We're all in this together: How can civil service professions collaborate better?

Changes in career pathway planning have altered how the civil service works. So, how do you make the best of expertise in the age of professions?

By Dame Una O’Brien

04 Oct 2023

A noticeable shift in the civil service compared with a decade ago is the clear presence of “professions”. Today, there’s an expectation that everyone within the service will join and follow a professional path. Of the 28 professions listed on the civil service careers portal, operational delivery, project management and digital, data & technology are three which barely featured as distinct professions within government in 2010. Over the same timeframe, we’ve also seen sustained leadership adding strength to the more traditional and familiar professions such as policy, finance, economics and HR. This is a welcome if all too rarely celebrated development; it’s good for the civil service, in terms of attracting talent, and positive for individual career planning and development. 

Inevitably, change on this scale prompts questions about how to be effective in a more “professionalised” environment. There is surely strength in working to coherent, agreed standards, often underpinned by qualifications and continuing professional development. Being part of a network of others in the same profession adds a sense of confidence and a depth of specialist knowledge where the old “generalist” way of doing things was comparatively unreliable. But most of all, deploying this wider, stronger range of professional skills and perspectives should lead to better decision making and delivery. 

However, the civil service isn’t immune to risks we see in other highly professionalised workplaces, such as the issues I discovered during my experience in the NHS. A perceived hierarchy amongst professions can influence the way employees behave, showing overly deferential behaviour towards some professions and low regard for others. Where a fixed way of viewing the world takes hold within a profession, there are risks of “group think” dominating. Conflicting priorities and incentives can inhibit people in different professions from working together effectively. These are wide, systemic issues. At least now we have leaders in place for each of the professions in government whose role includes mitigating such risks.    

If some of these opportunities and issues are emerging where you work, what can you do as an individual civil servant or as a team leader? For inspiration, I turned to a well-thumbed book on my shelves: Collaborative Leadership by David Archer and Alex Cameron. For years, they advised numerous contractors and different professionals on the major project to renew the London Underground. “Successful collaborative relationships,” they wrote, “are built on a framework of three things: the right governance structures, efficient joint operations and collaborative behaviours”.

Channelling the spirit of their work with my own experience, here then are some initial prompts in support of greater collaboration: 

Encourage mutual understanding and respect

How well do you and your team understand what the other professions within your department do, and how they could contribute to your challenges? Conversely, is there a need for your and your team’s professional expertise to be more widely understood elsewhere in the department? If so, what could you do as a first step? How do you speak of other “professions”? How can you show regard for their perspectives, particularly in meetings? 

Guard against professional ‘ego’

Be mindful of the risk of overconfidence in professional expertise, both your own and that of others. Consider what it would take for you to feel more at ease saying amongst your peers, or in settings with other professionals, that you don’t know or understand something. How can you respectfully engage in debate with strongly held professional opinions? Can you disagree agreeably?

Clarify about roles and accountabilities

Being clear about roles and responsibilities helps to build trust and avoid turf wars, and enables people to make progress with confidence about where they fit in. If you’re working in a multi-professional team, it’s never too late to ask questions such as: Who takes the role of an adviser? Who owns responsibility for resources and for delivery? Which members of the team are accountable for outcomes?

Hold on to shared values and purpose

The civil service values offer strong common ground for different professions working together within government. You’re also likely to have a shared common purpose for a project or delivery goal. When things feel stuck between multiple perspectives, it can help to step back and talk about what’s held in common. 

At a time when expertise is both revered and disparaged in the wider world, perhaps the simplest strategy is to be open to being wrong, stay curious and keep learning. 

Dame Una O’Brien is a leadership coach with the Praesta partnership and a former permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care

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