PUBLIC MANAGEMENT Governing by Network – Joining the joined up club

Over in New South Wales harried business owner can cut through bureaucratic red tape with the aid of single number. An Australian Business Number, or ABN, instantly allows transactions across state, local and federal governments without the need to re-key information, explain previous communications or start from scratch with each new service provider. Better still, the system is being rolled out across number of private sector organisations such as Westpac. More are set to follow.
In the mind of William Eggers it’s one of the world’s best examples of joined up government in action. Eggers – the global director for Deloitte Research, public sector and senior fellow at the New York-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research – also rates New Zealand’s efforts to date to bring about some seriously weighty changes in the way we manage the government sector.
Eggers is the man behind number of books that explore the notion of governing in our networked age. Together, his Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector and Government 2.0 have been hailed as the definitive books on the topic.
Eggers’ premise is that the era of hierarchical government – for the past century, the predominant organisational model used to deliver public services – is coming to an end. Emerging in its stead is more complex, but ultimately more flexible, model in which network of private sector contractors, non-profit organisations and government agencies club together to deliver services and fulfil policy goals.
“The government landscape has changed,” say Eggers and co-author Stephen Goldsmith. “It’s no longer just about outsourcing versus bureaucracy. It’s about managing diverse webs of relationships to create value. As the problems governments must confront become more complex and as technology allows for more sophisticated responses, simple bilateral contractual arrangements are giving way to multi-organisational, cross-boundary and cross-sector networks.”
Fuelling this change are the twin drivers of more outsourcing and an ongoing dismantling of the stovepipes so emblematic of traditional government agencies in the past. Enabling the change is the rapid rise of IT and its ability to virtually network hitherto disparate groups of workers.
When Eggers visited New Zealand last month, his whirlwind tour took in talks with over 100 senior government officials and civil servants, and with industry cluster groups such as law and justice. In New Zealand, he says, there was more acceptance of the concept of joined up government than almost anywhere else he’d been and clear understanding that we need to progress further along this path.
“With its public sector management reform New Zealand has moved away from the mega-agency model towards having many smaller agencies,” he notes. While that has created some silos and hiked transaction costs in some instances, it is necessary first step on the path to greater sharing among agencies. Treasury initiative, for example, is working toward greater shared outcomes across agencies, while the State Services Commission is examining how it can encourage executives through its employment contracts to engage in more joined up government.
We are, says Eggers, in the midst of “once-in-a-century transformation of government”. “Rigid bureaucratic systems that operate with command-and-control procedures, narrow work restrictions, siloed cultures and operational models are particularly ill suited to addressing problems that often transcend organisational boundaries.”
Advocates list as advantages: greater flexibility, speed, innovation and specialisation.
Not surprisingly, linking so many agencies into one amorphous network comes with some potential problems in tow. Not least is the tricky matter of privacy – question that is raised in almost every discussion, says Eggers, and rightly so. It is particularly pertinent in small population such as ours, where there’s more than sporting chance that someone, somewhere will know the person whose details pop up on their networked computer screen before very long.
Eggers outlines what he calls privacy-friendly techniques in his books. “But ultimately, I find it hard to believe we will deny governments the ability to provide more modern services just because we’re afraid of sharing information,” he says. “If we’re going to have one-stop shopping for business services, introduce integrated case management, and reduce fraud in the systems, all of those things require sharing information and it’s just about setting up the right protocols so that it’s not abused.”
In Eggers’ view, the answer is to take broader standpoint. “No-one wants to live in society where government tracks their every movement, indepth profiles of every citizen reside in giant government databases and people are subjected daily to form of electronic strip searches – but the answer shouldn’t be knee-jerk opposition to every government attempt to use technology that can potentially be abused. We protect liberties not by prohibiting government agencies from using the latest technologies but through system of checks and balances and through legal institutions. We need to focus on identifying and promoting technological, legal and cultural practices that allow us to reap the benefits of new technologies without descending into ‘big brother’ world.”
In “Government by Network” – joint study by Deloitte Research and Harvard University’s Ash Institute for Democractic Government and Innovation – Eggers and co-author Stephen Goldsmith highlight numerous reasons why network management often fails. These include lack of goal congruence – where service outcomes are often murky, difficult to measure and may take years to realise – and “contorted oversight” – where governments mistakenly see contracting out as way to offload the headaches of managing service. Other problems include communication and coordination stuff ups, poor baseline data and what the authors call the “government as 800-pound gorilla” issue in which relationships become strained because one of the members (usually the government entity) has more clout than the others.
Eggers says his big worry is that talk of networked government doesn’t remain just that – all jabber and no action. “It’s one thing to have ministers and chief executives working more with each other, meeting and looking more at collaboration, but the really important thing is collaboration at the service delivery level – where clients and people can actually feel it.”
“Most importantly,” he says, “organisations need to recognise that this kind of model requires whole different set of human capital, skills and competencies than simply managing traditional hierarchical government. You not only need to know about planning and budgeting but also need to have people with project management, contract management, mediation, negotiation and risk analysis skills and whole variety of other very high level skill sets.”
Future governments will need to do lot more to recruit people with those skills sets and train existing staff to take on broader responsibilities. “Oftentimes they will be competing against investment banks, law firms and consultancies for staff,” says Eggers. “That skills gap is probably one of the most worrisome areas.”
If they get that one right, dealing with government may be whole lot less painful in the future.

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