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Prerequisites for Cross-Sector Working

25 August 2015 at 11:33 am
Lina Caneva
Experts from Australia and New Zealand recently came together to investigate the prerequisites for working effectively across sector boundaries to find solutions to complex social policy problems, as co-convenors of the event, Dr John Butcher and Professor David Gilchrist explain.

Lina Caneva | 25 August 2015 at 11:33 am


Prerequisites for Cross-Sector Working
25 August 2015 at 11:33 am

Experts from Australia and New Zealand recently came together to investigate the prerequisites for working effectively across sector boundaries to find solutions to complex social policy problems, as co-convenors of the event, Dr John Butcher and Professor David Gilchrist explain.

Peter Shergold


On 13 August The Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and the Curtin Not-for-profit Initiative (Curtin University) brought together an esteemed panel of experts to focus on the impediments to – and the potential of – working effectively across sector boundaries to find solutions to complex social policy problems.


Held at the Australian National University, Cross-sector Working for Complex Problems: Beyond the Rhetoric provided an opportunity for an audience of 90 academics and policy professionals to engage with an expert panel about the practice of cross-sector engagement between government, the Not for Profit sector and businesses engaged in social purpose activities.

At a dinner event preceding the workshop the Director-General of the ACT Government’s Community Services Directorate, Natalie Howson, and the CEO of Northside Community Service Inc., Simon Rosenberg, offered valuable insights into the Territory’s long history of systemic and programmatic reform at the boundary between the public and Not for Profit sectors.

In her speech Howson emphasised the ACT Government’s intention to progressively withdraw from direct service provision in the community services space. This, she said, means that the ACT Government has a vested interest in engaging in a constructive, on-going conversation with the not-for-profit sector around issues of capacity, capability and sustainability. She offered examples of effective cross-sector working in areas such as out-of-home care and the reintegration of former prisoners and suggested that the ACT is in many ways ahead of the curve in this space. Howson also noted that the ACT’s territory-wide roll out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) will be the catalyst for generational sector-wide reform.

For his part Simon Rosenberg, who has held senior positions in government and the sector, spoke of the disconnect that sometimes plagues cross-sector relations and of the need for both sectors to acquire new skills and capabilities. He acknowledged that although the Not for Profit sector is a reservoir of knowledge and expertise, it is vulnerable to resource dependency and can sometimes be naïve in its understandings of government processes and the constraints within which public sector agencies are obliged to work.

The following day Professor Peter Shergold AC, Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, gave a spirited opening address in which he set out the challenges – and utter necessity – of more effective engagement between government and the Not for Profit sector. In so doing, Professor Shergold reflected on the lessons drawn from a distinguished career as a senior public servant and upon his later experiences advising the Western Australian and Victorian governments on more effective engagement across sector boundaries.

Shergold suggested that the potential for cross-sector working had been “sold short” and he offered a “heartfelt plea” for government that is “adaptive, flexible and experimental – driven by trials, subject to errors”.

“Cross-sector working has been marked by failure – failure of implementation, but much more important, failure of imagination and failure of nerve,” Shergold said.  

He ventured that “assessing risk and managing risk is part of what is necessary to be experimental and adaptive” adding “governments have to be willing to authorise and encourage public servants to embark on this journey”.

Paul Ronalds, Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children, gave the closing address. Ronalds’ impassioned speech drew heavily upon his experience as a not-for-profit senior executive and former First Assistant Secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet responsible for social inclusion and Not for Profit sector reform. According to Ronalds, a “risk averse, compliance-focused culture” fuels funding regimes that reinforce “a dauntingly fragmented system.”

Ronalds argued the need to “reform the governance of government”, but he also observed that “community groups are often not sufficiently economically literate and seldom do they engage with funders in an honest and robust way”.

Just as perverse incentives in government militate against effective responses to complex social problems, implicit incentives operating in the Not for Profit sector work to reinforce the status quo: “we know there are too many community organisations yet there are few real incentives for management and boards to negotiate mergers.”

These outstanding keynote addresses “bookended” a “bakers’ dozen” of experts handpicked to speak to four organising themes.

In the first theme, Cross-sector Working – The Rhetoric and the Reality, Professor Helen Dickinson, University of Melbourne, Professor David Gilchrist, Curtin University, and Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine, ACOSS, spoke to the need for new forms of governance and systemic change to support new ways of working. They also spoke to some of the cultural and attitudinal barriers to reform in both sectors, and in Australian political culture generally.

For the second theme, Three Sectors – Three Change Agendas, three speakers, Dr Leeora Black, Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, Krystian Seibert, Philanthropy Australia, and Professor Robyn Keast, Southern Cross University, addressed the need to create opportunities and incentives for innovation and social investment in the  Not for Profit and the corporate sectors. In part, this is about having the appropriate regulatory architecture. In part, it is about embedding a corporate culture that recognises the potential for returns on social investment. And, in part, it is about recognising and incentivising the kinds of behaviours that support collaboration.

The third theme, Great Expectations – Outcomes and Social Impact, brought together social impact analyst Emma Tomkinson, New Zealand Research Fellow Dr Rodney Scott and Dr Dale Tweedi, Macquarie University, to address the vexed issue of accountability for the realisation of outcomes. In the contemporary environment, accountability to taxpayers for funds spent on social programs is increasing concerned with showing tangible demonstrations of impact on behaviour and well-being.

The speakers acknowledged the past preoccupation with counting inputs and outputs, and of the potential to build perverse incentives into reporting regimes. The speakers acknowledged the difficulty of measuring impact and of convincing governments to accept a risk of failure. According to Rodney Scott, New Zealand has shown the way by boldly setting cross-portfolio outcome targets – thus reinforcing an earlier observation by Peter Shergold that not only does New Zealand consistently wallop Australia in Rugby Union, it also consistently out-performs Australia in public policy.

In the fourth and final theme, new tools for policy makers and practitioners, four speakers rounded out the day by talking about the transformative potential of bold policy innovation in addressing complex problems.

Dr Ann Nevile, ANU, addressed the question of whether government procurement strategies might be better designed to reflect the complex spaces in which policy implementation occurs. Cassandra Wilkinson offered insightful and provocative reflections on the potential of alliance contracting to deliver public goods and services that people actually want and need. Melina Morrison, Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals, mused about the potential for the cooperative movement to re-invent itself as a “go to” service provider of choice, while Dr Catherine Needham, University of Birmingham, drew important comparisons – and contrasts – between the practice of individualised budgets for social care in the UK and the emerging character of Australia’s NDIS.

The workshop is not the end of the story. As workshop convenors, we will curate the papers in an edited book for publication in early 2016 as part of the ANZSOG/ANU ePress Series. When published, the book will be available as a free download in formats appropriate to a range of devices.

The entire workshop was filmed, thanks to the generous assistance of the ACT Community Services Directorate, and in the next few weeks we hope to post the presentations online on the ANZSOG YouTube channel. Hopefully these materials will provide an enduring resource for those interested in this important area of public policy and serve as a teaser for the forthcoming book.

About the authors: Dr John Butcher is an ANZSOG Associate Researcher at the Australian National University, and Professor David Gilchrist, is Director the Curtin Not-for-profit initiative at Curtin University WA.

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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