Government departments are organized vertically, but solving big societal challenges requires horizontal collaboration. Three case studies show it can be done.

When the Mowat Centre recently asked public servants to identify the greatest challenges they face, most did not name big societal challenges like homelessness and climate change. Rather, the overwhelming majority pointed to the difficulties associated with working “horizontally”: that is, across departmental boundaries within government.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it really shouldn’t be. Why? Because the actual work of solving these big societal challenges inevitably sprawls across numerous departments — and, in Canada, often across multiple levels of government as well. Of course the size and complexity of these problems don’t make solving them any easier, but the most important obstacles that public servants face as they tackle them day by day are the challenges associated with collaborating horizontally.

Horizontal barriers

There is no single factor limiting horizontal collaboration in government. Rather, our research identified at least seven key obstacles to collaborating horizontally, ranging from insufficient resources to an underappreciation of the skills required.

Overall, the most important of these is that in government, accountability is organized vertically. Because decision-makers are accountable for their department-specific responsibilities, aligning departmental priorities with a whole-of-government approach is difficult — especially when the distribution of the benefits of collaboration does not match the distribution of the costs.

Horizontal tools

Daunting as these obstacles may be, many governments have nevertheless sought ways to encourage horizontal collaboration. In fact, our research uncovered more than a dozen different tools that a variety of governments are using to do so.

Some of these tools will be familiar to Canadian public servants. One example would be the designation of a lead department as primarily responsible for a project. Once designated, this department leads efforts at planning and coordinating with its partners, and if any resources had been specifically allocated to the project, it doles them out accordingly.

Unfortunately, many of these familiar tools are only partially or intermittently effective, and the urgent nature of many of the challenges facing Canadian governments requires more, and more innovative, solutions. We believe that the following three case studies of success from other jurisdictions can serve as helpful models for how to do horizontality better.

The “once only” principle

In Estonia, the government’s adoption of the “once only” principle means that once a citizen or a business has provided government with a piece of information, the government can’t request that same information from them again. Rather, it is up to government to organize itself so that it is able to reuse that information internally if it needs it again.

This principle was given legal effect through a 2007 amendment to Estonia’s Public Information Act that prohibited the creation of multiple government databases that held the same information. This change meant that Estonia’s various government departments were forced to develop effective and secure systems for sharing information with each other.

The legal entrenchment of the “once only” principle was possible only because of the Estonian government’s creation, a few years earlier, of the X-Road, a data exchange software layer that links all government departments as well as many private institutions such as the country’s banks. But the legal entrenchment of the “once only” principle was a critical moment, as it shifted the cross-departmental collaboration enabled by the X-Road (and a number of associated initiatives) from a voluntary experiment attempted only by the digitally enthusiastic into an operational necessity.

The results have been impressive. The digitization of government, of which the “once only” principle is a foundational component, produces annual savings for the Estonian state equivalent to 2 percent of GDP and has enabled exciting initiatives such as its innovative “e-residency” program.

Professional specialisms

By focusing on improving the ways in which it manages its people through its recognition of “professional specialisms,” the UK government has taken a different route toward improving horizontal collaboration. Professional specialisms are groups of public servants who share well-defined professional skill sets. These range from the sorts of skills that any large organization requires — such as legal skills — to those that are more specific to government, such as policy skills.

There are four key components to the UK’s recognition of specialisms:

  • Each specialism has specific, government-set, professional standards of practice.
  • Each specialism has its own dedicated professional development capacity as well as opportunities for specialists to network with each other.
  • Specialists have access to coherent and attractive career paths that cross departmental barriers and enable them to advance their careers while remaining specialists.
  • Each specialism has a senior-level official appointed as a full-time head of specialism, whose responsibilities include overseeing and nurturing the specialism as well as injecting their specialist perspective into high-level government decision-making.

While the recognition of specialisms is still quite recent, it already seems to be helping to increase the government’s horizontal capabilities. At a fundamental level, it has provided government with a more comprehensive and granular understanding of the skills that its workers possess and their distribution across its various departments. Importantly, this has increased government’s ability to optimize the deployment of its human resources on a whole-of-government basis, something that has become especially important in meeting the urgent cross-departmental challenge represented by Brexit.

It is also believed, though not yet demonstrated, that when cross-departmental networks are strengthened and cross-departmental perspectives are nurtured, departmental decision-making will become better aligned with whole-of-government priorities.

The Data Exchange

The Data Exchange, or DX, has emerged as a successful technological enabler of greater horizontality in New Zealand’s government. The DX is a cloud-based platform that allows the safe and secure sharing of data almost instantaneously between government departments and service delivery partners. The DX is designed to do this by automating and simplifying the ways in which these organizations share data sets while simultaneously allowing individuals to determine “what data they share, with whom and when.” This should enable these organizations to better understand individuals’ needs, evaluate existing programs and assess the likely impact of proposed interventions — all while maintaining privacy and security standards that exceed government norms.

The DX is part of the government’s efforts to implement what it calls the social investment approach, a data-driven, evidence-based, person-centred, integrated approach that spans the whole of government. This approach uses data to better understand citizens’ needs and the ways that they are using government services, and to systematically measure the outcomes of these interactions. The DX emerged from a recognition that in many cases, departments did not have the ability to implement the social investment approach because the data they required were held elsewhere and not easily accessible to them.

As of August 2018, the DX has successfully connected four government agencies and seven service providers and is already producing some benefits. For example, it is enabling corrections agencies to more effectively place inmates in housing after release, and usually closer to their families as well. In a pilot project, it is also providing a “single source of the truth” for primary health care information, which is enabling better coordination of emergency and after-hours care for patients between ambulance services, emergency departments and other health care providers.

Next steps

These three exciting tools showcase different approaches to enabling better horizontal collaboration within government. Estonia’s “once only” principle demonstrates how a legal change can spur government invention in a context of necessity. The UK’s professional specialisms demonstrate how reorganizing human resources structures can foster new perspectives. New Zealand’s DX illustrates how a new technological tool can enable spontaneous grassroots innovation in unexpected places.

Collaborating horizontally is not easy, especially in governments organized into silos where accountability flows vertically instead of horizontally. But the fact that government’s traditional structures correspond awkwardly to the shape of today’s most pressing problems must not be an excuse for not solving them.

The onus is on governments and public servants to find ways to do the work needed, especially when other countries are showing that it can be done. We know that there is already a lot of this sort of progress happening in Canada; we hope that the examples presented here can provide some new ideas and inspiration for those already engaged in this critical work.

Photo: Shutterstock, by MJgraphics


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