BY CARSTEN HORNSTRUP & JACOB STROCH
Municipal managers and cross-organizational efforts – an interview study
The national government of Denmark and Danish municipalities are focusing intensively on ways of improving the quality and effectiveness of cross-organizational efforts. And with good reason. The well-established tradition of building highly specialized units, combined with classic bureaucratic characteristics and management measures – an approach known as New Public Management – has resulted in public organizations with highly specialized silos and major challenges when it comes to cross-organizational collaboration between these respective bureaucracies.
Particularly when dealing with the most complex and challenging tasks, it takes a strong interdisciplinary approach and a much more dynamic and holistic understanding of the tasks within each specialized field of work. In the efforts to coordinate services for vulnerable families and individuals with numerous points of contact in the municipal system, strong cross-organizational coordination is essential to ensuring professional quality, the citizen’s experience of a coherent municipal effort, and the effective performance of tasks.
Local Government Denmark – the organization of Danish municipalities – has put cross-organizational approaches to municipal efforts for vulnerable children, families and adults on the agenda. In extension of this focus, we conducted a study among municipal managers regarding their experiences in efforts to ensure strong cross-organizational collaboration.
Working with my colleagues, I have conducted more than 40 interviews in recent months with municipal managers, consisting primarily of managers working in the following areas: Child Services, Social & Psychiatric Services, and Employment Services. In these interviews, we examine the managers’ views on challenges relating to cross-organizational efforts. We have focused on the extent to which they find working on cross-organizational efforts to be an important and high-priority challenge, and more specifically about how they and their municipal colleagues are working to tackle these challenges.
Our interest in this subject stems from our own research (Hornstrup 2015) and our participation in numerous development projects in Danish municipalities (Hornstrup & Madsen 2015, Storch & Hornstrup 2017). We have found that it is not only a very important subject for many municipalities, but also for the many citizens on the receiving end of municipal services. For example, Local Government Denmark has prioritized cross-organizational efforts as one of the five most important focus areas (KL 2016). And the Danish Government’s Coordination Reform (Danish Ministry of Finance 2017) has reinforced this focus in all areas of the public sector.
Danish and international research indicates something can be gained by developing better cooperation in the provision of complex welfare services (Lundstrøm et.al. 2014, Hornstrup & Madsen 2015, Gittell 2016). Research and development pertaining to relational coordination (see, among others, Lundstrøm et.al. 2014, Hornstrup & Madsen 2015, Gittell 2016) have demonstrated a close correlation between the quality of cooperation among staff in different professional fields and departments, and the efficiency and quality of task performance.
The interviews were conducted between April 1, 2017 and August 31, 2017 in the form of semi-structured interviews based on the following question guide:
1. To what extent do you find that cross-organizational efforts (efforts involving multiple functions and departments to perform complex citizen-oriented tasks) is a high priority in your department and in your municipality?
2. What are your three most significant challenges in relation to cross-organizational efforts?
3. What concrete initiatives in relation to cross-organizational efforts are currently underway?
4. What are the concrete effects of these initiatives?
The findings show a high degree of uniformity in their description of the challenges, as well as great differences in their description of solutions and initiatives.
Almost every manager describes the challenge of working in an organization divided into separate areas of specialization, each with its own budget and goals. Many also describe challenges that are largely rooted in management, as managers often find it difficult to think in terms of “our citizens, our finances and our efforts”, focusing instead on their own resources, etc. The following quote by one of the study participants reflects a common sentiment about the financial and managerial challenge:
“Finances are difficult – staff want to cooperate across departments, but the managers are all schooled to reduce spending, stay on budget, and meet service levels. This leads to sub-optimization and solutions that are not co-created or coordinated.” Head of Disabled Services and Psychiatry
Almost all of the participants mention structural challenges. They describe how an organization divided into specialized silos tends to promote existing solutions and stands in the way of cross-organizational development. It appears that a combination of “Old Public Management” – the division of an organization into functions that dates back to the origins of organizational and managerial theory – and the New Public Management wave, with its focus on optimization through target management, creates inexpediencies that are difficult to address.
Many managers point specifically to the structural dimension of the problem:
“The structures might actually be what are getting in the way. We’re good at operations, but maybe we’re not all that good at incorporating development and new solutions, relations and approaches. And that probably gets in the way of cross-organizational coordination, as we resort to the existing and ‘old’ solutions. It’s probably a cultural issue.” Head of Social and Elderly Services
These structural challenges have direct consequences on task performance, in the form of inadequate coordination and cohesiveness of efforts. In the view of many managers, a narrow departmental mindset limits focus on the overall task:
“We lack a common mindset – a common understanding of the task (core task) and approach – familiarity across the organization. Knowledge of each other and each other’s skills and specialties. We’re experts in our own areas, but we don’t know enough about the others.” Head of Child and Family Services
In addition to the lack of coordination in citizen-oriented services, there are also many negative consequences within organizations:
“When there is pressure on the resources of the organization, it reinforces negative patterns and the blinders go up in the respective departments.” Head of Child and Family Services
Another interviewee described it as follows:
“In the culture of our organization, we tend to pass the buck. Perhaps we even spend too much time pointing fingers at each other.” Head of Child and Family Services
These descriptions are in line with our experiences from working with a large number of municipalities. The old and familiar silos, reinforced by target management within each silo, fosters an inherent approach that makes management of complex, cross-organizational tasks a major challenge. As a result, these municipalities lack a coherence in their citizen- and business-oriented services that is to be expected from a modern public sector organization. Another issue caused by organizational introversion is that the silos and local target management reduce or obfuscate the complexity of tasks to be performed by municipal staff, which ultimately shifts this complexity onto the shoulders of citizens who already have difficulty navigating in life.
Initiatives and opportunities
Now that we have painted a rather bleak picture of the general state of affairs in municipal organizations, it is important to also stress that almost all of the managers we spoke with expressed a great desire to help solve these problems – and in many cases they had already launched initiatives with this aim. However, while the challenges were largely described using similar words and examples, the efforts to create solutions and results lack a common thread. Below we outline some of the more general trends seen in these initiatives, and we describe what we have chosen to call “promising practices”. These examples have already shown results and should be transferable to other areas of the public sector. These examples are also in line with a new management paradigm for the public sector – New Public Governance (NPG) – which can be seen as a potential successor or supplement to New Public Management (NPM). NPG is characterized by its emphasis on prioritizing dialogue-based management approaches to cross-organizational processes and cross-organizational cooperation, combined with the courage to move in new directions (Bøgh Andersen et. al. 2017).
Many interview subjects spoke of structural measures involving organizational changes, e.g. establishing an early intervention team to improve the handling of the most complex family cases; changing job and collaboration descriptions to improve management of tasks involving two or more departments; establishing new coordinating functions; or hiring a manager, department head or director with special responsibility for cross-organizational efforts. We do not see any evidence from the interviews or our research that indicates these structural measures themselves make a difference. As a Head of Social and Family Services put it:
“When we change the structures, it often creates coherence in one part of the organization and a disconnect somewhere else. And the challenges tend to find a way to fall through the cracks that are always inherent in the structures.”
Many interview subjects also speak of joint development and training processes with a focus on creating common goals, building a mutual understanding and ability to handle the most complex tasks, equipping participants with new tools, or simply increasing familiarity with other parts of the municipal organization.
“We do a lot of work with co-creation – a cultural and skills development process, including a course for all municipal employees. The process also involves Relational Coordination and Strategic Relational Management.” Head of Child and Family Services
However, due to the major differences in this group of initiatives, it is difficult to conclude anything beyond ascertaining that mutual familiarity in the municipal organization is viewed as a key factor for stronger coordination.
From authoritative to empowering
A couple of managers mention what they describe as a shift from being authoritative to empowering. Whereas cases were previously processed internally by a bureaucratic unit that made decisions based on input from relevant participants, the exercise of public authority has now been moved as close as possible to citizens and staff working on the ground:
“We have worked actively with a new mindset in our approach. The focus is on the local environment and a knowledge-based approach. A common mindset with a focus on common goals and a focus on decentralizing investigations and decisions in the organization so that the administrative and caseworker functions collaborate and utilize everyone’s knowledge. One specific outcome of the new approach can be seen in child foster care services. We now place fewer children in foster care, and they are placed closer to their original homes. This also means that we have fewer children placed in 24-hour care centers.” Head of Child Services and Education
This approach is typically combined with a reduction in the number of cases assigned to each caseworker and an increase in the number of caseworkers.
Common budgetary framework
Some managers also describe a solution that aims to dissolve silos and financial incentives at the department level, which often impede cross-organizational cooperation. These more fundamental changes are also tied to defined goals, e.g. improved citizen satisfaction or fewer placements in foster care. Although two examples is not many, we see them as examples of promising practices that should be studied further.
One manager describes the initiative as follows:
“We’ve been working for a couple of years now to break down the silos and build bridges throughout the organization – and, with luck and ingenuity, we have succeeded. Formal structures and incentives have been coordinated and we have designed a financial structure that supports a holistic approach to our work. This has improved citizen satisfaction. We have spoken with the citizens. They find that we have a coordinated plan and single point of contact to the entire municipal organization. They also say that, unlike in the past, they can now keep track of and understand their cases.” Head of Child and Family Services
Another manager said:
“We’ve gone from the traditional function of an authority to viewing assessment as a process of defining the problem. We assess cases collaboratively, in part by having replaced a strict division of functions to a common focus on our tasks. We have also adopted framework management, where we have a common financial framework for performing the tasks. And we have invested in more staff – administrators, health visitor services, pedagogical/psychological counseling, and family services – using the money saved when we reduced the number of children placed outside the home. We now only have seven children in foster care compared to a previous figure of around 50.” Head of Social and Family Services
Relational key figures
A small group of managers took an analytic approach to their cross-organizational efforts by working with relational management and relational coordination. Many of them describe how relational analyses that quantify specific coordination-related challenges, combined with a common theoretical and practical basis, have helped to improve municipal efforts in those areas with the greatest challenges.
“The analysis helps to make cooperation the primary focus. Shared leadership and self-directed teams require something different, and perhaps much more, of us than simply managing. This is about leadership, not control. If you have an overview, you can also identify where things are not working. Visibility enables us to make the right decisions. It is a helpful tool for ensuring we set our priorities correctly.” Head of Social and Family Services
Adding to the above, another manager points to synthesis of dialogue-based management and more stringent analytics-based management. Although they appear to be contradictory approaches, this manager explains how they can prove invaluable to one another:
“It provides some numbers and illustrates the impact. Now we have a measurement that shows something, and we have a tool for dialogue. If I go to a school administrator with an issue, I can provide evidence that the issue exists. Suddenly it becomes easier to talk about the challenges on an organizational rather than personal level. It opens our eyes: ‘Wait, why do we think that we have strong cooperation when the others don’t think so?’ It takes a qualitative issue and adds some quantitative data. Now we have numbers, legitimacy and visibility. Relational organizational challenges can then be addressed and rectified.” Director of Child Services
One last group of initiatives has to do with how management is practiced. A couple of the managers describe an approach in which they work to break down organizational silos by leading the way and actively participate in other managers’ areas of responsibility and managerial practices:
“At the managerial level, we give short presentations and talks for one another. I get around a lot in our organization. It’s about being visible throughout the organization and building bridges, and about ensuring that staff know who we are, what we can do, what we need, and how we can be used. In other words, it makes the framework for cooperation much clearer.” Head of Child and Family Services
We see these examples as being very effective in a number of the municipalities we work with. The managers also describe it as a desire to actively lead the way in the creation of a culture where cross-organizational cooperation is natural.
Others describe management in the areas in between silos as a matter of not shying away from conflict. Many factors come into play when crossing the boundaries of departments and areas of specialization, including: expert knowledge, professional status, financial considerations, legal considerations, and sometimes also political considerations. All of these factors can be a source of conflict:
“Professional or behavioral conflicts must be confronted – not in a confrontational way, but specifically and directly. It hasn’t been easy, but we do this and we practice cooperating to find solutions.” Head of Child Services
Closer to citizens
There are also many promising approaches to cooperation with citizens. One municipality has structured their building permit casework so that citizens can book a meeting with a caseworker in connection with the construction of a new house, carport, etc. This replaces the old model, where long forms had to be completed, sometimes followed by long written rejections and subsequent appeals processes. Now, most issues are quickly resolved up front through this cooperative and efficient approach. The new social agenda also aims to empower citizens where relevant and sensible.
Another municipality is attempting to solve the challenges with agility, using staff on the ground who have the greatest direct insight into the cases and citizens. By pooling expertise around a number of important challenges, this municipality is now able to immediately process and resolve more than 60% of cases. For citizens, this translates to faster and more efficient handling of challenges, while preventing many complicated and prolonged cases before they even start. In addition to solving problems faster and more effectively, this also helps ensure that challenges are addressed by staff who are as close to citizens on the ground as possible:
“We also try to push discussions and challenges downward through the organization when they arise. For example, the caseworker in question might simply pick up the phone and call the caseworker in another department. We have these discussions as close to the citizens as possible so that they don’t escalate – and management clearly encourages and welcomes staff to work directly across departments when the situation calls for it.” Head of Employment Services
Many managers say that new solutions are best created through strong collaborative efforts:
“The relational component is the most important thing. Being good at talking with each other. It’s good and fine to have procedures and rules, but the ability to understand each other and communicate is vital to create a coherent organization, as many public services are becoming more complex and specialized.” Head of Employment Services
Many municipalities are conducting internal coordination meetings before inviting citizens to the table to ensure consistent communication to the citizen from the different municipal departments. A number of managers say that this also reduces the overall time expenditures and the frequency of appeals/complaints. Many also strive to maintain a focus on optimizing cooperation with citizens:
“Relational coordination is important for those who think: ‘Why do we even need a municipal system?’ If we can’t properly deliver welfare services, then we lose all relevance.
We are also working on improving our presence in meetings and on the way we shift between taking a primary or secondary role. But at the same time, we have been trained to interpret the law narrowly rather than expansively. There is great potential in taking a coordinated and collaborative approach to our work.” Head of Employment Services
As illustrated in this article, the interviews point to clear signs when it comes to the challenges but not the solutions. The latter may be due to a difference in the local cultures, as well as managerial and political ambitions, but it may also reflect the fact that this is a very complex process without simple solutions. We also see a direct correlation between the municipalities that have made the most progress towards new solutions and those with the greatest recognition of the potential benefits of improved cross-organizational cooperation. As a Head of Employment Services put it: “The gold is waiting to be found in the cracks between the silos.” We also see that those making the most progress are adopting a more systematic and focused approach to cross-organizational efforts.
We continue to examine and identify new solutions to complex challenges, including ongoing collection of inspiration and knowledge from municipal managers – and we will continue to share the knowledge and results arising from these efforts.
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Kommunernes Landsforening (2017): Bedre tværgående samarbejde om ydelser og indsats [Better cross-organizational cooperation on services and efforts].
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Relational Coordination and Organisational Social Capital Association with Characteristics of General Practice. International Journal of Family Medicine.
Storch, J & Hornstrup C. (2017): Relationel koordinering 2.0 – erfaringer fra danske kommuner [Relational coordination 2.0 – experiences from Danish municipalities].
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