Collaboration – what’s the magic ingredient for working across agencies?

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

How might we enable consistently better collaboration across agencies within the Australian Public Service?

Collaboration matters when agencies are seeking to (or attempting to) introduce new initiatives that don’t fit completely within their operations – and increasingly, complex problems mean that policies and services will involve multiple areas.

Of course collaboration isn’t just important in the public sector – Deloitte recently estimated that collaboration is worth $46b to the Australian economy and that the average Australian worker spent 9.9% of their work day on collaboration. Deloitte defined collaboration as “employees communicating and working together, building on each others’ ideas to produce something new or do something differently”.

So if collaboration matters, and is essential for a lot of innovation, how well are we placed to do it?

At an Innovation Month 2014 workshop ‘Collaboration across agencies – what’s the magic ingredient?’ over 40 public servants came together for a two hour workshop to look at the question of how we might be able to ensure better collaboration practices and identify what makes for good collaboration.

The top level findings are set out in the following table.

Types of factors that inhibit collaboration Types of factors that support collaboration Some ideas to enable better collaboration
Territorialism / protecting your patch Environment Whole of APS intranet
Procedures/tools Culture Co-working spaces that can be used by staff from different departments
Culture Procedures / tools Explicit coordination entry/ contact points for agencies
Uncertainty Clarity Identify fit for purpose types of collaboration / collaboration measures

Building on outcomes

The detailed workshop outcomes are summarised below – however what we’d like to try to do is to build on these. We’d like to develop some more structured guidance for those seeking to collaborate across agencies. But in order to do so, we’ll need some collaborative aid J

To try and take this work further and to develop some polished but meaningful and practical guidance for agencies, we would appreciate any assistance with:

    • Identifying any existing useful guidance on collaborating in the public sector (not necessarily limited to the Australian context)
    • Some practical case studies of collaboration as part of introducing an innovative initiative involving more than one agency (we’d like some Australian examples, but not necessarily limited to the Australian Public Service). Please note that we are happy to conduct interviews and write the case studies up if needed.

We will also seek to run a further workshop building on the outcomes from the previous one. This would seek to devise or refine guidance as well as look at prototyping some possible options for enabling consistently better collaboration.

If you are interested or able to contribute to any of these, please contact us.

Workshop details

The workshop began with some sharing about experiences of collaboration, and three examples of collaboration across agencies (including the new Finance platform GovShare).

The workshop was structured in a World Café style to make the most of the experience and knowledge of participants. Three questions were used and then groups shared back their top ideas for how we might ensure consistently better collaboration across the APS.

What inhibits collaboration?

What inhibits collaboration, whether it is within agencies, across agencies, when doing something routine or when doing something different, or whether it is short term/long term, immediate or well established?

Factors inhibiting collaboration

Territory / Patch Culture
    • Territorialism, ego and fear that credit or the benefits from the collaboration may go to others
    • Different terminology/language/meanings used by different areas
    • Lack of information/understanding about what other areas are doing or are capable of, including difficulty in finding appropriate contact or entry points
    • Geographic/physical separation
    • Different or competing agendas/aims (at the leadership level) of different agencies, or simply a lack of common goals
    • Lead agencies not taking (or having) the time to understand the issues or perspectives of other agencies with a role to play
    • A lack of sponsorship or commitment by leaders
    • Unwillingness to share information
    • People not seeing collaboration as a part of their role or expectations of their role
    • A lack of follow-up from previous collaborative exercises, reducing the willingness to collaborate in future
    • Change fatigue / collaboration fatigue
    • Risk aversion
Procedure/Tools Uncertainty
    • Hierarchy and the sometimes associated need for information to travel up and across and down rather than direct
    • Challenges in sharing information and data across agencies
    • Lack of suitable collaboration tools, lack of sophistication/experience in the tools available, or incompatibility of tools available between agencies
    • Lack of appropriate governance structures and/or frameworks
    • Scope creep
    • Budget processes including discrete agency budgets
    • Insufficient resources and time
    • Lack of continuity for key staff
    • Poor project management or planning
    • Uncertainty over what information can or should be shared, including privacy concerns
    • Lack of accountability / lack of clarity about respective roles and responsibilities
    • Concerns about over-committing, or uncertainty of ability or remit to commit
    • Risk of changes that could affect the project and the need to retain flexibility

What supports collaboration?

What supports collaboration, at either the individual/team level or at the organisational level?

Factors supporting collaboration

Environment Culture
    • A lack of resources can act as an impetus to collaborate and share more
    • Trust and established relationships, personal connections
    • Common goals
    • Access to information, both internally and externally
    • Sufficient time
    • Forward thinking
    • Clarity and alignment of drivers and common outcomes
    • Goal and role clarity between teams
    • Understanding the real level of risk
    • Default principles and assumptions that information will be shared
    • Measures of success
Procedure/Tools Clarity
    • Clear and simple processes
    • Having good systems and technology
    • Corporate knowledge capture
    • Flexibility in resources across teams
    • (Formal and informal) networking, training, seminars, forums, workshops
    • Coffee
    • Access to social media
    • Teams that can practice collaboration internally
    • Staff mobility – exchanges/secondments /outposted staff
    • Sharing/evaluating outcomes of collaborations – including acknowledging and learning from failures in collaboration
    • Governance structures for collaboration
    • Having a shared position on intellectual property
    • Risk management framework
    • Examples of successful collaboration
    • Openness
    • Effective performance management
    • Belief in the value and benefits of collaboration
    • Champions that encourage and promote collaboration
    • Helpful people, willingness to share and to take advantage of networking opportunities
    • ‘Out of the box’ thinking
    • Commitment by individuals and support of managers
    • Organisational culture and incentive structures that enable individuals
    • Recognition for taking risk/initiative
    • Permission to fail
    • Resilience and determination
    • Sense of APS community
    • A mandate to collaborate

How might we enable consistently better collaboration?

Each table was asked to identify their top three ideas and one blue-sky/crazy idea on how we might enable consistently better collaboration.

There was a wide mix of ideas, including:

    • Agencies have clearer or dedicated coordination contact / entry points
    • Support for cross agency networks[1. A list of some of the existing networks and communities of practice available are provided on the Toolkit]
    • Shared collaboration platform and/or a whole-of-government/APS intranet
    • Having people attached to projects, rather than agencies
    • Co-working spaces for government workers from different agencies / hot-desking
    • Physical environments that more strongly support meetings/collaboration
    • Internal social media channels
    • Having an established collaboration fund
    • Clearer processes for translating ideas to outcomes
    • Greater sharing of lessons learned
    • A quota for staff mobility
    • An explicit commitment to collaboration
    • Explicit permission and expectation to collaborate and accept the risk of failures
    • Place collaboration activities in performance agreements
    • Formal structures/processes for time-limited collaborative projects across agencies
    • Development of measures of collaboration
    • Identify fit-for-purpose types of collaboration.

And some of the blue sky ideas

    • Friday cross-government bar – to promote socialising and connections across the APS
    • Global public servant exchange programme – opportunity for regular exchanges around the world
    • Co-locate the entire APS – as in Brussels, have all of the public service in the one area, to facilitate better mixing and interconnections
    • Random rotations/staff swaps across the APS (e.g. an APS 3 swaps with an SES Band 1 for a week).

Thank you

We’d like to thank everyone who was involved for their participation, and particularly the Department of Education for hosting the event.