Joined-up government: does it connect the policy dots?

"Joined-up government" has been around for some time and is still present in the lexicon of Australian politicians and public servants. But have we learned from our previous attempts at integrated approaches to government? In 2014, The Mandarin's David Donaldson spoke to UNSW Canberra's Gemma Carey, Fiona Buick, and Deborah Blackman as well as University of Melbourne's Janine O'Flynn and retired professor John Halligan about their views on this topic, and their comments are just as relevant today.

This article was originally appeared on The Mandarin.

Experience in implementing joined-up government initiatives shows that structures with intuitive appeal don’t necessarily work. But are we learning from our mistakes?

We often hear of evidence-based approaches to policy, but what about implementation? Experiments in joined-up government — often referred to as a “whole-of-government” approach — have revealed serious barriers, but some worry these lessons are not being heeded.

Governments need to resist the temptation to keep setting up program structures with intuitive appeal but little evidentiary basis, says Gemma Carey, research fellow at the ANU’s College of Medicine, Biology and Environment and co-leader of social policy forum Power to Persuade.

Carey points to the Rudd government’s Social Inclusion Agenda, which incorporated cross-collaboration between different government agencies, and between government and the civil society sector, as an example where the principle didn’t work well.

Significant problems in the implementation of the SIA included too strong a focus on top-down authority, unclear or unchanged lines of accountability despite a new working context, and unchanged allocation of resources. It’s concerning, she adds, that Victoria’s “Services Sector Reform project is a carbon copy of the Social Inclusion Agenda, but without any of the lessons”.

The lessons of the SIA are not being learned, according to a chapter co-authored by Carey and Brad Crammond in a forthcoming book, Creating and Implementing Public Policy: Cross-sectoral debates:

“The similarities between the SIA and the Victorian Social Services Sector Reform … highlights that certain ways of approaching joined-up government have been acculturated, despite evidence of their effectiveness. For example, interdepartmental units in particular have become a ‘must have’, but have been found to work against integration. The challenge is to move away from popular instruments that may have intuitive appeal, in order to develop new strategies and approaches for enhancing integration.”

Carey emphasises the damage that can be caused by poor implementation, arguing there is the potential for ‘reform fatigue’ among civil society partners when governments tout sweeping changes that fail to incorporate lessons from previous experience. This, in turn, can impact on the time and resources spent by NGOs when the next round of reforms are introduced, reducing the chances of effective implementation.

Another paper — You Win Some, You Lose Some: Experiments with Joined-Up Government — written by Janine O’Flynn, Fiona Buick, Deborah Blackman and John Halligan highlighted unclear lines of authority as a factor in the inefficacy of Indigenous Co-ordination Centres:

“One of the glaring omissions was the failure to reset authority relationships. This meant that the ICC managers had no formal authority over staff from other organisations who retained a primary vertical accountability back into their department. This not only frustrated co-ordination on-the-ground, it also became a powerful rationale for inaction in some cases and for serious dysfunction in others.”

The result was the creation of silos within individual offices, with staff complaining that in some cases employees of different departments were sharing floor space but not working together meaningfully. Another problem was the creation of perverse incentives through inadequate funding agreements between the agencies working together:

“These agreements outlined obligations, responsibilities and arrangements for corporate services such as office accommodation, pool vehicles, and information and communication technology, which resulted in each department paying a fee to FaHCSIA [Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs] for each staff member they placed in an ICC. This simple fact made the ICC model vulnerable to cost pressures and over time staff were withdrawn as part of departmental cost-cutting exercises.”

The need for skills training

A failure to provide staff with adequate training for the skills required in their new working environment also weakened their ability to do their jobs. The paper adds that the “deeply entrenched program focus in the APS” and tendency towards centralised control made co-ordination difficult, respectively encouraging further siloing and an inability for staff on the ground to have an effective input into decision-making.

The authors did, however, identify some positive aspects of the ICC program that can be built upon. The first is effective leadership. Some ICC leaders were able to overcome the challenges embedded in the design of the program through integration of “trust, shared responsibility, inclusiveness, and high-quality communication” into their work. Such managers were outcome- rather than process-oriented:

“Managers in effective ICCs gave staff permission to operate and ‘break the rules’; they encouraged innovation, were willing to experiment, and encouraged staff to challenge the status quo. This fit well with the notion that they took a very broad interpretation of their mandate, encouraging creativity, new ideas, and a problem-solving approach among their staff.”

It also identified as a benefit the ability to leverage rich, networked relationships. In a complex policy area such as indigenous welfare, these facilitate the flow of policymaking and cultural knowledge between individuals in the government, civil society and local communities.

Carey and Crammond suggest that “joined-up government needs a ‘matrix’ style supportive architecture, where multiple horizontal efforts and supported by strong vertical mechanisms”, incorporating strong leadership at all levels, and an effort at making sure initiatives are both “top-down” and “bottom-up”.

Among the changes recommended by O’Flynn et al are:

“New accountability structures, redesign of performance and reward systems, vesting formal authority in key actors, new incentive structures …

“Other changes could include the adoption of matrix-style structures which enable internal co-ordination and information sharing for staff involved in joined-up projects, and are capable of accommodating multiple authority lines. Designing performance criteria linked to the practice of collaboration, ensuring rewards for achievement of joined-up goals, and a reconfiguration of budget systems to better facilitate joined-up working would also help in resetting incentives and driving behavioural change.”