Some Practical Thoughts on Working Across Boundaries

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The notion of working across boundaries attracts both practical interest from people in government, and theoretical interest from scholars. Much emphasis has been placed on notions of inter-organisational, inter-jurisdictional and inter-sectoral working, and a range of terms have emerged to capture this phenomenon: horizontal coordination, joined-up government, collaboration, whole-of-government, holistic government, collaborative governance and so on. However, there is a core element to all these terms – the notion that we must traverse boundaries to achieve goals.Most of the new ideas about public management which have emerged over the last decade or so have put the notion of working across boundaries front-and-centre. Indeed, Kelman (2007) has argued that the topics of collaboration across government agencies and between government, private and non-government organizations are the 'most-discussed questions involving the performance of public institutions and achievement of public purposes' (p.45).In this paper we provide an overview of the literature on working across boundaries to help answer two key questions: First, why has this notion emerged? Second, what are the critical enablers and barriers which help us to understand how this works (or not)?

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... ' When we restructure, we dissolve some boundaries but inevitably create new ones -not just structurally, but also symbolically and culturally. 4,13 It is important to realise that attempts to 'disrupt the natural order' may not result in collaboration and unification as hoped, but can also generate coercive or even corrosive pressures. 4,14,15 These often emerge from the relationships between formal institutions (the departments, groups, or processes) we put in place, and informal institutions (the actions and patterning of behaviour of individuals embedded in formal institutions). ...
In their responses to ‘Understanding the role of public administration in implementing action on the social determinants of health and health inequities,’ authors Clavier, Breton, O’Flynn and De Leeuw raise a range of additional insights from public administration and the frontline of public health policy advocacy. These include the importance of ideas and ideation processes, structural changes to policy administration and the creation of boundaries and the prominent but potentially limited initiative Health in All Policies (HiAP). When we put these together, an important confluence of ideas emerges that speak to contemporary public health challenges. In my response, I use HiAP as an anchor by which to interrogate how these insights might come together to focus our research and action agenda.
It is well established in the public management literature that boundary spanners – people or groups that work across departments or sectors – are critical to the success of whole of government and joined-up working. In studying recent unprecedented change to central government agencies in the Australian context, our research identified that intra-departmental boundary spanners also play a critical role in the functioning of government departments, particularly during restructuring. Although most contemporary literature in public management concentrates on boundaries across formal organisational entities (departments, agencies, sectors), boundaries also exist within departments. Our research has found that without dedicated intra-departmental boundary spanners, significant role confusion and dysfunctional practices arise. In turn, this has serious implications for the quality of policy advice given to Cabinet. Further research needs to be undertaken into both the role of intra-departmental boundary spanners and how to nurture and manage the practice of intra-departmental boundary spanners. This is especially the case if changes in Australia represent a fundamental shift more broadly in the way central government agencies operate.
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