Friday June 23, 2023

Putting collaboration at the core of public service

  • Putting collaboration at the core of public service image

Collaboration and partnership – within the public sector and outside it – are at the centre of APS Reform. Talking about collaboration as a core instrument for addressing critical issues facing Australia, our most recent Work with Purpose guest Professor Helen Sullivan, Dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific shares practical ways to improve collaborative work between the public sector and people, communities, and businesses.  

In the face of increasing, interconnected challenges facing Australia and the world, collaboration, co-design, and participation are tools the public sector is looking to use more effectively to achieve solutions for Australian communities.

In a recent Work with Purpose episode, Professor Helen Sullivan, Dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, underscores that collaboration can have its challenges, yet it is fundamental to addressing these problems.

“The nature of the problems and the public policy challenges we face are such that you have to collaborate. And there’s always this cycle of coming back around to [collaboration]. It may have a slightly different name. It may have a slightly different nuance, but collaboration is something that we really have to get to grips with if we are to address the challenges we face,” she says.

Think long term

A dilemma for governments when it comes to collaboration is striking a balance between taking the time to sit down with different sectors to discuss ideas and delivering solutions quickly. But for Helen, it’s worth being thorough right at the beginning.

“It’s not enough for the government to say, ‘We understand the problem, and this is how we’re going to address it.’ There has to be a process of, ‘Well, this is how we understand the problem. How do you understand the problem, and how can we address it?’”

“The serious problems that need collaboration to address them are problems that have been with us for a while and will be with us for a good while to come. So, it’s worth taking the longer view and making that time because if you don’t, then you will simply go around in this loop of failure and dysfunction, and you won’t get the outcomes that you’re looking for.”

Practice collaboration along with existing frameworks

Helen says that the public sector should think about how collaboration can fit into existing structures and systems in which public policy is shaped, and not treat it as a separate activity to achieve outcomes.

She asks, “How do we think about collaboration in the context of those things that shape public policy?”

“The rule of public policy, the ideas that shape public policy, the way we use expertise, the ethical frameworks – these are inherent in our public policy system, but very often we think about collaboration as something separate.”

“Creating the space is not necessarily us needing to do anything drastically different, but it is when we have an idea about public policy and collaboration – how does that fit with the existing rules that we have for how we do things and how those rules might need to change or be adapted?”

She adds that while the process is complex, we can learn from past initiatives to improve the way we collaborate.

“What do we know about how we’ve tried to do that in the past? What should we be learning, and what do we know particularly about collaboration and how collaboration has or hasn’t worked in reshaping places? And using that knowledge to try and do it better next time,” Helen says.

Invest in key capabilities

There are certain skills people need to collaborate effectively, which is something Helen thinks governments should keep a close eye on.

“We tend to assume that collaboration is something that people can just do – that there’s no particular skill involved or no particular way of understanding what’s at stake. That we simply [view it as] a meeting or an engagement like any other and, of course, it’s not,” she says.

“[Collaboration] is seen as something that happens out there when you have a special project, and you have special people who deal with it. And that I think is part of the problem of how some of these enduring challenges that we face are not addressed because we don’t shift the mainstream of the organisation. We continue to create these special entities that deal with it, and then when they fail, we don’t build back into the organisation any of the learning.”

Build empathy

Aside from skills, Helen highlights the need to know ourselves well so that we may connect with others better and be more open to different ways of perceiving problems.

“If you don’t understand yourself, then you’re not going to be able to collaborate with anybody else. It also requires us to be empathetic. It requires us to have a cultural literacy about our engagement with people from other places and spaces and sectors.”

Helen urges a focus on building these competencies to achieve collaboration for public purpose.

“What I would like to see happen is some serious investment in enabling public servants to be able to fulfil the responsibility that’s being placed on them. So as much attention is being placed on that as there is on upskilling them all to become data analytics specialists.”

See Professor Helen’s book here: Collaboration and Public Policy: Agency in the Pursuit of Public Purpose


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