Collaboration and Public Services Improvement

Governments across the world have adopted collaborative approaches to managing public services in a bid to tackle wicked issues, improve services and contain costs. Collaboration has particular prominence in Wales where it has been at the heart of the Welsh Government’s overarching framework for public service reform. Some question, however: if it is right to give collaboration so much emphasis; whether local government has embraced the agenda with sufficient urgency; and if the results justify the investment of time, money and effort involved?

This note focuses on the evidence about three key aspects of collaboration:

  • Why collaborate?
  • When to collaborate – in which services does collaboration offer the greatest gains?
  • How to collaborate – how can collaboration be managed in order to improve services?

It highlights three key lessons from research evidence. First, aside from informal networking to improve the circulation of knowledge, partnerships offer two main benefits:

  • Unlocking economies of scope between different but complementary services (like health and social care)
  • Delivering economies of scale between the same services provided by different organisations (like waste disposal in neighbouring authorities).

Second, services dependent on expensive specific assets (physical capital in the case of waste, human capital in education, for example) promise the greatest potential for efficiency savings.

Third, partnerships are most likely to be effective where there is:

  • External support from a sponsoring organisation(s)
  • Multi-level engagement between partnering organisations
  • Formalisation of terms of reporting and accountability
  • Active collaborative management.

The evidence suggests that the issue is not whether Welsh local government should work in partnership, but how to encourage effective management and support of priority partnerships. We recommend that in place of a sometimes general and vague encouragement to collaborate in all services, the Welsh Government prioritises the effective leadership and management of partnerships in those areas where it can produce the greatest gains and ensures that it provides the kinds of support which the research shows collaborations require.