Contingent collaboration: inside New Zealand’s ‘what works, when’ approach to joined up government

By on 21/06/2022 | Updated on 21/06/2022
A team of colleagues work together around a table.

The ability to solve problems through cross-agency collaboration has become something of a holy grail for public servants, but best practice examples have become almost overwhelmingly prolific. In his new book, professor Rodney Scott draws on New Zealand’s approach to helping officials choose the right model for the right context. Here, he summarises that approach

Interagency collaboration, horizontal coordination, joined-up government are all various terms we’ve given to the challenge of getting the different administrative units of government to work together. This has been one of the main topics of interest for public administration for generations, variously described as the ‘philosopher’s stone’ and ‘holy grail.’ 

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of papers on interagency collaboration. Most of them are based on case studies and report elements of practice that their respective authors believed contributed to the success or failure of the case studies. Then, from time to time, a review article is published, which inevitably concludes that most of the findings from all those individual case studies or even multi-case studies were not replicated. There is comparatively very little about what works in joined-up government that is consistently true across most or all studies.  

There are a couple of possible interpretations for this finding. One is that nothing works and all these reported success factors from these hundreds of studies were illusionary. Another interpretation is that they worked in a particular context, but don’t work in all contexts. In 2017, the New Zealand Public Service Commission began looking at dozens of examples from the last twenty years of practice in New Zealand. Echoing findings from the public administration literature, it became clear that there were many different ways to organise interagency work and not a lot in common between them. Further, specific models for organising joined-up government appeared to work in some settings and not in others – there was no one right way.   

The policy challenge, therefore, was not to develop a best practice model, or even a list of good practice models, but to help public administrators to answer the question of when to use which model. Having a wide variety of tools was great, but the challenge was knowing when to use them. 

Read more: Overcoming the challenges of working across government boundaries: how interagency performance was transformed in New Zealand

A group of senior New Zealand public servants worked together to document the historic examples and then inductively generate categories that could align aspects of the problem context with aspects of the successful solution. The New Zealand government combined lessons and insights from twenty years of practice into a contingent framework for collaboration, where practitioners could answer a series of questions about their problem context and select from eighteen archetypal models for things like governance structures, strategy setting, decision-rights, and funding arrangements.   

In New Zealand’s case, the salient differences in problem context were problem type, and the degree of sacrifice required by an agency of their own individual work in order to pursue collective goals. Problems were grouped into public policy problems (like how to develop a plan for combatting family and sexual violence), public administration problems (like how to achieve economies of scale in public procurement), and service delivery problems (like how to join-up social, health, education, and justice services around a family with complex needs). The required level of sacrifice of individual goals was divided into six types, with greater levels of self-sacrifice typically associated with more formalised, or ‘harder’, systems for decision-making and accountability. These three problem types and six degrees of ‘hardness’ were arranged into a simple three-by-six grid of eighteen models. 

None of the eighteen different models are better than the others. Informal, ’soft’, bottom-up approaches can be fluid and innovative; formal, ‘hard’, top-down approaches can facilitate resource trade-offs and have greater longevity due to their exit costs. Collective accountability may be appropriate for a policy problem involving a handful of agencies, but a designated leader may be needed to progress public administration problems that involve dozens of agencies. Co-location can help facilitate tacit knowledge exchange, but tends to be insufficient for full service integration.

It’s not clear that these same contingencies will apply in other jurisdictions. We consider it more important that other jurisdictions go through the process of inductively identifying their own contextual factors in which different practices are more likely to be successful. In documenting the process that New Zealand went through, and how others might do the same, Eleanor Merton, who co-wrote the book, and I aim to help practitioners around the world to think more deeply about contingency – discriminatorily applying different collaborative models to different contexts. We contend that the most important question isn’t “what works?”, it’s “what works, when?”.

The book Contingent Collaboration: When to Use Which Models for Joined-up Government, co-written by Scott and Eleanor Merton, is available to download here and is free until 1 July.

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About Rodney Scott

Rodney Scott is chief policy advisor for the Public Service Commission of New Zealand and adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales. He has been a fellow at Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard universities. His research interests in public administration and public policy include collaboration, administrative doctrines, public service bargains, ethics, public service motivation, and institutional memory.

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