Reimagining government to shift power to the grassroots

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  • Published Date: 26 May 2020

Could a project to find jobs for refugees in the sprawling western suburbs of Melbourne be the key to improving government across Australia?

Former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran believes it can, and he shared his vision in a joint ANZSOG/ Centre for Public Impact webinar, the first in a series on ‘Reimagining Government’.

The webinar, facilitated by journalist James Button, also included ANZSOG Deputy Dean Professor Catherine Althaus and CPI’s Thea Snow, and allowed attendees to pose questions to the panel and discuss issues in break-out sessions.

The theme of the first webinar was the ‘enablement paradigm’ – a vision of government which believes that the best role for government is not to manage or control but to create the conditions that lead to good outcomes for society. Further webinars in the series will focus on issues including: thinking in systems, reorienting to learning and leading with humility.

Watch Reimagining government: The enablement paradigm webinar here:

Mr Moran said that using big departments of state which reported to a minister to solve complex problems was a flawed approach, and that governments needed to think about how they activated local networks.

“In the City of Wyndham they have used a new approach to get refugees into jobs, using a mix of agencies and services and shifting decision-making to a local level.

“In Wyndham activating local networks was necessary to locate and unlock jobs, and to provide associated services like training and English language skills in place.”

“The old hierarchical structures and department-based approaches are not working.”

Ms Snow said that governments needed to shift to an enablement paradigm, which acknowledged that the world was complex and governments should not aim to control everything, but to recognise the skills and resources within the community and work to enable them.

“This involves a real shift in the power dynamic as well as the government’s mindset, and a focus on helping communities thrive. Government should be the ‘head gardener’ – planting, nurturing and sometimes weeding,” she said.

Professor Althaus said that change was necessary because many inflexible bureaucratic systems were designed for a different time and governments may need to develop multiple paradigms for different areas, such as, health and education which enabled them to work with communities.

“In First Peoples policy we may need to rediscover rather than reimagine, because there is a lot of knowledge of First Peoples there already within communities,” she said.

Mr Moran said that the biggest problem for governments was the mindset of trying to deal with problems through hierarchies that answered to a minister.

“Agencies like the Reserve Bank or the ABC and CSIRO have respect despite not being part of this structure. Shifting problems to big departments of state does not get you very far. The key to good policy is how do you shift risks away from ministers and departments of state into independent entities.”

“We need to get away from the Thatcher or Reagan ideology which was a means of denigrating the public sector. We need to build on the system we’ve got and work out how to get resources, means of delivery and devising strategies down to the lower levels.”

Professor Althaus said that governments were stuck in ‘theories of representation’ in a system that placed a lot of power with the minister.

“We are told it is inappropriate for public servants to exercise discretion, but public servants such as teachers and police are often the most trusted part of the system, so why not? We have to ask whether we can harness representation in a new way?”

Ms Snow said that perceptions of risk often stood in the way of redistributing power away from centralised public services.

“But risk is much greater in a traditional approach to government, where the public service designs an iteration of policy based on predictions which can by definition succeed or fail.”

For more information on upcoming webinars, or to register to take part visit ANZSOG’s website.