Working together: Principles and practices to guide the Australian Public Service

Last updated: 06 Dec 2012

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The achievement of optimal outcomes in policy development, programme management and service delivery will often require public servants to work collaboratively across agencies and portfolios. Often that will be as part of special purpose working groups.

In 2004 the Management Advisory Committee released Connecting Government - Whole of Government Responses to Australia's Priority Challenges. It dealt in a detailed way with aspects of working across organisational boundaries to deliver government objectives.

The definition adopted by that publication was as follows:

Whole of government denotes public service agencies working across portfolio boundaries to achieve a shared goal and an integrated government response to particular issues. Approaches can be formal and informal. They can focus on policy development, programme management and service delivery.

Whatever the nature of communications - from individual officers in two agencies exchanging information, to the work of a taskforce to whom officers from various agencies are seconded - there should be open and productive discourse. It is important at the same time that lines of accountability remain clear.

To assist in achieving effective outcomes from work carried out jointly by agencies, all Secretaries have agreed to the following guidance. It encapsulates the best practice checklists that appear in Connecting Government.

Communication

A whole of government approach requires public servants to look at the overall goal of an activity and recognise where a successful outcome requires input from or collaboration with other agencies.

Contact with other agencies is often on a one-to-one basis. Much of it is informal. The complexity of government now commonly requires intra and cross-portfolio work. Sharing relevant information should be a regular activity, but it should not be used in a way that clouds the issue of where responsibility lies. Accountability remains important. If, in providing information to a colleague, you expect that officer to take action, you should say so. The purpose of communication should be clear.

There are numerous ways in which larger groups of public servants work together. There are many purposes. Working groups can be established to manage a crisis situation; to develop a paper for Cabinet consideration; to resolve disagreements betweens departments that are hampering the effective development of policy or delivery of services; to articulate the relative merits of policy options or to work as part of a team responsible for ongoing programme delivery. Working groups can exist for a short time, eg IDCs or taskforces on particular issues. Alternatively they can be established on a standing basis to meet as required, eg the Inter-Departmental Emergency Taskforce or the Secretaries' Committee on National Security.

Communication requirements may differ for an IDC and a taskforce. Taskforce team members generally aim to reach a consensus from a variety of views and consider what are appropriate policy and programme delivery options. IDCs often involve departments weighing up competing priorities. While it is important to try to reach a common understanding of the facts and policy purpose, a consensus outcome may not be possible. Indeed it may not necessarily be an appropriate objective: at times it may be better to establish the relative merits of different options. Ultimately, it is Ministers who retain primary responsibility for developing policy proposals and bringing them forward to Cabinet for consideration.

Whatever the nature of the working group, however, the purpose and respective responsibilities of participants should be clear from the outset.

Organisation

Despite their widely varying purposes, the following issues should be considered when establishing working groups.

Membership and leadership.

If working groups are to be fully successful, agencies must be prepared to allocate high quality resources for the task. Participants should have sufficient seniority and carry enough authority to contribute in a meaningful way to group discussion and decision-making. Their home agencies should provide them with the time and support necessary to work effectively on the whole of government task.

Continuity of membership should be maintained to the maximum extent possible. Central agencies should generally be represented. Chairs or leaders should take responsibility for creating a culture of information sharing and collegiality among participants.

The issue of the lead agency might already have been established. If not, relevant Secretaries need to be consulted. Not all working groups will require a lead agency if team arrangements make that unnecessary.

Structure and operating framework.

These will vary depending on the nature of the group. While participants will represent their agencies at an IDC, in other types of groups participation might be based on individual expertise that will contribute to joint problem solving. The lead agency or agencies should appoint chairs or leaders who, while acknowledging their own agency interests, are also able to take a wider, whole of government perspective.

Just as it is important that participants understand each other's role, so too should the group be told of any constraints under which individual participants are working. If, for example, pertinent information cannot be shared with the group (perhaps for security reasons) the relevant participant should convey to the group that there are factors that might impinge on government decisions that cannot be fully discussed. Similarly, if participants believe that certain matters are not negotiable, that should be made known. Information should be discussed as openly as possible.

Settling terms of reference and timeframe.

Sometimes these matters will be determined by Cabinet, by legislation or by relevant Ministers or Secretaries. Where that is not the case, these matters should be settled expeditiously by the group, with more senior involvement called on if agreement cannot be reached quickly. Where new issues emerge, the group should seek further guidance rather than exceeding their authority.

Time should also be set aside for consulting with relevant agencies, particularly relating to complex or controversial issues or for advice on implementation.

Establishing a financial framework.

In a small number of cases some working groups will need to consider the appropriation of funds to meet the costs of their whole of government work. Representatives of the lead agency should discuss appropriate budgetary arrangements with the Department of Finance and Administration. Supplementation will remain a matter for Ministers.

Establishing management arrangements.

Taskforces often bring together staff from different agencies to work under a common management framework. That framework needs to recognise differences of organisational culture but also the goals of a common focus and collaborative effort. Teamwork is essential. Practical administrative issues should not be overlooked during the establishment phase. Where officers from various agencies join a taskforce that will exist for a considerable time, it is important to establish what performance assessment and pay arrangements will apply to individual participants.

Reporting back to home agencies.

Generally the requirements for reporting back to one's own agency will be a matter for each agency to determine. It would be expected that there would be knowledge at senior levels in an agency of the progress and directions of working groups.

Where a participant in a working group is required to report progress to a Minister, it is important that other participants know that. They will need to consider whether their own reporting arrangements need adjustment. Transparent and timely coordination is particularly important where talking points are being prepared for Ministers. Normally where there is close ministerial interest, that is an indication that the most effective course of action is to complete the work of the group quickly so that final decisions can be made by Ministers.

Remember: it is the responsibility of Ministers to bring forward policy options for consideration by the Government. The aim of whole of government processes is to ensure that their proposals are informed by a variety of views and an assessment of the merits of options. Officials will on occasions be asked to present policy options to Cabinet by way of a memorandum.

Record-keeping.

The lead agency will normally be responsible for preparing a record of meetings and circulating it to all participants for comment. These records are important. If inaccuracies appear in the draft minutes, they should be drawn to the attention of the lead agency promptly. The working group should discuss at its first meeting the detail that is considered appropriate in the minutes, including whether discussion, decisions or action points should be specifically minuted.

Reviewing progress.

All participants should work conscientiously to meet the agreed timeframe for reporting. It is important that working groups do not outlive their usefulness. Those groups without formal reporting dates should periodically review the contribution they are making and, if necessary, adjust their method of working, seek intervention at a more senior level to assist in resolving differences or perhaps even recommend that they be disbanded. There will occasionally be groups that rightly conclude that progress will be made only with intervention at Secretary level.

Standards of behaviour

Leadership requires collegiality. Good policy outcomes depend on public servants working effectively across organisational boundaries. Secretaries expect those who work in their portfolios to work constructively and cooperatively with their colleagues in other agencies for whole of government outcomes.

Public servants should bring to their work behaviour that reflects the values and ethical standards of the APS. In particular, working relationships should be productive and effective. There should be a genuine commitment to working in a collaborative manner. The operation of working groups should reflect an acceptance of the benefits of a whole of government approach to policy development, programme management and service delivery. Secretaries are committed to the development of a Senior Executive Service that has the range of capabilities to support this objective.

It is vital that participants in working groups ensure the confidentiality of their work. Policy decisions are the responsibility of the government. Leaking of information during the policy development process is a grave breach of trust. It undermines good governance. It carries the danger that premature publicity will hamper the adoption of the best policy outcomes and will place at risk the benefits of having the widest involvement in policy development.

A checklist of responsibilities when agencies are working together is provided below. It is a guide with which all public servants should be familiar.

How agencies should work together in special purpose groups

The lead agency or agencies

  • Appoint chair or leader who, while acknowledging their own agency interests, is also able to take account of a whole of government perspective

Chair or leader

  • While leading from the perspective of their agency, also extols the benefits of a whole of government perspective on the task in hand
  • Ensures appropriate central, line and operational agencies are involved in discussions
  • Ensures terms of reference and a timeframe for reporting are in place and includes time for consultation with relevant agencies
  • Ensures any necessary financial arrangements are secured
  • Ensures that agreed record-keeping arrangements are set up
  • Ensures confidentiality arrangements are understood by all participants

Heads of participating agencies

  • Ensure their agency representative has the capacity and authority to participate actively and constructively in discussion and decision-making
  • Put in place good communication arrangements between senior management and their agency representative
  • Provide their agency representative with clear directions as appropriate
  • Advise their representative whether reporting to the Minister will occur
  • Advise their representative of any particular caveats or requirements constraining their involvement in the inter-agency arrangement

Participating members

  • While participants represent their agency, each also has a responsibility to act from a whole of government perspective so that the arrangement can produce the best results for government
  • Seek effective outcomes in a constructive manner with members rather than defending agency territory
  • Advise other members of any particular caveats or requirements constraining their involvement in the arrangement
  • Follow up with the lead agency if the responsibilities of the lead agency are not met
  • Follow up with their own agency if the responsibilities of their agency are not met
  • Accept the confidentiality of the arrangements as outlined by the lead agency
  • Embrace collegiality as a behaviour crucial to public sector leadership