Working boundaries: how insights from feminist thinking can make us better at collaboration


I was recently invited to be part of a panel at the recent Power to Persuade’s Women’s Policy Forum focusing on ideas around evidence, voice and agency. I spoke on the topic of how feminism can make us better at collaboration and the text below is a summary of what I had to say.


Collaboration is, of course, a key concept in thinking about policy. In fact it is probably difficult to find a policy document in recent years that doesn’t make multiple allusions to the idea that government needs to be better at collaborating across different agencies and with non-governmental organisations and the broader citizenry.


We have been told time and again that collaboration has become and will continue to be central to high quality contemporary governance and public servants need to be equipped with the appropriate skills so that they can work effectively in a collaborative fashion. Collaboration will be the means through which the most pressing and challenging issues that our society faces will be overcome.


Yet, when we start to look at the evidence we see that that there is somewhat of a gap. We don’t have great evidence that collaboration improves outcomes – although this is probably a debate for another time. And neither do we have high quality evidence about what is needed in order to produce effective collaboration.


A few years ago, a study by Sun and colleagues found that in the 10 years following 1998, approximately 400 journal articles per year were published on the topic of integrated care alone. Yet despite the size of the evidence base we lack a clear sense of what needs to be in place to develop an effective collaborative approach.


And I think that feminist thinking could play an important role here. Yet, as Gemma Carey and I illustrated in a special edition of the Australian Journal of Public Administration, women in general – and feminist theory in particular – do not feature strongly in the mainstream public administration literature.


In a paper published in 2013, I argued that a lack of evidence about collaboration is, in part, due to a tendency of academics to focus on collaboration as a ‘science’ and not as a ‘craft’. What I was referring to here is an approach found in some areas of the literature where researchers try to find a consistent set of factors that typically relate to things around structures or financing processes or job competencies that can be reproduced across different settings. What is searched for is the singular truth about which are the factors at the centre of effective collaboration so that this can be ‘mastered’.


Such an approach, I argued, tends to ignore the fact that collaboration is a highly relational activity that is done (or not done) by people. Collaboration is not something that can simply be achieved through bringing together the right set of ingredients. It is a craft. It requires practice and, to draw on northern English vernacular, it needs graft (i.e. hard work) to get right.


In the book Performing Governance I make the case that there has been a tendency to focus on collaboration as a technical and almost mechanistic and linear approach that has served to ignore much of the activity that happens in and around collaborative approaches. A further implication of this is that accounts focus often on the structural facets and provide little room for agency. Aside from claims about the importance of ‘strong leadership’ for collaboration, most accounts are devoid of agentic action. To counter this we would be well served to draw on feminist thinking in order to better understand these processes.


A feminist lens bring a much needed poststructural turn to the collaborative literature, recognising that knowledge, truth, rationality and power are constituted in dynamic relationships, rather than a possession or something that only one individual can lay claim to. Meaning is contested, as are truth, knowledge and power.


Providing a focus on power and politics is much needed within the collaboration literature as these factors are all too often absent. Indeed, in the late 1990s, politically influential authors such as Tony Giddens argued that the collaborative turn was a new way of doing government that went beyond politics. Many spoke about this politically neutral way of doing business, but we can see that the effects were often anything but. We know all too often that where groups speak about political neutrality this often results in a number of groups becoming marginalised. This is particularly important in the context of discussions around policy, disadvantage and inclusion.


Employing feminist theories to the practice of collaboration can help illustrate that boundaries are not just material and constraining entities, but can be constitutive forces. Boundaries have meaning and produce effects, rather than just simply stopping actions. This draws attention to the fact that some boundaries are coercive and boundary-crossing practices employed in collaboration can be disruptive. At present there is insufficient accommodation made in the literature for disruptive practices as there is an overwhelmingly positive and altruistic flavour to the collaboration literature.


Employing notions of positionality – the idea that there is no view from nowhere – is illustrative in thinking about collaborative and where we will inevitably work with individuals or groups with different positionalities. All too often collaboration is concerned with consensus and yet feminist thinking would suggest that this is difficult to achieve in a legitimate way when working with multiple positionalities and is not necessarily desireable. Good collaboration is not just a product of consensus and disagreement and debate is needed for effective policy.


Feminist theories remind us that when we think about social actions, such as collaboration or negotiation over policy implementation, we embody particular cultural and historical possibilities. At the same time, we also enact those possibilities. What this means is that collaboration is always historically conditioned by a set of presuppositions that shape how we act. By paying more attention to these ideas of performativity we can understand how actors construct relationships and create boundaries in between themselves and others, and the ways in which they are shaped by the histories of particular individuals and groups (for example, past experiences of collaboration or of other actors). With a deeper interrogation of the positions that actors speak from and why particular actions are taken we better ascertain why certain dynamics emerge within collaborative settings.


Feminist thinking is ultimately concerned with unsettling assumptions and challenging orthodoxy, focusing on accommodating diversity and giving voice to actors. If we think that collaboration is about more than just simply coordinating activity across a number of actors and is truly about better equipping society to deal with the ‘wicked’ and complex issues with which we are faced we will need a better literature to help us through this. Feminist thinking can help us give a better account of the nature of collaboration and the ways in which agency are important to these processes. Commitment to the accommodation of diversity and giving voice will be crucial if we are to tackle wicked issues in a meaningful way.







The Three Sector Solution

Last year I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in workshop hosted in partnership by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and the Curtin Not-for-profit initiative at Curtin University.  The workshop explored the various dimensions of ‘cross-sector working’ and was held at the Australian National University.

The workshop brought together policy scholars, practitioners and thought leaders whose collective experience spans government, the not-for-profit sector, and business to address these issues, grouped around four emergent themes: cross-sector working – the rhetoric and the reality; three sectors – three change agendas; great expectations – outcomes and social impact; and new tools for policy makers and practitioners.

An edited volume based on the workshop was pulled together by John Butcher (ANZSOG/ANU) and David Gilchrist (Curtin University) and captures the discussions at the event.  The contributors to this volume address diverse topics of interest to policy scholars, policy makers and policy practitioners including: the need for profound change in public sector culture and governance, the recent history of policy reform, impediments to private sector investment in social impact, the implications of person-centred funding, the promise (and disappointments) of measuring outcomes, the failings of contractual governance, and the potential for alternative approaches to the realisation of public benefit such as alliance contracting or mutualism.


The Three Sector Solution is available online, comprising 17 different and diverse chapters about all things collaboration.  I was asked to contribute a chapter on the the topic of ‘from New Public Management to New Public Governance: The implications for a ‘new’ public service‘ which provides a background to the theory behind the event and explores the degree to which shifts in how we think about the various sectors have led to real change in governance practice.  In doing so I draw on a range of geographical metaphors such as palimpsests and earthquakes and apply these to a public service governance context.  Who wouldn’t want to read that?!



The make-believe space

I have just finished reading the most amazing book by Yael-Navaro-Yashin which was suggested to me by my fantastic colleague Michael Fischer.  This book presents a rich and detailed account of long term ethnographic research in Northern Cyprus.

In 1974 Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus and there was a separation of Turkish-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots through the imposition of a boundary.  This book explores a number of the implications of this partition and the displacement of individuals and communities and expropriation of property that went along with this process.

This is not only a detailed and nuanced ethnographic study of a community that has often lacked visibility, but in the process, Navaro-Yashin also develops a rang of theoretical insights into the dynamic interactions of materiality, subjectivity, affect and the phantasmic.

In this fascinating account Navaro-Yashin explores what she calls ‘make-believe’ space.  She is talking about this idea of being make-believe not just in the sense of the space and territory being inhabited but also the modes of governance and administration that emerge in response to this and their associate material practices.

The mainstream public administration literature, as Christopher Pollitt reminds us, has typically struggled to accommodate notions of time and space in its analysis.  Navaro-Yashin illustrates just why this is so important and the relationships between these aspects and the material practices of governance and administration.

The book deals with issues of the phantasmic in a truly fascinating way.  I imagine many of us have worked in organisations which feel like they are inhabited by ghosts and that the specter of individuals or values can be felt through practices or objects long after they have left the building.

The chapter on administration and affect is fascinating and terrifying in equal amounts.  There a whole series of issues relating to the status of public servants and expectations of their contribution to work that in many places we would imagine have been confined to the past.  Yet, the description of processes that lack any rational or instrumental value but are still carried out because of their symbolic value will be incredibly familiar to many.

There is a vast amount of theoretical depth and richness that could very helpfully be applied in a public administration setting and could further develop our thinking in this space about why individuals and groups behave the ways that they do and the impact that waves of reform have over organisations.  Well worth a read for something a little different and similar at the same time.

make believe

Walled states, waning sovereignty

Recently I have been thinking about boundaries in public administration and how we might theorise these in a different and more dynamic way.  In doing so I have been reading a number of books from disciplines such as geography and international relations.

One of the latest books I’ve read in this project is Walled states, waning sovereignty by Wendy Brown.  This book critically analyses the practice of wall building in a context where nation-state sovereignty is seemingly on the decline in an ever more mobile and interconnected world.

This is a wonderfully written book that draws on a range of different political theories to consider why it is that states still engage in wall building when all of the evidence suggests that they rarely fulfill their aims.

Brown argues that the main functions of these walls are not material but symbolic.  Walls generate what Heidegger calls a reassuring world picture in terms of the need for security and social and psychic integration for political membership (pg. 26).  Brown argues that walls have theatrical, theological and material effects.

From the analysis of a number of walls, such as those dividing Texas from Mexico, Israel from Palestine, South Africa from Zimbabwe, Brown concludes that ‘ walls are consummately functional and walls are potent organizers of human psychic landscapes generative of cultural and political identities.  The emerge from and figure in discourses, they can become discursive statements themselves and they are crucial to the organization of power in and through space.  The meaning is not in the referent, walls do not narrative and do not even speak’ (pg. 74).

The study of boundaries in public administration is yet to include consideration of these types of symbolic and psychic entities and yet we know from attempts to engage in organisational restructuring, for example, that boundaries have more than just physical implications.  Marianna Fotaki  has started to explore some of these issues in the context of organisational theory drawing on psychoanalytical literatures, although these kinds of insights are yet to make their way into mainstream public administration literatures.  Brown similarly speaks about the psychic fantasies and anxieties that walls are able to deal with by creating a visual effect (even if they do not actually manage what is promised of them).

For anyone trying to think about boundaries from a different perspective this book offers plenty of inspiration.


Public Administration Borderlands: Working the boundaries of public services

I am currently working on a bid to the Australian Research Council focusing on boundaries and their place in the study of Public Administration.  The argument I am making is that although boundaries appear everywhere in Public Administration, they are given little critical attention.  We are asking public services and public servants to work across boundaries more than ever before and yet we lack good evidence and frameworks for how to do this.  Typically boundaries are thought of as being singular, static and material entities and insufficient work has been done to develop a more dynamic account of boundaries.  Public Administration isn’t alone here and Organisational Theory also struggles with these sorts of issues – see Loizos Heracleous’s analysis of this .

In my research proposal I say that I will draw on broader literature to help construct a more dynamic account of boundaries and that I also want to do some empirical work looking at how individuals and organisations do boundary work and how individuals shift their identity as they do this.

The broader material I am going to draw on to do this theoretical work comes from the renaissance of border studies that we have seen over the last 15 years or so.  Whilst borders used to be simply considered to be the frontiers of territories, over this period there have been significant shifts in terms of what borders are, the forms they take, their impacts and the ways in which border-work is conducted. I started off life as a geographer and it is always nice to go back to your roots.  Some of the advances made in this field should help with developing a new way of theorising boundaries which I then hope to test empirically.

In this category I will bring together readings on this topic and some of my thinking as it emerges.  I’d also be keen to hear from anyone who has an interest in boundaries and how we might construct a more complete account of these – or if you know of interesting articles that I might want to take a look at.