Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image

Jan 22, 2019

The horizontal collaboration toolkit

January 22, 2019

In an era when the most significant challenges facing many governments, such as climate change and homelessness, require coordinated responses from multiple departments, the ability to coordinate across organizational boundaries is critical to success. In our recent report, Abandoning Silos, we highlighted three promising initiatives – from Estonia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, respectively – showcasing how governments are successfully breaking down departmental silos, thereby enhancing their abilities to collaborate horizontally.

But these three initiatives are certainly not the only examples of how to successfully collaborate across organizational boundaries. Our research also found a large number of other tools that public servants and governments are using to improve their ability to work horizontally. (We also compiled a list of common obstacles that public servants encounter while trying to work horizontally, which can be found here.)

Our research also found a large number of other tools that public servants and governments are using to improve their ability to work horizontally.

In our report, we focused our analysis along three dimensions that are foundational to any organization: how it structures accountability and responsibility (governance); how it manages its culture and members (people); and the ways in which it collects, transmits and uses information (data). The 16 tools described below are categorized according to the dimension on which they act most powerfully and along which they produce their largest impact.


Tool and Impact Description
Real World Example
Designating a lead department as specifically responsible for leading a horizontal initiative.


Enables the connection of horizontal activity with traditional vertical accountability structures.

Ontario, Open for Business division1

The “once only” principle forbids governments from asking citizens and businesses for the same information more than once.


Forces governments to develop rapid internal information sharing systems which also then encourage significant horizontal collaboration.

Estonia, Public Information Act2
Creating a legislative requirement to “steward” the larger public service system.


Public service executives can be given a responsibility to balance the objectives of their own departments with the interests of the broader public service.

New Zealand, The State Sector Amendment Act (2013)3
Integrating departments/programs focused on overlapping areas.


Governments reduce barriers by eliminating them, thereby improving coordination, outcomes and efficiency.

Region of Peel (Ontario), Human Services Department4
Temporary mission-based teams that are designed to match the dimensions of discrete problems.


Uniquely tailored solutions created by temporarily stepping outside of normal structures – and their constraints – without requiring permanent organizational changes.

Ontario, Program Review Secretariat5
Government-wide auditable public service agreements, agreed between Ministers on behalf of departments and Premiers/Prime Ministers, which cover planned means of delivery and funding.


Provide plans integrated across the whole-of-government for achieving specific horizontal priorities.

United Kingdom, Public Service Agreements6
Super caseworkers are provided with additional training, responsibility and the authority to engage multiple programs across departmental boundaries, while also enjoying reduced caseloads.


Can tailor more holistic and effective assistance packages to their clients that draw on resources from multiple government partners and programs.

Region of Peel (Ontario), Integrated Assessment Unit7
Creating functional expert units, with expertise in areas like behavioural science or design thinking, and deploying this expertise on a project or problem basis.


Governments can standardize systems and develop validated problem-solving approaches across departments and use these units to facilitate collaboration across affected departments.

United Kingdom, Behavioural Insights Team8


Valuing collaborative skills as a core competency when recruiting staff and when conducting professional development and performance assessments.


Incentivize the development of better cross-departmental collaborative skills and practices among public servants.

United Kingdom, Civil Service Competency Framework9
Integrating stakeholders’ and partners’ perspectives into public servants’ performance assessments.


Can help address concerns that increased horizontality reduces transparency and accountability over outcomes in public sector organizations.

Workshop suggestion10
Formally recognizing and supporting professional communities within the public service.

Impact: Can build horizontal trusting relationships and perspectives within these communities.

United Kingdom, Professional Specialisms11
Enabling public servants with in-demand skillsets to act as free agents and move laterally and flexibly within the government on a time-limited project basis, while maintaining the security of a home base.


Reduces the problems associated with the often lumpy demand for certain skillsets within government and enables a more intensive and efficient usage of these valuable human resources.

Canada, Free Agents12
Side hustles involve public servants contributing to projects in which they are interested but not associated with through their actual position.


Help workers gain horizontal perspectives by advancing government-wide priorities and building horizontal networks.

Ontario, Side hustles13


User-friendly data sharing platforms, built on secure technology and common data standards, allow the easy manipulation and cross-referencing of data from across government, while adhering to robust privacy policies.

Impact: Can enable public servants to derive useful insights from data which can then form the basis for productive cross-departmental collaborations and initiatives.

New Zealand, Data Exchange14
Common data standards, policies and protocols that provide a technological platform for government wide-interoperability.


Enables governments to share information across organizational boundaries easily and efficiently. This lays the foundation for developing individual-centered approaches to service delivery.

Estonia, The X-road15
The establishment of delivery units that provide centralized tracking of key performance indicators.


The transparency provided enables central agencies to create data-driven expectations and accountability mechanisms across the whole-of-government that can foster cross-departmental collaboration.

United Kingdom, Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit16

We hope this list is useful and, if you feel we have missed any critical tools that you or colleagues are using, please get in touch to tell us about them.



Michael Crawford Urban

Release Date

January 22, 2019

Related Reading

  1. Government of Ontario. 24 December, 2015. Business Sector Strategy: Burden Reduction (Open for Business). []
  2. Public Information Act, Riigi Teataja. 15 November, 2000. []
  3. Davison, N. 2016. Whole-of-government reforms in New Zealand: The case of the Policy Project. Institute for Government. Page 4. []
  4. Gold, J. with Hjartarson, J. 2012. Integrating Human Services in an Age of Fiscal Restraint: A Shifting Gears Report. The Mowat Centre and the School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto, supported by KPMG. []
  5. The Program Review Secretariat was a secretariat created to prepare the ground for the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (also known as the Drummond Commission). []
  6. Cabinet Office. 3 December, 2008. Public Service Agreements. Government of the United Kingdom. []
  7. Gold, J. with Hjartarson, J. 2012. Integrating Human Services. Page 16. []
  8. 12 October, 2015. “The UK’s ‘nudge unit’ is saving lives by steering citizens’ choices”. Apolitical. []
  9. Civil Service Human Resources. Civil Service Competency Framework 2012-2017. Government of the United Kingdom. Page 4. []
  10. Suggestion from a participant in a workshop conducted as part of the research for Urban, M. 11 December, 2018. Abandoning Silos: How innovative governments are collaborating horizontally to solve complex problems. Mowat Centre. []
  11. McCrae, J. and Gold, J. 7 September, 2017. Professionalising Whitehall. Institute for Government. []
  12. Greenspoon, A. 5 November, 2018. “The value of “free agents” inside the public service”. Policy Options. []
  13. Key informant interview conducted for Urban, M. 11 December, 2018. Abandoning Silos. []
  14. Digital.Govt.NZ. 1 August, 2018. “SIA and the Data Exchange.” Showcase. Government of New Zealand. []
  15. e-estonia. interoperability services. []
  16. Gold, J. 2014. International Delivery: Centres of Government and the Drive for Better Policy Implementation. The Mowat Centre and Institute for Government. Pages 15-20. []