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New book explores the resilience of public service ‘craft’

23 November 2022

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A new book by Dr Christine Shearer (below), Constructing the craft of Public Administration: Perspectives from Australia based on research interviews with current and former public sector leaders makes the case that public service ‘craft’ is an enduring and positive part of our system of government, and inherently different to management in the private sector. As a result, public administration reforms need to be embedded within a broader understanding of working in government to have a real impact.

At the launch of her book in Canberra, hosted in partnership with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), Dr Shearer said that it, ‘provides a view of the governmental, bureaucratic and political logics with which the management of public administration is tightly coupled and suggests that such a craft is unique and does not fit within the simplistic models of private sector management’.

Dr Shearer, who is currently executive director for the Public Multinational Business Client Experience within the Australian Tax Office, has worked in both the public and private sectors and said that her interest in the issue was sparked by her experiences across the two sectors. “I have worked in both the public and private sectors for over 30 years, and I was struck by the fact that management in the private sector is quite different to that which is practiced in the public sector, and I wanted to understand why that was.

In the private sector I had a view that ‘management is management is management’ regardless of the sector, but after my time in the public service I approached that view with a question mark,” she said. 

“As well, many people do not regard and respect the unique characteristics of the public service and, I believe that comes from a lack of understanding and I wanted to try and bridge that gap with this book.” 

The book provides a comparative perspective on managerialist-focussed public sector reforms across Westminster polities from the 1980s onwards and an explanation of why and how those reforms have had little impact on how senior public sector leaders operate in Australia. In essence these reforms have not fundamentally up-ended the underlying craft of such public service administrators. 

“From the 1980s to the 2010s there have been an enormous amount of New Public Management ideas, and literature on contemporary management concepts, that were evaluated by the APS. Many of these ideas and concepts were deemed inappropriate.  The craft of public service administration has endured despite many attempts to change and modernise it using such ideas,” Dr Shearer said. 

“The research explores who these public actors are and how a range of factors, such as their demographic backgrounds, their membership of a specific culture, how they were recruited into the public sector, as well as their dispositions, behaviours and principles deemed necessary for employment in this sector influence the way they construct the craft of public administration.” 

“One of the participants in the research that underpins the book, a Mandarin told me ‘If you look at the past 100 years, or since the federation of Australia and the establishment of the federal parliament, there has been significant change by the public service, but it has been incremental, relevant and quiet change – the craft has been adapted but not radically changed.” 

Sita Jackson, Assistant Commissioner APS Craft and Learning, at the APS Academy, said that the book had ‘captured the importance of how senior public servants apply their craft to their professions, and analyses contemporary management and public sector reforms. Christine’s departmental secretary interviews throughout this book provide direct insights from those steering and managing the APS. 

John Halligan, Emeritus Professor of Public Administration at the University of Canberra, said that the book was a ‘unique interrogation of what craft is about and how it has been undermined by fashions and politics.’ 

Dr Shearer said that what made the ‘craft’ of public administration different was a combination of the people that served, the environments in which they operated, and the roles or work they performed. 

“These people are public actors. Who they are, incorporating their background, training and education, and the fact that they are people who have chosen to serve and commit their efforts to the greater common good, influences the craft that they perform.”  

“The endurance, persistence, determination and resilience that they must have through their careers to achieve the craft they practice –requires a certain kind of person and is not for the faint hearted, because the craft they practice is complex and nuanced and requires unique personal qualities and a particular ethos such as Max Weber had suggested when he proposed the concept of an ‘instituted style of ethical life, or Lebensfuhrung’ (Weber, 1978).”  

“Furthermore, it is the environment they operate in which plays out and influences their craft. The fact that it is one mired in politics, government, and bureaucracy creates a ‘purple zone’ (Alford, Hartley, and Yates, 2017) in which they must function, that difficult space between government ministers and the public administrative sphere. Legislation and regulation abound in this environment. The media, a ‘beast of sorts’, is ever present to be attended and contended with. Budgets are given and taken away to suit the government of the day. Such environments create an incredible richness, whilst at the same time they prescribe, restrict, and constrain what Departmental Secretaries can and can’t do in their work.” 

“They are required to juggle activities that span a spectrum of political-interpretive activities at one end, whilst also participating in the more transactional-instrumental activities at the other end. Their roles and responsibilities span a broad spread of activities across this spectrum.” 

“The secretaries I interviewed were gracious and considerate. Some of the most senior administrators in Australia gave me between one and four hours of their time and their wealth of knowledge, understanding and ability were extraordinary. I think they saw speaking to me as very much a part of why they were in the service, i.e., contributing to the greater common good, in this case enabling me to contribute to the body of knowledge.” 

Dr Shearer said she did not believe the public service in Australia needed a major overhaul, but rather that reforms which were deemed appropriate by the senior echelons of the public service (its Departmental Secretaries) were those that should be a focus. This is because the senior echelons understand well their world and especially the ‘purple zone’ where elected governments interfaced with public service administrators, and hence certain contemporary management ideas and reforms cannot work sensibly in such arenas. 

“We should recognise it is possible to reform and modernise public institutions and public administration, but for such reforms and modernisations to be successful they must acknowledge the institutional logic that prevails and pay homage to such logic. In the case of the craft of public administration, a governmental, bureaucratic, and political logic exists, and this logic has been the case for more than a century and endures.” 

“I don’t think we communicate as well as we could, or we should, with the public about the value of public servants and public service and ‘the craft’ of public administration. Public administrators should continue to practice their unique craft whilst at the same time encourage government and the public to better understand this craft and its value in the modern world.”  

“I hope the book serves a variety of audiences including, the public, academia, public servants, governments, and consultants in the corporate world, so that we can continue to learn from, promote and cherish what we in Australia are blessed to have, a respected, well-performing and enduring craft of public administration.” 

Subho Banerjee, ANZSOG’s Deputy CEO (Research and Advisory), said in his concluding remarks at the launch that the book made a major contribution to the understanding of public service craft in a contemporary context, and reinforced the critical importance of embedding practitioner knowledge and understanding in public service learning and development. 

Disclaimer:  

All speakers at the launch spoke on their own behalf, and views should not be taken as necessarily reflecting the views of their respective employers.