Why collaboration holds the key to the future of our public sector

27 Aug 2019

As the work of government grows more challenging, Adrian Robb believes that cross-sectoral collaboration will become the most important weapon in every public sector leader’s arsenal.

These days, it seems that almost every discussion about the context for public sector work winds up focusing on the current climate of accelerated change and complexity as the greatest hurdle facing our sector. It’s hard to disagree with these truisms – even if most of these discussions rarely address the causes and solutions in any satisfying way.

Those of us who are in the middle or mature stages of our public sector careers have witnessed enormous change in recent times. Some readers will have started their careers without access to personal computers or mobile phones, and before the rapid pace of modern economic globalisation. Those who have joined the sector more recently are doing so at a time when the nature of what we do and how we do it is under much greater threat than the relatively straightforward challenges posed by automation and digitisation.

Discussion about our current working environment almost always includes reference to the immediacy and the insatiable appetite of digital and social media; our greater exposure to international environmental, economic and social forces through globalisation; the rapid turnover of governments and government leaders; public cynicism and distrust in government; and the noisy attack by some on data and evidence, in favour of ‘beliefs’. I must also note the claims to public policy authority and authorship by vested interests and the increasingly fraught contest between personal and individual entitlements and public value.

We have witnessed the impact of this changing environment on the activities of elected representatives at every level of government. The processes of policy development, decision-making, consultation and communication have been buffeted and have struggled to adapt – be they conducted through ministerial offices, cabinet rooms, party policy processes, community meeting spaces or council chambers. Our elected representatives have to be admired and respected, but are hardly to be envied their task.

Despite all of this, it would also be wrong to confuse these developments with the ongoing purpose of government. Undeniably they go to the heart of the workings of government and its processes, and they certainly impact upon the real and perceived effectiveness of government. However, they are a distraction from genuine and rising concerns about the more fundamental challenges for collective action through the agency of governments: the impact of climate change and environmental degradation; the distribution of wealth and economic opportunity; and the advancement of human rights and social equity.

There is no sign that the task for elected representatives will get easier soon, or that the challenges for those of us who serve them will recede. Those who work in the public and the public purpose sector implicitly share a common commitment to creating and enabling better societies and communities. More than ever, the creation of public value through the combined efforts of the wider sector, its different levels of government, agencies, collaborators and partners, is important if progress is to be achieved.

The quality of collaboration

We know that in the face of complexity, collaboration produces strong understanding of problems, and the development of the best solutions. In my experience across several decades in the public sector, the depth and the quality of collaboration has always been a determinant of success for initiatives that provide the best community outcomes. This isn’t because those solutions are necessarily the best according to theory or empirical research, but they have been the solutions most likely to last, and therefore to gain traction.

Collaboration, and increasingly its facilitation, is a big factor in success – and is the mark of any effective public sector leader.

As the environment for governments becomes more complex, more contested and more volatile, the prospects of real cross-sectoral collaboration are likely to diminish, just as the need for concerted joint effort increases. For example, we have enjoyed a stable if unremarkable waste recycling system for many years, with minor variations nationally. Following China’s decision to increase standards for the quality of its received recyclable materials, we have experienced huge market disruption and an unsustainable impact on Australia’s waste recycling schemes. Across Australia, governments, markets and consumers failed to mobilise effectively in time to prevent a very predictable crisis, signalled by China several years ago. Even the important and effective work undertaken in recent years to make our public sector ‘Asia ready’ did not equip us with the necessary foresight or agility to anticipate and gear up for the coming change. The unedifying sight of federal, state and local governments blame-shifting over the failure of such a fundamental service as kerbside recycling could not have contributed to anyone’s faith in any level of government. The damage to community confidence, and to long established environmental behaviours, has yet to be measured.

The capability of governments and the public sector to contribute solutions to the biggest and most complex problems will therefore be determined by our ability to draw upon a diversity of opinions, perspectives, evidence and interests, and to develop mutually agreed multi-interest solutions. Stronger, more transparent and effective strategies and processes will be needed for new ways of collaborating, in the interests of public accountability.

Better serving our communities

Each of us is then faced with this question: How can the public sector and its members be effective in the face of increasing complexity and volatility, and how can we better serve our governments and communities?

A number of opportunities exist for those in government and the wider public sector at local, state and national levels. A list of these opportunities should include the following:

Seek out others and look to collaborate wherever mutual interests are identified. My own experience convinces me that collaboration and the use of real partnerships, along with mature and respectful relationships, contribute enormously to the best work undertaken across our sector – and with other sectors. 

Be diligent in the use of evidence about past policy and program successes and failures, when designing new proposals and advising governments about change. 

Ensure evaluation is carefully planned, in tandem with program design, implementation and monitoring – and that it is done with the perspectives of all stakeholders and partners.

Consider the governance of cross-sectoral collaborations. Our mechanisms for collaboration across sectors are less well developed than they should be, and will always benefit from an understanding of the governance processes and the mandates of each of our partners.

Ascertain the nature and interests of potential and existing collaborators. In the ca se of engagement with and by local government, the respective roles of elected representatives and staff are often misapprehended by those outside this sector, and it can seem more difficult to engage than it should.

Promote employee mobility and be open to career-enhancing experiences between sectors. Leaders need to create opportunities for staff to share and appreciate the work of other sectors, and secondments and other ‘embedding’ experiences can be great for this.

Commission research, if you are in a position to do so, to promote other perspectives in the early stages of a new project or partnership.

Join professional bodies that seek to strengthen cross-sectoral collaboration, and participate in conferences and workshops that expose you to new and unfamiliar professions.

Attend cross-sectoral events – which brings me to a shameless plug. One of IPAA’s longer-standing goals is to strengthen the cross-sectoral nature of the public and public purpose sectors. IPAA and each of its divisions seek to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and the enhancement of the working lives of public sector leaders, whatever their employment and career stage. Its programs, events and membership opportunities are designed with these ambitions in mind, and it is currently renewing its focus, including the development of new membership categories and professional collaborations with other organisations.

If the essential role of the public sector hasn’t changed hugely over time, it now operates in a more exposed and complex space. The contemporary environment of the public sector requires a new and sharpened emphasis on skills of analysis, robust policy and program design, program evaluation, and genuine community engagement. Beyond this, much work is needed to ensure that our approaches to cross-sectoral collaboration are equally robust and suited for the challenges of their tasks.

The most successful and, importantly, the most valuable and effective public sector leaders are likely to be those who recognise the essential role of cross-sectoral collaboration in solving difficult and complex challenges and creating opportunities for themselves and others around them.

Adrian Robb is a long-serving executive in local government in Victoria, with 30 years in a variety of senior leadership roles – including 10 years as CEO of Bayside City Council. He is the Deputy President of IPAA Victoria, and Steering Committee Chair of our Integrity and Ethical Leadership Program.

This is the first of two articles commissioned by IPAA Victoria on the importance of cross-sectoral collaboration in our sector