Collaboration: Reflections on the IPANZ Webinar Series

Bill Ryan, Adjunct Professor, School of Government, Victoria University, reflects on the outcomes from the IPANZ webinar series on collaboration.

Each webinar canvassed the following three questions:

  • What has the public service done so far to better enable collaborative work?
  • What can be done next to further reduce barriers to collaborative work?
  • What are the difficult issues for the public service and how can these complex trade-offs be addressed?

Some welcome discussion

The IPANZ webinars held during May and focusing on moving collaboration forward were welcome.

But what did we get? Compared with what an equivalent group might have said, say, five or ten years ago, we got evidence of accelerated learning and thinking. For example, recognition that some previously ignored matters now need resolution; acknowledgment that local-level experiments need to precede and lead central, system-focused developments; understanding that a culture of permission and senior manager support for experimentation, risk, failure and success is critical. All good. But, also, there was lingering suspicion that while there may be solid learning and good intentions, they’re not being converted into everyday practice.

Agreement on the problems

Collaboration is not always easy, but it is crucial, and barriers can be overcome. The speakers were unanimous on the problem, the solution, and the difficulties with collaboration. As one put it:        

We don’t serve New Zealanders well without collaboration. Some of the problems that we face can only be dealt with through collaboration … People don’t neatly coincide with government departments ... it sounds so obvious, it should be easy, but it‘s hard … It may be the only path to success, but it takes a whole lot of additional effort.

Nevertheless, as another added, “you’ve got to give it a go, you won’t always get it right, but don’t let that stop you from keeping going, keeping learning”. However, collaboration is not something to be done “simply because ministers want it” or “because it’s the latest fashion”. “There has to be a purpose … [and] … you need to know what it is”, that is, actually achieving desired outcomes when standard ways of operating don’t work.

Initial discussion focused on “hardwiring”. It covered the structural work that’s been done around collaboration, such as the Public Service Act 2020, organisational forms like executive boards and joint ventures, and Te Kawa Mataaho guidance documents such as the Toolkit for Shared Problems, which is all good but only goes so far.. One point was that “collaboration … requires the devolution of control, budgets, and decision-rights”. Other speakers also highlighted the importance of “a dedicated resource that’s protected over time, so it doesn’t get wiped out ”, plus “multi-year baselines”.

Culture and practice before structure, experiments before systemisation, and the importance of permission

Most of the discussion, however, leaned towards prioritising practice and culture over structure and systems. The impact of barriers like siloed budgets, for example, were always an issue. Said one: “When I’m motivated, barriers don’t usually stop me.” Another agreed: “When there’s a will there’s a way.” “System blockers like the appropriation system – they’re not showstoppers. They don’t encourage [collaboration], but they don’t prevent it either.” In fact: “Agencies with the greatest restrictions have the greatest will … to find their way around them.” But often-used tools such as restructuring can create obstacles. As several speakers noted, collaborations are built on relationships and so need continuity and the trust that comes with working together over time. “The churn of restructuring? Think of what you’ve done to commitment, trust, and networks. You’ve just broken a whole lot of links.”

If recognition that culture and practice are as important as structure was pleasing, even more was that experiments should precede systemisation. “Hardwiring should follow and support developments at the frontline rather than trying to commence [a new collaboration] … only do the [structure] stuff when you know you have a good thing going ... when you’ve reached some sort of limit and you want to power it up.” From the same angle: “Form follows function, and you need to work out what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with before you worry about structure.” This kind of talk signals a welcome shift away from central agencies thinking they must lead everything – that they should design it first in the centre, then put it out for enactment. Instead, the intention seems to be to learn from what is being done locally and to build on it. This should please regional managers who are pushing ahead and making it happen with or without system support “and sometimes despite it”. It is them who are leading, and it was good to hear that acknowledged.

But if solutions are at the community level, how is permission given to allow those solutions to feed in. The issue of “giving permission” arose explicitly. In complex cases where “business as usual does not enable the desired outcomes”, staff must feel they “have permission” to “bend the rules” – not to break them, but to “do what it takes”. With so many vertical, single-purpose services, what’s needed is a holistic, horizontal approach to serving clients with many interconnected needs, to mix ’n’ match services, to customise delivery so needs are actually met.

Windows of opportunity

For these initiatives to work, more senior managers need to act as “guardian angels”. Doing so demands encouraging, supporting, and protecting staff who are experimenting with new ways and new combinations. It’s a twenty-first century form of leading – “creating a space, opening up the possibilities, resetting and resetting, an agile rather than a waterfall way of working ... A very different way of managing from the vertical, output-based approach … It’s a horizontal way … Not Gantt-chart territory”. At least two chief executives felt that senior managers are generally slow to take up this role. “I would like my people to take more risk than they think I want.” The obstacle, said another, may be because “the system doesn’t reward that way of working at all. What does the Leadership Capability Profile have to say on this sort of stuff?” Creating a culture of permission inside agencies is likely to be an important trigger for genuine collaboration.

A significant, interconnected point is not just “permission to experiment” but also permission to “push the boundaries”. “There’s untapped potential in these relationships, in what we can do together [in partnership]. We should be clear about where the boundaries are, but we should be open to extending them ... exploring together ... pushing those boundaries out so that we’re giving up more control.” To do so, “you’ll [need to] take some risk, some personal risk”. For example: “Be prepared to share information. This can be a little uncomfortable at times ... if it’s not been tested internally, or with ministers.” Remarks like these, coming as they do from chief executives and backed by the spirit of the Public Service Act 2020, should be taken by all public officials as a window of opportunity. They signal clearly intended directions of change, and there should be no reason for holding back.

Getting away from a single-agency mindset

Motivation as a driver was mentioned frequently, including how best to turn around agencies that are half-hearted or reluctant to collaborate. Often, it’s because the joint activity is perceived by those agencies as peripheral to their primary interest. In these circumstances, “Your collaborator probably doesn’t care as much about this joint thing you’re working on than they do about what they have to do the rest of the day in their own department”. So, pragmatically, “You have to be sensitive to what the parties need, as well as the overall kaupapa”, which usually involves appealing to the organisational self-interest and incentivise them to engage. As an alternative, if motivation by one or more participants is low, then new collaborations can “avoid the convoy problem of moving at the pace of the slowest by building a coalition of the willing”. They can have a variable approach to collaboration; that is, “have a core membership [who do collaborate fully] … but where others can come and go”.

Another constraint is the “tension between agency accountability and collaborative accountability”. The speakers agreed “it is a balance”, and that, given the single-agency bias in our system, it is proving difficult to “put collective accountability on the same footing as agency accountability”. In response, there are now groups of chief executives that have joint sessions, which is leading to greater trust and more willingness to jointly own the new initiatives. In short, the constraint remains, but “it is shifting in practice. It will always be a challenge ... but this model shifts the balance.”

Areas where significant progress is yet to be made

These webinars indicate that important and useful developments in collaboration are progressing. But it was clear to this observer that some areas still need much work.

Collaborative roles and capabilities needed

There is a relative lack of “guardian angels”. It is certainly true that many more senior managers need to acquire those skills, but the guardian angel role is only one factor for effective collaboration. The others factors that show up in research are an “A-ha!” moment, enactment of the public entrepreneur and fellow traveller roles, an active client, and a commitment to learning by doing. One guardian angel does not collaboration make. To a greater or lesser extent, all these factors need to be present – remembering too that the roles are enacted by a shifting cast of individuals. For example, someone who acts as the original public entrepreneur may, over time, become the guardian angel; a fellow traveller in one initiative may be the public entrepreneur in another; or a fellow traveller may act as a guardian angel when introducing an otherwise unfamiliar senior manager into the community or network. Definitely, more senior managers need to take up the guardian angel role, but the other factors also need to activated. All of them are important in generating effective and appropriate collaborative practices, not just the guardian angel role.

From talking to acting – loosening up

Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room – touched on only obliquely despite several audience questions – is whether the intentions are translating into action, through senior managers, down through managers in the regions, to the frontline. Is all this thinking and talking about collaboration reflected in everyday planning, implementation, and delivery?

Some managers are often forced to do their work under the radar. Their major complaint is that often their innovations and experiments are stopped “higher up”. Sometimes there are good reasons, but mostly, they experience “Wellington” and “senior managers” as a barrier, except for a handful of already existing guardian-angel types.

It is not a matter of getting the collaboration message through to them, they are already there. The priority is getting higher-level managers to loosen up and lean into the twenty-first century. As one speaker said at the end of the third webinar: “There’s agreement on what needs to happen ... It’s like we know enough; we just have to get on and do it. The fact that it’s not always happening – there’s good work going on [in some places] but we need to make it mainstream.” The IPANZ webinars tell us there are hopes and intentions at the most senior level. My experience is that many regional and frontline managers are already doing it. The blockage seems to be somewhere in-between, so the culture and practice work ahead needs to be focused there. In that respect, whatever next comes out of the current Productivity Commission review, A Fair Chance for All, will make an interesting read.

The overall takeaways

The ways forward for joint working, certainly for the next couple of years, are to focus on practice and culture. This includes an overriding client outcome orientation that will also serve to blunt the barrier of organisational self-interest. Others are:

  • Having true localisation and devolution including decision-rights and budget-holding
  • Ensuring key frontline staff know they have permission
  • Encouraging senior managers to practice permission and enablement
  • Allowing central agencies to respond to and help fix system barriers confronted at the frontline by providing workarounds and doing the same to facilitate emerging opportunities
  • Giving practice its head; the theory to come later.

In other words, it’s a matter of sorting out structures and tidying up processes only when these new forms of practice have become part of the everyday culture of Aotearoa’s public sector – when experimentation in this new world of design, implementation, and delivery has shown what works. We know this. The trick is to put it all into practice.