How to collaborate to save and innovate

1 Apr 15

With continuing tight budgets and deficit reduction policies the only certainty for the public sector, the pressure is on to deliver savings while improving services. Increased collaboration can cut costs and banish bureaucracy but there are obstacles to clear

Collaboration illustration: Natalie Wood

Collaboration is increasingly being seen as a key way in which the public sector can make further savings while enhancing the quality of services and customer experience through joint commissioning and, where appropriate, service delivery. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in finance, at the hub of public sector mechanics. It’s not just collaboration within finance teams, which can be spread across geographies, but between departments and with stakeholders.

With deficit reduction policies and budget restrictions set to continue for the foreseeable future, there is a strategic imperative to reduce costs and bureaucracy while at the same time improving services to citizens with a more ‘joined-up’ public service experience. 

But there are obstacles to increased collaboration. These include structural silos that hamper innovation and collaboration, and lack of accountability, so that it’s not always clear who is in charge. Legal and protocol issues also present barriers as do differing professional values and motivations.

As developments in Greater Manchester are showing, silos are becoming a thing of the past. With so many departments and organisations interlinking with stakeholders both within and outside the public sector, collaboration is critical.

Effective cross-sector collaboration is a tough nut to crack. Well-intentioned efforts can be thwarted by stakeholders who focus on their own interests while different organisational cultures talk past each other. There has to be a willingness from the top down, across groups and individually to collaborate with a need to view the bigger picture rather than allowing parochial issues to be a barrier. 

Remember, collaboration is working with others to perform a task and to achieve shared goals. There are some key elements to focus on.

Capturing knowledge stored in email, network drives and laptops is vital, so that staff have the right information, when they need it. Knowledge sharing helps the familiarisation process that acquaints new employees with the organisation and protects against team members leaving and taking their knowledge and experience with them. Allowing users to share their work in microblogs, wiki pages and blog posts helps to circulate knowledge, facilitate discussion and capture information so that it’s discoverable again in the future. 

Project management can be a challenge, with key people and information spread across systems and departments. Consolidate project assets into one place and make it accessible in the cloud. Every project team member should have a profile with contact details, a picture, activity stream, biography, specialities and experience so that other people can find them when needed. Enabling organisations to collaborate requires negotiation of a legal, binding framework. 

Collaboration in the digital age can spur original thinking, with connections happening across locations and departments that previously couldn’t have occurred. It brings together different voices, teams, specialities and opinions to solve a problem or develop something new. Collaborative tools bring value to innovative thinkers by echoing their goals, thoughts, notes and brainstorming sessions to an entire organisation.

Often referred to as enterprise social networking, networks like Chatter or Yammer are examples of collaborative tools that help share new ways of thinking across organisations internally to spur the sharing of ideas and thought leadership. One expert commented that a majority of employees are disengaged due to lack of leadership or belief in corporate purpose, which is why these collaborative internal social networks are so important. 

As we move forward, collaboration is reaching new levels. For instance, in Worcestershire all the principal public agencies have joined together in a partnership that will save about £58m. Northampton and Cambridge county councils are sharing some central services to make considerable cost savings.

More recently, the government announced how Greater Manchester will take ownership for both health and social services, to enhance collaboration between key functions.

Collaboration is clearly something we’ve all got to get used to. Here are 10 top tips to assist:

1. Make a strong financial case

Highlight the direct and indirect costs associated with the current situation and how collaboration across organisational boundaries can work towards reducing these. For example, whole system efforts to prevent diabetes cases within a population can result in significant savings to the wider health economy. Look for the evidence and data to support your arguments: a combination of local and national data can support the case for collaborating across organisational boundaries. 

2. Take risks

Our experience shows that when two leaders are working across boundaries it’s important that they progressively take greater risks to demonstrate that they have trust in each other. When trust is low, leaders need to take risks to explore the quality of their relationships and the underlying dynamics of mistrust to give an opportunity for trust to develop. This is best done by each party taking smaller risks rather than giant leaps of faith.

3. Be the message

Several students on our Health Masters (GenerationQ) course at Ashridge Business School have experimented with acts of leadership that demonstrated collaboration. For example, a consultant within an acute hospital visited GPs and staff in the community with the intent of understanding their needs and exploring different ways of working so that they can help each other as well as patients.

4. Help staff to make sense of change

Help staff understand what is changing in their part of the organisation and why they should be sharing information with staff and other stakeholders, even when the information is unlikely to be received favourably. This requires managers to be explicit about what they know and what they do not know: for instance, some timescales will be known and others will remain undecided or be open to negotiation. Support stakeholders to make sense of what is changing and how. This includes helping staff to understand how and why they are experiencing specific reactions to changes in their organisations and helping them to prioritise activities.

5. Shine a light on givers

In a recent Harvard Business Review article In the company of givers and takers, Adam Grant, professor of psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a bestselling author, encourages leaders to build a collaborative work environment that attracts givers to an organisation and appeals less to takers. In practice, this means recognising and rewarding employees who demonstrate generosity. For example, senior managers who set up a task force to deal with a complex issue across boundaries or volunteer to mentor junior workers should be recognised and applauded. 

6. Reframe changes

Help staff to understand how they can take control and influence the changes in their part of the system. For instance, one leader engaged her staff by saying: ‘We have a choice of how it is done rather than letting it be done to us.’ This intervention gave staff permission to take control and responsibility for transforming services.

7. Work on both the front and back stages

Work politically across formal and informal boundaries to build connections, dispel rumours, develop shared agendas and look for opportunities for integration. 

8. Use a quality improvement methodology

In our experience it’s very helpful to underpin changes by using a proven quality improvement methodology (eg, Lean, Theory of Constraints). These provide a framework for staff to implement changes that promote organisation-wide benefits rather than local efficiency.  

9. Avoid service specific jargon

Working across organisational boundaries means working with different professional groups (eg finance, operations, IT) and requires clear communication. Be aware that others may not be expert in your area and avoid using technical or professional jargon. 

10. Show humility

Listen to employees’ concerns and opinions. Research reveals that being listened to and treated with dignity and respect increases employees’ trust and willingness to collaborate. 


1. See the big picture

2. Share knowledge

3. Reward generosity


1. Be parochial

2. Let rumours flourish

3. Use jargon 


This feature was first published in the April issue of Public Finance magazine


  • Guy Lubitsh

    is a principal consultant at Ashridge Business School, where he is head of the NHS Practice

Did you enjoy this article?