Sunday, September 30, 2012

Government Accountability Office report on Collaboration in Government

When I was in Washington D.C. earlier this year I was invited to provide expert advice to a group, including Chris Mihm, at the Government Accountability Office who were exploring issues to do with collaboration in government. Yesterday the GAO released it's report to Congress and it is available here: 
The GAO does incredible work in the United States and always high on my recommended reading list for those interested issues of public management. Below is the overview of the report:

What GAO Found

Federal agencies have used a variety of mechanisms to implement interagency collaborative efforts, such as the President appointing a coordinator, agencies co-locating within one facility, or establishing interagency task forces. These mechanisms can be used to address a range of purposes including policy development; program implementation; oversight and monitoring; information sharing and communication; and building organizational capacity, such as staffing and training. Frequently, agencies use more than one mechanism to address an issue. For example, climate change is a complex, crosscutting issue, which involves many collaborative mechanisms in the Executive Office of the President and interagency groups throughout government.

Although collaborative mechanisms differ in complexity and scope, they all benefit from certain key features, which raise issues to consider when implementing these mechanisms. For example:

•                Outcomes and Accountability: Have short-term and long-term outcomes been clearly defined? Is there a way to track and monitor their progress?
•                Bridging Organizational Cultures: What are the missions and organizational cultures of the participating agencies? Have agencies agreed on common terminology and definitions?
•                Leadership: How will leadership be sustained over the long-term? If leadership is shared, have roles and responsibilities been clearly identified and agreed upon?
•                Clarity of Roles and Responsibilities: Have participating agencies clarified roles and responsibilities?
•                Participants: Have all relevant participants been included? Do they have the ability to commit resources for their agency?
•                Resources: How will the collaborative mechanism be funded and staffed? Have online collaboration tools been developed?
•                Written Guidance and Agreements: If appropriate, have participating agencies documented their agreement regarding how they will be collaborating? Have they developed ways to continually update and monitor these agreements?

Why GAO Did This Study
Many of the meaningful results that the federal government seeks to achieve—such as those related to protecting food and agriculture, providing homeland security, and ensuring a well-trained and educated workforce—require the coordinated efforts of more than one federal agency and often more than one sector and level of government. Both Congress and the executive branch have recognized the need for improved collaboration across the federal government. The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA) Modernization Act of 2010 establishes a new framework aimed at taking a more crosscutting and integrated approach to focusing on results and improving government performance. Effective implementation of the act could play an important role in facilitating future actions to reduce duplication, overlap, and fragmentation.
GAO was asked to identify the mechanisms that the federal government uses to lead and implement interagency collaboration, as well as issues to consider when implementing these mechanisms. To examine these topics, GAO conducted a literature review on interagency collaborative mechanisms, interviewed 13 academic and practitioner experts in the field of collaboration, and reviewed their work. GAO also conducted a detailed analysis of 45 GAO reports, published between 2005 and 2012. GAO selected reports that contained in-depth discussions of collaborative mechanisms and covered a broad range of issues.

For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm at (202)512-6806 or

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Destined to become a standard text in public management, for all the right reasons"

John Alford and I have had great feedback on our book Rethinking Public Service Delivery: Managing with External Providers. The first published review is out now, via the Institute of Public Administration Australia (Victoria) site and reproduced here. Last week we made it into the Top 10 (albeit briefly!!) for Hot New Releases on Amazon.

 John Alford and Janine O’Flynn (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)

Alford and O’Flynn have written an admirable book on the contemporary reality of public service delivery. For most public services effective delivery involves engaging external providers.
The work is broad in scope, erudition and example. It is practical in its intent as ‘unequivocally a book about management’ (p4) and true to that sober spirit, it is usable for practitioners. It is well organised and a pleasure to read for a subject so apparently dry. It elegantly – and cunningly, as the authors’ plain language masks their theoretical sophistication – subverts the view that external arrangements can be governed only by contract for material reward or by sanction. Ultimately, it challenges the inward-looking, superior, attitude of too many bureaucrats – the attitude that the savages outside (businesses, not-for-profits, the public) can only be bought or commanded, and must be governed accordingly.
Alford and O’Flynn may eschew that last characterisation as over-blown. They take care to demonstrate empirically against the managerial standard of costs and benefits how external providers are most effectively engaged, and to provide practicable advice as to what works best. Their disarming conclusion is: ‘there is no one best way’ in public delivery, ‘it depends’ on the circumstances.
At the risk of over-simplifying an extended yet lucid argument, their thesis is that:
  •             services differ in the nature of delivery, in their complexity, and the ease of output specification;
  •             the key questions for policy design are who decides, who produces, and of whom and how is coordination necessary;
  •             even if institutions or interests only respond to material reward or legal sanction, people are also motivated by ‘purposive values’ and social belonging - by a sense of the public good – so the means of securing engagement may vary; and
  •             ‘strategic’ and ‘relationship’ costs and benefits count, not just finances and efficacy.

Critical to the thesis is that ‘[t]o the extent that they receive private value, [public sector] clients seem analogous to private sector customers, but they are quite dissimilar in important ways’(p 177):as beneficiaries, obligatees or regulatees, as citizens, and so often and so much as ‘co-producers’ in a ‘public value chain’. Co-production is a concept which Alford has developed in a number of previous works, but never as simply and convincingly as here.
It is at this point that the thesis edges closest to a theory of democratic government, a theory overdue for reinstatement: that governing is different in kind because engagement is intrinsic and that in one way or another, consent is critical. But the book does not articulate this point as it ploughs its sober managerial field.
Along the way, Alford and O’Flynn offer astute guidance on diverse public management challenges:
  •             mobilising volunteers, and recognising the ‘relationship costs’ in doing so;
  •             how to avoid corrupting the particular value-add of not-for-profits; factoring in varying business cultures and drivers; and
  •             PPPs, noting that arrangements where government is solely the ‘decider’ and business solely the contract ‘provider’ are not partnerships in any business sense.

This is a point often lost on Treasury departments who specify contract terms so tight and allocate risk so fearfully as to rule out any additional public value generated in the creative pursuit of commercial opportunities.
Alford and O’Flynn’s concluding guidance on the capabilities required for establishing and sustaining external delivery is coherent and concrete.
This book is replete with tables and figures applying the argument ‘it depends’ on the circumstances, by way of easy-to-follow decision-making guidance for public managers.
It is destined to become a standard text in public management, for all the right reasons.
Available through Palgrave-Macmillan
Neil Edwards is an IPAA Victoria Fellow and Chairman of the Airservices Board of Training at Airservices Australia. He has held a number of senior public service positions at state and Commonwealth levels, working in Australia and Canada.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Rethinking Public Service Delivery

Together with John Alford, I have just released Rethinking Public Service Delivery: Managing with External Providers with Palgrave. We've had great endorsements for the book and have also been doing quite a bit of press around the launches that we had in Melbourne and Canberra.

'This excellent book provides a useful and innovative framework for understanding effective delivery of public services.' – Steven Rathgeb Smith, University of Washington, Seattle. 

'A brilliant introduction to new ideas and techniques for delivering public services, backed by convincing examples and analyses.' – Knut Eggum Johansen, Special Adviser, Government Reform, Norway 

'Should be required reading for all who want to understand the costs and benefits of different forms of public service provision, and the circumstances that influence their relative effectiveness.' – George Boyne, Cardiff Business School 

'A landmark survey. The framework can be used by both scholars and practitioners and will significantly advance the cause of creating public value.' – G. Edward DeSeve, former Senior Advisor to President Obama

'Drawing on lively case examples, this compelling book introduces differing types of engagement, concepts for choosing them, and techniques for managing them.' – Terry Moran, former head, Prime Minister's Department, Australia.

In an op-ed for The Guardian this week we set out the key arguments from the book and related them to some current contracting 'scandals' in the UK. We also had a feature piece in the Public Sector Informant, the monthly public sector lift out in The Canberra Times. John was interviewed on ABC Radio National, and we have some more op-ed/feature pieces coming out in the UK and possibly the US over the coming weeks.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Clear goals and cross-agency working

How do we get government organisations to work together effectively in pursuit of broad governmental goals? This is one of the major challenges of governing and, of course, not a new one. The US Government has announced its Clear Goals initiative which sets out a series of cross-agency goals - fourteen in fact - which seek to drive improvements in governmental performance. The goals range from energy efficiency through to the cybersecurity and sustainability.

I'll be visiting Washington DC in April-May with colleagues as part of the Strengthening the Performance Framework project we are undertaking with the Australian Public Service Commission and will have the chance to talk with people about how these cross-agency goals trickle down into individual agencies, and then into the performance management of individuals and groups.

The practitioner and scholarly literature is full of stories of the complexity of doing this in practice; of how the goals of the agencies tend to take priority, especially where what we have called the supporting architecture of the public sector system reinforces such behaviour (see my article with colleagues You Win Some, You Lose Some which reports on attempts to engender inter-agency collaboration in the Australian context). Having clear goals, a common purpose, or a shared mission is critical to enacting cross-agency working; however failure to address the systemic barriers that other aspects of government systems and structures embed can lead to an inability to deliver on the broader goals of government.

Such issues will be central to the new book I am working on for Routledge titled Crossing Boundaries in Public Management and Policy. This will bring together authors from across the world on the to address the theory and practice of working across boundaries.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Joining-up: Experiences from the US and Australia

One of the great highlights of 2011 was the chance to work with G. Edward DeSeve, former special advisor to President Barack Obama and Adviser to Vice President Biden. Ed oversaw the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which involved spending near to US$800 billion to stimulate the US economy. Ed has written of his experience in a great report for the IBM Center for the Business of Government and you can download it for free here.

Ed spoke with a group of senior public servants from the Australian Public Service in a Crawford Inaugural Masterclass about how he used a network approach to deliver public value and how he managed the oversight of spending through an innovative web-based model. You can see this in action at where every dollar spent, every grant made is able to be tracked.

I spoke about Australian experiments with joined-up government, largely based on the large research project I have been involved with, and reflecting particular on a recent publication on the success and failure of this in relation to Indigenous Coordination Centres which was published in 2011 in the International Journal of Public Administration,  and available from my webpage here.

In addition to learning about the various aspects of his role and his deep and rich experience in serving in several administrations in the US, one of the favourite stories of the day for the participants was Ed's sparring with the satirist Stephen Colbert. A quick summary is here and Colbert's site has video.

This was the first of a series of of Masterclasses that will run at the Crawford School via the Australian National Institute of Public Policy. The next one that I will be involved in will be on Capability Reviews in the Australian Public Service later in 2012.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rethinking Public Service Delivery

The big news for 2012 is that the book that I have co-authored with John Alford from the University of Melbourne and the Australia and New Zealand School of Government will be published by Palgrave in May.

Rethinking Public Service Delivery: Managing with External Providers considers how government organisations work with external providers in service delivery and covers the full range of contributors (from clients, volunteers and regulatees through to private, non-profit and other government organisations) and the various modes of engagement (from collaboration and contracts through to co-production).

Many books on public service delivery tend to focus on a single aspect - collaboration or contracts, or working with a specific type of provider, but in our work we have covered a greater range of these providers, developed a contingency framework to guide how and when to engage, and set out the organisational capabilities needed to manage a portfolio of providers. This, we argue, is on the of greatest challenges for 21st century public managers - how to manage the full portfolio of providers simultaneously in pursuit of organisational and governmental goals.

We've had great feedback on the book and are looking forward to finally having it in print.

Performance Management in the Australian Public Service: Designing a High Performance System

Managing performance is one of the most challenging, yet necessary parts of effective public management. As part of the Ahead of the Game Blueprint for Reform of the Australian Public Service there is a commitment to strengthening the performance framework. To do this the Australian Public Service Commission has created a research partnership which involves a group of academics spanning three universities.
The team includes Deborah Blackman and Fiona Buick from University of Canberra, Michael O'Donnell and the University of New South Wales and myself from the Australian National University.

This is an exciting project where we will get to work collaboratively with the APSC to look at what is happening around the world in terms of high performance systems, do some local experimentation, and then devise the principles for the new framework for the Australian Public Service. The potential of high performance systems is well known, but so are all the of problems, challenges and barriers to actually doing this in practice, so this is a challenging project, but also one that can potentially provide great payoffs for the APS. As we progress through the project I'll be setting out some of the findings.