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ANZSOG’s top summer reads for public servants

11 December 2019

News and media


a person relaxing and reading on the beach.

If you are lucky enough to be taking some time off over summer, it’s the perfect opportunity to expand your mind and get a new perspective on the world from a good book.

Below are ten non-fiction suggestions (+1 bonus) from the ANZSOG team. We’ve focused on recently published books, with something to say about public issues ranging from the role of universities, family violence, the value of the public sector and Indigenous history and culture.

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy by Michael Lewis

Under the Trump Administration the USA’s public service is being neglected and subverted by its own leaders. The Fifth Risk is a celebration of the varied and often invisible roles played by career public servants and their agencies – from food stamps and school lunches to managing nuclear weapons – and a warning about how they are at risk from populism and corporatisation in the USA.

Written by the author of Moneyball and The Blind Side it makes the complex seem simple and gives a stirring defence of public services, public value and the expertise and dedication of the individual public servants who keep government running.

Welcome to Country by Marcia Langton

Respected Aboriginal elder and author Professor Marcia Langton has written a practical guide for tourists or Australians wanting to explore Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and understand the history and meanings of Australian landscapes.

The book covers Indigenous languages and customs, history, native title, art and dance, storytelling, and cultural awareness and etiquette for visitors, all united by the question of what does ‘country’ mean to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It explores the impact that colonisation has had on Indigenous peoples and their links to country.

This is followed by a directory of Indigenous tourism experiences, organised into state and territory sections, covering galleries and festivals, communities that are open to visitors, tours and performances.

Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

The memoir of Samantha Power – diplomat and human rights adviser to President Barack Obama – mixes her personal history and journey from activist to political player, with her account of significant international crises such as Ebola outbreaks and the disintegrations of Libya and Syria. As well as being a minute-by-minute account of the development of foreign policy, it examines the ethics of humanitarian interventions and the use of force in foreign policy, as well as the tensions when idealism meets messy global reality.

Troll Hunting by Ginger Gorman

Internet trolls are not loners operating out of their parents’ basement who we just need to ignore until they go away. They are organised, dangerous and need to be fought by authorities, employers and bystanders online.

In 2013, journalist Ginger Gorman was trolled online, an organised attack including hateful tweets and death threats. Once the attacks subsided she found herself curious about who the trolls were and why they acted that way.

Over the next five years, she spoke to psychologists, trolling victims, law enforcement, academics and, most importantly, trolls themselves, uncovering a cohort of men – mostly angry, young and white – who feel marginalised and disenfranchised and use the internet to express this. This book outlines how trolls work, why they do it, and what practical steps we can take to make the online world safer.

The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes

From the ashes of war to the powerhouse of the European Union, Germany’s history has been tied to that of the world. This book is a concise and illuminating tour through the history of Europe’s most admired and feared country.

From the Roman Era history of what is now Germany, through the Middle Ages and the Third Reich the book tells the real story of Germany and asks questions about the nation’s future.

By what miracle did a better Germany arise from the rubble of World War Two? Is Germany now the last Western bastion of industrial prosperity and rational politics? Or are the EU and the Euro merely window-dressing for a new German hegemony?

The Good University by Raewyn Connell

Higher education is booming across the world and has become a major export for Australia and New Zealand. But at the same time corporate-style management, cost-cutting governments, mobilisations by angry students and strikes by disgruntled staff have all taken their toll — in almost every country around the world. It’s no wonder that there is talk of ‘universities in crisis.’

Sydney University Professor Raewyn Connell asks fundamental questions about what a good university should look like in this challenging analysis of contemporary higher education.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

You’ve heard about the Gender Pay Gap, but what about the Gender Data Gap? Our world is largely built for and by men, with the ‘default male’ seen as a stand-in for humanity in general.

From smartphones designed for adult male hands, to treatment of female heart attacks, this book pulls together new research showing how gendered the design is of ostensibly neutral parts of our society.

Across government policy and medical research, technology, workplaces, urban planning and the media – Invisible Women exposes the biased data that excludes women and shows how it has a profound effect on women’s lives.

See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse by Jess Hill

Investigative journalist Jess Hill puts perpetrators of domestic abuse – and the systems that enable them – in the spotlight. See What You Made Me Do is a deep dive into the abuse so many women and children experience – abuse that is often reinforced by the justice system they trust to protect them.

The book explores the motives and psychology of abusers and the social forces which make men turn to violence. The stories of coercion and control provide an analysis of domestic abuse that goes beyond statistics, and focuses on the personal, but the book also asks whether our current responses to domestic abuse are working, examines what a society-wide focus on reducing abuse could look like, and asks what immediate interventions we could adopt now.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshanna Zuboff

Data is the new oil, and this book is a searing attack on the major internet companies which are profiting from the digital economy. Asking deep questions about what happens when technology enables capitalism, and vice versa, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism sketches a history of how internet companies became collectors and exploiters of data about human behaviour and have now begun using that data to shape our behaviour for their own purposes.

As well as diagnosing the problem and defining how the new age of capitalism works, and how it has broken free from any democratic oversight, this book begins a new debate about how we can harness the power of technology to benefit society as a whole, not just the corporations that control it.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

The most debated Australian non-fiction book in recent years shows the extent of Indigenous agriculture in Australia and offers a new interpretation of how Australia’s First Peoples lived and thrived in what Europeans saw as harsh or desert environments.

The book has influenced public discussion and attracted criticism, but stands as a unique and highly readable account of Australia’s history. Beyond that, the book is as much about the future of Australia’s landscapes as their past and offers a vision of agriculture and land use that is more sustainable and draws upon knowledge that has been neglected since Australia’s colonisation.

And one bonus book for those interested in learning about good policy over their summer break-

Successful Public Policy: Lessons from Australia and New Zealand by Joannah Luetjens, Michael Mintrom and Paul ‘t Hart

We hear too much about public policy failures, and not enough about the successes. To restore the balance, ANZSOG has published a book that looks at how some of the key reforms happened in Australia and New Zealand, and why they have endured. The in-depth case studies include Australia’s gun control laws, the KiwiSaver retirement policy, New Zealand’s no-fault accident insurance, and Australia’s response to the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. While every success is different, there are some common threads including having a broadly-defined problem, bi-partisan support, flexibility and perseverance in implementation, and having public sector leaders willing to champion policy change.