Working across boundariesPublic service organisations have been changing from a hierarchical structure to a network structure.
It is evident that there is a significant lack of coordination between government agencies in development work. We have seen the coordination gap between the Roads Department and the Melamchi Water Supply Project in the process of laying pipes in Kathmandu. As a consequence, residents suffered from excessive dust and dirt for a long period. There is lack of coordination between the Forest and Tourism ministries regarding cutting trees for constructing Nijgadh airport. In the same way, public institutions, donor agencies, social organisations and private sector organisations are not able to synchronise their activities, resulting in project delays and an unsatisfactory outcome. We have witnessed repeatedly how government agencies do the same thing perennially due to a lack of coordination which leads to a waste of taxpayer money.
Nepal is facing complex and intractable social issues, and the combined efforts of governmental, non-governmental and private organisations are needed to address them. The government is facing challenges to deal with issues such as poverty, climate change, mental health and suicide, racial tension, woman trafficking, drug trafficking, untouchability, dowry and other social disorders. These problems generally share a range of characteristics: They are difficult to define, they have many interdependencies, and there is disagreement over the causes and the best way to tackle them. These highly complex policy problems are often intractable policy problems, and are sometimes called ‘wicked’ problems in political science. The term wicked is often used to denote the issue’s complexity and its resistance to finding a solution.
Renovating hierarchical structures
Working across boundaries has become one of the most discussed topics in the field of public administration, among both practitioners and academia, especially for solving complex issues. Most of the ideas that emerged in the modern era including the new public management concept and the public value concept put emphasis on collaboration between government, non-government and private organisations. In fact, boundaries are the essence of any organisation, and they are the central phenomenon for the concept of collaborative approach. Collaboration is now central to the way in which public policy is made, managed and delivered.
Successful implementation of public policy relies greatly on effective cross-boundary work. Various terms have emerged to explain the collaborations—horizontal coordination, joined-up government collaboration, whole-of-government, holistic government, collaborative governance and so on. There are other forms of collaborations in the name of community-led initiatives, contracts, inter-organisational cooperation, joint ventures, partnerships, policy networks, principal-agent relationships, public-private partnerships, relational contracting, social networks, strategic alliances and voluntary sector compacts.
Over the past two decades, we have witnessed a shift in the structure of public service organisations from a hierarchical structure to a network structure all over the world, especially in the developed countries. It is apparent that changing into a network from a hierarchy is for making better collaborative efforts and working effectively across boundaries. Wicked problems are multi-causal in nature and go beyond the scope of one organisation or agency. Academia and practitioners have been continuously attempting to find possible enablers and barriers for working across boundaries. Janine O’Flynn, a professor at Australian National University, has suggested seven enablers and barriers which are relevant in our context too. Nepal needs to improve the following factors for effective collaboration.
First, there should be a collaboration-friendly formal structure. Traditionally, Nepal has a hierarchical structure of public institutions; and it might be a good time to renovate the structure into networks or other collaboration-friendly structures as the country is adjusting the structures for the implementation of federalism. Although there is no organisational design that can completely dissolve the boundaries, creating appropriate structures can bring about more effective cross-boundary work.
Second, the people involved in collaboration should be competent. There are some characteristics and skill sets needed for effective cross-boundary work; and participating organisations should possess human resources having such skills and characteristics. The government should invest more or implement more result-oriented programmes for enhancing the capacity of its human resources.
Third, understanding the organisational culture is very important. Government organisations, social organisations, private institutions and donor agencies all have their own organisational cultures and values. In fact, every organisation has a distinct organisational culture. Therefore, understanding and maintaining the minimum required alignment with the cultures of the participating organisations and people is crucial.
Fourth, the leadership. Leaders should be flexible enough to leverage resources, provide the operating force and coordinate among stakeholders. Fifth, power and politics. Power and politics should be focused on facilitation, negotiation and persuasion; but the approaches should be cooperative. Sixth, performance, accountability and budgets. Performance management is important because most of the cross-boundary work is related to outcomes. There should be clarity of accountability and assurance of adequate budget for effectively working across boundaries.
Commonality and complexity
Finally, commonality and complexity of the issue is also very important. The issue should be complex enough for collaborative efforts as putting efforts into simple tasks will be a costly and time-wasting exercise. Further, the participating agencies should have common values and common understanding of the issues and the outcomes they desire to achieve.
There are various factors affecting the results of cross-boundary efforts; and they can be on a personal, organisational or external environmental level. Managing such factors effectively leads to effective collaboration which produces the desired results and vice versa. Upon effective implementation, they are the powerful enablers for collaboration; and if not implemented well, they may create a chaotic situation and the resources expended will not produce the desired results. There is no proven way to address complex and intractable wicked problems, but there is empirical evidence demonstrating that collaborative efforts are the best way to deal with such issues.
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