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Inter-agency working

A couple of months ago we had a bit of a spring-clean of our website, making sure that it said everything we wanted it to. One area that came in for close attention was the Research section, where we extended the range of reports available for download to cover all of our major projects over the last 20 years.

In most cases, this was easy, involving no more than digging out the version of the report which went to the printer, converting it to a PDF file and putting it up online. However, for one of our earlier pieces, whatever files we had originally possessed had been lost, gone to live on the giant USB-stick in the sky sometime during a computer upgrade a few years ago. We even had trouble locating a hard copy; the demand for the original two print-runs had been high, and we’d gradually given away all the copies we had.

The report was ‘Quality standards in inter-agency work’, written in 2001 by our director, Judith Hughes, and David Settle of Quality Service Matters. It built on TDI’s experience, summarising the lessons we had learned since our founding about how to draw on the knowledge and resources of multiple organisations to tackle problems which cross organisational boundaries. Inter-agency work is still at the core of what we do, based on our understanding that sexual offending is a social problem, rather than one which is in the purview of the criminal justice system alone. The report was very well received on publication, being re-printed in 2004, and it remains a key resource for those in the public and charitable sectors working across institutions.

Given its proven usefulness, and its importance to our work, we didn’t want to leave the report as a lost footnote in our history. After much searching, we managed to track down a copy of the 2004 reprint, and have spent some time digitising it. This new PDF version now takes pride of place on our Research page, where it (and all our other research over the years) is free to download.

Key points from the report

One thing which jumped out at us on re-reading the report a decade-and-a-half after it was written was how well it has aged. It was originally published at a time when central government was engaged in large cross-departmental schemes to resolve problems such as homelessness which, they realised, did not fall within the remit of a single department. Such joined-up working faced all sorts of barriers. Incentives such as funding or praise were difficult to allocate across different organisations so inter-agency work was seldom prioritised. Staff from the different agencies often had very different working practices and cultures which were hard to align. Reporting lines were confused, as staff seconded to an inter-agency project remained responsible to their existing managers, who may have little knowledge or interest in the scheme. The limited success of cross-departmental units at the time, such as the Social Exclusion or Rough Sleepers Units, highlighted again how difficult inter-agency work can be.

The key to resolving such problems is structures of communication and accountability which allow each agency to act independently as part of a common structure. In any piece of inter-agency work, each separate player will bring particular expertise and abilities which, if managed, will allow the project to succeed. It would be counter-productive to subsume this within a single operating framework imposed by the project; not only will this create conflicts between the management structures of the project and those which already exist, it also risks smothering the distinctive abilities of each agency partner. What is needed is a project structure which links the three key levels of an organisation – their strategic leadership, executive management, and operational implementation – with their counterparts in the other organisations on the project. This allows communication and direction to flow between organisations which retain their internal chains of command and information-sharing. A project ethos and common direction can be established across organisations which informs their independent work on a day-to-day basis.

This multi-dimensional structure also facilitates buy-in by the different agencies by establishing team-working at every level of the organisation. This builds a project-identity, preventing the project from becoming a top-down imposition on an agency with other operational priorities. It allows everyone within the organisation to understand the value of the inter-agency work, protecting it from both managers with other commitments and operational staff with competing objectives.

This buy-in at every level cements the project as part of each agency’s work without imposing new structures or ways of working. This allows the unique abilities that each organisation their full expression. Strategic leadership, executive management and operational implementation are able to see the value of the project to their work, making it less vulnerable to de-prioritisation, even in the absence of other incentives. And by retaining existing reporting lines, while adding project reporting between organisations, there is no doubt about chains of command.

Of course, there is much more to creating successful inter-agency work than just questions of structure, but for that we would encourage you to read the report. Even fifteen years after it was first written, it still has assistance it can offer.

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