Driving a culture of collaboration in the civil service

How can Whitehall departments be persuaded to collaborate more effectively to achieve greater efficiency and savings? Mark Smulian reports on a round table discussion of the issue sponsored by CGI at Civil Service Live and led by the Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Richard Heaton

By Mark Smulian

22 Aug 2016

The onset of austerity and the need to find unprecedented savings has opened some of the borders between departments. And it's not just budget savings being made – there is a growing realisation that collaboration could also bring Whitehall’s full resources to bear on the issue, rather than just those of a single department.

Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, who chaired the debate, began by observing: “It would be a crying shame if Her Majesty’s government found itself unable to collaborate even among its constituent parts, never mind with the devolved administrations, cities and the private or third sectors.

“Everything out there tends to be a horizontal problem and tackling horizontal problems with a vertical bureaucracy tends to be soul-destroying and difficult.”

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He asked for examples of collaboration working well, and Frances Nash, legal director of the Department for Work and Pensions, gave that of the Government Legal Department, which had created centres of expertise around specialist areas of law, and so could offer users, “not robot lawyers, but something clients can get into to find answers quicker”.

Will Cavendish, director general for innovation, growth and technology at the Department of Health, gave the example of climate change policy, which necessarily involved multiple departments and said, “generally speaking UK has had a very collaborative and powerful approach in climate change negotiations because of the depth of that working together.

“It came out of consistent and joined up political leadership. My experience is we are successful when there is deeply joined up political strategy across government and less successful when that is not the case.”

Michael Herron , CGI’s vice-president for justice and health, said he saw “good collaboration in shared services, where departments get together and work out what is unique about what they do and what is common. In those that are common we’ve seen good collaboration in back offices."

Cristina Bizzi, deputy director, commercial, at the Ministry of Justice, stressed the need for “clear sponsorship from the top to drive a culture of collaboration”.

“Virtual incentive” 

When and why, though, would departments collaborate? Simon Wilson, deputy director of the Crown Commercial Service, thought departments were happy enough to work together “when something is really common like legal services or procurement, or when something is shiny and new and exciting, but when there is something common, but not obviously so, we hide behind silos”.

In the private sector, collaboration would be driven by the need to make a profit, but since the civil service cannot “lose” customers to rivals, what incentives would be appropriate?

Herron suggested some sort of “virtual incentive” might be devised, but Lynne Hamilton, director of finance at HM Courts and Tribunals Service, said the motive of improving services for the public should be used, noting “the public value message needs to go hand in hand with the efficiency message, which is not always the best message with recipients of services and policy holders”.

"Tackling horizontal problems with a vertical bureaucracy tends to be soul-destroying and difficult" – Richard Heaton, permanent secretary, MoJ

Sonia Dower, director of the interventions and sanctions directorate, Immigration Enforcement at the Home Office, said sometimes no incentive could be identified beyond a department’s duty to deliver government objectives.

“We also revoke the driving licences of illegal immigrants and that involves quite a lot of work for DVLA with no benefit to them except delivering objectives,”  Dower said.

“Sometimes we try to find a mutual benefit but often it’s not that straightforward and you have to say ‘we all have collective responsibilities’.”

David Williams, the Department of Health's director general for ginance, stressed the potential of “value maps” on which HM Treasury has begun work. They drive unexpected collaborations even though they can produce complications, with spending by one department leading to savings in another.

"My experience is we are successful when there is deeply joined-up political strategy across government," – Will Cavendish, Department of Health

“The first step is getting decision-making properly data-driven,” he said. “For example, rather than follow the cost of mental health through an organisational lens, see if spending on mental health early on will mean that DWP spends less downstream on benefits and Job Centre services.

“It’s hard to get at that, but we can do a lot by not thinking about issues through a departmental lens but that of the end user.”

He added that for these approaches to be adopted there needed to be a culture in which people felt free to innovate “without needing permission”.

"Liberating people"

Use of digital tools ought to be an obvious route to collaboration. Herron, though, said he had seen departments acquiring IT systems of various kinds over many years with piecemeal additions and “we hear a lot about the interoperability issue as [departments] all have systems that work, but cannot talk to each. There is a challenge in untangling that spaghetti.”

Williams said that trying to adapt IT systems to departmental needs by “bespoking” them was rarely sensible as, “if most people can make an HR module work for them, if we can’t it is most likely there is something wrong with the HR process, not the software product”.

"We can do a lot by not thinking about issues through a departmental lens but through that of the end user," – David Williams, Department of Health

Looking to the future, Nick Dale, CGI client engagement director, urged participants to consider robotics, which could “work 24/7, do not make mistakes and you get consistency of decisions”.
For now, Cavendish suggested there were five ways of driving collaboration, some straightforward, and others less so.

“The first is shared data and models, we can make that happen,” he said. “There are also personal networks of trust that allow teams to work together, and we can do that.

“The third is liberating people to do things not at forefront of political debate, the fourth is using digital to design services around users and lastly pooled budgets. Sometimes ministers will say that is a step too far, but we can propose it.”

Other participants cited legal barriers to departments sharing personal information, and the difficulty of finding best practice – but all agreed that increased collaboration will be unavoidable and should be embraced.

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