Joined-up thinking: A round table on collaborative working

As the purse strings tighten, government departments are seeing the benefits of working together. Tim Gibson reports from a CSW roundtable that explored how best to make collaboration happen

By Tim Gibson

22 Jul 2015

In 2010, an edict was issued by the marketing department of a supplier to the UK government. It told staff not to make use of the word “together” in its communications, and to play down any suggestion of “sharing”, “collaborating” or “joining up” government. 

Apparently, focus groups had revealed that civil servants were deeply suspicious of any suggestion of cooperation across government. They took it to be a smokescreen for a rigorous programme of cuts that would lead to job losses and departmental mergers. 

Fast forward five years and attitudes appear to have changed. With the Conservatives’ surprise victory heralding £30bn of cuts over the next parliament, government departments are now actively searching for ways to work together, seeing this as crucial not only to saving money but also to delivering a better public service to the citizen. 

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Even so, most civil servants recognise that there’s work to be done to create a properly joined-up government. That’s precisely why CSW and NS&I Government Payment Services (NS&I GPS)​ convened a round table on collaborating for successful delivery, providing an opportunity to share best practice and identify the way ahead. 

Better together
Without doubt, the biggest driver for collaboration is financial. By working together, departments can dramatically reduce their cost base, as NS&I GPS’s business development manager Steve McWatters illustrated by citing his organisation’s work with the Court Funds Office (CFO). 

By making use of the payment systems NS&I already has in place for its 25m customers, the CFO has reduced its costs by over 40%. What’s more, because NS&I GPS modernised the legacy IT and introduced new business processes – it “improves the customer service and enhanced business controls and reporting,” McWatters said. 

Vanessa Howlison, group finance director in the Department for Transport, had her collaboration success story to share: the DVLA’s online operation. “There are lots of good examples [of collaboration] at the DVLA,” she reported. “How [citizens] pay road tax links up to the MOT and insurance databases, for example. This is helping the customer and saving huge amounts of money.”

In fact, Howlison said, the DVLA’s digital programme will end up reducing operating costs by a third. Much of this gets passed directly to citizens, as the £16 reduction in the price of a provisional driving licence demonstrates. 

As this example demonstrates, UK citizens clearly gain when government bodies work together to deliver services. But there are also gains for departments themselves, not least because of the shared culture that exists between potential collaborators. 

“When we work with other government agencies and departments, we’re civil servants working together,” said Dax Harkins, director of B2B at NS&I GPS, “So the way you’re working and going through things is different from when you work with an outsourced provider. It’s a much more collaborative approach… where we talk the same language and operate with the same values.”

This oils the wheels of collaboration, ensuring projects operate with a common set of objectives and a shared methodology. It also enables departments to play to their strengths, as Richard Calvert, director-general for finance and corporate performance in the Department for International Development, remarked.

“You can get to a position where as a department you decide what you are really good at, and you do that,” he reflected. “The things you’re not brilliant at, you get someone else [in government] to do. So while cost is a key driver, a bigger benefit [of collaboration] has been simplifying the lives of senior staff who don’t have to pretend they’re experts [in areas where they are not].”

Of course, this enterprise is by no means risk-free – not least because it is harder for departments to measure success, or take credit for their achievements, when they’re working with colleagues from other parts of the government. 

This point was made by Simon Kiefer, assistant director for London and the South (East) in the Specialist Investigations Unit of HMRC. He said that investment of one’s departmental resources elsewhere does not always yield tangible results for the organisation doing the investing, even though it may benefit other parts of the government, and admitted that this can be seen as a reason not to collaborate. 

“If you take a ‘one-government’ perspective, I suppose it doesn’t matter which department the benefits come to,” he reflected. But he reasserted that, when making decisions about how to commit resources, it is harder to justify spending on activities that don’t offer a measurable return on investment for one’s own department. 

Collaboration and control
Another challenge is that collaboration involves departments surrendering control over some of their activities, which many are reluctant to do. Such reluctance is partly because they retain ultimate accountability for the success or failure of their operations, even if other departments are involved in delivering them. 

Alison Candlin, who has been seconded from the Ministry of Defence to work as a business connector for the charity Business in the Community, said this was an especially important issue when it comes to handling data. She noted that, if joint working involves sharing citizen data, departments will worry about losing control over its use, and its security. 

HMRC’s Simon Kiefer echoed this point, and said that he thought the fear of reputational damage as a result of data loss had stopped his department from collaborating in the past. Such caution is perhaps unsurprising: added to the fraught issues around the government using, storing and sharing citizens’ data is a heightened awareness among civil servants of the scrutiny applied to public sector projects. 

On this latter issue, the DfT’s Howlison contrasted the experience of commercial organisations. She noted that their attempts at new ways of working often weren’t any more successful than those of the civil service. The difference, she said, is that “[our failures] play out in the public arena.”

“We’re not allowed to fail,” agreed Glen Portman, a deputy programme director in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “So if you outsource, or hand over responsibility for something you’re accountable for, you need to know it’s going to work.”

The level of attention the government receives is certainly a significant factor in any continued diffidence towards collaborative working. By definition, working with other parts of the state machinery entails adopting a new approach. And that means the scrutiny will be greater than ever as citizens and the media look to ensure public money isn’t being squandered on high-risk innovative programmes. 

“It’s interesting to ask what the anti-case for collaboration is,” reflected David Allen, director of public spending and deputy head of government finance in HM Treasury. He asserted that one aspect of this is a reluctance to risk resources on projects and programmes that could go wrong, because it’s safer to maintain the status quo ante. 

“Collaboration comes with a significant senior-management overhead,” he said, “and you’re not working with the natural grain of your organisation. So I can see that, if you’re a permanent secretary in a department, and you’re thinking about where you put your resources, it’s quite an interesting decision that you face.”

That said, Allen was firmly of the view that collaboration is crucial to the government’s ability to cut expenditure. “There are some really big numbers at the heart of the fiscal consolidation agenda,” he said. “I think collaboration will be a key part of delivering those numbers, forcing people to work in a different way and think of different operating models.”

A joined-up future?
The message to emerge from central government is simple, therefore: collaboration is no longer a nice-to-have, but a must-have. Or, as Paul Dunlop, a project manager in the UK Visa and Immigration Service in the Home Office, put it: “We’re thinking about collaboration because we have to.”

The necessity of moving towards a more joined-up government makes it doubly important to identify the right opportunities to work across departments, said the DfT’s Howlison – and to build on mutual good will. Partnership working is much more effective when it’s a “coalition of the willing,” she argued, before adding that the service delivered has to be of a “really good quality,” and not just cheaper, if it is to count as a success. 

Central to this is keeping users in mind when developing new models. If not, as Simone Milani from the DWP’s family policy division commented, collaboration can become an end in itself, rather than improved public services. “You might come up with a solution that’s really attractive for ministers or officials,” she said, “but doesn’t actually respond to the needs of citizens.”

Developing this theme, David Allen from HMT said that collaborative service provision works best when viewed as a journey, rather than a destination. He’s spent recent months consulting with big corporations that have enjoyed success in this area, and noted that they often try not to be too fixed on an end point, but take small steps to achieve their goals. 

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he mused. “But small parts of it were. So we might be best to ask where [in government] it makes sense to start some sort of collaboration that might be quite small, and just see where it goes.”

As an example of just such a small step, Defra’s Glen Portman noted that citizens would welcome any move that minimises the amount of times they have to share personal information with the government. He reported on the celebrated Estonian model, where citizens give the government personal details once, and they are stored centrally for use by every department. 

Of course, the UK government is already working towards something like this aim, as the HMRC’s Dympna Kelly observed when she spoke of the success of GOV.UK. This initiative relies on disparate departments identifying ways of sharing for the benefit of service users. In the first instance, it’s a relatively modest commitment, but could well yield more ambitious joint programmes.

Savio Barros, a senior strategy and policy adviser in the Major Events and Operations Directorate of the Cabinet Office, argued that departments need to identify shared objectives, and find ways to bring them about together, as he had experienced in the planning of the recent 70th anniversary VE Day celebrations. 

For such an approach to succeed, government organisations need to be honest with each other when scoping potential joint working. As an example, Steve McWatters said that NS&I GPS adopts a rigorous assessment of potential partnerships, discounting those that are unlikely to deliver against either party’s goals. “We need to be clear about what we are trying to achieve,” he observed, “and develop a shared understanding of what we’re aiming for.”

The implication of this final point is clear: collaboration, like marriage, must be undertaken reverently, responsibly and after serious thought. Because while joint working promises to deliver considerable benefits, there’s a lot of pressure for it to succeed, meaning government departments need to be confident that they’re entering into a potentially fruitful partnership. 

This led David Allen from HMT to sum up the discussion with an assessment of the current possibilities for joint working that contained a healthy dose of realism. “We need to find the specific opportunities that will really make a difference [and] go off and do them well,” he said. “But if you try to make everybody collaborative at all levels, you’ll end up with a mess.”

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