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Issues and themes in recent literature on whole of government approaches


Attempts to coordinate government policy and service delivery activities across organisational boundaries are not a new phenomenon. Coordination is a challenge inherent in all administrative systems designed to organise deliberations, decisions and actions to meet the complex demands of government. Ling (2002) and Richards and Kavanagh (2000) trace the British experience of targeting the 'pathology of departmental government' throughout the 20th century (with examples from both Conservative and Labour governments). In Canada, it is said that there has been virtually no limit to the government inventing new coordination arrangements (Wilkins 2003). In Australia, this type of activity was already occurring shortly after Federation (Podger 2002b). The Coombs Royal Commission (1976) set the scene for significant aspects of current whole of government approaches.

Improving coordination across policy, program and service delivery has again been receiving increased attention in recent years-both in Australia and in other advanced economies. There are numerous terms for describing the challenge, including whole of government, joined-up government, networked government, cross-cutting policy, horizontal management, interdepartmental actions, partnerships, joint ventures, alternative service delivery. The essential feature is that these approaches differ significantly from the traditional 'silo' approach of departments/ministries (Edwards 2002; Cabinet Office 2001).

Globalisation, budgetary pressures, community expectations and technology are key drivers of increased whole of government approaches (IPAA 2002). The increase in the proportion of the population receiving some form of assistance from government (some 19 per cent of the Australian population), the steady growth in regulation of a broad range of activities, and the new threats of terrorism have increased the importance of governments avoiding perverse and contradictory outcomes and ensuring that information is shared between agencies. Whole of government approaches are particularly suitable for a special class of policy issue ('wicked problems') that defy jurisdictional boundaries and are resistant to bureaucratic routines (Clarke and Stewart 1997: Kamarack 2002). Service delivery is also often seen as fragmented at the regional and local levels, and numerous government initiatives are not integrated (Cabinet Office 2000c; ICCT 2003). Public demand is continuing to increase. There is less public money available while there are increased demands for lower taxes and greater accountability of public expenditure (Lindquist 2001). Another Canadian, Peters (1998a and1998b), argues that reducing public expenditure is the most fundamental reason for increased attention to coordination efforts.

There is also unease that some of the recent public sector reforms have exacerbated coordination problems. New Zealand's Review of the Centre (New Zealand Government 2001) found that while the public management system provides a solid platform for the future, it must meet more effectively the needs of ministers and citizens to integrate service delivery, address fragmentation and improve the training and development of public servants. Aucoin (2002) suggests that new public management has been good at putting emphasis on efficiency, but has fragmented the capacity of government to address 'wicked problems'.

Caution is expressed about the difficulties involved in whole of government approaches, including unintended risks, overly ambitious agendas and uncontrolled consequences (6 et al. 2002)2, but examples are generally of claimed successes, not failures. The Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA 2002) highlights that whole of government approaches should be used selectively.

The literature presents many examples of approaches and initiatives in a number of countries and various common themes can be detected:

  • the range of supportive structures available
  • seamless service delivery
  • the importance of culture
  • accountability and risk management
  • engaging the community
  • information and e-government.

Examples and themes

Supportive structures

A recurring theme is the need for each situation/issue to be approached on a case-by-case basis, with a range of organisational arrangements available (Heintzman 2002). There is no 'one size fits all' option and theoretical perspectives exploring the multiple forms of organisational frameworks in contemporary social systems are useful (6 et al. 2002). The key issue is to develop mechanisms and structures for a shared framework, shared goals and shared results which can match structure to task (CCMD 2002).

Considine and Lewis (2003) report on a major survey which investigated ideal structural/support models. They concluded that procedural/pure bureaucratic models are outmoded and are being superseded by network governance/structures to cater for whole of government approaches. Barrett (2003a) describes three structures currently used for governing these initiatives in Australia-the lead agency model, the loose confederation model (e.g. Centrelink) and the board of management. Kamarack (2002) sees the major challenge for 21st century American governments to be the creation of 'portfolios of action' that incorporate a range of different types of governance structures.

There are various models, frameworks and concepts outlined in the literature which attempt to classify whole of government approaches. For example, IPAA (2002) presents a framework of integrated governance (covering service delivery, programs, partnership agreements). Heintzman (2002) develops concepts around the organisational space between integrated policy and service delivery, addressing leadership, responsiveness, cooperation, accountability and information. Ling (2002) develops a framework investigating new ways of working across agencies, developing accountabilities and incentives, new types of organisations and ways of delivering services. Lindquist (2001), Stewart (2002), Wilkins (2003) and Gill and Rendall (1999) contribute to the development of theory about what a whole of government approach is, what it looks like and how it can be undertaken. However, there is no overriding theory that captures all key aspects. This is an evolving field of investigation, both at the practice and theoretical level.

One particular aspect of structure which receives significant attention is the role of central government. Britain has been a leader, establishing mechanisms and structures such as strategic units, reviews, public service agreements (Cabinet Office 2000a). The report, Reaching Out: the Role of the Central Government at Regional and Local Level (Cabinet Office 2000b), called for a higher profile of central government in regions, with a clear focus on the delivery of cross-cutting services/outcomes.

In Canada, the 1996 Taskforce on Managing Horizontal Policy Issues found that departments were overly focused on turf protection. The Canadian Centre for Management Development sponsored a national forum on horizontal initiatives and developed tools and guidelines, including the management of budgets, staff, risks and accountability (CCMD 2002). In 2003, the Canadian Public Service Modernization Act (PSMA) established a committee of deputy ministers from departments advising the Secretary of the Treasury Board Secretariat. This committee oversees the implementation of key horizontal responsibilities for government-wide project management.

In Australia, there have been calls for an increased role for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Shergold 2003b; Whalan et al. 2003) and for the Council of Australian Governments to act as a coordinating unit (Podger 2002b; Beattie 2002; Moore-Wilton 1999). The Prime Minister, Mr Howard, has played a critical role in identifying priority whole of government issues, such as national security, demographics, science, education, environment, energy, rural affairs and transport (Howard 2002b). There are also examples from the states, such as the Queensland Government establishing crossgovernment chief executive officer committees to advise Cabinet on whole of government strategies (Queensland Government 2002).

Seamless service delivery

One-stop shop/single-window structures have been developed as a key element of whole of government to promote responsiveness to client needs and to overcome jurisdictional boundaries. Citizens are demanding seamless services and are frustrated with duplications, gaps and lack of integration. Governments are prioritising partnerships between departments and with non-government sectors as the 'delivery vehicle of choice' to respond to these demands (Ling 2002; Fitzpatrick 2000). The design of these services must be based on the needs of citizens to improve access and convenience (Bent et al. 1999). There is a range of approaches being used to organise seamless service, which are not without challenges. Some common issues include turf tensions, technological problems (incompatibility, security, privacy etc.), expectations (increasing demand for services) and partnership issues (coordination of resources, accountability) (Bacon 1998; Bent et al. 1999).

In Australia, Centrelink provides an example of seamless service delivery of a range of government programs to individuals through a widely distributed regional and online network. The Indigenous Communities Coordination Taskforce (2003) is trialling coordinated seamless service delivery of federal and state government support to selected Indigenous communities. The notion of whole of government service delivery in Australia is seen to be exemplified by the Centrelink approach (Centrelink 2003; Conn 2002; Worthington 1999; Rosalky 2003). The Canadian Institute of Public Administration undertook a large survey of individuals and businesses who had accessed 'single window services' (IPAC 2002). The results indicated that there was a high level of satisfaction, particularly with walk-in and telephone services. If people were referred to other organisations there was a marked drop in satisfaction. New Zealand was one of the first countries to institute major public sector reforms. The reforms of the 1980s concentrated on structural changes, rather than effectiveness from a client perspective (Gill and Rendall 1999). In the last few years there have been efforts to address this by developing frameworks for integrated service delivery (State Services Commission 1999b). The concept of circuit-breaking teams is also being used to promote solutions for front-line integrated service delivery in New Zealand (Inglis 2003).

Cultural change

While structures receive considerable attention, even more emphasis is given to the importance of cultural change for successful whole of government management. There is a need to further develop skills and behaviour, such as collaboration, trust, the ability to mobilise teams (Cabinet Office 2000a and 2000b; CCMD 2002; Ling 2002; Lindquist 2001; Bourgault and Lapierre 2000). Increasing mobility of public servants between departments, levels of government and sectors was considered useful in developing these skills and behaviours and for minimising departmental silo perspectives (Cabinet Office 2000a and 2000b, Coombs et al. 1976). While the APS has responded positively to a generation of almost constant change and management improvement, with greater flexibility, accountability and outcome orientation, more effort is needed to support whole of government approaches (Shergold 2003a; Wilkins 2002a).

One of the major challenges for the public sector in undertaking whole of government approaches is ensuring that participating organisations and personnel understand the implications of this type of work and do not treat it as marginal, extra or 'edge of the desk' (Bourgault and Lapierre 2000; Lindquist 2001). Essentially, the capacities of organisations need to be matched, both in terms of expertise and authority (across departments) to suit the complexity of the task (Lindquist 2001). A related point was the need to place value on whole of government work and provide incentives and rewards for entrepreneurial public servants (Cabinet Office 2000a; Ling 2002; Lindquist 2001; IPAA 2002).

Leadership was considered critical. Most of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries are finding a gap between existing public service cultures and the expectations of the public. A common response has been to promote a certain kind of public sector leader. This has meant increased activity in leadership development programs, mentoring and defining competencies (OECD 200b). Bardach (1998) developed the concept of 'craftsmanship' in leadership, which focused on collaboration and being able to bring into play the politics, personalities and policy all at the same time. The literature (Cabinet Office 2000a and 2000b; CCMD 2002; OECD 200b) also identified the need to develop skills in shared leadership, identifying a 'champion' and having strong leadership from the centre. A major thrust of the Blair government has been setting out a strategy for improved cross-cutting approaches, by introducing public service agreements and leadership development to change the culture of the public service (Cabinet Office 1999 and 2000).

Accountability and risk management

'Accountability' has taken over from words such as responsibility, scrutiny, questioningt is a situational concept that needs to be specified in context (G Mulgan 2002). It has received significant attention and is seen as a major challenge. Planning is considered critical, as many of the challenges can be resolved early in the process (CCMD 2001). Weller et al. (1997) assert that the traditional mechanisms of accountability in parliamentary democracy were never designed to cope with multidimensional fragmented policy systems. However, 6 et al. (2002) argue that whole of government approaches can elevate the usefulness of accountability measures for effectiveness and outcomes, in terms of impact and value. There was general agreement that shared outcomes and budgets do need clearly defined accountability and reporting frameworks (Thurley 2003). A key question is: 'How can there be whole of government joint action, common standards and shared systems, on the one hand, and vertical accountability for individual agency performance on the other?' (Podger 2002b; Matheson 2000, Wintringham 2003).

The challenge is getting the balance right between accountability upwards and responsiveness downwards and outwards. Fitzpatrick (2000) puts forward a framework for developing a 'comfort zone' between vertical, horizontal and citizen accountability.

The offices of the auditors-general in Canada and Australia have emphasised their role in being involved in reforms around whole of government approaches (Barrett 2002 and 2003; CCMD 2001; AGC 2002). In Canada, public service leaders have focused primarily on cultural change as the way forward, while the auditor-general has focused on tighter structures and control to overcome increased risk (CCMD 2002). Partnering arrangements, management flexibility and focusing on results challenge traditional accountability arrangements. The Canadian Auditor-General outlines key principles to shift the emphasis from blame towards improved scrutiny of performance expectations against actual performance (AGC 2002). The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) wants to provide value-added products, such as better practice guides and benchmarking (Barrett 2002 and 2003; ANAO 2003). The ANAO (2003) highlights a number of case studies that have successfully established accountability processes of whole of government initiatives. Miley (2000, 2002) argues that whole of government financial reporting in Australia is difficult because of current inconsistencies of disclosure among government departments. 6 et al. (2002) warn that an excessive emphasis on strong budget control can actually be counterproductive for these initiatives.

The OECD and Britain have produced major reports in the last 12 months about managing risk in a coordinated and collaborative manner to achieve results for complex problems. The overall aim is to have fewer surprises, higher levels of safety, fewer direct costs, a better understanding of risks and trade-offs, partnerships between sectors and a strengthening of international cooperation (Cabinet Office 2002; OECD 2003b). The British report focuses on technological and social hazards, natural disasters and risk management in terms of government business. The OECD report focuses on developing an action-orientated agenda for natural disasters, technological accidents, infectious disease, and terrorism and food and water safety.

The need for risk management to be part of the culture of APS was highlighted, particularly where private and public partnerships are involved

(McPhee 2003; Braue 2003; Barrett 2003b). At a broader theoretical level, 6 et al. (2002) emphasise that it is not just a question of anticipating risks, but of building resilience (coping and adjusting to circumstances and being tolerant of failure).

Consultation and working with the community

A common aspect of most whole of government challenges is the need to engage beyond government organisations, particularly with community groups and the public at large (Howard 2002). In Canada there has been more emphasis on citizens than customers or clients, which goes beyond good private sector practices to encompass citizens who have rights (Aucoin 2002). Consultation, using outside experts and ensuring that citizen involvement is part of the department's culture, was a high priority in whole of government approaches (Cabinet Office 2000a and 2000b; Audit Commission 2002). A 'culture of stakeholder involvement' should supersede the 'taskforce or IDC mentality', where public servants unduly represent the views of their minister/agency (Shergold 2003a; Centrelink 2003). Edwards (2002) argues that public servants need skills to be 'partnership ready' to engage in 'participatory governance'.

Involvement from the non-government sector and community in policy development and service delivery is increasing in Australia (Edwards and Langford 2002). Complex networks have been layered on top of hierarchical organisations and they must be managed differently. Public managers need to rely more on interpersonal and interorganisational processes, as complementary to-and sometimes as substitutes for-authority (Kettl 1996).

The concept of 'governance' is seen to have advantages over that of 'government' in that it can include non-government institutions in the enterprise of governing (G. Mulgan 2002). Edwards (2003) provides a range of suggestions for future collaboration to enhance government's understanding of the complexity of the voluntary sector and the voluntary sector's understanding of government processes.

There is evidence of increasing engagement with stakeholders. For example, Carmody (2002) described a sea change within the Australian Taxation Office to 'co-design solutions with the community'. The ICCT (2003) and Centrelink (2003) argue that communities and government must work in partnership and share the responsibility for capacity building. The Queensland Government (2002) has processes to make government more accessible to the community (particularly the disadvantaged) by taking Cabinet to communities and establishing regional forums attended by ministers.

Information and e-government

E-government is seen as a catalyst for internal public sector change in terms of culture and the way business is conducted. There is a need to integrate e-government into broader reform policies, as it is an enabler, not an end in itself (Cabinet Office 2000c; OECD 2003a).

In Australia, the Better Services, Better Government strategy was released at the end of 2002, providing a framework for developing e-government at a federal level (NOIE 2002). The Australian Procurement and Construction Council developed a national set of guidelines for conducting e-business between government departments and other sectors (APCC 2002). The Management Advisory Committee (MAC 2002) recognised the benefits of collaboration and proposed a two-tier governance structure for Australian government departments to promote interoperability while ensuring investments remain business driven.

In 2003, the OECD released a major report on the use of technology, with ten guiding principles for establishing successful e-government, emphasising the need to be customer-focused and offer citizens a choice. In Britain, electronic service delivery was proposed to break down silo-based delivery networks and allow citizens to interact with government whenever and wherever they chose (Cabinet Office 2000c). This report set out a strategy for all government services to be on line by 2005. A major consultation about developing a mixed economy for the supply of e-government services was launched in 2003. The British government wanted to engage 'intermediaries' (private business, voluntary and non-government agencies) to provide access to government services for their own members and jurisdictions (Office of the e-Envoy 2002, 2003a, 2003b).

Critiques and cautions

There are cautions against seeing whole of government approaches as suitable for all public sector activities. The CCMD (2001) points out that this approach is not a science, is not always relevant, and is prone to problems of 'group think'. IPAA (2002) highlights that it is resource intensive, hard to do and should be used selectively. Edwards and Langford (2002) question whether parliamentary governments can shed their 'narrow go-it-alone' approaches. They assess that the Canadian and Australian experience to date has been only 'modestly successful at best'. Analysing the US situation, Kettl (2002) argues that the gap between the traditional understanding of government and governance has widened. Although there are advanced theories about government, those concerning the relationship between government and non-government partners are underdeveloped.

Peters (1998) sees two contradictory forces pulling Western governments in different directions, when it comes to implementing 'whole of government' approaches. On the one hand, new public management reforms are pushing the centre of government to decentralise decision making. On the other hand, the centre is being called on to strengthen its capacity to coordinate policy development and implementation. Richards and Kavanagh (2000) argue that the managerial changes of the last few decades have worked against integrated approaches to policy and programs by limiting the capacity and incentives for collaboration, integration and coordination. Weller et al (1997) critique the capacity of central governments to take on a coherent coordinating role, as the capacity to maintain control is weakened, not necessarily from outside forces but from a 'hollowing out' from the core of executive government. Di Francesco (2001) also examined the 'hollowing out' or 'rise of the contract state' thesis, which is argued to have reduced the government's leverage over public policy because of escalating fragmentation and loss of expertise. There are also questions of whether whole of government management can be well established within the public sector. Spoul-Jones (2000) argues that current theoretical frameworks and management training programs cannot explain and prescribe this approach effectively. Multiple organisational arrangements feature different levels of interdependency, which require their own skill set. This is underdeveloped and not accounted for in current public administration literature and training.

The Blair government emphasised 'joined-up government' as an important element of its commitment to improve services to the public. British writers have analysed its progress. Ling (2002) argues that by the second term the Blair government no longer saw joined-up government as the only way to modernise government. There was more subdued language around viewing it as a way to provide 'quality services'. There was also little agreement on what was meant, resulting in a contestable and fluid situation. Flinders (2002) and Richards and Kavanagh (2000) conclude that joined-up policies and programs require a more deep-seated appraisal of the structure of Whitehall and the dominant values of the British political elite. The Blair government sees the biggest challenge to joined-up government as 'departmentalism'. However, it is argued by some analysts that politics is about power and winning and the Whitehall-Westminster system was designed to protect individual ministers. Accordingly, even if government set budgets and objectives which cross departments, cross-cutting work will be limited unless there is fundamental change to the budgetary and accountability systems (Flinders 2002; Richards and Kavanagh 2000). Numerous strategies to strengthen the centre and the role of the Prime Minister in leading joined-up initiatives were established. However, this relies on Prime Ministerial authority, rather than a broader institutional base and cultural values. If personnel or departmental interests change, it could fail (Richards and Kavanagh 2000).

1 The bibliography contains references to recent literature on whole of government (or horizontal) management. Abstracts of 25 key references are available on the APS Commission website under MAC publications

2 Mr Perri 6 is a well established British social scientist.