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Cross-Disciplinary, Cross-Purpose: The Muddles Of Multi-Agency Working

October 1, 2012

The political conference season is one point in the year when it’s quite reasonable to feel confused.  So many claims and so much talk; but with what real effect, for whom?

Perhaps though we can learn more about politicians and their parties than we first imagine, if we ask a few questions about the phrases they regularly trot out as they make their speeches and pronouncements to the faithful and the nation.


To those with energy and will to follow the plot/s, political patter may have meaning; but for most it probably does not. Not least this is because the same words and phrases evoke different understandings in people of different political persuasions or in different professional or practitioner roles.

Multi-agency working is a case in point.  Is it cross-disciplinary, or simply cross-purpose?

This is a term is rarely heard outside the realm of public service, but in the current political climate multi-agency liaison between public and third sector organisations is frequently urged by politicians to reduce costs – an important, but not the primary, aim of most practitioners in the fields of education, health and other public-facing services.

For public servants, or at least those on the ground, the major incentive to multi-agency working is improved and more effective delivery; albeit what that actually means may well vary between practitioners in different disciplines.

The private sector instigates mergers, partnerships and take-overs, but it does not normally seek to establish multi-agency activity on the basis of instruction from some over-arching authority which expects to reap the financial reward for its own (or its punters’) benefit.

So here is the conundrum: Multi-agency working is a mode of operation which holds contradictions at the level of delivery (teachers and nurses both want the best for the children in their care; but their priorities are probably different), and which also holds contradictions in respect of organisation goal (streamlined services or budget cuts?).

There is of course overlap in these considerations, some of it intentional and some of it less so.  Mostly however those who are actually called upon to deliver the service are left to decide for themselves – or simply put aside – which is which.

And yet… this mode of operation is frequently adopted for the most pressing human problems.  Sometimes the intention is clearly client (‘customer’) facing (child protection, public health), sometimes it is budget cutting (asset merger, housing…), sometimes muddled (vocational training, traffic route design).  Not all these examples all the time, of course; but enough to make the point.

Rarely however is multi-agency working articulated from the practitioner up.  It is handed down – along with the responsibility and the blame – via diktat, ‘guidelines’ posted on official websites, even legislation, to be implemented by managers in their disparate professional roles as though common understanding will somehow emerge from the instruction on-high.

It doesn’t. Not without team-building, cross-disciplinary training and the consensual development of common aims.

Multi-agency working is only effective when intended outcomes are transparent, and resources have been invested so all agencies and practitioners share the same goals and have a good knowledge of the pathways used by organisations and colleagues in other disciplines to reach the common objective.

That’s why ‘targets’ set by politicians are so often missed – they make little day-to-day sense to most of those who must implement them.  And often the targets themselves are not coherent, each set down by particular authorities with little regard to what else is required.

Perhaps that’s why the general public chooses to let the whole thing go over their heads.  Easier not to attempt joining the dots.

Yes, make public services (especially whichever ones I personally use) better! Demand 100% from those who deliver! Save money!

Multi-agency working is in principle an excellent idea. But it’s become a panacea, perhaps even a cover-up for much which is both difficult to deal with and seriously important to real human beings.

Jo(e) Public may not follow the machinations, but politicians of all persuasions who require multi-agency working have a responsibility – to electors in general and also to that subset of them known as ‘public sector staff’ – to explain what they intend this mode of working will deliver, and how.

Diktat or proper guidance? Chaos or collaboration? Cuts or credible delivery?

The party conference season, for all its apparent inanity, offers insights into the manoeuvres and motivations of politicians which are much illuminated by what, precisely, they mean when they demand the multi-agency approach.

Observe and consider, whilst you can.

This article is also posted in The Huffington Post.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Hilary Burrage is a consultant in health, social care and education / early years.

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