Tearing down the walls: why the public sector needs a new culture of collaboration

By Matthew Walker, Richard Hughes

In the public sector, the imperative to save money is driving new interest in local collaboration. This can be seen in the pooling of health and social care budgets in Community Budgets, for example, and in the merging of probation trusts into Community Rehabilitation Companies. Police forces that once fought against mergers are voluntarily sharing functions or adopting lead force models to mitigate the effects of financial cuts.

This new wave of ‘austerity collaboration’ holds great promise in terms of delivering better quality and value for citizens, but the culture of the public sector – one where a commitment to collaboration is far from instinctive – presents real barriers.

So how can the public sector take this latest move to collaboration beyond its initial impulse to save money and make it an effective force for delivering better services for citizens? The key lies in making collaboration an attitude that is lived and breathed at every level. This is the only way the sector can ensure that its current ambitions aren’t thwarted by a prevailing culture that guards organisational boundaries fiercely. It’s time to tear down the walls.

Leadership, not management, creates long-lasting collaboration

Effective collaborative leaders get the results they want by focusing on three priorities: articulating compelling goals, forging alliances with partners and trading control for influence. This sets the tone for their own organisations and encourages the right behaviours in partners. It is leadership, not management, that will create longer-lasting collaboration.

Collaboration needs the right framework to flourish

A culture of collaboration will not flourish unless it is underpinned by a workable model where priorities and money flows are aligned. There is no single correct model – it could take the form of a pooled budget or a shared team. The essential point is that there is a common focus on the outcomes to be achieved. This is what will get staff doing the right thing.

Focusing on customers, not processes, can transform the way people work

Frontline staff need to be clear about the outcomes they are trying to achieve for the customer. It sounds obvious – but too many services are still satisfying process requirements at the expense of customer outcomes.

The default mindset on data needs resetting

For almost every public sector organisation, the default mindset when it comes to data is to hoard it for fear of breaching a set of improperly understood rules. But this is precisely the opposite of what public organisations need to do if they want to improve services. Instead, they should aspire to share records, and make the data they hold visible and searchable. Thanks to new and affordable techniques for processing and analysing large amounts of complex data, public organisations can gain valuable insight into where and how to focus resources.

Collaboration provides great potential for public organisations to work more efficiently within the constraints of limited budgets. But, just as importantly, it can also be an effective route to achieving far better outcomes for users of public services. This is a prize worth winning. To achieve it though requires whole-hearted commitment to collaboration and a change of culture that goes right to the heart of how the public sector works.

About the authors

Matthew Walker PA healthcare expert
Richard Hughes PA government and public sector expert

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