Doing our cross-sector collaboration better

3 Sep 2019

Thilini Madusanka presents the findings of a recent research project for IPAA Victoria, examining best practice models for public sector organisations looking to collaborate more effectively.

On 27 August 2019 in an article for The Hub, IPAA Victoria Deputy President Adrian Robb reflected on the pressing need for deeper and better cross-sector collaboration to suit the complex, contested and volatile environment that modern public sector leaders must navigate.

His piece aligns well with a literature review I have just completed on best practice models for collaboration by the public sector. As part of our new Programs Strategy 2019-2023, IPAA Victoria is seeking to broaden our networks with an evidence-based approach, and collaborate more closely to develop the capability of the public sector to address contemporary challenges. My research examined the enablers and barriers to effective collaboration, and the strategies needed to overcome common challenges.

In his article, Adrian identified a number of key principles that, from his experience, lead to better collaboration. Many of these themes stand out in the literature as well.

Build networks and look to collaborate wherever mutual interests are identified.

Networks are a great enabler of effective collaboration. While public sector agencies often still follow the traditional hierarchical structure, communities of practice transcending organisational boundaries provide an opportunity to find shared values and collaborate.

Identifying mutual interests can be a great foundation for finding shared purpose, which is perhaps the key ingredient of a successful collaboration. Clearly knowing the purpose of a collaboration helps define the level of organisational integration needed to achieve the purpose, and then the further capacities and experience we should seek to add.

Ascertain the nature and interests of potential and existing collaborators.

Each individual has their own passion or drive, and each organisation has its own interests and attention for a collaboration. It is therefore essential to be aware of these interests to maintain shared purpose, accountability and trust in a collaboration.

Awareness of collaborators’ interests can also assist in building an understanding of the imbalances that can develop in a collaboration. These include asymmetries of power, information and cost. In particular, power imbalances can easily emerge in public sector collaboration efforts, due to government’s power to impose policy or regulation.

Consider the governance of cross-sectoral collaborations.

All collaborative arrangements are vulnerable to failures, and governance is critical to managing these risks.

Therefore, it is often essential to develop and adopt a formal structure or agreement for cross-sectoral collaborations. This can take the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the collaborating parties, or another protocol creating clear responsibilities. Depending on the scale or complexity of the collaboration, the establishment of responsibilities may even need extend into policy decisions or legislative change.

But although they may be necessary, formal requirements and agreements are not always sufficient for effective collaboration. Trust and a shared commitment by organisational leaders to the collaborative effort make a significant difference to the likelihood of success. Of course, sometimes in the public sector the ability to build up and maintain trust is more difficult than in other organisations, as political factors may interrupt and affect strategies and resource commitments.

Be diligent in the use of evidence about past policy and program successes and failures.

The literature is very clear on the importance of choosing the right model according to the need for collaboration and the level of collaboration required. As public sector departments and their collaborating organisations continue to develop their work in collaborative settings, it is essential that research and evidence inform their practice.

All my findings highlighted that collaboration is increasingly important, given the interconnected nature of the public sector’s current challenges and opportunities. While there are common stumbling blocks and barriers to effective collaboration, these can be overcome with a combination of formal agreements and informal collaborative arrangements that reinforce accountability and trust.

Better collaboration clearly contributes to substantive outcomes in the communities the public sector serves. But in the process of achieving milestones and targets together, and recognising each other’s efforts, successful collaboration also generates significant personal and organisational pride. 

Thilini Madusanka recently completed her Master of Public Health at Australian Catholic University, with six years of experience in the healthcare and health information sectors.