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Dec 19, 2018

Three ways public servants can break down silos and collaborate horizontally

December 19, 2018

Governments around the world are struggling to solve urgent problems like homelessness and climate change. While the size and complexity of these problems makes them hard to tackle, the fact that they also cut across traditional organisational boundaries further enhances the challenge.

The fact that governments’ traditional structures align poorly with some of the problems they need to address cannot be an excuse for inaction. But nor do we need to flatten everything and start stoking a “bonfire of the departments.”

So, how can governments successfully tackle problems that spill across organisational boundaries? The answer is deceptively simple — follow the problems and collaborate across those same boundaries.

Now, as most public servants already know, engaging in this kind of “horizontal” collaboration can be tricky for many reasons. Incentive structures and accountability tend to be organised vertically instead of horizontally. Building trust across different organisational cultures takes time and resources which are often lacking in government. Too often technological systems are incompatible or blocked from communicating by clumsily drafted legislation.

Despite these challenges, however, there are examples of successful collaborations. A recent Mowat Centre report analyses three such horizontal initiatives to learn how other governments can replicate their success.

Estonia’s “once only” principle means that once a citizen or a business has provided a piece of information to the government, it is the government’s responsibility to re-use that information internally instead of asking the citizen to provide the same information again.

In 2007, this principle was entrenched in legislation that prohibited multiple government databases from holding the same information. It’s effective because it reorients accountability and incentive structures and forces government departments to develop systems for effectively sharing information.

The results have been impressive. The “once only” principle is a foundational part of an e-government system that saves the Estonian government the equivalent of two per cent of GDP annually.

Or consider the UK’s recognition of “professional specialisms” within its public service. Specialisms are groups of civil servants who share specific defined skillsets. These include both skillsets that any large organisation requires — e.g. finance and legal — and skillsets more particular to government, such as policy. As of March 2018, the UK government recognised 12 of these cross-departmental specialisms.

In the UK, recognising these specialisms involved a number of complementary steps. It required setting minimum professional standards for these groups, designing coherent and attractive career paths and providing useful professional development opportunities. Crucially, it also meant appointing, at the centre of government, a senior-level official to be a full-time head of specialism charged with nurturing the specialism and providing its perspective in high-level decision making.

The dividends are already starting to accrue. Recognising specialisms has helped improve recruitment and retention of highly sought-after professionals. It has enabled better deployment of human resources. And it has helped remediate some of the government’s perennial weaknesses, such as in its commercial contracting capacity.

Finally, consider New Zealand’s use of its “Data Exchange” to implement a data-driven, evidence-based “person-centred, integrated approach” to government. The Data Exchange is a cloud-based platform that enables the “safe and secure sharing of data in near real time” by automating and simplifying the ways that departments and other partners can engage in two-way data-sharing. As of August 2018, four government agencies and seven service providers had already been connected.

The objective of the Data Exchange is to improve outcomes for citizens, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, by providing government with more holistic perspectives on citizens’ lives. This enables better-timed and -crafted interventions designed to be more effective, while simultaneously averting future costs for governments.

While still young, the Data Exchange is already delivering positive results. In pilot projects, it has enabled the development of a “single source of truth” for primary healthcare information. This allows coordination of after-hours and emergency care for patients through better information sharing between emergency departments, ambulance services and other healthcare providers.

Horizontal problem-solving is difficult. It requires stepping outside traditional routines and often involves discomfort and uncertainty. But the big, complex problems facing governments demand new approaches.

Estonia, the UK and New Zealand are leading the way in creating solutions by deploying tools that improve their ability to collaborate horizontally. More governments should follow their lead.

Published by Apolitical

Release Date

December 19, 2018


Michael Crawford Urban



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