By Colin Marrs

27 May 2016

In an era of protracted belt-tightening in government, how can departments collaborate on policy design to save money and improve outcomes for the citizen? A recent CSW round table explored these issues, as Colin Marrs reports

It’s good to talk. And when it comes to policymaking, the earlier the better. Recent Cabinet Office commercial standards mean civil servants now have an even greater incentive to start discussing how to work together as they design new policy solutions. So how can civil servants use their diminishing resources to help improve policy outcomes through collaboration? Civil Service World, along with NS&I Government Payment Services, gathered experts at a recent round table to chew over the challenges. 

Departmental silos can sometimes make it difficult for policymakers to even realise what problem they are trying to solve, the session heard – or at least how it fits into the bigger picture. “Every department has incredible expertise and there is sometimes a view that that expertise is very specific to the problem they’re trying to tackle,” said Ellie Runcie, future programmes director at the Design Council. “Our observation is that sometimes the problem that you think you’re tackling is actually another problem, bigger in size.”

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Runci identified a temptation to get stuck into designing solutions without thinking about whether other departments are facing similar problems, or have expertise which could help produce a better solution. “We need to reach out to other departments, for example, so that we can make sure that there aren’t other capabilities out there that could inform the problem, and that we’re all working together to encourage a bit more shared understanding.”

“Unless you join up delivery, you are never going to solve the underlying problem” – Robert Pollock, National Infrastructure Commission​

The past 15 years have seen some improvement in the situation, according to Robert Pollock, a project director at the National Infrastructure Commission and former director of the cross-Whitehall Public Service Transformation Network. “Some of the work my previous team did with local Jobcentre Pluses and other bits of the public sector tried to achieve collaboration, because people don’t present individual problems when they arrive at the public sector,” he said. “Unless you can join up your delivery, you are never going to solve the underlying problem.”

Collaboration may not always be easy, but mediating the different perspectives in other departments can create an atmosphere of creative tension, according to Fabiola Williams, director of HR strategy, capability and organisation development at the Department for Work and Pensions. “If there’s a real challenge and an intention to work out how to think about wicked problems, innovation cannot come unless you start to juxtapose opposing ideas,” she said. “It is only at the interface, and the rubbing of that together, that something new can emerge. If we stay in safe camps and in safe silos we will have the same ordered thinking.”

But identifying the right people to talk to is not always straightforward, participants agreed. “There are so many different areas in government, with various decision makers, and this makes it difficult to build networks to help identify opportunities to work together,” said Dax Harkins, B2B director at NS&I GPS. Runcie agreed: “It’s quite hard to find out who’s out there in every department. It is not as transparent as it could be.”

Such barriers can seem daunting for civil servants, and might foster risk aversion in regard to collaborative policy design, according to the attendees. “Success relies on the civil service changing its behaviour, particularly at a time where we’re cutting back and ministers want quicker answers. That pressure increases the incentive to go for the easy answer,” Pollock said.

“Innovation cannot come unless you start to juxtapose opposing ideas” – Fabiola Williams, DWP​

In addition, the government’s devolution drive is changing the role of policymakers. Pollock gave an example from his time at the Public Service Transformation Network. “Your role as a policy adviser becomes about enabling a framework which provides local discretion and flexibility, because there’s a recognition that that’s probably going to deliver a better outcome and evidence to suggest that,” Pollock said. “The tension is how you enable that while providing performance management information back into ministers so that they feel they’ve got some robust evidence that what they’ve committed to the electorate is happening on the ground.”

Too often, government is missing the opportunity to collaborate at the earliest stage when exploring solution options, according to Graeme Hill, head of business development at NS&I GPS. “There is a well-established process for engaging with the private sector market through prior information notices; too often departments do not fully explore the alternative option of collaborating with other departments through Crown partnerships as a first step. But to deliver value for money for tax payers, we need to improve our collective knowledge and sharing of expertise and capability which exists within our own wider organisation before we look elsewhere,” Hill said.

A braver approach is to admit that the design process could take six months of engagement with the market, experts and civil society, Pollock said. “Maybe even with some real people  – because that’s where the best stuff comes from, particularly on the public service side”.

Changing the cautious mindset to embrace early collaboration with other government players requires carrots, not sticks, according to Harkins. “It has to feel like it’s something that people are attracted to, rather than something forced upon them as a process, because that’s when you get a bit of frustration and a lack of buy-in that creates resistance. If it is forced, you probably wouldn’t get the results you want,” he said.

A new approach – democratising the top-down model of leadership – is fundamental to giving those further down the chain a sense of ownership, Pollock said. “In a world where pay is constrained, I think that individuals who are actually doing the work at Grade 7, HEO, or SEO level want to know that while they’re not going to get paid much more, they can develop themselves and grow as leaders. We all recognise that’s really important, but it’s very hard to do.”

Another way of overcoming wariness about the process is to move slowly. Piloting solutions on a small scale as they emerge was one way to achieve this, according to Runcie. Resisting the impulse to carry out large scale pilots cushions the impact of failure, she said. “It becomes more about getting insights into the problem rather than simply seeking validation that your analysis of and approach to the problem is right. Prototyping is a sure way to manage risk.”

Some of those around the table also mentioned the difficulties in accessing and using legacy information that could offer lessons from previous policymaking initiatives. Runcie cited the government’s Open Policy Toolkit as a way to help nervous officials to take the plunge. However, she said that the variety of approaches can often be bamboozling. “The portal has a lot of information, it’s a lot of knowledge managed on the different methods you can use, but it doesn’t necessarily help you know exactly when to use those methods in the process.”

The government still has much to do on improving its records management, according to Andrew Dyer, senior information management consultant at The National Archives. “We are never really sure if the departments really understand the records they hold. One or two things went wrong and we’ve commissioned some reports that essentially say that government has to get a more centralised, coordinated approach to records management.”

Williams said that lessons could be learnt from technology giant Google. “User needs are changing, so keeping track of the constant emerging picture is a real challenge,” she commented. “How do you design knowledge management and systems around that? It is something Google are clearly getting really good at – a live dynamic system that you can keep mining for. The queries inform the system – it is a living dynamic process.”

Pollock raised concerns over sharing citizens’ data between organisations as another possible barrier to developing joint policy solutions. “The people who are responsible for sharing it tend to be kind of back office, more junior staff, who don’t want to take the risk,” he said. However, he emphasised that the rewards – in terms of understanding user behaviour and managing demand – are so great that the Cabinet Office is working on legislation to make such sharing easier. The process of formulating this policy is, itself, an example of early engagement, he said. 

“The department has done a huge amount of work over the last couple of years working collaboratively with some of the civil liberty organisations through focus groups, trying to work through all the different issues that people in those organisations have about the government and Big Brother type fears, and having access to citizen information.”

The panel identified a number of other areas where early engagement had led to improved policy outcomes. Runcie brought up a design process, led by the Home Office, which was instigated after a senior civil servant in the department attended a collaborative session run by the Design Council.

“Too often departments do not fully explore the  option of collaborating with other departments as a first step” – Graeme Hill, NS&I GPS​

“Traditionally they might have consulted with stakeholders through surveys and taken quite an arm’s-length approach,” she said. “What we managed to get them to do was to run collaborative sessions with sets of stakeholders with quite different views, first with the stakeholders on their own as a group, and then we actually did one where everyone came together, which was really quite a big deal. They weren’t light touch – they were robust sessions.”

“On back of that emerged a shared understanding between two groups for the first time, of the challenges each of those groups were tackling that they hadn’t seen before,” she said. “The next phase was looking at where might we start to collaborate and find joint solutions or opportunities for a better outcome, reserving the right to not get into ‘solutions mode’ too early. Although they came out with very different kinds of ideas, I think they wouldn’t have got those ideas if they hadn’t gone through that really important first step.”

N&I GPS has been working in partnership with HMRC on the delivery of tax free childcare. This has involved collaborating with HMRC to ensure they provide a seamless service to parents. “We developed a really strong partnership way of working,” said Harkins. “Once you’ve got that, you can do great things together.” 

However, there was some hesitation about trying to learn too much from one of the most celebrated examples of inter-departmental collaboration – the Troubled Families Programme, championed by Louise Casey, director of troubled families in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Pollock said: “It has been successful, but it hasn’t been without its challenges and it has relied upon someone who has been authoritative enough to bang heads together in Whitehall.”

Early collaboration is clearly a challenging process, and there is a long way to go before the practice is embedded within the civil service. However, the examples of success by those attending the round table show that policymakers should not be daunted by what might be an unfamiliar process. With continuing resource pressures, the civil service faces an equal risk from a business-as-usual attitude.


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