throughout the history of government.
Joint work is a worthy quest – but is not the search for a holy grail. This is because many of the pressing problems facing government today, whether it is climate change, family violence, or the methamphetamine epidemic, will require solutions that involve multiple agencies that often need to include civil society. In a number of domains, such as in the regulation space, collaboration includes international partners as it is impractical for New Zealand to go it alone.
What is the Focus and Who to Involve in Joint Work?
Getting the right people in the room focused on clear goals is critical for successful collaboration. The round table highlighted the importance of “goal clarity and goal commitment”. The scope and objectives must be clear, and goal commitment requires that participating in the programme is a win-win for each of the agencies.
The technical term in game theory is the participation constraint – all participants must be at least as well off as they would have been if they hadn’t participated. It is debatable whether the best selection strategy is to focus on an inner group with “skin in the game” or going wider and being more inclusive.
The round table emphasised setting up arrangements that are “proportionate to the problem at hand”. Adequate resourcing, realistic goals, and clear time frames are critical to the success of joint working. In the case of joint ventures “Failing to address resource allocations for a joint venture seriously cripples its ability to function and is a serious barrier to success … the leader of the joint venture becomes chief fundraiser.”
Resource limitations can cause tensions between the minister’s priorities and the public agency’s contributions to joint work. Chief executives (CEs) reported they were often “voluntold” to take on a joint project, adding to an already heavy workload and leading to diminishing returns on their ability to contribute. CEs worried about their own departments and accountability. They have limited “brain time” to consider a joint work’s mission adequately, especially as joint tasks are “everyone’s job … so it’s nobody’s job”. Ministers’ commitment is often patchy – agreeing in principle with joint work but in practice actively pursuing their own portfolio priorities.
How to Work Together?
Successful collaboration requires getting both the hard (technical governance) stuff and the soft (behavioural) stuff working together. What was meant by the hard stuff was getting scope and focus clear and getting the involvement of the right people from the key agencies working in the right structure with adequate resources. The soft stuff refers to the behaviours and culture. As one workshop participant observed, “You need to get the hard stuff right to get the soft stuff to work.”
However, getting the hard stuff right is not sufficient for joint working to succeed. In a sense, the soft stuff is the hard (difficult) stuff because good leadership and people who have the skills and experience of working jointly is key to developing the trust needed to sustain successful collaboration.
Research in New Zealand suggests that for soft collaboration to succeed, three things need to be present:
- a “public entrepreneur”, who “recognises the import of the moment” and “responds with new ways of working” – someone who “acts first and seeks approval later” and “learns as they go”
- “fellow travellers”, who do not regard themselves as “agency representatives” and put resources “on the collective table for others to share and use”
- a “guardian angel”, who is a more senior manager to mentors and who protects, advises, and advocates on behalf of the entrepreneur.
The later role was seen as being in the shortest supply in the New Zealand public service and the handbrake on collaborative innovation.
The round table discussion highlighted how one of the critical factors for successful collaboration was how power imbalances are dealt with. Working jointly required giving up power and control over the little things in order to address the big things. When joint work involves working with communities and civil society, agencies must be prepared to give up power. It also requires the humility to accept that the government does not have all the expertise – “Wellington needs to give up the power and the pretext that they know what to do.” Solutions can often be found in working closely with iwi and the private and the not-for-profit sectors, which have the localised understanding that is required for long-term solutions.
Which Formal Structure Should Joint Work Adopt?
Joint working takes a variety of forms as shown in the figure below. Joint working is diverse, flexible, and pragmatic, so practitioners take a ‘horses for courses’ approach to choosing structure. Form follows function. The type of joint work adopted depends on the sector in question, the partners involved, and the perception of what works best. The Public Service Commission uses a Toolkit for Shared Problems to match the right collaborative solution to different problem types.
Agencies often work together through informal communities of practice. Over time, the network arrangements might become more formal as trust and engagement increases within the network.
Collaborative practices can be arranged on a continuum from informal to formal. The Public Service Act 2020 introduced two new public joint venture structures, shown in yellow below. Joint ventures are at the more formal end of the spectrum and therefore likely apply to only a small subset of problem settings. Joint working in New Zealand is highly contingent on the context and previously established practices. Informal solutions tend to be cheaper, easier to establish, and more flexible. However, because of the strength of vertical accountability in the New Zealand system, informal solutions were not adequate for solving problems that required deep trade-offs against agency priorities. When individual agency and collaborative goals came into conflict, individual agency goals tended to prevail. In these situations, more formal solutions were needed to share accountability.
Public Joint Ventures – a New Zealand innovation
Source - Scott and Gill from the IPANZ website: www.ipanz.org.nz
Working across boundaries has been studied extensively. Many studies have tried to find the common success factors for joint working. For example, Bryson, Crosby, Middleton, and Stone (2006) extracted twenty-two propositions from the literature. The last proposition is instructive: “The normal expectation ought to be that success will be very difficult to achieve in cross-sector collaborations.”
Some studies distil a different list of success factors. A metastudy by Carey and Crammond (2015) reported three factors that consistently supported successful collaboration:
- Interagency groups at multiple strategic and operational levels
- Collaboration being led both top-down and bottom-up
- Decentralised control (in the context of informal, bottom-up collaboration).
Other design elements and instruments were only supported in specific contexts. The inconsistency in what factors are critical to success arises because collaboration is not one thing. Instead, there are a variety of problem contexts that are each most suited to different solutions.
While some success factors are important in a range of situations (leadership, governance, clarity of goal, commitment, and trust), the precise list of factors varies by context. The dialogue at the workshop emphasised that soft factors such as behavioural and interpersonal skills are key. Collaboration is slowed down by transaction (information, co-ordination) costs, but these are sometimes overcome by goal commitment. Regardless of form, collaboration depends on a range of behavioural and interpersonal skills that must be selected for and carefully cultivated.
In looking back at New Zealand experience with interagency working, one experienced participant commented that “we have come a long way and not gotten very far”. We have come a long way in the sense that there are positive attitudes to interagency working at the senior levels, and there is much more buy-in at the senior level for the need to work differently together. We have not got very far in the sense that we still struggle to turn those positive attitudes into delivery on the ground. While this issue is not unique to New Zealand, we need to look for practical solutions.
What Needs to be Done?
The New Zealand public service has tried to uncover some of the hard technical features that support joint working in different contexts – in particular, New Zealand has gone further in designing, testing, and refining more formal collaborative solutions than perhaps any other jurisdiction.
Making further progress on improving collaboration effectiveness will require a focus on developing the soft skills – the public sector’s capability to collaborate. This in turn raises questions about how we can select people with the required competencies and how we can develop those skills. Questions that need to be explored include:
- What are the behaviours that support effective collaboration, and how are these measured? Round table participants could describe effective collaborators and recognised that these individuals were critical to the success of collaborative initiatives. However, it was more difficult to specifically describe the behaviours or competencies that made these individuals effective. So, to make further progress, we will need to define what “effective” looks like?
- How can these behaviours be rewarded in the public service? Individual contributions tend to be easier to recognise than collaborative ones. In particular, effective followership (“fellow travellers”, the glue that holds collaboration together) can be less visible from the outside. How can collaborative behaviours be rewarded and individualistic behaviours – taking credit, avoiding blame, opportunistically moving around, focusing solely on one’s own deliverables, only managing upwards – be disincentivised?
- How do we reward guardian angels? Some research suggests that senior managers act as a “handbrake” and are a limiting factor to public sector collaboration. Effective leaders provide the space, permission, and protection to try new things and are necessary for supporting our public entrepreneurs. However, they frequently get no credit for success and they risk taking the blame for failures – how can this be turned around?
- How to reduce the churn of restructuringitis? Continued turnover of key people erodes the trust that has been built up within the collaboration. While some turnover is positive, the high managerial turnover in New Zealand has high hidden costs in terms of relationships and institutional memory. What would make continuity be valued more highly?
- What is the role for ministers? There is an old saying in public administration that the government gets the degree of collaboration it deserves. Cabinet, while bound by collective responsibility, is composed of competing ministers. Would arrangements such as tiered or superordinate ministers, stronger role for Cabinet subcommittee chairs, or collaborative initiatives assigned to more senior ministers increase the commitment to the goals of joint work?
IPANZ would welcome your views on the proposed system changes listed above that aim to build collaborative capability. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments on how to grow the collaborative capacity of the system.
- Carey, G., & Crammond, B. (2015). “What works in joined-up government? An evidence synthesis”. International journal of public administration, 38(13–14), 1020–1029.
- Eppel, E., and O’Leary R. (2021). Retrofitting Collaboration into the New Public Management. Cambridge University Press.
- Gill, D. (2021) ERIA Policy Brief https://www.eria.org/uploads/media/policy-brief/Under-the-Radar_International-Regulatory-Cooperation-in-ASEAN-and-New-Zealand.pdf
- Scott R., and Gill, D. (2022) (IPANZ paper – “What makes joint working and joint ventures successful?”)
- Scott R., and Boyd, R. (2022). Targeting Commitment: Interagency performance in New Zealand. Brookings Institution Press.