From clenched fists to handshakes: top officials debate how to get departments working together

By on 07/05/2020
Sir John Manzoni and Leo Yip

In almost every country, governments are organised vertically – but the challenges they face run horizontally across departmental boundaries. Earlier this year, civil service leaders from 17 countries met to find ways out of this conundrum. Matt Ross listened in

“Outcomes aren’t aligned with the vertical silos; the departmental structures,” said Sir John Manzoni. “And outcomes tend to be citizen-centric. So these things – citizen-centricity and a focus on outcomes – are what we’re all striving for, in different ways.”

Manzoni, then Chief Executive of the UK Civil Service, was speaking at Global Government Summit in a session examining ‘strategic outcomes’ – summarised by facilitator Matt Ross as “focusing public service delivery on the rounded, holistic needs of citizens, rather than the individual goals of particular public bodies.” Taking one example, said Manzoni, “reducing crime isn’t just about hiring more police officers. It’s about how you tackle knife crime; how you work with reoffenders; what you do with the rehabilitation system. That cuts right across the silos; it’s a whole system problem. The question is: how do we edge the system forwards?

In the view of Tan Ching Yee, Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Finance, “there’s no one system or framework that will help us to do it all.” And the group – comprising top civil servants from 17 countries, gathered in Singapore for informal discussions on public policy and management – contributed a wide range of examples of cross-cutting delivery in action.

Integrating the frontline

It can involve, for example, providing citizens with a single gateway to public services – leaving government, rather than the public, to navigate the public sector’s tangled web of responsibilities. Singapore, Tan noted, has brought together the public agencies responsible for infrastructure and public realm issues. The Municipal Services Office’s (MSO’s) “secret weapon is the integration of agencies’ information, with a front-end contact centre,” she explained: residents can report any fault or problem, and the MSO will identify the responsible agency and have it addressed. Similarly, a local Public Service Centre based in a community facility houses officials from six agencies, cross-trained so they can help citizens with problems stretching across the agencies’ briefs. Leaders of both initiatives, said Tan, “are now saying: ‘What’s the next level of integration?’”

Tan says that in the financial field “the key is to figure out ways to, when something new or unfamiliar happens, invent something and try it out. Then if it works, we can mainstream the new process – and even use it to replace the old one.”

Digital platforms can help unify access to a range of services. Singapore’s Moments of Life programme, for example, brings together all the services required by citizens at points of transition. Bereavement is a powerful example, said Tan: “When an incident hits your family and you’re at a loss as to what to do, that’s when all the services get wrapped around the citizen,” she said. “You don’t have to knock down the institutional walls to do this: just bring together services in the digital world.” Australia is fast moving in this direction, commented Katherine Jones, Deputy Secretary of that country’s Ministry of Finance: its new agency Services Australia will be “responsible for digital service delivery across health, welfare, social services, and eventually a range of broader services.”

Devolution of powers can also support service integration, commented Manzoni: in the UK, groups of councils and mayoral authorities are developing into strategic public service managers. At the city-regional level, he argued, “if you get the delegations right, you can get much closer to wrapping around the most vulnerable citizens; to bringing all the agencies together.”

“I believe this is really important, because it breaks the traditional, vertical allocation of money and accountability,” he added. The next question is: “How do we join up that local devolved accountability with the agency structures at the top? Because that, I think, is how we can get towards what we’re all striving for: the big outcomes.”

Awkward accountabilities

The task of grafting cross-cutting operations onto government’s traditional structures, though, rarely comes easy. How do Singapore’s Public Service Centre staff overcome the challenges around accountability, asked Hannah Cameron, New Zealand’s Deputy Commissioner for State Services: “If someone who I don’t directly employ delivers my service and something goes wrong, who holds that risk?”

Cameron explains that New Zealand has introduced ‘wellbeing budgets’ that allocate funds to a handful of cross-departmental strategic goals

“We have subject matter experts backing up the frontline guys, available for consultation and to deal with the most complex cases,” replied Tan; but the buck ultimately stops with the responsible authority. A mature, open attitude to collaboration is required, added Leo Yip, Singapore’s Head, Civil Service: “If you have five agencies, somebody has to put their hand up and be the first among equals,” he commented – volunteering to take the lead, while fostering collective decision-making.

Such departmental collaboration can hit political obstacles, noted Sir Suma Chakrabarti, President of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. In his previous roles as a UK permanent secretary, he recalled, he often found that ministers didn’t “think it in their interest to share accountability, because then they might be blamed” if the government failed to achieve its cross-cutting goals. “So they would avoid the reputational risk by just taking responsibility for a part of the system.” Manzoni recognised the problem, agreeing that in many cases “you don’t as a prime minister or a party really have to take responsibility for the collective outcome, because you can always assume that it’s delegated to a particular vertical.”

Matching accountabilities to outcomes

In Chakrabarti’s view, this mentality could be changed by appointing “outcomes-based ministers: a minister for reducing reoffending, [scrutinised by] a parliamentary committee for reducing reoffending, rather than a justice committee” focused on narrow, departmental issues. Manzoni agreed that parliamentary committees’ replication of departmental structures mitigates against cross-cutting work: “Civil servants are called in front of select committees and driven down the departmental silos,” he said.

In Chakrabarti’s view, appointing outcomes-based ministers – such as a minister for reducing reoffending – could encourage cross-departmental collaboration

Finance ministries’ budgeting processes can also hamper collaboration, added Manzoni: “Power follows the money, and treasuries own the money. If treasuries allocate money bilaterally to the vertical silos, that reinforces the system and makes it more difficult for anyone to go horizontally.” And within many ministries, he argued, civil servants’ tendency to look upwards to ministers – rather than outwards to colleagues across government – has created a “moths around the light” leadership model, in which “how important you are depends on how much time you spend in front of the minister” rather than your success in helping government to achieve its wider objectives.

So governments’ ability to concentrate their efforts on solving messy, inter-related issues in the real world – to focus on collectively delivering outcomes, not individually producing outputs – is constrained by issues around accountability, culture, political incentives and finance. In the financial field, commented Tan, “the key is to figure out ways to, when something new or unfamiliar happens, invent something and try it out. Then if it works, we can mainstream the new process – and even use it to replace the old one.”

Let finance follow function

“You always have a base to put innovation on top of,” she continued. “We all have working systems, annual budget cycles, long-term strategic planning. These are important: we need some structure and systems. But we can shoehorn new things into what is quite an established and settled system.” Here too Australia is taking a similar path, commented Jones: the finance ministry is “adopting more of a stewardship approach: we’re in the business of helping to support departments come up with different funding models. But the task of pulling together a national budget is incredibly complex: when you’re introducing alternative models for particular projects, how do you integrate that into the development of your budget?”

Jones explains that Services Australia will be “responsible for digital service delivery across health, welfare, social services, and eventually a range of broader services”.

Singapore doesn’t disturb the structure of its traditional budgeting process, replied Tan – instead introducing new financial mechanisms at project or committee level, or finding ways to drive innovation through the existing system. For example, its Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) has been provided with an “Initiation Budget” that allows it to test and develop new digital platforms and services. “Then when something is proven to be viable and scalable, they go to a ministry and say: ‘We’ve got this great thing. Would you like to scale it up?”

Tan Ching Yee presentation slide

At this point, the digital team isn’t approaching the ministry empty-handed: a “Central Digitalisation Budget” enables them to co-fund ministries’ investments, reducing risk for the buyer and thus encouraging digital transformation. Requiring the SNDGO to attract ministry investment in new systems, she explained, hard-wires a test of the business case into the process: “If ministries are willing to put money in, it’s probably quite valuable. And it also allows us to control the product’s specification, because when the user thinks he’ll have to pay for it now and in the future, he’ll look for changes that would reduce the operating cost.”

While promoting innovation, these systems retain clear lines of accountability for spending. Similarly, Singapore’s approach to R&D investment involves committing money to a central authority, which then coordinates and funds R&D programmes across various agencies and institutions – requiring regular reports that enable it to account to parliament for the spending. And occasionally, the Ministry of Finance creates inter-departmental budgets, with two permanent secretaries sharing the responsibility for allocating funds: this changes the process “from a negotiation between the Ministry of Finance and them, to one where the people who need to deliver the project figure it out between themselves,” she commented.

Tan Ching Yee presentation slide

Cross-departmental decision-making

New Zealand is well advanced on this journey, having recently introduced ‘wellbeing budgets’ that allocate funds to a handful of cross-departmental strategic goals. Agency chiefs sit on boards with “shared accountability for the work, both at the strategic and the practical level,” explained Cameron, and ministerial committees are “required to sit around a table and thrash out where their priorities are going to be.” And the UK is moving in the same direction, commented Manzoni, with plans afoot to appoint ministers “who’ll have their normal departmental responsibilities, and then in addition will be accountable for a cross-cutting priority to which we’ll allocate funds through the budget process.”

The government has a range of new strategies on topics such as the environment, healthcare and industry, Manzoni added: “Not one of them goes neatly down your verticals; and therefore not one of them can be done unless you allocate proper resources, proper accountability” to cross-departmental systems. “That doesn’t mean that we completely restructure,” he added. “But we’ve got to allocate the core of the budget.”

Another way to foster inter-departmental collaboration, added Manzoni, is the creation of civil service ‘professions’. Bringing together technical specialists across government, these develop career paths, central strategies and delivery capabilities in a wide range of fields. “We have built a matrix structure through government, driving it across the vertical silo,” he said. Providing central guidance and support to professionals in areas such as commercial, projects, technology, human resources, security and property, these specialist networks also ease the process of collaborating across departmental lines – both within each profession, and between them. “For the first time, we have multi-departmental hubs around the country: big offices where more than one department sits. You can’t do that unless you’ve got somebody at the centre orchestrating it,” said Manzoni.

From systems to structures

In conclusion, said Manzoni, “we’ve loosened up the UK structures, we’ve put matrices across them: the system is now loose enough. And the question is can we get to the next stage – where we can crystallise around some cross-cutting priorities, and join up what’s happening locally with central government.”

Meanwhile, in Singapore civil service leaders are contemplating the next steps on their journey towards integrated public services. To deliver the country’s Moments of Life programme, explained Yip, “we’re still relying on project teams, and project teams are committees; committees are bureaucratic.” When you have “12 agencies coming together around the table, decisions will often be made by identifying the lowest common denominator.” To take the Public Service Centre to the next level, he added, “eventually we might need to rethink how we organise ourselves – beyond just committees.”

Over the course of two hours, civil service leaders had explored many ways to compensate for the powerful vertical forces that act on departmental officials, hampering their ability to cooperate in the pursuit of cross-cutting goals. And the next steps, concluded Yip, may require more substantive changes – adapting systems of accountability so that collaborative working and integrated delivery are no longer in tension with the hard wiring of the organisation. “To sustain a very different way of serving the public, you need a different way of organising,” he said. “And that’s at the back-end, the middle-end and the front-end.”

This is part two of our report on the 2020 Global Government Summit, held in Singapore at the end of January ­– before COVID-19 spread beyond the Far East, and Sir John Manzoni stepped down as Chief Executive of the UK Civil Service. While the event is held under the Chatham House Rule, we ask delegates to approve quotes for use in these reports – enabling us to share civil service leaders’ key messages and perspectives with our readers.

Part one covered the debate on addressing inequality. Part three covered how civil services can attract, develop and manage the highly skilled workforces required to address public policy challenges. And the fourth and final part explored the way forward on civil service reform.

A list of the Global Government Summit 2020 attendees can be found here.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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