• Opinion
  • September 9, 2019
  • 12 minutes
  • 2

Here are the 7 skills you need to collaborate in government

Opinion: If you can bridge the gap in government silos, you might be a boundary spanner

This opinion article was written by Thea Snow, Senior Programme Manager for Government Innovation at Nesta. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed. 


Twenty years ago, it might have been novel to begin an article by arguing that traditional bureaucratic structures are not well-designed to solve complex social challenges.

The suggestion that wicked problems would be better tackled if government departments joined-up to bring cross-departmental expertise to the table may have felt innovative. And the idea that governments might benefit from working with partners beyond the public sector to solve social challenges may have stopped readers in their tracks.

But we’ve all read this now. Many times. That’s not the interesting part of this story anymore.

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What is interesting is that while the case for joined-up-government and cross-sectoral partnerships appears to have been convincingly made, the question of how to make this happen effectively still looms large.

Many articles and studies focus on the institutional barriers which make it hard for governments to work collaboratively. However, while this is certainly important, this article focuses on a piece of the puzzle that is often neglected; that is, the role of individuals in supporting collaboration to succeed.

As Paul Williams, professor at the National Centre for Public Policy in Wales, who has written extensively on this topic, writes “[the] fixation at the organizational and inter-organizational domain levels understates and neglects the pivotal contribution of individual actors in the collaborative process.”

Boundary Spanners

The individuals who play a pivotal role in supporting effective collaborations are known in the academic literature as “boundary spanners”. They are described as individuals who “seek to facilitate communication across organizational and sectoral boundaries and build trust, empathy and mutual understanding among actors with different backgrounds, vocabularies and interests.”

There are two types of boundary spanner:

  • Dedicated boundary spanners: those whose core function involves the coordination and facilitation of collaboration between a diverse set of parties, for example, community safety officers.
  • Incidental boundary spanners: those working in standard public sector jobs who, because of the complexity of social challenges, are involved in cross-boundary working as an incidental, but integral, part of their job.

What does it take to be a boundary spanner?

While the distinction between dedicated and incidental boundary spanners may seem neat, the key skills needed to support effective collaboration are the same, regardless of which category you sit in.

Based on a review of the literature on this topic, there are seven key skills needed to be an effective boundary spanner. These are:

1. Relationship building

Effective boundary spanners need to be able to build authentic and sustainable relationships with a diverse range of actors.

These relationships need to be based on trust and mutual respect and they need to feel more personal than business-like. As Paul Williams explains, “there is a general view that the ‘real’ business of partnership work is effected within the framework of… personal exchanges. It is where difficulties are shared, aims agreed, problems sorted out, deals struck and promises made – all out of the public gaze.”

This ability to build and nurture relationships is a difficult thing to learn. People who are good at building relationships tend to possess certain personal attributes such as being extroverted, honest, open and sociable. This highlights that while there are elements to being a good boundary spanner which be learned, there are other aspects which appear to be more innate.

2. Communication skills

Good boundary spanners are good communicators.

Boundary spanners need to be able to listen, filter, and translate information across parties who are not used to working together.

Collaboration often fails because organisations often have different priorities and values; sometimes it even feels that they speak different languages! These differences can lead to misunderstandings and conflict.

A key feature of boundary spanning is the ability to understand these differences, and support parties to navigate their way through using shared language and by communicating openly, clearly and constructively about points of tension or difference.

3. Chutzpah

Effective boundary spanners need chutzpah. They need to be willing to challenge the rules and navigate red tape, which so often holds people back from successful collaborations.

Bureaucracies have not been designed to support collaborative processes; they tend to inhibit, rather than encourage, cross-government and cross-sectoral collaboration.  Boundary spanners need to treat the formal structures which inhibit collaboration as obstacles to work through or around, rather than as hard and rigid barriers.

To do this, boundary spanners need to challenge the status quo and even bend the rules where it’s required – boundary spanners need to live by the adage “proceed until apprehended.”

4. Empathy

Boundary spanners need to be empathetic. They need to be able to stand in the shoes of others, understand different viewpoints, and then help others involved in the partnership to do the same.

Empathy goes beyond listening and extends to an imagining of what it feels like to be someone else. Boundary spanners who are able to encourage those involved in collaborative partnerships to empathise with partners are far more likely to succeed in navigating points of difference or disagreement.

5. Creativity

Boundary spanners need to think creatively. Building on the element of “chutzpah” mentioned above, boundary spanners need to embrace new ideas and lateral thinking. As Williams explains, successful boundary spanning requires “unlearning of professional and organisational conventions and norms.”

Boundary spanners are often working to bring unlikely partners together to find new solutions to old problems. This requires open-mindedness, creativity, opportunism and innovation.

6. Diplomacy

Boundary spanners need to be diplomats; a significant part of their role is mediating between parties. Boundary spanners need to be comfortable managing negotiations, brokering bargains, and managing and harnessing the “constructive friction” that emerges when actors from different sectors work together.

To do this, boundary spanners need to be seen to be neutral and objective; they cannot be seen to be pushing a particular agenda.

7. Ability to manage complexity

Boundary spanners need to be comfortable navigating complexity. This is because collaborative projects are, by their very nature, complex. A study by Williams identifies that the skills necessary to manage these kinds of complex projects are: analytical skills, critical thinking and whole-systems thinking.

Barriers to boundary spanning

While the elements above focus on what makes effective boundary spanning possible, there are also some key barriers which are important to acknowledge.

Firstly, and as touched upon above, there appear to be some boundary-spanning skills which are more innate than learned. Williams suggests that these are: being extroverted, honest, respectful, trusting, open, sociable and persistent, having an inviting personality and being sensitive. For some lucky people, this all comes very naturally; for many others, not so much.

Happily, there are many boundary-spanning skills can be developed through training. For example, there are courses available on negotiation and mediation, as well as courses designed to teach people the skills of joined-up working.

Beyond training, people who have worked across a variety of sectors and roles tend to find boundary spanning more natural. Having a breadth of experience makes it easier to connect with different kinds of stakeholders and understand their motivations and mindsets.

In addition, while I’ve chosen not to focus on institutional barriers to collaboration in this article, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the significant organisational challenges that boundary spanners must contend with. As professor Janine O’Flynn explains, “asking people to work across boundaries while hardwiring vertical reporting lines makes the practice of boundary spanning extremely challenging”.

Finally, culture also matters. Cultures characterised by turf-protection and hierarchy tend to inhibit collaborative work. For boundary spanners to succeed, leadership at all levels need to work at creating a culture which supports, rather than hinders, their efforts.

We can all be boundary spanners

A closing message to those who are passionate about using collaboration to address complex challenges is that the role that individuals (you!) play in supporting collaboration to succeed is critical. While institutional architecture and culture certainly play a role in supporting cross-government and cross-sectoral collaboration, it simply could not happen without passionate and creative boundary spanners driving the work forward.

In a world where problems are only getting more complex, boundary spanners will become more sought after. Hopefully this article has helped to identify the boundary-spanner in you. — Thea Snow

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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