So who do you work for anyway?

By Robert Randall

The business of government is achieved most frequently as a result of incremental administrative steps, rather than sweeping legislative changes. For many years, the Government of Canada (GOC) has avoided direct constitutional confrontations with its provincial counterparts by entering into bilateral administrative agreements. Similarly, in its service delivery commitment to Canadians, the federal government encouraged the development of Web tools such as gateways and clusters to join up information and service offerings that make sense to the public rather than imposing major changes to departmental structures.

In doing so, the GOC is changing the governing model of the federal bureaucracy and making many departments work as one without legislating the merging or creation of new departments. Government On-Line (GOL) saw to the creation of several clusters, many of which have horizontal governing structures in place to manage, develop and maintain these sites. In fact, horizontal structures are dotted all along the GOC’s business and service transformation road map, because (a) they are crucial to the federal government’s citizen engagement efforts (including making service delivery more relevant) and (b) horizontality allows government to restructure without restructuring.

Horizontality and the public servant

From a human resources perspective, horizontality affects all federal departments and agencies to some extent, presenting two discreet sets of challenges. First, HR challenges may arise as a result of the mandate of the horizontal structure, such as its design, the degree by which it is supported and how it is operationally managed. Second, a different set of human resource (HR) challenges may arise as a result of the extent to which the structure has been formalized; whether it is an ad hoc team, working group, joint committee, inter-departmental committee without a secretariat, inter-departmental committee with secretariat or full time coordinator, or containing a responsible administrative team.

What effect does horizontality have on public servants? We asked senior executives, managers, secretariat staff and industry experts about the challenges of working in an environment in which public servants must show allegiance to both their original department or agency and to the horizontal structure that supports their cross-departmental GOL initiative. Specifically, we heard that horizontality affects public servants at all levels:

Senior Executives

Impacts: The impact of e-horizontality on senior executives is felt within their accountability frameworks. Senior executives are often champions of inter-departmental committees and GOL initiatives and are ultimately responsible for their success. The more formal horizontal structures of high profile initiatives inherently demand more accountability of senior management and even affect ministerial levels of government. Conversely, informal and/or ad hoc structures such as small cross-departmental project teams barely register at the executive level.

Benefits: As senior executives, assistant deputy ministers (ADM) benefit by how horizontality advances their department’s business strategy, particularly with respect to meeting client requirements. From a personal perspective, horizontality facilitates attaining the many service delivery goals dearest to their hearts.

Challenges: The primary challenge for senior executives with e-horizontality is ensuring that an adequate level of engagement is provided, especially from partner departments that might not have the initiative in their performance accords. At the executive level, horizontal electronic service delivery (ESD) initiatives often compete with more pressing departmental priorities and ADMs must choose which is more important in the long run.


Impacts: Managers more often lead and participate in horizontal structures of all types and must balance the demands and accountabilities of their departmental and GOC positions.

Benefits: While leading horizontal initiatives, managers have access to resources and talent within other departments via partners. Moreover, managers benefit from networking within the greater knowledge community, e.g. informal e-Cluster Community, formal information management (IM) Community.

Challenges: Managers often find themselves wearing the GOC hat, yet are located in a departmental communications or technical section. They often must balance departmental and GOC responsibilities and accountabilities. Sue Hardy, the Non Canadians Gateway Manager, describes being accountable to the horizontal initiative as ” not wanting to let down the team.” Hardy notes that manager accountability is also contingent upon meeting deadlines for project deliverables and in that sense she and her colleagues are accountable to Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) for the allocations they receive each year. Managers often lead cross-departmental teams of peers. They must be prepared to facilitate open discussion and make hard decisions.

Staff and Partners

Impacts: E-horizontal structures affect participants in horizontal structures in many significant ways – both positive and negative, including attitudes toward information sharing, collaboration with other departments, and attitudes towards departmental cultures.

Benefits: Many participants in horizontal initiatives note that they provide many networking and career-enhancing opportunities as well as best practices for use by their home departments. Many find the experience rewarding and, at the very least, a change in their normal routine, whether they are seconded full time or only devoting a few hours each week to participating in meetings.

Challenges: Working group members work in ambiguous environments where their reporting path is formally not directly related to the work they actually do on behalf of the horizontal structure. Such participants need to think in the GOC context rather than within their own department. For some individuals, working within these structures means fundamental shifts in their attitude towards sharing information and active listening and participation in discussions.

Finally, participants contend with the potential loss of profile during any lengthy secondment to a horizontal organization and must ensure that their performance is accurately assessed by supervisors within their home departments.

Research into HR issues associated with horizontality suggests the following five ingredients for successful horizontal initiatives:

1. A culture that values collaboration and trust among participants

Who better to participate in horizontal structures than those who thrive within teams, knowledge communities and other cross-departmental and cross-functional groups? Communities of Practice like the IM and Service Communities are excellent sources of talent that should comprise horizontal structures. As Ed Fine of the Treasury Board Secretariat’s Organizational Readiness Office notes, communities of practice provide the cultural framework in which agenda-driven horizontal structures can achieve service delivery objectives quickly within existing infrastructure and legislation and “under the radar screen,” administratively speaking. The key to creating the culture is to tap into existing communities, create an atmosphere of trust among members of working groups and committees, facilitate opportunities for task-oriented collaboration (e.g. breakout teams and sub-committees) and identify those components (people, processes, enablers, etc.) that comprise a collaborative culture.

2. Formalization of the horizontal structure that matches the mandate and duration of the initiative

The governing structure of ESD vehicles such as gateways and clusters should be aligned with the vehicles themselves. A structure that is too formal, hierarchical and rigid may be too much of a burden for participants at all levels. There may be too many meetings or procedures for the conduct of business; participants may not be willing to continue to participate. Conversely, a structure that is too loose, in which the participants or partners are not engaged by the structure lead, may threaten the initiative’s sustainability and may not convince TBS that the initiative is viable.

While there is no single correct approach to horizontality, the structures should be in tune with the relative size and importance of the initiative. If the initiative is unending and driven by the need for facilitating collaboration among a definable group of people across government and within industry, then a community of practice is appropriate. If the initiative is agenda-driven and there are many ongoing strategic and tactical tasks, a dedicated lead and a formal working group may be necessary. If there are many projects and deliverables to manage, as well as continuous communication with working group partners, a secretariat may also be necessary. Shorter initiatives work best with ad hoc teams headed by project managers, with the blessing of horizontal steering committees under the auspices of the host department.

3. Horizontal initiatives must adapt with the changing nature of the initiative

Cross-departmental ventures evolve over time, and so should the mandates of the horizontal structures that govern them. Canada and the world is an example of a cluster whose working group initially focused primarily on information architecture. As clusters matured, the working group shifted towards management and sustainability. It is important that organizational structures and their memberships and mandates remain dynamic, agile and in tune with the changing requirements of the initiative they support.

4. Essential managerial competencies

Managers require essential competencies in interpersonal, leadership and strategic areas. They should be able to maintain contact with vertical structures within partnering organizations and build increasing networks of contacts within various communities. Managers need to exhibit superior leadership skills, particularly as facilitators and motivators. The collaborative culture of the horizontal structure is very much contingent on the manager’s competencies in this area. Finally, managers need strategic competencies, particularly in human resource management, including strategic staffing, job classification, supervising and managing staff.

5. Essential competencies and personality types for members

All participants in horizontal structures require essential intra-personal, technical and information management competencies in order to ensure successful horizontality. They need to be comfortable working within environments without clear boundaries, reporting structures and specific direction. Therefore individuals should possess competencies that enable them to be self-directed, flexible and comfortable in team settings. Technical competencies in the individual’s specific area of expertise are, of course, essential if they are to adequately represent the interests of their departments. Beyond that, however, in the GOL context, it is important that individual members of Web working groups and Web committees are collaborators, used to sharing information in support of Web initiatives. As noted by Michael Calvert at Team Canada Inc., lead of the Exporting/Importing Cluster, partners should also possess competencies in marketing and communications.


Horizontality is a paradigm that is clearly aligned with federal government objectives in providing services for Canadians. Behind every sustainable GOL-funded gateway cluster or portal is a successfully managed horizontal structure. These structures succeed in part because of a combination of the right organizational structure, the right participants and a competent manager. Essentially horizontality is achievable with individuals who place the interests of citizen/customers and the GOC before their departments. In this respect, the silos that impede the development of engaging service delivery models can be broken down through careful consideration of the organizational and human resource implications of horizontality.

For further information:

Horizontality management lessons learned:

On horizontality toolkits: On e-horizontality, the role of communities of practice, and a guide for managers:

What it means in the workplace

The cases below are composites of interviews conducted for this article and from governance consulting over the past few years. They illustrate the types of challenges typically faced by managers and staff when dealing with horizontality in their work environment.

Jane worried about the initial committee meeting for the newest subject cluster on the Services for Canadians Gateway. As the cluster lead she would be chairing that meeting; she knew she would be setting the tone. As an assistant communications director within a major GOC department, Jane has chaired many committee meetings. But those have always been within her department. “I’ve never led a cross-departmental group before.” All Jane could think of leading up to that first working group meeting was: “How will we share information?” “How can I motivate and lead my peers at the table?” and worst of all, “Will the group members see me as representing the lead department in this cluster, or GOC?”

John was apprehensive about joining the Inter-departmental Working Group. His director strongly suggested that he was most appropriate to represent the department, given John’s expertise. However, John does not consider himself a team player. Moreover, his working group commitments would mean that he would have to manage his time carefully if he wants to pursue his projects back at his department, especially those upon which his performance bonus is based. “Besides,” John says, “I’m pretty reserved in group situations and I doubt I will feel comfortable contributing much to the discussion. Why me?”

Paul is used to tough consulting assignments, but his current contract is proving to be one of the most difficult. A month ago, he was contracted to manage a horizontal service transformation initiative, the Serving Canada portal. The portal received funding from the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) and its technical infrastructure is provided by Department A. Paul’s boss is from Department B – which also holds Paul’s contract. Content and other support is provided by 10 other federal departments and agencies. The biggest challenge facing Paul and his boss has been to find ways to make the portal sustainable. “Our user testing indicates that the portal makes sense to Canadians – they said so,” reasons Paul. Yet he knows that the partner departments have not been able to come up with a way to make the portal sustainable. “The key to sustainability has to be sharing – sharing content, resources, time, expertise… How can I get the partnering departments to work with me on this?” TBS has indicated that the initiative, Paul’s job and his boss’s job will no longer exist next year if they cannot solve this dilemma.

Robert Randall ( [email protected]) is a senior consultant with The Intoinfo Consulting Group of Ottawa, specializing in information management, business transformation and electronic governance.

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