Why public sector leaders need to give staff freedom to cross boundaries

Image focused on hands of people working on a plan
  • Published Date: 11 June 2019

By Professor Janine O’Flynn 

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Institute of Public Administration Australia (Victoria)’s new website ‘The Hub’

Across the world, there is ongoing talk about what the future of public sector work will look like, and what that will mean for the types of skills and competencies needed by public servants. And while we might be at the precipice of the fourth industrial revolution, with a real lack of clarity of what is to come, these sorts of questions are likely to endure.

The focus on being ‘fit-for-purpose’ invites questions about what our purpose is, the broader role of government, and what the future public service might look like. There is continued talk of the mix of technical and generalist skills, the need for a digital revolution, and a focus on the idea of ‘soft skills’ being critical (why we continue to call them ‘soft’ if they are so critical still eludes me). The mix, it seems, will matter. 

In a recent book, Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce,which brings together experts from practice and academic and from various parts of the world, editors Helen Dickinson, Catherine Needham, Catherine Mangan and Helen Sullivan take a deep dive into the future public service workforce. The big takeaway from this ground-breaking work is that our future workforce will need to cultivate new skills while nurturing the old, and that these will underpin new roles that will enable governments to deliver on their aspirations.

The old roles – experts, regulators, engagers and reticulists – will blend with new roles – commissioners, curators, foresighters and storytellers. This combination of new and old matters; developing the new but allowing the old to deteriorate would undermine our ability to get the work of government done.

The idea of ‘boundary spanners’ – those people and groups that navigate these boundaries – is critical to allow us to work more collaboratively, to join up within government and across sectors. But to date, governments have not really focused enough on how to support boundary spanners to work effectively.

Boundary spanners perform many roles as they move across boundaries. They transfer, filter and translate information, act as representatives of others in pursuing their interests, link groups together, broker and mediate, innovate and develop solutions to complex problems. To do all this, they need specific types of skills – interpersonal, cognitive, managerial, political and entrepreneurial Boundaries’ themselves are complicated and come in many forms – organisational, sectoral, knowledge, policy, group, cultures, jurisdictional, the list goes on.

With my colleagues Fiona Buick and Eleanor Malbon, we describe the various types of boundaries in Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce. We explore what sorts of boundaries are important, the driving imperatives for boundary-crossing work, and what organisations and leaders need to do to support this type of ‘boundary spanning’. And we make the important point that, in the end, all this talk about working across boundaries is actually all about people. 

At their best, boundary spanners make government tick, but the way we arrange government tends to make boundary spanning tough. There is plenty of research, and plenty of professional experience, that has shown us that boundary spanners often get their work done despite the system – and that, over time, many burn out from the constant pressure of having to move between different worlds.  If we want to be able to work more effectively across boundaries, we need to build the supporting architecture for this kind of work.

In our recent work on boundary spanning, we drew on decades of thinking in this area to sketch out some big lessons.

Four big lessons for change

Big Lesson 1: Focus on culture not structure

Boundaries change, morph and move over time, and big structural changes are fairly common, particularly when governments change. These disrupt boundaries and create new ones, transforming the public sector landscape. We spend too much time playing around with structures, and not enough cultivating the cultures that will support boundary spanning work.

To develop these cultures, we need to invest in developing the supporting architecture for boundary spanners, and focusing on how we should go about leading and managing to embed the behaviours and values that matter. This means thinking differently about how we do everything from job design to sharing authority, and developing budget and performance systems that can enable joining up across boundaries.

These factors influence culture in very important ways, telling us what organisations and leaders really think is important. If culture is ‘the way we do things around here’ then we need to make sure that we create environments that support this boundary spanning work where we want it. 

Our research has shown that formal structures tell only part of the story. Culture matters enormously in setting behaviours and encouraging, or discouraging, more collaborative work across various boundaries.

Big Lesson 2: Build, nurture and protect the supporting architecture for success

We know that embedded ways often work against boundary-spanning work. In many ways, boundary spanners become (positive) deviants in a world in which our systems are much more vertical and siloed. So, if we want them to flourish, and we need them to, we need to think differently about how to manage boundary spanners – and our human resource approaches need to match that. Our research found that we need to invest in their skills for joined-up working and provide plenty of opportunity for them to exercise these. We need to encourage peer learning and communities of practice that build recognition of these important roles and the unique skills that go with them. This means we need to move beyond telling people to work in this way to investing in their capability to do so. If we don’t then our experiments will continue to fail.

Big Lesson 3: Leadership sets the scene

More public sector leaders need to nurture these skills and help to build and develop their supporting architecture. Approaches to leading that emphasise trust, shared responsibility, inclusiveness, and high-quality communications clearly help to build relationships and organisational wins that promote success. Developing a clear purpose and ensuring that boundary spanners have the support of leaders in the organisation is critical to their success. On the other hand, talking about the importance of working across boundaries while creating and perpetuating environments that are hostile to it will undermine boundary-spanning practice and the achievement of more joined up approaches to government.

In other words, leaders need to work hard to reset authority and accountability lines to make sure that boundary spanners don’t end up in situations where they get stuck in the middle with pressure pulling them back into silos. In our research, we looked at experiments with joining up across government, we found these tensions made joining up hard to do in practice. Our fixation on programs, and the ways in which budgets and performance are tied so tightly to them, makes boundary spanning very hard work indeed. Leaders have important roles to play in rethinking budget models and connecting incentives to new ways of working. An important part of this will be in developing clear ‘rules of engagement’ for joined up approaches, which can help to develop the architecture needed for boundary spanners to shine. 

Big Lesson 4: Middle managers matter

Executive leaders may ultimately drive change, but middle managers hold the keys to individual employees’ ability to work across boundaries. Middle managers help to create the supporting architecture for success, and work with boundary spanners to develop the skills and relationships that enable these roles. This means investing in training and development and crafting appropriate performance plans and evaluation approaches. Our research showed that underinvesting in training and development constrained how much could be achieved through joining up.

Middle managers are often the organisational touchstone for boundary spanners; how they manage and empower individual employees really matters. Without the support of middle managers, boundary spanning efforts often fall over. Our research looked at attempts by government organisations to join up across boundaries, and we found it was very important for middle managers to be clear on lines of authority for those working across boundaries – and, even more so, to ensure that they have vertical and horizontal accountabilities. Asking people to work across boundaries while hardwiring vertical reporting lines makes the practice of boundary spanning extremely challenging. 

We also know that developing cultures that enable boundary spanners means giving permission to boundary spanners to act. Our research found that building trust is very important to successful boundary work. And an important part of that is ensuring that staff have the resources and responsibilities to get things done – and that managers reduce their tendency to control everything. If we want people to work differently, we need to support them to be able to do it and we need to resist the temptation to try and control everything. This, we know, stifles our ability to achieve the very outcomes we want from working across boundaries. Encouraging staff to challenge the status quo, for example, was key to successful joined up experiments we saw in practice. This is a broader cultural value that many are advocating as critical to the next generation of government – #NextGenGov is a great example showcasing this in practice. 

Boundary spanners work across a multitude of boundaries and navigate pretty complex terrain to join up various parts of the puzzle we need to get the work of government done. Mostly we create hostile environments for this activity rather than building the supporting architecture for its success. To realise the true potential of more collaborative, joined-up ways of working we can’t rely on individuals who have the fortitude, patience and stamina to keep going despite the system. We need to build it for them.

Janine O’Flynn is Professor of Public Management at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and the University of Melbourne, and is a Fellow of IPAA Victoria. Follow her on Twitter @JanineOFlynn. Professor O’Flynn leads the Delivering Public Value subject in ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA). Applications for the 2020 EMPA are now open. Find out more at the EMPA page.