NAO report spotlights ‘pitfalls’ for cross-department working

Research finds 63% of civil servants see data-sharing issues as a barrier to collaboration

By Jim Dunton

07 Jul 2023

Public-spending watchdog the National Audit Office has produced a list of common pitfalls for cross-departmental working as part of a guide to help different bits of government get their silo-busting plans right.

Pitfalls include failing to set clearly-defined objectives and targets – both for the joint effort and individual departments – difficulties balancing competing objectives, and problems getting all departments involved in a venture to play their part.

The NAO guidance, which takes the form of a 36-page lessons-learned report and a shorter accompanying good-practice guide, warns that not all policies or programmes need cross-government working.

It says the collaboration and consultation that is necessary for effective cross-government working takes time and can result in projects costing more and being slower to deliver.

The report said a survey of more than 200 officials conducted by the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury had highlighted other perceived problems with cross-government working.

Sixty-three percent of respondents said they felt technical issues made it difficult to share data effectively across government. Meanwhile, 62% said “departmental unwillingness” to share data was a “major barrier”.

Just under half of respondents said they found it difficult to identify the right people to speak to in other departments in relation to cross-government working. Forty-five percent said conflicting ministerial priorities were a “major barrier” and 39% cited ministerial churn as a problem.

The NAO said respondents had also reported that they found it difficult find relevant guidance on cross-government working, or to apply the guidance when they could find it.

It said HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office had worked with the cross-government Policy Profession to develop a joint-working “hub” to support departments in establishing cross-cutting accountability structures and “clear ways of working”. HM Treasury is also developing a “joint-working crib sheet”.

The NAO’s good-practice guide says developing a shared vision, defining responsibilities and accountabilities, and ensuring strong leadership is in place are crucial elements of successful cross-government working.

It stresses that before even starting on a cross-government project or programme, those involved need to make sure they understand how the proposal interacts with other areas of government policy.

“Departments should identify where other priorities may be at odds with the objectives of the programme or project as well as who it will be beneficial to work with,” it says.

“Cross-government working is most effective when government identifies a cross-cutting outcome which provides incentives to those involved.

“As well as developing a shared vision, departments involved need to define and agree roles and responsibilities at the outset, establishing expectations for how they are going to work together.”

It adds: “A successful cross-government programme will demonstrate clear incentives for all departments involved. This information must be clearly cascaded to officials at all levels.”

The guidance also lists six models for cross-government working, ranging from “simple collaboration” on the development of policy in which they both have an interest to a machinery of government change in which policy and funding responsibility transfer between departments.

It stresses the need for departments exploring cross-government working to identify the right model to use in light of their particular objectives and the type of integration that will be required to achieve them.

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