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Reimagining governments as system stewards to deliver better outcomes

7 November 2021

News and media


Image of woman leading meeting

System stewardship is a powerful and increasingly influential way of thinking about the role of government, which focuses on governments as creators, influencers or guardians of systems from which outcomes emerge.

The concept can be a slippery one, and the most recent webinar in the ANZSOG/Centre for Public Impact Reimagining Government series looked at what the role of governments as ‘system stewards’ can mean in practice. The webinar was the last for 2021 and continued the series’ focus on a post-COVID vision of government as an enabler.

It brought together four expert practitioners and academics from Australia, the United Kingdom and Aotearoa-New Zealand: Toby Lowe (Visiting Professor in Public Management at the Centre for Public Impact), Lynn Mumford (Director of Development and Strategic Partnerships, Mayday Trust), Kym Peake (Partner, EY Port Jackson Partners, and former Secretary, Victorian Department of Health and Human Services), and Lil Anderson (Chief Executive of Te Arawhiti – the Office for Māori Crown Relations).

The webinar – chaired by ANZSOG’s Aotearoa-New Zealand executive director Sally Washington – also encouraged the audience to ask questions on how system stewardship could be defined and implemented in practice, and how to encourage more of it in their agencies.

Ms Washington began the webinar by asking the panel ‘what does system stewardship mean to you – and what would it look like if it was working well?’

Ms Anderson said that a definition of stewardship existed in the rewritten Public Service Act which aimed to designate system leaders, but that she had adopted her own definition based on ‘kaitiakitanga’ the Māori word for guardianship.

“I am the guardian of the Māori/Crown relationship across the 36 public sector agencies in Aotearoa-New Zealand and we need to grow and nurture that capability for 60,000 public servants. I have set a lot of standards for capability care, have designed a framework to be accountable, and I think this is in the spirit of the Act as well.”

She said that part of her role was to change the culture of public services, which in many cases meant changing the way people had done their jobs for over a century.

“It starts with leadership. Every Chief Executive has signed up to change the way they work and have signed up their agencies to those two same competencies and will report against those competencies in their Annual Report. One of these is to use enough te Reo Māori (the Māori language) to connect because this creates trust and helps build relationships, the second is to learn about the history of our country and the Treaty of Waitangi.”

“This is not just for the sake of the system but so we can make sure we change the way that Indigenous People in New Zealand can live and enjoy their lives here.”

Ms Mumford’s organisation, the Mayday Trust, is a non-government organisation which works to create person-led support for people experiencing tough times, rather than the process-led support provided by governments.

She said that system stewardship was something that could be encouraged by governments but that it happens at the grassroots, and that ‘the system we are ultimately stewarding is for the individuals going through tough times’ and needed to focus on their strengths and talents, rather than defaulting to a deficit-based approach.

Ms Peake said that she believed that the role of government was to empower people to create choices.

“Stewardship is all about people. It’s very rare that one service system is one that can make that capability to empower people, so government’s role is to be an interface between systems and remove barriers so that actors from multiple systems can work together,” she said.

Professor Lowe said that a system was just a set of relationships that combine and needed to be defined in terms of their outcomes and effects on individuals.

“The actors that create wellbeing in one life might be different from others, system stewardship happens at different levels – and is about supporting a set of actors to work together to enable those relationships on the ground.”

Using evidence differently and putting system stewardship into practice

The panel discussed how governments could put greater emphasis on the needs and experiences of individual users of systems, and use that evidence to make changes in how systems met needs.

Ms Peake said that in the health field there had been a huge shift from thinking about efficient flow of patients through a hospital, to thinking about the experience that patients care most about and the outcomes they want.

“There is a movement around patient-reported outcomes, as a way of changing models of care and shifting care out into the community and making people more active participants in their own care. That raises questions of how do we get very different players working and learning together, who in the past might not have seen themselves as working together but are working with the same patients.

Professor Lowe said that in Finland the national education agency, had taken its role as not being controllers at the local level, but enablers and learning partners for local systems, which had included a co-designed national curriculum.

“Curiosity becomes a key capability, as does relearning to deploy expertise in an evidence-informed way, not in a ‘I know what to do here’ way,” he said.

“When you take this view of evidence-informed practice it enables you to expand your understanding of what evidence is. People have the expertise of their own minds, and that approach to evidence enables all forms of experience – not just academic research, but that accumulated through people living their lives – to become important in determining what we should try and do.”

Ms Anderson said that evidence was vital for making programs that could innovate and solve the social problems that had not been solved in the past 50 years.

“I continue to say to public servants ‘if you’ve never been poor how do you write policy on lifting people out of poverty?,” she said.

“The idea of engagement is that it is not just about making relationships, it’s about getting a different kind of evidence from people who are experiencing hardships and opportunities – this leads you to innovation because data is just pointing you to the same answers we’ve tried before that haven’t worked.”

Ms Mumford said that gathering evidence about individual lives was important for innovation and prototyping and this involved ‘getting out of the way to listen and learn what was happening’.

“People who’ve been stuck in deficit-based systems for a long time, they’ve often built up a lot of failures in their lives that they perceive as their own, but when you work with someone in a person-led way, they realise and can evidence for themselves that they can achieve. I don’t think I’ve seen the same thing for two people, they are completely unique. It’s absolutely fundamental for our coaches working with people to create an environment where people can be in control and build trust.”

Ms Anderson said that public services were often too risk-averse to put resources and effort into co-design.

“You have to first believe that working that way is worth it, and that the risks are worth it. At the pace with which we work in government, one issue is that we don’t take the time to think whether it would be better if we co-designed, and took those risks,” she said.

Ms Peake said there were lots of types of services where some critical mass mattered, such as public transport, and others such as aged care, where limited resources led to models of care designed to support as many people as possible, but there was still room to think differently about service provision.

“Accountability needs to be rethought as to be about enabling learning and learning systems. Even if there are different pools of funding, you can connect them up in creative ways. We need to think more creatively and flexibly about the combinations of resources that are going to make a difference.”

For the past two years ANZSOG and the Centre for Public Impact have collaborated on the Reimagining Government series of webinars, which has brought together senior practitioners, academics, and leading thinkers from across the globe, exploring a new vision for government founded on the vision of government as an enabler helping society to solve complex challenges.

A collection of resources relating to the webinars is available here.

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