Performing governance – or how to make collaboration work

This week saw the launch of my latest book Performing Governance: Partnerships, Culture and New Labour. Under the Labour governments of 1997-2010 partnerships were a prominent theme of policy and public service organisations were legally obligated, financially incentivised and exhorted to work collaboratively across a range of different policy areas.  But for all of this activity there is a question mark over the issue of impact. Did working collaboratively make a difference to the organisations involved, to service users and/or the broader population?

This book deals explicitly with this question exploring the performance of partnerships over the New Labour periods.  When viewed from a traditional Performance Management perspective the answer about impact might be faintly depressing given the lack of evidence to support this way of working.  However, the book also draws on some rather different literatures outside of the traditional literatures to establish a more holistic perspective of performance.   This broader perspective considers not just issues of efficiency and effectiveness but also the cultural components of this concept.

Expanding on an initial framework that Helen Sullivan and I set out in a recent Public Administration paper the first part of the book argues that in assessing the performance of partnerships in their broadest sense we need to also consider issues such as individual and organisational identity, affect and emotion, symbolism and values amongst a range of other so-called “softer” factors.   The second part of the book then works through an application of the framework in three case studies which gained significant attention under the New Labour governments; child safeguarding, urban regeneration and the modernisation of health and social care.  In all of these cases significant investments were made in collaborative working initiatives but none were able to demonstrate widespread success in this area.  Yet under this headline message there is a lot more to these narratives of collaborative working. 

You might be wondering why I am writing about my new book on this blog beyond a spot of shameless self-promotion, although I can assure you that there is a link! In discussions of the 21st century public servant one of the themes that frequently comes up is the importance of collaboration as a key area of public service activity. 21st century public servants will have a role not just in joining up government agencies and public bodies, but also in working with a range of third sector and private providers and engaging with the community in a more expansive manner than the past. In recent research interviews I have been doing in Australia many people have articulated the vision of public servants as brokers and enablers,working across a wide variety of different boundaries.  As we have previously argued, the relational state will need significantly different skills than those that have typically been valued in public services.

Given the amount of research into collaboration we might expect that we would have found the way of getting this right by now, although often we haven’t found the ‘right’ ingrediants as we are looking for the wrong sorts of factors. I am often asked what the most important thing is in making collaboration work and the only honest answer I am able to give is a lot of hard work and persistence. Yesterday I went to a wonderful presentation by Professor Rosemary O’Leary who skillfully demonstrated just why it is that collaborative public management continues to be such a difficult task. Her key message was that collaboration is a lot of hard labour and asks public servants to balance a number of different competing agendas, issues and management styles at the same time.  To effectively manage collaboration you must be able to work with autonomy and interdependence, be participative and authoratative, to be assertive and then know when to stand up.  It is about exercising excellent judgement, being able to negotiatie, to solve problems collaboratively and have excellent skills in strategy and vision – in addition to all of the sorts of technical skills that we expect of individuals. 

In the Performing Governance book I conclude that partnerships were not the success that was anticipated under the New Labour governments as it tended to be thought of something that could be achieved through particular structures, processes of management or the use of information technology systems.  Collaboration cannot be mandated.  It is heavily infused with cultural and value connotations and can only be really be made a reality of at the ground level.  Of course certain structures and processes might help this to a certain degree but collaboration is difficult to achieve without some hard work at the level of practice and paying attention to some of the “softer” sides of management. 

What this means in terms of the 21st century public servant is that we will likely be looking for different sorts of skills to those we have traditionally recruited for. This isn’t to say that technical and professional skills will become obsolete; they patently will not.  When recruiting for the 21st century public servant we will be looking for technical skills in addition to the necessary attributes to work collaboratively.  This will involve seeking out those who can communicate effectively, can see an issue from both sides of an argument, can analyse a range of different forms of data and have a high degree of emotional literacy.  If we continue to attempt to drive collaboration in the ways that we have in the past without paying attention to these sorts of issues then we are likely to only achieve similar sorts of results.  If we really want to change the ways we do collaboration in public services then we need to invest in the sorts of capacities and capabilities highlighted in Performing Governance.



One thought on “Performing governance – or how to make collaboration work

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s