How can civil servants overcome the barriers to working with colleagues from other departments?
As departments work hard to deliver reforms and savings, how can they ensure opportunities for connecting are identified and exploited? That was the question put before participants at a recent Civil Service World round table. Mark Smulian reports
The civil service's working practices have to change if it is to have any chance of meeting the £15bn savings required of it in the next few years. So said Jane Walker, deputy director of civil service strategy at the Cabinet Office, as she opened a recent Civil Service World round table, in association with global digital workplace and intranet company Invotra.
“As everything changes around us, the most obvious driver is new technology, which makes collaboration easier but brings challenges with it. We have to really embrace technology and avenues to working better across boundaries,” said the chair, adding that different departments would need different degrees of pressure to collaborate.
“DCMS is very small and has to work with other departments to get savings, but very big departments like DWP have large savings programmes and there is a temptation to say: ‘We know what we are doing, just let us get our heads down and do it.’ So there are, at the two ends of the scale, very different drivers.”
Years of using incompatible systems and methods have created obvious barriers to cross-departmental working. Fintan Galvin, Invotra’s chief executive officer and founder, said: “When we try to connect up departments we hit issues around missing standards for data and that there is no centralised repository for data standards. That would save a phenomenal amount of money, time and effort as every department spends time redoing it, and 95% of it is the exactly the same.”
He added that there were seldom any sound technical reasons for incompatible IT and data storage, “it’s just driven by the siloed contractual situation departments are in”.
Prakash Bachoo, deputy director of the Government Legal Department’s DWP working age benefits team, said there were straightforward technological problems to resolve before anything more elaborate was attempted in collaborative working. She gave the example: “We send lawyers into other departments and they have to log into two systems, to talk to each other and the department, so let’s do the basic things first.”
“From the top down, there should be a culture that allows collaboration. People will be reluctant if they think there is a reason why they shouldn’t do something,” Paul Zimmerman, chief operating officer – Invotra
Others, though, shared examples of successful joint working. Conrad Bird, director of the Great Britain Campaign, which promotes business, tourism and education overseas, said it brought together 20 departments and 500 businesses and, unusually, had a single central budget that sat above any departmental one. He said such centralised budgets could drive efficiencies but “maybe we really have to challenge ourselves as departmental collaboration runs against cabinet responsibility. It’s a constant battle”.
Like lawyers, government communications staff are gathered into a civil service-wide team, but few civil servants were used to pursuing their career through a profession rather than departmental route.
Pam Teare, director of communications at the Ministry of Justice, said: “The Government Communication Service has a tradition of people moving round departments and that was how you got promotion, but other civil servants stay a long time in one department then perhaps consider secondment. I think the culture where people move around is helpful.”
Emily Tofield, group director of communications at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, gave the example of the joint communications team formed by Defra with the various bodies associated with it – including Natural England, the Forestry Commission – and said, “You have better careers if you’re part of a larger team, before that people were isolated.”
The discussion turned to how staff could be encouraged to innovate and make connections with each other but still keep such processes manageable.
Invotra’s Galvin noted that he came from a professional world in which computer applications and websites became successful because of collaboration and “you never know where the next valuable contribution may come from”.
“When you give people a chance they are generally very good at collaboration, but when you put a blockage in the way they tend to give up,” he said.
Invotra’s chief operating officer, Paul Zimmerman, elaborated: “It needs removal of fear. From the top down there should be a culture that allows collaboration, otherwise people will be reluctant if they think there is a reason why they shouldn’t do something.”
Neil Warsop, deputy director, spending controls, at the Cabinet Office, wondered how collaboration could be engendered among people who might not see themselves as having common interests, but in fact did. “Incentives to collaborate come from strong networks, but how do you create communities of people doing similar tasks who are not in one profession?” he asked.
GLD’s Bachoo raised the issue of legal restrictions on sharing between departments, pointing out that HMRC and the DWP, for example, “hold so much personal data that opening up systems may not protect it and we have to solve that first, as the last thing government wants is a leak of personal data”.
One factor that held back collaboration was the fear that an invitation would generate an uncontrollable flood of unsought participation whose volume would overwhelm the originator of the project and prevent them finding anything useful.
Galvin said such fear was understandable, but that in his experience this effect “actually very quickly settles down and is easier to maintain”.
Some big themes had emerged from the debate, Walker concluded. First, that there should be a culture of trusting teams to go off and create communities in which they may innovate, and second the importance of countering the fear that one might lose control of data, or be overwhelmed by would-be collaborators. “We have to be one government operating together,” she said.
Attending the round table were:
Jane Walker, Deputy Director, Civil Service Strategy, Cabinet Office (chair)
Prakash Bachoo, Deputy Director, Working age benefits team, DWP Legal Advisers, Government Legal Department
Conrad Bird, Great Britain Campaign director, Prime Minister’s Office
Josina Bowering, Head of PaceSetter: Change assurance and investment, HM Revenue & Customs
Michelle Cupples, Head of professional standards, Government Communications Service
Fintan Galvin, Chief Executive Officer and founder, Invotra
Malcolm Harrison, Chief executive, Crown Commercial Service
Jaimie Newman, Deputy head, Performance, planning, forecasting, HM Revenue & Customs
Jackie Oatway, Automatic enrolment programme director, Department for Work and Pensions
Allan Ross, Head of Communications, Wales Office
John Stevenson, Head of Communications, Department for Communities and Local Government
Pam Teare, Director of Communications, Ministry of Justice
Emily Tofield, Group Director of Communications, Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Neil Warsop, Deputy Director, Spending controls, Cabinet Office
Paul Zimmerman, Chief Operating Officer, Invotra