Overcoming distrust of government and rethinking public value

ANZSOG Dean and CEO, Professor Ken Smith. Photo: Colin McDiarmid
  • Published Date: 10 August 2018

ANZSOG Dean and CEO, Professor Ken Smith dwells on the key skills public servants will need for the future:

There is growing evidence that people around the world are losing faith in representative democracy and our major public institutions. 

This adds to the challenges public sectors are facing from the increasing pace of technological change, social and political uncertainty, and rising expectations.

To survive in this environment, governments – both politicians and public servants – need to find better ways of connecting with citizens.

Part of this is identifying the diverse set of skills public servants will need in this new environment. This is required to ensure that both policy process and implementation are effective and high-quality.

Finally, and most importantly, we need a strong intellectual case in favour of good government and the benefits governments that produce public value can deliver for society.

This case needs to recognise that government has a positive role beyond simply addressing market failure and delivering basic services to citizens in need.

After all, despite the survey results showing a decline in faith in liberal democratic governments, particularly amongst successive generations post the Great Depression, no one has really addressed  what should replace democracy if it is condemned to the dustbin of paradigms. A world of closed, authoritarian, ‘strongman’ politics is no place most of us want to live.

But if we are to avoid this scenario we need to be honest about the challenges facing governments and begin working towards solutions.

Changing times need new skills

Zeger van der Wal, an academic at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, summarises the kind of change we’re seeing with an acronym used by the US military: VUCA. This stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

Public managers struggling to simultaneously manage technological transitions, changes of government, an increasing need to collaborate within and outside the public sector, the constant demand for innovation – and all of this with reduced staff and budgets – will understand what VUCA means.

Things are not going to settle down, and the public service must respond by becoming more comfortable creating complex responses for complex problems. That means better analytical and policy skills.

But what are those skills, and are our public servants currently getting them?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development lists the following as the key skills public servants will need for the future:

  • Insurgency: which might be better captured by disruption
  • Iteration: ‘fail fast, fail better’ as it is known in the IT world, and then learn quickly and fix the problems with your policy reform
  • Data literacy: a vital point given the big data trend
  • User centricity: consistent with work being done by the Queensland Government.
  • Curiosity: an interesting but important addition; creativity or imagination might capture this better
  • Storytelling: using narrative to paint a picture for citizens and bring them along with important government reform efforts.

These skills aren’t innate, but it is possible to train them on a large scale — this just takes thought, effort and commitment. This is happening as we speak in New Zealand and Australia , through  great initiatives like the Policy Project and various policy labs which have been established in universities and governments.

The Policy Project’s premise is that “Great policy advice is the foundation of effective government decision making” and the project aims to build a policy system that supports and enables good government decision making.”

Engaging with political reality

Good public administration certainly requires policy understanding, and organisational skill as well, but these must be complemented with political nous.

Political nous is not about engaging politically in a partisan manner. Skilled operation in the public service should incorporate an understanding of political reality. Even the most frank and fearless advice acknowledges that policy work is entwined with politics.

However, policy skills and political nous count for nothing if public programs don’t consider the next step: implementation. Even the most carefully designed policy needs to be communicated out, effectively administered and evaluated at every stage of its progress.

As the public service increasingly commissions private and not-for-profit providers to deliver government services, strong understanding of program implementation will ensure better outcomes. How we do this in a public service that is, as Ken Henry recently said about the APS, increasingly composed of generalists and economists, is an important question.

The capacity to effectively manage risk is arguably more important in the public rather than the private sector due to level of complexity and competing interests.

Why are we here? A deeper approach to public value

But we will need something more – a unifying idea which goes beyond the ‘how’ and touches on the ‘why’ of government.

Harvard University’s Professor Mark Moore developed the ‘strategic triangle’ which unites the three domains of public service: the political authorising environment, policy and administrative capacity, and the ‘public value’ of the end product.

Public value – the addition that a program makes to the common good – is at the heart of all public service. But we need to update the way we define public value to understand the importance of the public sector to the public.

University College London (UCL) academic Mariana Mazzucato has been doing just that, with influential work which shows how effective, entrepreneurial action can create public wealth.

She defines public value as a process by which public wealth is created. Public wealth is regarded as a cumulative stock of the public value already created, so good public policy becomes an investment in a better future for the public.

Professor Mazzucato provides a series of case studies to show that because government’s public investment is generally geared at improved outcomes for service delivery, we tend to forget the cases where entrepreneurial behaviour in the public sector drives eventual breakthroughs in diverse areas of the economy including, technology.

Examples include: the internet, most of the components in your iPhone, space technology, the touchscreen, nanotechnology and many of the products sold by major pharmaceutical companies. An Australian example is CSIRO’s work on Wi-Fi.

In these cases, the government program (or governments for that matter) where they started has generally not become rich from the proceeds of the invention.  Instead, these technologies were subsequently exploited in the private sector and produced enormous improvements in GDP and standard of living for millions of citizens.

Professor Mazzucato argues that we should be thinking of public expenditure as productive, not simply a consumption of resources.

This idea moves the role of government beyond the narrow view of being involved only in cases of market failure, or in setting up and regulating markets for specific services.

In today’s political climate, governments can and should seek to reclaim a regulatory space for, and a rhetorical rehabilitation of, the importance of governmental intervention in circumstances beyond market failures or other political crises.

Mazzucatto believes that we need a robust defence of the public sector to ensure it can continue to create substantial value for the public and for those private organisations that reap benefits from the trail blazed by earlier public programs.

The challenge ahead is to understand public value more broadly than just the delivery of services to citizens in need, and the emergency intervention of government in cases of critical market failure.

Instead, we should reiterate the capacity of public policy and government to invest in better community outcomes and along the way cumulatively produce public wealth, and through that ongoing process, increase the public good.

Reform remains essential, and reform remains possible; the challenge within government is not only to believe this, but to act upon it.

* This article originally appeared in The Mandarin