Against collaboration

16 Dec 15

Can the government’s policy of mandating cross-agency collaboration really be the best way to provide efficient services at minimum cost?

This article argues that collaboration should not be a policy goal of government. Collaboration does not solve the problem of fragmented services. Focusing on collaboration wastes money, fosters compliance and creates a new layer of bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the true cause of fragmented services goes unaddressed.

Collaboration has been a policy goal of the UK government since the election of Labour in 1997. It has become a central feature of policy initiatives, cross-agency funding and performance-reporting regimes.

There is little consensus about what the term ‘collaboration’ means, either in theory or in practice. I use the term here to describe inter-organisational relationships in public services funded or mandated by central government. I make eight charges against government-funded collaboration.

1. It generates compliance not innovation

Collaboration becomes an act of compliance. To attract sources of funding, public sector organisations must demonstrate that they are working in partnership. It is not surprising, therefore, that the ingenuity of public servants is channelled into writing convincing accounts of how collaboration has been achieved.

2. It wastes money

Collaboration is not free. The first cost is paying senior public servants to attend partnership meetings, sub-groups and away days. Public servants are obliged to attend to demonstrate their commitment to joined-up working; to not attend would be to deny the problem of fragmented services. The second cost is the time it takes to draft, amend and approve partnership documents. The third cost is the production of evidence to prove to the funding body that work is being carried out collaboratively.

3. It joins up documents, not services

When joined-up working is a policy goal, the result is joined-up documents that may or may not have an impact on services from the citizen’s point of view. A local area can have an immaculate track record of collaborative working on paper, at the same time as a citizen is being passed from pillar to post between and within organisations.

4. It is woolly

Central and local agencies push local organisations to work together without being explicit about why, beyond the notion that collaboration is a good thing. Most of the literature on collaboration calls for people to try harder; they’re not doing it right – if they had the right aims, trust, power balance and structure, they would see great results. Some draw attention to the less obvious benefits of collaborative working, for example the development of a relationship with another organisation. But to what end? The purpose of public services is to help citizens lead good lives, not foster relationships between its workers.

5. No one knows whether it works

Nobody knows how effective collaboration is because the arbiter of its effectiveness is always the funder, the government agency or those collaborating. Whether or not citizens get their problems solved is immaterial; the impact from the citizen’s point of view is not studied empirically. In functional hierarchies, this is typical – no one measures achievement of purpose from the citizen’s point of view. Managers pay attention to the achievement of targets and reducing unit costs.

6. The real cause of fragmented services remains undiscovered

The true cause of fragmented services is the functional design of work. In organisations managed for functional efficiencies, professionals are measured on complying with standards, meeting targets and lowering transaction costs. This causes them to:
•    See people as a series of parts, not as whole people.
•    Transact with people, rather than build relationships.
•    View people through their own professional lens.
•    Focus on fitting need to provision, rather than provision to need.
•    Focus on completing activities, such as assessments and referrals within target times.
•    Turn people away to meet thresholds and eligibility criteria.
•    Refer people on instead of taking ownership.

When you add the policy goal of collaboration to functional designs in the current regime, you do not solve the problem. Two or more functional hierarchies working together to deliver standardised, transactional services are no more able to deliver a joined-up experience for the citizen than one working alone.

7. It is the wrong place to start

Collaboration starts with senior managers meeting and working together to produce documents. A more powerful place to start is at the interface between the citizen and the organisations they interact with. When managers study empirically what prevents the frontline providing a joined-up service for the citizen, they find themselves moved to act. When studied over time, managers learn that, in order to join up services for the citizen, they must first abandon beliefs in economies of scale and standardisation. They learn that specialisation, targets, thresholds and eligibility criteria cause fragmented services.

8. It is the wrong policy goal

The policy goal of collaboration should be replaced with a new policy goal: to design services that work for citizens and communities from their point of view. Public services should exist to help people to live well, not to achieve the policy goal of the moment.

Criticising collaboration is a little heretical; equivalent to saying “don’t be nice” or “don’t share”. But neither being nice nor sharing are enough to solve the problem of fragmented services. Services are fragmented because we design them to be. Only by reversing the functional design of public services will the citizen notice a significant difference.

This article was first published in the January 2016 edition of CIPFA’s professional journal, Public Money & Management


  • Charlotte Pell

    visiting fellow at the Centre for Knowledge, Innovation, Technology and Enterprise at the University of Newcastle and head of communications at Vanguard Consulting

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