On working across boundaries in public policy

Also known as ‘getting stuff done’

A recent blog by Greg Fell, Sheffield’s Director of Public Health, on housing and health got me thinking about how Health in All Policies is really a special case of public policy.

This got me thinking about my experience of working across boundaries in public policy. I spent nine years as a low and middle-ranking civil servant. In my (modest) experience, there are very few areas of public policy that fall neatly within the remit of one department or profession. This means that most public policy involves trying to get other people to do things to deliver your outcomes, normally when you can’t just tell them to do it, or pay them.

This is not a science, and everyone who works in public policy has to figure out their own way of doing it. But I thought I’d write down some of the principles I try to stick to when I’m working on problems that need action across different organisations and professions.

  1. Be honest about what you’re trying to achieve and why you’re trying to do it. Use both moral and empirical arguments; neither is sufficient on its own.
  2. Keep your own incentives transparent. We all have them, we might as well be honest about it.
  3. Recognise that people in other professions and organisations have their own incentives, pressures, priorities, and things that they can and can’t do. These will trump any arguments that you have. It doesn’t matter how well you make your case if it relies on someone doing something that will get them sacked. And while you might think that health/crime/security/economic growth is obviously the ultimate aim, others may not agree.
  4. When it’s appropriate, become an advocate for your partners within your organisation. Explain their view of the world and their red lines to your colleagues and superiors (this doesn’t mean being uncritical though).
  5. Focus on the outcome that you want, not the process. The way that you think things should be done to get the outcome you want might not be the best way, or might not be acceptable to your partners. But your partners might be able to suggest a way to get your outcome without crossing their red lines.
  6. Figure out how doing what you want to do will help others get what they want. Policy is rarely a zero sum game.
  7. Learn to love the miserable compromise. While rarely zero-sum, it’s also not often that every can get everything they wanted at the outset. Focus on making things better than they were before; don’t make utopia your goal.
  8. Accept that you aren’t always going to get your way. Sometimes, building good relationships with people and organisations is more important than the immediate objective.
  9. Different professions and organisations sometimes like to moan about each other. Don’t get involved. Say the same things to everyone. If you wouldn’t say it to everyone, don’t say it.

At the heart of all of this is trust. All the evidence in the world won’t persuade people who don’t trust you, and think you’re trying to get one over on them.

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