Collaboration in public policy and practice

Paul Williams, author of the recently published Collaboration in public policy and practice, explains the importance of individual actors to collaborative working and to the future of public services:

“Forms of intra and inter-sectoral collaboration have steadily grown in popularity as a means of designing and delivering public services. They are driven by the prospect of securing a more efficient use of resources, of tackling complex and wicked issues, and as a way of involving citizens and communities. In the current age of austerity, it is even more important for people and agencies to work together, to share resources, knowledge and expertise and develop new and innovative solutions within reduced budgets. However, the experience of collaborative working is highly problematic because of differences in aims, accountabilities, professional perspectives, performance management frameworks and cultures – and despite much activity and repeated attempts to promote this form of working through legislation, structural re-organizations and financial incentives – success on the ground is far from impressive.

It may be that the focus on the structural determinants and factors of collaboration is misplaced and that the effectiveness of this form of governance rests with actors – practitioners, managers, leaders and dedicated staff – that are committed to working in a collaborative and networked fashion, forging relationships with colleagues in other sectors, agencies and professions, to achieve shared purposes. This cadre of public actors can be referred to as the boundary spanners because their focus is on working across conventional boundaries of organization, profession and sector to tackle complex and interdependent problems such as health inequalities, poverty and crime.

Critically, boundary spanners need to possess a particular set of skills and competencies to be effective in this type of environment:
• interpersonal skills to develop and sustain relationships based on trust and reciprocity;
• networking skills to forge constituencies of interest and enhance levels of communication;
• entrepreneurial abilities to foster innovation and creativity;
• and co-ordination skills to ensure the smooth running and servicing of collaborative programmes.

Boundary spanners face a range of tensions in their everyday practice, including managing and working across multiple forms of governance – hierarchical and networked; coping with the dilemmas of different accountabilities; and managing the boundaries between personal and professional relationships. Despite these, boundary spanners have an important role to play in the future of public services; training and development programmes need to better reflect their needs, and more research is necessary to understand their role in different collaborative contexts and conditions.”

Paul Williams is the author of Collaboration in public policy and practice: Perspectives on boundary spanners published by Policy Press. You can order your copy at 20% discount here.

2 Responses to “Collaboration in public policy and practice”


  1. 1 Ann Clark March 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Having been a boundary spanner in previous positions and lived through various structural reorganisations of public services this perspective really struck a chord with me………haven’t had a chance to look at the publication yet so maybe this issue is covered…………what immediately struck me is that we are urged not just to collaborate with other agencies but to co-produce with service users and communities…………..recent research by the Centre for Rural Health on the potential for older people to deliver services to older people through social enterprise organisations (O4O) identified the need for boundary spanners in communities able to negotiate the information, resources and trust social enterprises need to put together successful proposals for local service delivery…………and what about people encouraged to self manage their own conditions and their carers? Lots of ‘boundary spanning’ activity required of them to deliver the new vision for health and social care services? Looking forward to reading this book.

    • 2 Dr Paul Williams March 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm

      You make some good points here in relation to the ‘downward’ spanning focus of some boundary spanners who need to engage constructively with citizens and communities. Work by Rugasta et al (2007) Health and Social Care in the Community Vol 15. No. 3 pp. 221-230 in relation to fuel poverty in Northern Ireland suggest that much of the work of the downward spanner has many similarities with community development practice.

      A wider point, given the many different circumstances and forms of collaboration that boundary spanners find themselves in, is whether they are required to deploy a similar set of skills and competencies?


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