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

By on 06/04/2022 | Updated on 11/04/2022
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A new book details the innovative New Zealand programme that improved performance in ten of the most challenging cross-cutting problems. Professor Rodney Scott and Ross Boyd explain how it was done

Governments have found it necessary to divide themselves into smaller administrative units (ministries, departments, agencies) in order to make the scope of operations more manageable. However, regardless of how such units are configured, inevitably some problems cross-agency boundaries.

Boundary-spanning problems are harder to solve than those that fall to one agency. Working together involves higher transaction costs – the time and effort spent communicating and coordinating multiple agencies. Interagency work typically involves many meetings, dozens of officials, and progresses slowly by consensus decision-making. Accountability is complicated by “the problem of many hands”, where an individual leader cannot solely be held responsible for the results of a collaborative initiative. Interagency working has been called the ‘philosophers stone’ and ‘holy grail’ of public administration.

So it has been for many decades, where more progress has been made on single agency problems than on those that span agency boundaries. This means that those problems that persist are more likely to be interagency ones. In many jurisdictions, the COVID-19 pandemic saw agencies pull together to face a crisis. As former New Zealand prime minister Sir Bill English observed: “The hard problems of entrenched disadvantage and public agency siloes have been pushed into the background for now but in time will appear as larger challenges than ever.”

From 2012 until 2017, a programme ran in New Zealand that demonstrated progress was possible in addressing ten of the most challenging and persistent social problems that society faced. The government selected ten of their top priorities – problems like long-term unemployment, participation in early childhood education, childhood immunisation, assaults against children, high school graduation rates, crime and criminal reoffending, and meta-problems such as the way that government interacts with citizens and businesses. In each case, the government chose a simple measure of progress, and set an ambitious target to be achieved over five years (with six-monthly progress reporting). Performance increased for all ten problems, both relative to baselines and historic trends.

Read more: Trust and teamwork: Hannah Cameron on how New Zealand dodged the COVID bullet

While an initial evaluation suggested that the programme had achieved successes through reducing transaction costs, this wasn’t consistent with the lived experienced of public servants. A follow-up study revealed that successes were hard-won – outcomes improved not because collaboration was easy, but because public servants were so committed to making a difference that they could overcome barriers, learn from past mistakes, and persist until the target was achieved.

Our recent book explains the successes of the programme as being due, in significant part, to goal commitment. Goal commitment refers to the volitional bond between an employee and the achievement of an outcome. Public servants are frequently faced with multiple competing problems, and changing priorities – nonetheless, in this case they persisted in striving toward a target over five years. Some of the features that seemed to support goal commitment were:

  • Setting goals that matter to public servants and to citizens
  • Making it difficult to back out or change those goals
  • Picking only a few problems to focus on, so that each had a high profile
  • Regular feedback on progress to celebrate success and learn from failure, including a schedule of public reporting.
  • Using data, including lead indicators, so that public servants can learn and adapt
  • Holding small groups of leaders collectively accountable

It is this last point, of collective accountability, that is most contentious. The New Zealand system of government has long emphasised single point accountability. It was assumed that having more than one person accountable for a result would result in less felt responsibility. Instead, New Zealand had historically tried to divide problems such that they could then be assigned to individuals. This did not allow for the collaborative management of problems where the solutions couldn’t be anticipated at the start, and where multiple departments would need to experiment, fail, and learn together.

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

One such example was rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is a disease associated with poverty. Successive governments were both appalled and mystified by its high incidence in New Zealand and for several years had charged the health system with reducing it, but to no avail. Rheumatic fever could not be solved by the health system alone – contributions were required from the education sector to improve awareness, from the housing sector to improve the overcrowded living conditions in which rheumatic fever spread, and by agencies that had connections into the communities where rheumatic fever was most prevalent. By working together, the incidence of rheumatic fever was halved over five years.

Collective accountability is not a panacea, and the problem of many hands is very real. New Zealand concluded that the biggest successes were observed when collective accountability was only applied to a small number of leaders, and to a small number of problems at any given time. Its likely that governments will make the best progress by prioritising the efforts on a few harms that really matter and maintaining focus until those harms are meaningfully reduced.

Read more: New Zealand’s collective accountability experiment improves results, report finds

In exploring each of the ten problems, one common feature was the entrepreneurial or innovative spirit of key committed individuals. These people demonstrate collaborative capacity. A key challenge for researchers and governments alike will be to gain greater insights into the competencies and behaviours of successful collaborators, and selecting, training and cultivating more of them.

As with any case study, it is not clear that New Zealand’s successes could be replicated exactly in another setting. But conceptually similar programmes – implemented at various times in places like Virginia and Washington state in the United States, and Scotland – demonstrate that the same principles can be applied but with variations to adapt context. Our follow up study (in progress) tackles this very topic of context contingency, and asks when to use different models for interagency performance.

Addressing cross-cutting problems is not easy, but governments do not have a choice in facing them. Otherwise, over time the simplest and most manageable problems will be managed, and the complicated cross-cutting problems will persist and prevent societies and government from achieving their goals. As Sir Bill put it: “Social indicators that were worsening before the pandemic will now accelerate, at the same time as governments must deal with slowing economics, aging populations, and very high levels of public debt.” New Zealand’s recent experience highlights that solutions will never be easy, but that sometimes hard-won success is still possible when people are committed to a goal.

Targeting Commitment: Interagency Performance in New Zealand’ by Rodney Scott and Ross Boyd is published by the Brookings Institution Press and features a foreword by former prime minister Rt. Hon. Sir Bill English. It is available at all good bookstores or via the Brookings Institution.

About Rodney Scott and Ross Boyd

Professor Rodney Scott is an adjunct professor of public administration at the University of New South Wales. Ross Boyd is adjunct research fellow of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

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