Thinking public services

Why can’t we work together?

In this article

Dr Kristy Docherty, Director of Public Services at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, argues that for complex collaborations to be successful, we need to re-focus on relationships.

The recent publication, Leave no one behind, the state of health and health inequalities in Scotland is a rich report that explores evidence around Scotland’s response to 1) supporting the wellbeing of our population and 2) exploring Scotland’s contribution towards a healthy society and economy.  The whole report is worth reading and digesting, however it is the following quote that resonated with my work and our approach at the Futures Institute;

This is a report not only for government, but for all of Scotland – its institutions, businesses and citizens. We do not need another grand strategy. We need practical collaboration, up and downstream, to sweat the considerable assets we already have – public, third and private sectors, collaborating with communities. Each of us has our part to play”.

My Collaboration Story

My interest in collaboration comes from over two decades of working on complex, cross sector, infrastructure and community projects linked to housing led urban regeneration and renewable energy.  This is combined with formal leader roles where the requirement to collaborate and lead beyond my own organisational and disciplinary boundaries was required. The regeneration projects took place over many years, and almost always did not achieve the ambition, hopes and desires wished for by those of us who were collaborating towards improved economic, physical, environmental, and social outcomes for communities.  

During this time, while the work was meaningful, the multi-disciplinary, cross sector collaborations were not working effectively; rather there were clear divisions and an inability between project team members to relate to and empathise with each other, and with the local people living in the communities in which they worked. It was this personal and professional experience that led to deep reflection and wider research on understanding more about the challenges and barriers of collaboration and what makes complex collaboration effective?

Wicked Problems

The need for, and complexity of collaboration are both closely linked to the purpose of coming together in the first place and specifically, what problem or purpose does the group have, and how intractable is it?

Thinking about the concepts of wicked and tame problems can help us understand and frame collaborative approaches. Tame problems are defined as challenges that involve few, similar stakeholders with a shared context. The problem itself, although complicated, is clearly defined, likely to have occurred before and considered solvable with a known solution. Wicked problems, in contrast, are those that necessitate an alternative approach and way of thinking; they are complex with no obvious connection between cause and effect. In these situations, problems are deep-rooted, systemic and cannot be addressed by a single leader or organisation, in fact they are considered unsolvable by many, and to break them down and attempt to deal with each discrete issue worsens the situation.

The Rise of Collaboration

There are many reasons and justifications for an increase in the popularity of collaboration. This is often related to a belief that collaboration is worthwhile when faced with difficult issues and also that funding from higher levels of government, statutory and research bodies often require evidence of a collaborative approach. Certainly, these two elements connect to the idea that an increase in collaboration is born out of the complexity of issues that are not able to be solved or easily solved by a single organisation, that they are too costly, or far reaching for an organisation to reasonably and effectively address.

While there is support for multi-stakeholder collaboration ‘as a way’ to respond to complex challenges across a range of settings and contexts, working with others and creating the right conditions for effective collaboration is hard and places considerable stress on workers as they navigate the complexities of these arrangements. Some of the more common issues and debates have been recreated in the visual below.

Care, time and attention must be given by collaborating members to potential structural conflicts, aligning working methods, financial barriers, data and security issues and historic sensitivities between stakeholders.  Certainly, consideration of the multi-dimensionality of problems recognises that bringing together individuals who are not used to working together may be problematic, as competing priorities, personalities, roles, motivations and perspectives react to an altered environment very much unlike their typical day-to day work.

For example, individuals may remain acutely sensitive to political and organisational demands, structures and processes, individual responsibilities, and short-term policy priorities. In addition, they are conscious of intense external (and potentially internal) scrutiny.  There can be resistance to letting go of power amongst formal leadership and other stakeholders and excessive focus on procedures, single team or organisational targets, and performance related pressures – making it personally demanding and problematic to adapt to a collaborative setting and fully engage, even if desired.

Given the challenges associated with collaborating, it is somewhat surprising that there is a reluctance to focus on what it ‘means’ and ‘takes’ to collaborate across organisations and sectors, and to explore how this work differs from the work carried out within single organisations.  My hope is that more attention is given towards understanding how a group ‘works’ (the process), this will lead to fresh learning, expertise and knowledge, and better task-based outcomes.

Taking a relational approach to collaboration

Recent research[1] and work carried out by collaborative networks such as the Centre for Public Impact and specifically the Human Learning Systems approach led by Professor Toby Lowe,,  the work of Collective Leadership for Scotland, research funded by the Scottish Institute for Policing Research[2], and the recent establishment of the Relationships Project (, all agree that the quality of our relationships matter and that taking a relational approach to our lives and work could help us address difficult issues and situations.

Linked to this, taking a relational approach to collaboration can help to surface conversations about the collaborative challenges referred to earlier. Adopting a relational approach brings to the surface the colliding priorities and objectives that often get in the way when working with others, frustrating the achievement of improved outcomes. In addition, being more relational illuminates the contrasting values, perspectives and assumptions, common and problematic when working in multi-stakeholder groups.

The image below reflects some of the ways in which we can be more relational when we collaborate, but perhaps most importantly, taking the conscious decision to be more relational and to disrupt and alter traditional approaches to collaboration, places emphasis on the culture the group wishes to adopt, which stirs up a much needed and diverse conversation on how to collaborate better.


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Kristy is currently working with partners in Police Scotland and Public Health Scotland to establish a ‘Prevention Hub’ to be based at the Edinburgh Futures Institute.  The Hub is an innovative ecosystem focused on reducing inequalities through actions to improve health and wellbeing. The complexity of collaboration and building the capability and capacity for more effective collaboration across Scotland underpins the vision and work of the Hub.

[1] Docherty, K., 2021. Exploring collective leadership and co-production: an empirical study. IGI Global, pp. 130-155 and Docherty, K., 2022. Enhancing Collaboration. In: J. Diamond and J. Liddle, eds. Critical Perspectives on International Public Sector Management: Volume 7. Reimagining Public Sector Management: A new age of Renewal and Renaissance? Emerald 2023.

[2] SIPR Police Scotland and Local Government Collaborative Leadership Pilots  Evaluation Report

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