Unity versus uniformity: exploring collaboration in government (and beyond)

Thea Snow
Centre for Public Impact
7 min readJun 13, 2023

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A few months ago, we at the Centre for Public Impact Australia and New Zealand (CPI ANZ) ran a workshop for public service leaders keen to encourage better collaboration across different parts of their organisation. After a series of activities, people shared their insights. There was a long silence, and then one person leant forward and said, “I think what we need to be aiming for is a sense of unity rather than uniformity.” A collective exhale. Emphatic nodding. And someone chimed in, “well, that’s a bit awesome!”

But before we explore “unity rather than uniformity”, let’s first take a step back.

The challenge of collaboration in government is a topic with a vast academic literature. Known as the “doctrine of coordination”, it can be traced back as far as 1820. Contemporary versions of cross-government cooperation have been respectively labelled “Joined Up Government” in the UK, “Whole-of-Government” in Australia, “Horizontal Government” in Canada, and “Integrated Government” in New Zealand.

However, while certainly a well-trodden field of study, those working in and around government will know that effective coordination is not an academic topic confined to the classroom and textbook; it is a real challenge, ever present in conversations around improving government impact and effectiveness.

In our work at CPI ANZ, it has emerged in many of our learning partnerships and programs as a key question — how can we collaborate more effectively with other government teams and departments, as well as key partners, stakeholders, and community groups beyond government?

Unfortunately, the literature paints a somewhat grim picture dominated by stories of failed attempts or partial success. However, I’m wondering if this is because we’re asking the wrong question or framing the efforts towards coordination in an unhelpful way.

Reimagining collaboration

There are many definitions of collaboration, each slightly different. However, certain words that commonly appear include: “cooperation”; “working together”; and “shared goals”. Another concept that comes up a lot is compromise — the notion that collaboration requires a relinquishment of one’s own priorities, processes, and sense of identity.

It’s true that collaboration requires compromise, to some extent. However, to overstate it is to misunderstand collaboration and what it asks of us. It is to understand collaboration as pursuing uniformity rather than unity.

Collaboration as uniformity assumes that effective collaboration requires everyone to do the same thing — use the same structures and processes, adopt the same organising principles, and share a language. This is a form of collaboration where all (or most) differences are quashed. This is often how collaboration is (mis)understood.

In contrast, collaboration as unity understands that while we need alignment around a vision and consensus around values and behaviours, there is plenty of room for diversity in how the vision can be carried forward. Collaboration as unity embraces difference where it is needed and allows for individual differences in culture, norms, and practices to be sustained — it is an expression of Donna Hall’s adage, “tight on values, and loose on delivery”.

Collaboration as uniformity is like an orchestra where the instruments play the same tune at the same tempo. No one would want to listen to this — there would be no harmony or richness in the sounds.

On the other hand, collaboration as unity is like the orchestras we know and love — where musicians all have different notes to play but are held together by an overarching harmony to which everyone contributes.

Collaboration as unity means actors can work together while still holding and celebrating their differences, and using these to realise a shared goal. This is a more productive way to think about collaboration.

Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

What does collaboration as unity look like in practice?

There are several examples from around the world that offer a sense of what collaboration as unity looks like in practice.

Every One Every Day is an initiative aligned around a shared aspiration — improving outcomes for residents of The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham — but is non-prescriptive about how to achieve this. It embraces a localised and participatory approach which focuses on cultivating and growing residents’ ideas around “practical projects that make life better for everyone.”

Across the Atlantic, Recover Edmonton is a program focusing on urban wellbeing in the city of Edmonton. Again, the pursuit of wellbeing is not dictated by the central government. Rather, it is pursued through a series of locally defined and led prototypes, all different in their structure and approach but aligned around a common goal.

https://www.urbanwellnessedmonton.com/what-is-recover

Both examples are mission-oriented approaches, which bring together a coalition of partners (in government and beyond) to pursue diverse projects and initiatives, all in service of a shared challenge and mission.

Collaboration as unity can also be internally oriented — focused on transforming cultures and ways of working, rather than the structure of a specific program. For example, CPI ANZ has been working with government leaders across the country to explore how to encourage more collaborative cultures and mindsets.

Through immersive and exploratory activities and reflective learning circles, we’re working with our partners to reimagine what a joined-up approach means. We’re observing shifts in those we’re working with as they begin to recognise that working more collaboratively does not mean that all differences between teams, branches, and departments must be eliminated. In fact, differences in culture and approaches may enrich collaboration, so long as everyone is working in a values-aligned way and in service of a shared vision.

While joined-up government is often associated with “breaking down silos”, this framing is too binary. We need silos, to an extent, in that they create environments that allow people to cultivate and nurture specialist skills critical for the effective functioning of government. We also need public servants who are experts in their fields. So, as James Johnson suggests, we shouldn’t seek to eliminate silos; we should be thinking about how to master them and use them to good effect.

Some of our partners in the public service exploring collaboration through material metaphors

It’s also important to acknowledge that the challenge of effective collaboration extends beyond government. As an international organisation with regional teams working in different contexts, CPI has also grappled with these questions. The way we’re talking about it is to challenge ourselves to understand “what is CPI’s soul?” And once we have a clear sense of that, where do regional teams need to align and converge, and where can we hold divergence?

What does it require of us?

Collaboration as uniformity is easier to define and pursue than collaboration as unity, which is probably why so many people adopt this approach! In collaboration as uniformity, the vision and mission can be dictated from the top, and the roll-out centrally held and controlled. It is easier to understand and measure because it is more legible.

In contrast, collaboration as unity is messier and in many respects, harder. Negotiating and agreeing on where consensus is required, and where we can hold plurality, is no easy task. It requires ongoing dialogue, experimentation, and learning. Mistakes will be made. Unfortunately, there is no rule book for this.

We do know some things, though. Collaboration as unity requires time spent up front collectively defining what you will unify around and where differences will be tolerated. Agreeing on a shared vision requires time dedicated to exploring different perspectives with curiosity and open-mindedness. Rather than fixating on surface-level differences (which are easy to spot), it asks people to spend more time finding alignment and shared values. These more deep-seated points of alignment are what Dryzek and Niemyer call “meta-consensus”, which can be contrasted with “simple consensus.” Dryzek and Niemyer explain that meta-consensus can still be available when people disagree profoundly about what should be done. But they, too, caution that “it may take hard work to discover or create.”

Despite the efforts required to create alignment, this hard work is immensely worthwhile. Taking the time to establish foundations for collaboration that can comfortably hold difference is critical to supporting joined-up ways of working that engage with complexity and are, therefore, far more likely to succeed.

From wheat and grain to strings and brass

To end where we began… Much has been written about collaboration in government, with many studies focussing on the failures and missteps. But I wonder if part of the reason collaboration in government has been unsuccessful is because many have pursued collaboration as uniformity rather than as unity.

Collaboration is powerful precisely because it brings together different voices and perspectives. To flatten those differences by attempting to make everyone the same is to lose the texture and richness that effective collaboration offer.

Effective collaboration rests not in homogenising and eliminating differences, but in finding higher order commonalities, and working with those.

A good place to start, if we want to encourage different ways of understanding collaboration in government, is to change our metaphors — to stop talking about wheat and grain, and start talking about strings and brass.

Earlier, I suggested that these strings and brass would be part of an orchestra. Within current models of government, an orchestra feels like the right metaphor. Effective collaboration requires strong leadership (a conductor) as well as a shared vision and values (a set score). Perhaps as time goes on and government becomes better at embracing complexity and centring learning, a more apt metaphor will be a jazz ensemble, where collaboration can take place in the absence of a score or conductor; held together by a shared context, trust, and the ability to listen deeply and respond through improvisation.

Whether it is an orchestra or a jazz ensemble, collaboration is not about breaking down silos. Collaboration is about creating harmony. It’s about celebrating the unique contribution that each team, division, or department can make and harnessing those differences to create something together which would not otherwise be possible.

I’d like to thank the participant in our learning partnership who introduced me to the concept of unity versus uniformity. Also, thanks to Luke Craven for sending me great articles to read, and to Rosie McIntosh, Carmella Grace De Guzman, Alli Edwards, Adrian Brown, and Toby Lowe for their feedback and suggestions.

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