Becoming a boundary spanning public servant

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  • Published Date: 06 October 2020

Cross-boundary collaborations are a key feature of today’s public sector. Public servants are increasingly expected to work in ways that cut across vertical silos and organisational boundaries to tackle complex problems and deliver value. But what competencies do public servants need to work across boundaries and can they be trained?

At a glance

A chapter in The Palgrave Handbook of the Public Servant discusses the skills and capabilities a public servant needs to become an effective boundary spanner. A boundary spanner works across organisational and sectoral boundaries to broker relationships and facilitate collaboration. Three clusters of competencies are identified:

  • cognitive
  • social
  • emotional.

These competencies can be developed either through formal education and training, on the job, or through experiential programs involving role plays and simulations.

Defining boundary spanners

Coordination and collaboration across boundaries have been key challenges for public sector organisations. These boundaries can be organisational, sectoral, professional or policy-related.

Boundary spanners are people who:

  • pro-actively scan the organisational environment
  • work to collect information and gain support across organisational boundaries
  • disseminate information and coordinate activities between their ‘home’ organisation and its environment
  • connect processes and actors across these boundaries.

Types of boundary spanning

There are four types of boundary spanning activities:

1. Information collection and knowledge exchange

Boundary spanners know where to collect information, how to attain that information and who needs to be made aware it. They also mediate the information flow across boundaries, which can involve information translation and sense-making.

2. Relational activities

This aspect of boundary spanning focusses on networking and relationships, both formal and informal. Boundary spanners build and maintain internal and external networks, which enables them to connect actors and processes across boundaries.

3. Coordinating and negotiating with internal and external actors

Another part of the work of boundary spanners is to coordinate, align and negotiate with other actors. This is both within their organisation and the broader external environment (stakeholders, partners, customers and clients).

4. Mediation and facilitating cooperation

In cross-boundary interactions, boundary spanners are confronted with different interests. In facilitating cooperation, boundary spanners often must mediate between these interests and are skilled in bringing unlikely partners together.

Boundary spanning competencies

A competent boundary spanner is effective in making cross-boundary connections, relationships and mediation of cross-boundary interactions. Three clusters of competencies are needed:

  • cognitive: information processing, content expertise, analytical thinking.
  • social: communication, political savvy, conflict resolution.
  • emotional: empathy, self-awareness, self-confidence.

Cognitive competencies

To scan the environment and deal with environmental uncertainty and complexity, boundary spanners need information processing and analytical thinking competencies. Boundary spanners are sensitive to salient information and must figure out what are important issues and what they mean for the organisation. Boundary spanners need some content expertise and cognitive capacities to critically assess this information.

Social competencies

Boundary spanners are politically savvy. They have an awareness of organisational processes and the political nature of decision-making. They also understand organisational climate and culture. They need conflict management skills as they often deal with contrasting demands of internal and external stakeholders. Being able to communicate effectively is essential for a boundary spanner, to be able to transfer and translate information across boundaries.

Emotional competencies

Empathy and otherness are typical characteristics of boundary spanners. Empathy includes both cognitive and emotional attributes. It involves a cognitive process of understanding (rather than feeling) the perspective, experience and concerns of other people. It also involves an emotional reaction to the observed experiences of others.

Self-awareness is an emotional intelligence competency for boundary spanners. Self-awareness refers to a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths and weaknesses, needs and drives. It also includes knowing one’s sources of frustration and reactions to problems.

Can boundary spanning competencies be trained?

Boundary spanning work is challenging and involves cognitive, social, and emotional competencies. It poses the question whether boundary spanners are “born or bred” as several of the identified cognitive, social, and emotional competencies are not easily learned.

Research suggests that social-emotional intelligence competencies are not set at birth but can be developed through training and education. Even a complex emotional competence such as empathy can be developed to some extent. All competencies need time and experience to develop. This could be through job experience by working in boundary spanning functions. Experience can enhance boundary spanning competencies such as conflict management and organisational awareness. Other competencies such as communication can be trained or developed more specifically.

What this means

Becoming a competent boundary spanning public servant means having or developing various cognitive, social and emotional competencies. These three types of competencies need their own specific education, training and development programs.

The cognitive part implies that (future) public servants learn the essentials in their domain, (e.g. health, sustainability and economics). Boundary spanners do not necessarily need to be experts, but they need to understand the content in their field. This cognitive ability stretches further and deals with other related fields of expertise. The boundary spanner is a generalist with an interest and education in interdisciplinary work.

Experiential training methods can develop emotional competencies through role-plays and simulations. Research has shown that “turning table games” have impact on sympathy, empathy and willingness to help people. In these role-plays, public servants take on the role of a stakeholder or member of the public.

Training and educational programs need to systematically address cognitive, social, and emotional competencies. As these different types of competencies are also related, there is an argument to developing these competencies alongside each other and not in isolated programs.

Want to read more?

Becoming a competent boundary spanning public servant - Ingmar van Meerkerk and Jurian Edelenbos in The Palgrave Handbook of the Public Servant, 2019

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