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Using interagency cooperation to lift government performance in Aotearoa New Zealand

6 April 2022

News and media


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A new book by Professor Rodney Scott and Ross Boyd looks at the innovative program that improved performance in ten of the most challenging cross-cutting problems in Aotearoa New Zealand. In this article the authors explore the importance of collective accountability, what motivated public servants to achieve better outcomes, and whether the New Zealand experience could be applied elsewhere.

Effective interagency cooperation is one of the oldest problems governments face, variously described as the ‘holy grail’ and ‘philosopher’s stone’ of public administration. It is much easier to manage problems vertically and assign accountability to an individual. When multiple parties are involved, this creates a problem of many hands, where it is difficult to disentangle who is responsible for what.

For decades, more progress has been made on problems that fit within the responsibility of a single agency than on those spanning agency boundaries. This means that those problems that persist are more likely to be complex and cross-cutting. In many jurisdictions, the COVID-19 pandemic saw agencies pull together to face a crisis. As former New Zealand prime minister Rt. Hon. Sir Bill English observed: “The hard problems of entrenched disadvantage and public agency siloes have been pushed into the background for now but in time will appear as larger challenges than ever.”

From 2012 until 2017, a government-wide program ran in Aotearoa New Zealand that demonstrated progress was possible in addressing ten of the most challenging and persistent social problems that society faced. The government selected ten of their top priorities that had proven resistant to previous interventions and required some level of cross-agency cooperation to solve. These included social problems like long-term unemployment, participation in early childhood education, childhood immunisation, assaults against children, high school graduation rates, crime and criminal reoffending, and system problems such as the way that government interacts with citizens and businesses. In each case, the government chose a simple measure of progress, and set an ambitious target to be achieved over five years (with six-monthly progress reporting). Performance increased for all ten problems, both relative to baselines and historic trends.

While an initial evaluation suggested that the program had achieved successes through reducing transaction costs, this wasn’t consistent with the lived experience of public servants, several of whom we interviewed when writing the book. We concluded that successes were hard-won – outcomes improved not because collaboration was easy, but because public servants were so committed to making a difference that they could overcome barriers, learn from past mistakes, and persist until the target was achieved.

Our recent book explains the successes of the program as being due, in significant part, to goal commitment. In the literature, goal commitment refers to the volitional bond between an employee and the achievement of an outcome. For us it also exemplifies the ‘spirit of service’ that lies at the heart of New Zealand’s Public Service Act 2020. Public servants are motivated by goals that improve the lives of the people they serve. Faced with multiple competing problems, and changing priorities, the public servants involved in the program persisted in striving toward achieving better outcomes for New Zealanders over five years. Some of the features that seemed to support goal commitment were:

Setting goals that matter to public servants and to citizens

Making it difficult to back out or change those goals

Picking only a few problems to focus on, so that each had a high profile

Regular feedback on progress to celebrate success and learn from failure, including a schedule of public reporting

Using data, including lead indicators, so that public servants can learn and adapt

Holding small groups of leaders collectively accountable

It is this last point, of collective accountability, that may be the most contentious. The New Zealand system of government has long emphasised single point accountability. It was assumed that having more than one person accountable for a result would result in less felt responsibility. Instead, Aotearoa New Zealand had historically tried to divide problems such that they could then be assigned to individuals. This did not allow for the collaborative management of problems where the solutions couldn’t be anticipated at the start, and where multiple departments would need to experiment, fail, and learn together.

One such example was rheumatic fever. Successive governments were both appalled and mystified by its high incidence in Aotearoa New Zealand and for several years had charged the health system with reducing it, but to no avail. Rheumatic fever is a disease associated with poverty and could not be solved by the health system alone – contributions were required from the education sector to improve awareness, from the housing sector to improve the overcrowded living conditions in which rheumatic fever spread, and by agencies that had connections into the communities where rheumatic fever was most prevalent. By working together, the incidence of rheumatic fever was halved over five years.

Collective accountability is not a panacea, and the problem of many hands is very real. We concluded that the biggest successes were observed when collective accountability was only applied to a small number of leaders, and to a small number of problems at any given time. It is likely that governments will make the best progress by prioritising the efforts on a few harms that really matter and maintaining focus until those harms are meaningfully reduced.

In exploring each of the ten problems, one common feature was the entrepreneurial or innovative spirit of key committed individuals. Some of these people contributed to the book and their stories demonstrate both the commitment and the collaborative capacity of public servants at all levels. A key challenge for researchers and governments alike will be to gain greater insights into the competencies and behaviours of successful collaborators and select and cultivate more of them.

As with any case study, it is not clear that Aotearoa New Zealand’s successes could be replicated exactly in another setting. But conceptually similar programs, implemented at various times in places like Virginia, Washington, Scotland and some of the Australian states (for example, ‘Growing Victoria Together’, and the New South Wales ‘Premier’s Priorities’) demonstrate that the same principles can be applied but with variations to adapt to context. Our follow up study (in progress) tackles this very topic of context contingency, and asks when to use different models for interagency performance.

Addressing cross-cutting problems is not easy, but governments do not have a choice in facing them. Otherwise, over time the simplest and most manageable problems will be managed, and the complicated cross-cutting problems will persist and prevent societies and government from achieving their goals. As Sir Bill put it: “Social indicators that were worsening before the pandemic will now accelerate, at the same time as governments must deal with slowing economics, aging populations, and very high levels of public debt.” New Zealand’s recent experience highlights that solutions will never be easy, but that sometimes hard-won success is still possible when people are committed to a goal.

This book is about more than public administration theory. It is a story about the hopes and innovative spirit of real people, both public servants and politicians, dealing with complex problems and difficult system issues and striving to improve lives. It is a story about today’s public service.

Professor Rodney Scott is an Adjunct Professor of public administration at the University of New South Wales. Ross Boyd is Adjunct Research Fellow of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

‘Targeting Commitment: Interagency Performance in New Zealand’ by Rodney Scott and Ross Boyd is published by the Brookings Institution Press and features a foreword by former prime minister Rt. Hon. Sir Bill English. It is available at all good bookstores or via the Brookings Institution at https://www.brookings.edu/book/targeting-commitment/

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