Doing With, Rather Than Doing To- Are We All Boundary Spanners Now?

Prudence R Brown

Prudence R Brown recently completed her PhD at the University of Queensland.

Governments keep saying they will ‘work with’ Indigenous interests. But they struggle to do so – not just politically, but administratively as well. Using boundary spanning methods will help, but can existing public servants make the transition?


To mark the tenth anniversary of the Closing the Gap strategy, the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull committed the government to ‘working with’ rather than ‘doing to’ Indigenous interests.  Many critics of Indigenous policy suggest that these kinds of commitments are symbolic and that governments are not really committed to the reforms required. I think there is more to the story than political dissembling. I believe that, rather than focusing just at the political level, what goes on at the organisational and administrative levels deserves more attention.

To ‘work with’ others, policy actors need to develop the capacity to build effective relationships, to be able to engage ‘deeply’ with different parties and understand and value multiple perspectives. In other words, as Paul Williams, a seminal researcher in the field suggests, they need to become so-called ‘boundary spanners’. This requires new skills, abilities, knowledge and experience. These include the capability to network, manage accountabilities, appreciate different modes of governance, and be politically skilled and diplomatic.

Williams further suggests that it may be possible to develop many of these capabilities, particularly those that relate to technical knowledge and understanding, but notes that little is known about what kind of training and development might work effectively. Nonetheless, training, particularly cross-cultural training, has been the mainstay for Indigenous capability development for some time.

Furthermore, Williams also questions whether it is in fact possible to train and develop policy actors to become boundary spanners, or whether is it just a matter of ‘personality’. He suggests that what he calls personal attributes may influence the way policy actors approach their boundary spanning role. This is supported by my research on collaboration in Indigenous affairs, where policy actors suggested that ‘people are either good at this or not’ and that training will not necessarily deliver the results needed.

My research further supports Williams’ contention that experience across a range of organisations and sectors is important for developing the capacity to connect effectively with a range of stakeholders, to identify external opportunities and to be able to highlight possible barriers. I found that policy actors who had at some time worked outside the public sector are more likely to be open to community development ideas than career public servants. This is not really surprising given the large body of research around the strength of socialisation within the public service. This finding also suggests that diversifying the public sector workforce might be more productive than just relying on training.

However, this aspect is often sidelined in the push for training and development. Although not directly referring to boundary spanning, former Prime Minister Rudd did recommend looking outside the public sector, when he said to heads of agencies and members of the Senior Executive Service that ‘…diversity better enables us to understand the different needs of the Australian community and to develop and deliver better public policy’. Perhaps he had a point?

Making the transition from the usual command and control mode of operation in the public sector to ‘working with’ is far from easy. Just saying that this is how things will happen from now on is not enough. If the government is serious about ‘working with’, then more attention needs to be paid to developing a workforce – whether through training or recruitment – which can effectively span boundaries and deliver on commitments made.

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