1 February 2018

The future of joined-up working and integration in Scotland: Time to concentrate on collaborative practice?

In this blog, What Works Scotland research fellow Dr Hayley Bennett outlines some key ideas from her recent presentation on collaborative practice and public service reform in Scotland.

Over the past three years the What Works Scotland research team has been working diligently to initiate, nurture, and undertake collaborative research with a wide range of public and third sector organisations.

As we enter our final year of research funding we are developing and synthesising public policy lessons and sharing these ideas. As part of these activities I was invited to speak to practitioners and policymakers at a one-day event Refocusing Scottish Public Services: Applying Christie Commission Principles (30th January 2018) on the delivery of joined-up working and integration.

Continuing Christie

The Christie Commission report, The Future of Public Services, continues to play a pivotal role in public service reform across Scotland for many people. The report emphasises the importance of joined-up working and integration, often combining these terms with ideas such as better coordination or enhanced partnership working.

However, although related, these terms can mean different things and offer different types of reform. As such, understanding integration, partnership working, and collaboration requires practitioners and policymakers to 'un-pick' some of these ideas and locate within their own working contexts. What do they mean in practice? What changes are required? In this presentation I "zoomed in" to focus on the importance of collaborative practice to create or improve joined-up working.

Why collaborating matters: from public sector to public services

Graphic of five people with their arms supporting each other and creating a circle, as seen from above  The nature of public service reform outlined in the Christie report echoes wider debates about policy design and implementation. Addressing concerns about fragmentation, rising inequalities, and modern public service pressures, public policy researchers increasingly centre on the importance of collaboration between different public actors, private organisations, community groups, third sector, citizens, and elected politicians, and professional bodies for future policy-making and implementation.

We could take Christie recommendations further by drawing on the concept of "collaborative governance" (Answell and Gash, 2008), which asserts that future public services will involve complex multi-actor decision making processes and structures and processes that bring together and cut across different organisational boundaries. Such shifts support claims that a broader notion of public services is replacing traditional ideas of public sector.

In short, collaborative governance involves:
  1. Different spaces, ways of communicating, and interactions across traditional boundaries.
  2. New systems (which seek to create a shared understanding and responsibility around a problem).
  3. New skills, competencies, tools and ways of working. (Competencies previously suited to hierarchical and demarcated professional and organisational forms may not be fit for purpose).
Putting collaborative governance into practice includes the need to create and nurture new spaces; facilitating interactions in these spaces requires sophisticated skills and expertise. To make such changes, leaders, policymakers, and those with responsibility for organisational reforms could:
  • support or create collaborative spaces to explore new ideas and address existing barriers
  • identify and value different skills and capabilities in their workforces, such as dialogue training, facilitation, and encouraging all practitioners to adopt an inquiring stance 
  • nurture and develop critical reflection, group work skills, and encourage familiarity with other professional knowledge
  • critically consider the impact of target driven programmes and project management frameworks. 
These new spaces need to provide some sanctuary for practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and politicians to consider difficult issues, develop their practice and skills, and only then identify appropriate strategy or workplace changes to address an issue. Embedding and nurturing collaborative practice may require a different way of working than currently in place and involve reassessing existing workplace norms to create the time, space, and investment in collaborative practice.

It should involve those professions who may not currently see their role as being key to addressing social inequalities (for example HR, IT, and finance colleagues). Such social learning environments across existing boundaries can encourage individuals to see other points of views and tackle previously invisible or long-standing obstacles.

Insights from our research show that there are a number of difficulties enacting collaborative governance. These include issues such as managing the shift to new ways of working alongside the imprints and organisational histories of previous managerial approaches. There are also various competing public service reform logics and audit or accountability doctrines that offer opposing discourses on best practice within organisations.

However, good quality collaboration offers the potential to address long-standing issues around addressing social-inequality, so it is time we focussed on collaborative practice as much as we discuss large structural changes and organisational mergers.

More information 

There are already a large number of outputs and resources on the What Works Scotland website on the future of collaborative working.

For example, insights from the collaborative action research workstream are available in our approach to collaborative action research and in outputs such as the Fife CAR overview document and the Partnership Working across UK Public Services review.

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