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How online collaboration makes joined up government a reality

“Joined up government” was a favourite phrase of Tony Blair and New Labour. We don’t hear it as often these days, but the idea – and the problem it seeks to address – continues to motivate and frustrate civil servants in equal measure.

Writing in 2006, the Observer’s Simon Caulkin noted that Labour talked extensively of joining up government when it came to power in 1997, but had stopped using it so frequently by the time Mr Blair began his second term as prime minister. Why? According to the journalist, because Labour had realised the difficulty of achieving joined up government and “the management methods the government favours make joined-up anything almost impossible”.

Although the term was popularised during the New Labour era, the idea that different government departments need to work better together goes back much further than the mid-1990s. Speaking to the BBC in 1998, professor of politics at Liverpool University Dennis Kavanagh suggested that awareness of the issue had been steadily rising for several decades by that point.

“There has been a growing awareness, which started in the 1970s but increased recently, that more and more problems require action that cuts across departments and therefore the departments have to work together more closely,” he explained.

Fast-forward to 2014 and today’s political landscape bears little resemblance to the few years that followed Labour’s landslide election victory, but the problem of how to achieve joined up government remains. Although it’s not always discussed in those terms, central government departments are still struggling to collaborate effectively, share information and make timely decisions involving multiple stakeholders.

However, there is one crucial difference to previous decades: departments now have the tools to support the theory of joined up government. This is why online collaboration in central government continues to gain momentum.

Lessons from Europe

One indicator of just how much times have changed is that in place of the positive, pro-Europeanism of New Labour, British voters are now facing the very real prospect of an in-out referendum on Europe. However, even if the country does choose to leave the EU in 2017, there may be some important lessons to learn from our European neighbours on the topic of joined up government.

Earlier this year, technology writer Federico Guerrini’s article for Forbes shone the spotlight on an innovative collaboration platform developed by civil servants in the Netherlands. Known as Pleio (the Dutch word for ‘government square’) it has grown rapidly to encompass some 75,000 users spread across about 800 sub-sites.

Based on an open source platform, Pleio is designed to make it easy for people working across different agencies (and outside the Dutch government) to collaborate, while also keeping data secure and in the hands of the original owner. Davied van Berlo, one of the tool’s founders, told the publication: “What I learned was that although we have the notion of government agencies as hierarchical top-down structures, this is less and less true and they need to collaborate ‘horizontally’ as well, with other government agencies, with companies and citizen groups.” Joined up government, then, was perhaps just an idea ahead of its time.

Today’s civil servants are the ones with the power to make it happen. Online collaboration tools like Kahootz, and Pleio in the Netherlands, help to remove barriers and circumvent the top-down organisational models that have frustrated public sector workers for years.

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