Interagency collaboration: Part A. What is it, what does it look like, when is it needed and what supports it?

AFRC Briefing No. 21 – October 2011

Why and when is interagency collaboration needed?

There appears to be conflicting opinions about whether collaboration is always preferable to a single agency approach. The current ideological environment, which Dowling, Powell, and Glendinning (2004) described as “uncritically pro-collaboration” (p. 310), implies that collaboration is preferable to a single agency approach regardless of the circumstances. However, Bruner (1991) argued “some services can and should be provided through a single agency without the need for cross-agency collaboration” (Question #9, para 2). Bruner did not specify which services can be provided through a single agency, stating only that services can and should be provided without cross-agency collaboration when they can act more effectively alone, arguing that “collaboration can waste time” and use up resources without improving children’s lives (Question #9, para 1). Bruner’s viewpoint seems to simply be that cross-agency collaboration is preferable if the collaboration functions effectively.

Huxham and Vangen (2004), in an article about collaborative management, concluded that “unless potential for real collaborative advantage is clear, it is generally best, if there is a choice, to avoid collaboration” (p. 200). They also noted, however, that sometimes the advantages of collaboration come in “non-obvious forms”, such as the development of a relationship with a partner.

Regardless of the conflicting viewpoints about whether collaboration is always preferable, there are two specific situations where collaboration is viewed as most effective and appropriate. Firstly, collaboration is viewed as especially important for problems that “fall into the … domains between organisations” such as homelessness and poverty (Huxham, 1996, p. 239). These problems cannot be solved by an organisation working alone because of their inherent complexity (Huxham, 1996).

Box 1: What are the benefits and risks of involving families in interagency collaborations?

The current literature suggests that parents and children can benefit from collaboration via increased selfconfidence, skills and knowledge (El Ansari et al., 2011). It can also enable them to take up opportunities previously not available to them (El Ansari et al., 2011).*

Aside from benefiting parents and children, the involvement of service users in collaborations and partnerships has also been theorised as adding to the effectiveness of the collaboration as a whole. For example, El Ansari et al. (2011) noted that the involvement of parents and children in collaborations brings "local knowledge" to the collaboration that can be useful for targeting resources where they will be most effective. The involvement of parents and children may also enable the better identification of problems (El Ansari et al., 2011) and encourages services to remain focused on what parents and children need (Winkworth & Healy, 2009).

Despite the benefits, involving children and parents in collaborations can be challenging. An evaluation of a health partnership in South Australia involving local council staff and community members demonstrated that one of the difficulties of collaborations involving community members is engaging already marginalised groups in the process. Research has demonstrated that engaging vulnerable and at-risk families in the use of services may be challenging (McDonald, 2010a). The reasons for this are multiple and complex but include factors such as: families cannot get to services because they do not have private transport, the service may be intimidating to families that have no experience of service environments (e.g., recent migrants) and families may not know a service exists or that they are eligible to use it (Carbone, Fraser, Ramburuth, & Nelms, 2004). It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that engaging those families to participate in collaborative work will be equally, if not more, difficult.

Nevertheless, Yeo (1993) argued that successful participation in partnerships should empower those who previously had the least power. Baum, Sanderson, and Jolley (1997) argued that if marginalised groups are involved in partnership work they will require support:

Participation [in partnerships], particularly if it is to involve those who are the least powerful and most marginalised in our society, requires substantial input of resources to support the process of providing people with the resources and skills they require to participate effectively. (p. 131)

Some of the drawbacks that children and parents may face as a result of their involvement in collaboration include frustration with the collaborative process. Sitzia, Cotterell, and Richardson (2006) noted, for example, that community members involved in a health partnership in the UK became frustrated with professionals who did not demonstrate a similar level of personal commitment to the task. Issues raised in collaborative discussions can also be emotionally distressing for non-professionals (Sitzia et al., 2006).

The atypical power dynamics within an interagency collaboration (i.e., where professionals and community members have equal "power") may also be difficult for members to adjust to; however, for professionals working within agencies that utilise a strengths-based or partnership approach to clients it is likely that the adjustment will be easier to make.**

* In this sense, involving children and parents in collaboration reflects the goals of the Australian Government's Social Inclusion Agenda (Winkworth & Healy, 2009) which emphasises the importance of "being heard" (Australian Social Inclusion Board, 2008; McDonald, 2011).

** Power in itself in collaboration is not necessarily a negative influence. ARACY described the difference between "power over"and "power with/to". Power over is an adversarial approach that is antithetical to the principles of collaboration. Power with/ to involves "tapping into combined intellect, resources, knowledge and persistence [to] provide the power to accomplish things with others" (2011, p. 1).

Secondly, there is general agreement that collaboration between agencies and disciplines is most effective and most appropriate for vulnerable and at-risk families. The reason for this is that these families often have multiple and complex problems that cannot be resolved by a single service provider (Bromfield, Lamont, Parker, & Horsfall, 2010; Penner, cited in Foster-Fishman, Salem, Allen, & Fahrbach, 2001; Tuma, cited in Foster-Fishman et al., 2001).4 For example, one family may require assistance with:

  • money to live on and somewhere safe to live;
  • access to health care;
  • information about and advice about parenting;
  • practical help in the home (especially when their children are young); and
  • accessing child support (when parents are separated).

A service system that functions collaboratively enables these families to more easily access support from multiple service providers. It also enables families to access services in a more seamless way—rather than having to navigate a complex service system without the resources that other families have available to them (e.g., private transport, assistance with child care responsibilities).5 In contrast in a siloed service system, individual services may aim to support families but typically the system as a whole fails to effectively support families, especially those with multiple and complex needs. The description Bruner (1991) provided 20 years ago is a reminder of the problems of a siloed service system:

Our current system of delivering services to children and families has been structured within discrete categorical boundaries, usually related to professional disciplines and bureaucratic needs … It is not uncommon for an apologetic professional to say to a disappointed parent, “I’m sorry, we can’t help you. Your child is not handicapped (or poor, neglected or abused, suffering mental illness, disadvantaged, behavior-disordered, or any of a number of other labels).” The irony of this statement is not lost on either the parent or the professional. Both know the child has needs that could be met, yet categorical constraints limit services only to those who meet certain, ultimately inflexible standards labeling them as eligible. (Introduction, para 7)

The best outcome for families involved in a siloed service system is that multiple service providers meet their needs. At worst, these families “fall through the cracks” and do not receive any support (Bruner, 1991).Collaboration between agencies can help to overcome some of the problems associated with a siloed service system. By sharing knowledge and resources, agencies can provide families with access to services in a more seamless way, with treatment being determined by the needs of the family rather than the nature of the service system. When collaborations involve service users they also facilitate social and civic participation, thereby supporting the Australian Government’s Social Inclusion Agenda (Winkworth & Healy, 2009).


4 See the ARACY Advancing Collaborative Practicecase study series, which provides an example of a collaboration that meets the needs of families with multiple and complex problems: Tresilian-Kathleen York House Partnership (2009) <>

5 The service system that delivers services to children and families in Australia is incredibly complex, involving a range of different disciplines, agencies, organisations and levels of government. In the past the separate sections of this system have largely operated independently of each other, in what have been described as "silos".