What are the challenges, barriers and opportunities to multi-agency and collaborative working in local public service delivery? Ravi Gogna sets out some ideas
I'm writing this on my tablet in central London overlooking the Thames. The view is something of a distraction but about 70 years ago I wouldn’t have encountered that problem; the capital’s skyline was shrouded in smog so thick that it led to the deaths of thousands of people.
The Clean Air Act 1956 changed all that. The legislation, which established urban zones in which only smokeless fuels could be burnt, serves as a vivid reminder that government has almost limitless potential to transform people’s lives for the better.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way.
The public sector melting pot
While we must not forget to spotlight successes, history is also littered with mishaps and challenges in abundance.
Partly this is down to the sheer complexity of managing the machine – a task that can often be all-consuming and one that can leave little – if any – time for strategic thinking, innovation or delivery.
Did you know, for example, that a total of 27 agencies work at the UK border? No wonder multi-agency working has become a fact of life for today’s generation of policymakers. But is this the same as old fashioned collaboration? I’d say there are some important differences.
Much comes down to whether or not you’re considering tactical or strategic multi-agency working. If it’s tactical – such as ad hoc support to a certain issue – it’s quite easy to provide targeted support, advice, and so on because it’s a specific problem with what is usually a well-defined end point.
But if it’s strategic – trying to align two or more teams to achieve common goals such as reduced obesity, affordable housing or better social care – success is far harder to achieve. Challenges to this way of cross-cutting work abound, ranging from competing strategic priorities across organisations, to incompatible or misaligned performance metrics to mismatched data quality or formats – the list goes on.
Team up to build up
So, what does the public sector need to achieve strong multi-agency governance that truly represents the whole community?
Well, for starters, it’s important to note that even the best intent can go adrift without adequate support and a genuine belief in the vision from the ground up. This means that a shared and commonly understood vision that all parties can relate to is absolutely vital – without this, it can be difficult to justify why you’re doing things.
Flexibility, too, is important. Policymakers need to recognise that processes might need to change now that they are working with partners.
And I can’t miss an opportunity to promote the importance of data. Just like it does in other countries – check out New Zealand’s SmartStart as a pioneering example – data needs to follow the citizen across different agencies for it to really fulfil its transformational potential.
The good news is that the UK public sector is hardly alone in having to operate this way. No administration can operate in isolation and what works on a local level will have to be mirrored nationally and internationally when it comes to addressing megatrends such as urbanisation and climate change.
What we need to see more of is outcome-based service provision, rather than a transactional approach that can leave citizens being bounced around multiple agencies. Holistic analysis of the citizen problem involving different points of view also holds the key to truly understanding the challenge. And there’s the old standby of efficiency and effectiveness – something that all governments should strive for.
The corridors of power should ideally echo to the sounds of the best and brightest hard at work. But they can’t operate alone. Better together – a mission statement, not a mission impossible.
About the author
Ravi Gogna is a consultant with BAE Systems Applied Intelligence