Friday, October 30, 2009

Reform and the Role of Public Managers

This morning I participated in a seminar with several schools in the PolicyNet group. At some stage the visual of the seminar will end up here for those interested. Schools from Japan, China, Singapore, Canada participated so we had a great mix. Our local moderator was one of my star students Adeline Kooi and she did a terrific job as well as having some of the most challenging questions of the day.!

I started off with a short lecture explaining public managers and public management, setting out the eras/generations of reform, pointing to the current challenges facing public managers, and the emerging contenders for the "next big thing". It was a great chance to test out some of these ideas, and engage with students from across the globe on how these ideas resonate in their specific contexts. Nothing like several rooms full of bright students to keep you on your toes!!

Participants had some thought-provoking and insightful questions which got to the core of enduring debates in the field: what is the proper role of public managers? where is, or should be, the line of separation between politics and administration? how do we make reform and change "stick"? how do we overcome resistance to change? what tools can public managers use to gauge what the community wants? how does this approach fit into a developing country context? when does the backlash come to spur fundamental reform and what are the critical transition points? how do public managers balance competing demands from political and community domains? what happens when they get stuck between levels of government?

At the end of our two-hour session we had covered lots of ground and I was pleased to get such a great range of questions. These have take me back again to this enduring issue of politics and management - who does what, when, what is the proper role and so on. I am gearing up for a session in a few weeks an the Third Annual ANU Leadership Workshop where I will talk in some detail about these issues in an ethical context.

Monday, September 21, 2009

On 18 September I acted as MC at the Crawford School Alumni and Friends Dinner. It was a great chance to meet some past students and hear from Kim Beazley on current issues in politics (under Chatham House rules sorry!). Beazley has a long history in Australian politics and he took up the role of Chancellor of the ANU earlier this year. A couple of days prior to the event it was no surprise when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced Beazley would be the next Australian Ambassador to the United States.

Alongside Beazley, newly retired Liberal Brendan Nelson has also been fingered for a diplomatic post. Nelson will take up the role of Australian Ambassador to the European Union. It is an interesting fact that Rudd defeated Nelson's coalition at the 2007 election and that he beat Beazley in a leadership battle within the Australian Labor Party.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A New Era of Reform?

Wow! Can it really be this long since I made any contribution? So much has been happening in public management circles in Australia that it is negligent of me not to have commented. Recently the Prime Minister has outlined his vision to build 'the best public service in the world'. The first stage of this involved establishing an Advisory Group oversee an international benchmarking exercise which will test the Australian Public Service against counterparts around the world. The Advisory Group will also oversee the development of a reform blueprint. The PMs speech, presented at the recent conference of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government is available here. Expect much more from me on this topic in the coming months.

In late July I has the chance to present at a conference on Unicameral systems. For a few years I wrote the political chronicles of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), so I was invited by my colleague Professor John Uhr who heads up the Parliamentary Studies Centre to contribute to this international conference examining the experience of the ACT in the context of other unicameral systems around the world. It was not until I arrived, however, that I realised the conference would be held in the Legislative Assembly and that I would be presenting my thoughts on that very Assembly whilst standing in it! Video of the conference is available from the Crawford School site and a summary of proceedings is also available.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Global Speak: Virtual Seminar

I'm really pleased to have been invited to present a virtual seminar as part of the PolicyNet group of which the Crawford School is a member. This will see me beamed around the world to institutions such as Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (National University of Singapore), Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (Princeton, USA), Peking University School of Government, Hertie School of Governance (Berlin), Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (Carleton University, Canada), Balsillie School of International Affairs (Canada), The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Geneva), and Tsinghua University School of Public Affairs (Tsinghua University, China). This is a great chance to link up with people in other parts of the world and to connect up our students (some schools use the seminar series as a basis for a course) - hopefully my Australian accent will not be too thick!!

I settled on the following title Understanding The Role of Public Managers in the 21st Century: Challenges and Debates. This will enable me to speak broadly about the changing role of public managers and how this has changed over time as waves of reform have redefined this role. It will also provide a chance to discuss some of the interesting debates that are emerging around the public value framework something I have spent quite a bit of time delving into over the last few years.

Recently John Alford and I published a piece in a special issue of the International Journal of Public Administration titled Making Sense of Public Value: Concepts, Critiques and Emergent Meanings. In the paper we revisited Mark Moore's original work on the public value framework - essentially a strategic management framework for the public sector - and then we considered how the notion of public value has taken off in different ways, especially over the last few years.

A fairly heated debate has been sparked through a serious of exchanges in the Australian Journal of Public Administration through a series of articles since 2007 which are essentially focused on the politics, management and whether this approach travels well outside the USA. More recently the debate has internationalised with our piece in the IJPA and a piece by Rod Rhodes and John Wanna being published in Public Administration. Expect this one to continue on for a while!

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Challange of "Closing the Gap"

Yesterday the Productivity Commission released the Overcoming Disadvantage report which tracks whether or not government policy and programs are impacting on Indigenous Australians outcomes across a range of areas e.g. life expectancy, Year 12 completions, health, criminal justice and so on. The almost 800-page report (a shorter overview is available) is an attempt to pull together data from across the country to enable the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to track progress on its commitment addressing Indigenous disadvantage. It is the fourth in the series of reports (2003, 2005, 2007). The current framework is centred on the notion of "closing the gap" which is at the centre of COAG agreements hammered out under the Rudd government in late 2007 through 2008.

Media coverage has so far been relatively negative and has focused on the lack of progress and, in some cases, increase in worrying statistics (e.g. reporting of child abuse). As was noted in The Australian yesterday "all the usual horror statistics are there" with "no improvement in 80 per cent of the 50 economic and social indicators of disadvantage the report measure. Indigenous children are six times as likely to be abused as non-indigenous Australians, according to the report. This is an increase on 2003 when they were four times as likely to be abused. Indigenous people are 13 times more likely to end up in prison. The imprisonment rate increased by 46 per cent for indigenous women and 27 per cent for indigenous men. Indigenous victims of domestic violence are hospitalised at a rate 34 times higher than non-indigenous people". It is hard to tell a positive story about the data, but what can we garner from the report about the challenges of public management in Australia?

Firstly, this is a complex and challenging policy area. As part of a large research project our team has spent a lot of time looking at how government agencies connect up to address Indigenous policy and service delivery. Here we are not talking (simply!) about Commonwealth organisations, but also States, Territories, local government, non-profits, private organisations, and community groups. Making progress using such a complex institutional and organisational structures creates ample opportunity, but major barriers.

Secondly, creation and collection of data is a real challenge in policy areas that span jurisdictions and organisations. This is not the first we have heard of this (health care is another classic example). Amazingly there is no common data collection approach but, instead, a multitude of system - think for example of how police officers in each Australian jurisdiction would classify their activities, or health providers, or educational institutions. Getting simple picture is problematic. Prime Minister Rudd noted yesterday at the COAG meeting that ''there's simply not enough statistical analysis to give us clear indications as to what's happening on the ground''. In the end, there is an enormous challenge of getting baseline data and this has still not been solved.

Third, the report and the associated coverage shows us again the perils of performance measurement and reporting. The Prime Minister has indicated that the report was "devastating", and others have lamented the lack of progress. But when the end outcomes of the COAG closing the gap strategy include indicators such as closing the life expectancy gap in a generation, are we right to pass judgement a few years in? In other areas very ambitious targets have been set and rightly so: halving the gap in employment outcomes in a decade, having the gap in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade and so on. Another issue emerges around the closing the gap notion: we are not trying to reach an absolute standard, but a relative one and the outcomes for non-Indigenous Australians are not static. This means that where there is improvement in the outcomes for non-Indigenous Australians the gap which has to be breached widens.

For sure we need to track progress, but what will be the implications for policy action? My concern, based on our recent research work, is what the reaction will be and whether there is ever a chance for changes to become embedded in an area subject to so much policy inertia. One of the key things that emerged from our recent field work was the almost constant churn in policy and programs and the inability for people on-the-ground to ever get traction. Let's see what the coming weeks bring.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Did I make the Top 50?

Yesterday I got an email from the editors of PUBLIC which comes out of the ESADE Institute of Public Governance and Management, Spain. They have released the Top 50 articles from their newsletter PUBLIC as part of their 5th Anniversary. Around 10,000 people read the newsletter in more than 100 countries. A few years back I was invited to write an article on public value and contracts for the newsletter and was published alongside Joseph Stiglitz, Chris Huxham and Christopher Pollitt, not bad.

Unfortunately I didn't make the cut for the Top 50 but it is a great collection for those interested in public management and reads like a "who's who" (maybe this explains my glaring absence?). Better still, the editors have made it free! You can access it from the following link:

Monday, June 22, 2009

Nothing like a scandal to heat up a cold Canberra winter!

After a bit of a break - apologies for that - I am back to blogging, and what a time to return! Last week the "ute-gate" scandal emerged from the depths of winter to give political junkies a scandal to obsess about. The Brits may have heads rolling over perks, but surely it is only in Australia that a Prime Minister can borrow a ute from a mate and see it snowball into calls for resignation over emails, favours, faxes and dust-ups at the Mid-Winter Ball!

In The Australian today several articles deal with the emerging scandal and political showdown. The story centres on whether or not a long-time friend of the PM (and a car dealer that lent him a ute) was given favoured treatment by the government in having his interests represented during a period where the government was trying to assist the car industry.

With calls for resignation flying back and forth a range of interesting questions are being asked: Did a long-time friend of the PMs get special treatment? Is it "normal" for the Treasurer to get faxes about constituents at home? Does the mysterious email exist? Has the PM and/or his Treasurer misled the Parliament? As the Federal Police are called in investigate some parts of the "whodunit" age old questions emerge: what is the proper role of public servants? what is the nature of the relationship between politicians, their advisors, and public servants?

Such questions are nothing new, we now have a new scandal, however, to examine them in. Perhaps most importantly, are public servants acting inappropriately or not? Has a culture emerged whereby public servants are too "responsive" to political actors? This scandal feeds into a very interesting debate which played out in the pages of the Australian Journal of Public Administration between the former head of the Australian Public Service Commission, Andrew Podger and the former head of the Department of Prime Minister of Cabinet, Dr Peter Shergold. the articles are available for free from the journal website.

Over the coming days and weeks we can expect this issue to be dissected to the nth degree, however for those interested in public administration and management this will be yet another (potential) example of the changing nature of the politico-bureaucratic relationship and the questionable role of political advisers who act as agents between the two.

The pollies are back in Canberra this week before the winter recess: expect a feisty week as they play high stakes poker in part with the reputation of public servants.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

And another thing ... Back to Bhutan

I recently had an article (with Debbie Blackman) published in Public Administration and Development, which looks at civil service reform in Bhutan. Debbie and I visited Bhutan together in 2007 and have both returned (separately) in 2008 to work with civil servants there. Despite the remarkable changes going on in Bhutan in recent times there is remarkably little written on Bhutan's reforms. Part of this probably has to do with limited access but also the fact that most attention in recent times has come from the international infatuation with Gross National Happiness which, I think, tends to be caricatured and not taken seriously as a unique Buddhist-inspired development philosophy. Some have argued GNH is the Bhutanese contribution to Buddhist economics - I didn't even know this existed until I starting writing this article! You can see the abstract here or you can get the whole article from my Crawford School page. Over the next year I will do some writing on service delivery and reform in Bhutan, and perhaps over the next couple join with some colleagues to write a book of reform and democratisation. In the meantime enjoy some of the first published work on public sector reform in Bhutan!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dole queues, hiring binges, and book contracts!

One area of employment growth has been the recent hiring binge at Centrelink - the Australian government one-stop-shop - as government gears up for a major increase in unemployment numbers. In The Australian this week it was reported that Centrelink had hired 1000 additional staff to handle to deal with the increased demand from those joining the unemployment queue. The call centre has been unable to meet demand from a combination of pressure including rising unemployment, those seeking assistance from recent natural disasters, and people desperately ringing to see when the Rudd government's "stimulus" payment will hit their bank accounts. With latest unemployment figures out tomorrow, maybe we could see some more hiring going on at the service end of government?
In a related development the recent announcement of the tender outcomes for the latest round of employment services contracts has caused outcry to say the least! More than a decade in, the system has had a real shake-up with the latest round of tendering, the first under the Rudd Government. International players have entered the game in Australia and a range of local, non-profit providers, many rated as high performing providers, have lost contracts and will now start adding their own staff to the dole queues. The Job Network, now Job Service Australia, has always been a fascinating experiment with a quasi-market: the previous government dismantled a government organisation which handled job placement for unemployment people and created a market for employment services. Whilst it took a few rounds to settle - a period over which there was a clear reduction in the number of providers as market concentration occurred - an interesting mix of competition, performance management, and attempts to develop longer-term arrangements developed. I wrote a three-part case which set out the history of employment services reform and how performance management developed in the system for the Australia and New Zealand School of Management a couple of years ago - might be time for an update!
Given the uproar over changes, including who lost contracts and why, current sentiment is that there may be a Senate inquiry to investigate the basis for awarding the contracts. Of course, in a "market", quasi as it might be, there is no guarantees of business .......
Busy time ahead for me as I embark on my first major book. Together with John Alford from the Australia New Zealand School of Government, I have a contract with Palgrave Macmillian to write a book on how government works with external parties to deliver public services. Due with the publisher June 2010 looks like John and I will be powering on through 2009-10.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Blogging in the Mother Country

Colin Talbot, an academic from the UK has recently started a blog on Whitehall and Public Management. I met Colin a few years ago at a conference in Nottingham where I was presenting a paper on public value and contracting and we have keep in touch since exchanging papers and thoughts on the topics. He works across a range of public management topics but I found his book The Paradoxical Primate a fabulous read - highly recommended!

Colin has been doing some work in the area of public value - one of my areas of interest - and recently edited a special issue of the International Journal of Public Administration on the topic where I had an article with John Alford, Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

Colin's blog has been an instant success and shows clearly the interest in public management around the world. You can check it out here:

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cutting Jobs to Change Culture?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has announced that it will cut 180 managers, following on from similar level cuts last year. As I have mentioned previously the "efficiency dividend" is challenging many government organisations but in this case it has been startling to hear the cuts are driven, in part, by the opinions of younger staff in the organisation.

The Acting Australian Statistician explained that his decision was guided, in part, by a repeated complaint from younger staff that the "management culture" was a key barrier to innovation and adaptation.

The issue of organisational culture is, to say the least, a controversial one in the academic literature and also in management practice. In practice culture is often cited as a key to organisational success or as a reason why organisations struggle to perform or achieve goals. But what do even mean by culture? Definitions abound, of course, but one of the most interesting debates in the literature on culture (well, from my view anyway) is whether culture is something an organisation has which means management can change it or use it as some form of lever; on the other hand are those that conceive of culture as something an organisation is. Here culture is a more anthropological concept which implies managers cannot do much "to" it. In practice, when we hear of attempts to change culture we often hear about how hard this is, how organisations fail at it, or how "if only we can change the culture" we would be able to do what we really want to.

Whether removing 180 managers will allow for profound cultural change, let's wait and see!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Are Canberrans Really Safe from the Axe?

A recent article in the Canberra Times optimistically reported that Canberra-based public servants were largely safe from the federal government's suspected trimming of the public service. In the 1990s massive cuts occurred to the Commonwealth public service and created major economic problems in the capital (although the resultant property price crash would be welcomed by some in Canberra!). The never-ending 'efficiency dividend' imposed on government agencies has resulted in vacant jobs going unfilled, non-renewal of contractors and the like. But for how long can dividends be delivered using this approach? In combination with the Prime Ministers phenomenal work ethic and his seemingly never-ending demands on public servants to follow his lead has caused a lot of fuss around Canberra (see earlier posts). And, whilst the Territory government might be 'confident' they will be spared the razor gang's cuts, their optimism might be seen in months to come, to be over-inflated.

It's also to believe that cuts won't be made in Canberra in what are mainly policy parts of Departments to enable service expansion around the country when we are getting closer and closer to a dreaded recession. Demand for governments services will clearly increase - something recognised recently by the reconfiguring of rules in the Job Network to enable those made redundant to immediately access job placement and training services - at a cost of almost $300M. When push comes to shove will the government really want to save Canberra, or invest its ever-dwindling funds into services for what will be an increasing pool of unemployed people across the coutry?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Public Servants Fight Back

Today, The Canberra Times carried another article on the issue of workloads for public servants. This is an issue which is unlikely to fade from the radar as the human resource issues bubbling away in the Australian Public Service continue to emerge - high turnover, efficiency dividends, recruitment problems, changes to terms and conditions following the election of Labor, and increasing deamnds from both political masters and the community.

What was interesting about the latest installment in this ongoing issue was the comments by the head of the Australian Public Service Commission, Lynelle Briggs. Briggs was quoted as saying, The cumulative weight of efficiency dividends over the past 20 years or so has been enormous ... and that in combination with only partial funding of salary increases in the public service, together with the things we're asked to absorb, has taken a big toll.''

Briggs argued, ''I think if the Government wants good policy advice with some carefully nuanced perspectives on where to go, then people need time to have a break ... the alternative is that we continue to work at this rate and we get used to it. But if the Government is going to do that they're going to have to pay us more. It's as simple as that.''

The Community and Public Sector Union has mounted similar arguments and is gearing up for a "major campaign" against the government as the combined effects of arbitrary efficiency dividends, increasing demand for services, and downward pressure on salaries looks like creating a very unhealthy work environment indeed.