Too many cooks in the kitchen? Here’s a recipe for cross-government success

Complex challenges increasingly require officials to work across departmental boundaries, but it's not always easy to deliver on these shared projects. Sian Jones offers advice from the latest National Audit Office guide which aims to help civil servants get better together
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By Sian Jones

12 Jul 2023

How often do we hear the adage "two heads are better than one"? How about "many hands make light work"? It’s universally accepted that working together can bring great rewards and benefits. But the truth is,  when it comes to government business,  working together can be tricky to get right.

The challenges that government faces increasingly need solutions that require different parts of government to work together – look for instance at the approach to net zero, adult social care, rough sleeping and vulnerable families; all complex issues that need more than one department to tackle.

At the National Audit Office, when we look at how public money has been spent, we often spot instances where weaknesses in working together across departments (what we call cross-government working) undermines value for money. Using our experience and back catalogue, we’ve drawn on these insights to produce a report and supporting guide , exploring what makes cross-government working work, what barriers exist and common pitfalls.

HM Treasury and Cabinet Office have also been thinking about how to improve cross-government working. They’ve recently worked with departments to identify the biggest barriers and outlined the following areas to better support departments: structures; priorities; spending; data-sharing; culture; and best practice.  

So, we know cross-government working can sometimes be the most effective way to tackle challenges, and we know what the barriers are – so solving them should be easy, right? Well, no.  When it comes to delivery, the devil is in the detail. Cross-government working is achievable, but what we’ve found is that the right conditions need to be in place to give the best chance of success. In our guide we look at three areas:

Setting-up cross-government working: "Fail to plan, plan to fail"

It’s a cliché because it’s true. Where to start? Given cross-government working can be more difficult, careful thinking at the start of any project can avoid problems later. From our work we know that when there are multiple players it’s important to define responsibilities and accountabilities at the outset, which is likely to involve appointing a lead department. It’s also important to get buy-in from senior colleagues. Senior civil servants can provide strong leadership for cross-government working – encouraging, recognising and rewarding where colleagues are working collaboratively across departments. 

Delivering cross-government working: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going"

You’ve put the right structures in place, now it’s the sharp end. This is when good project and programme management skills come into play. Our work shows that successful delivery of cross-government projects and programmes is not an easy thing to achieve, because the more organisations involved, the more complicated it can be to deliver. This is where building blocks like simple and effective governance, solid risk management and high-quality data come in.

Improving cross-government working: "Practice makes perfect"

You’ve done it, you’ve delivered! Time to take a breath, but also a pause to reflect. Evaluating how things have worked and sharing learning are important to understand what works and to make it easier in the future.  We regularly recommend that departments should build in evaluation plans at the design phase. Where good practice is identified, departments should share it across government and use it to develop guidance to support other departments. This is especially true of cross-government working, where government is still developing a body of work to refer to and learn from.

You may have guessed by now that I like a proverb, so here’s a couple more. When thinking about how to deliver in a cross-government way, don’t let too many cooks spoil the broth. Remember that knowledge is power – take a look at our guide and see if any of it resonates and helps you to work things through. Or, if you’re a civil servant, check out HM Treasury and Cabinet Office pages of guidance on the Policy Profession website.

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