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The pandemic cries for a reimagining of government

9 July 2020



Person protecting community icons


In a series of webinars, the Centre for Public Impact and the Australia and New Zealand School of Government explore a new paradigm based on enablement as a way of delivering positive community impact.

This article is written by Thea Snow, Assistant Director at the Centre for Public Impact, and Daniel Gray, Deputy Director of Thought Leadership at ANZSOG.

COVID-19 has shown us, in the starkest of terms, that communities turn to government for decisive responses in times of crisis. However, beyond crises, where a command and control approach can be imperative to survival, there are limits to what governments can do without active, genuine engagement with other institutions and communities.

As a result of COVID-19, governments and societies have been changed in an instant: new ways of working, new structures and new collaborations have by necessity been created and made to work. In Australia, we are seeing unprecedented intergovernmental engagement, which has challenged age-old conceptions of federation, power and leadership.

The crisis has given us a platform to challenge old assumptions and test new pathways, and attention is now focusing on what long-term change should flow from the crisis.

Reimagining government to enable communities

The Centre for Public Impact and the Australia and New Zealand School of Government have partnered to deliver a series of seven webinars on Reimagining Government, bringing expert practitioners and academics together to discuss the opportunities, benefits and challenges afforded by an “enablement paradigm”, which can take us beyond the current crisis and help us build a sustainable, community-focused model of governance.

Put briefly, the “enablement paradigm” is a vision of government where the role for government is not always to manage or control but also to create the conditions that lead to good outcomes for society. This means recognising the importance of devolving power, creating partnerships, and responding to problems with humility, rather than an expectation that governments will have all the answers.

Under the enablement paradigm, governments shift their control-focused approach towards a more facilitative one – acting as a “head gardener”— planting seeds, nurturing growth and weeding where required.

This shift is not simple or easy. Command and control approaches are entrenched in traditional (and modern) government structures, systems and monitoring mechanisms, and even in community expectations. These webinars have brought together public leaders, academics and leading thinkers to explore the opportunities and challenges faced by those seeking to apply the enablement paradigm and to highlight ways in which these changes are already taking place, and the impacts they are having.

Examples include programs using a range of local agencies to find jobs for refugees in the western suburbs of Melbourne, reforms to Wigan Council in the UK and, at a national level, approaches in New Zealand to break down ministerial silos and force ministers to sit together on cross-cutting issues – such as climate change – in a “board of ministers”. The key challenge appears to be around how to take this approach to scale.

Devolving power and taking more risks

The webinar discussions have raised several key questions and revealed frustrations at the slow pace of change.

Are big, hierarchical state agencies reporting to a minister best placed to solve complex local problems? If not, how do we solve the wicked problems we face as a society, while continuing to deliver on local needs?

How do we harness the value of social capital and local knowledge to solve problems, activate local networks and include NGOs and community organisations as partners, not just as outsourced agents of service delivery?

If skilled workers on the frontline (teachers, nurses etc) are the most trusted people in society, can we learn from them and capitalise on the knowledge and relationships they have developed through their genuine community engagement?

How do we address the tension between policy instruments needing to be fair and equitable and the need to develop tailored solutions to local problems?

These are questions that many public managers are trying to answer at all levels of government. Indeed, many governments are already pursuing pilots and considering how they can scale up successful approaches. Some of the key challenges faced by leaders in doing this include: demonstrating that failure is not just a risk but a learning opportunity, facilitating genuine collaboration that goes beyond task allocation and fostering an attitude of humility, which recognises that stakeholders – as part of a system – bring true value to the process of identifying problems and solutions.

The webinars have given us a broad sense that we need to nurture the changes that are already happening, celebrate the impact they are having, and create more opportunities for innovation.

Participants and panel members believe that we need to encourage systems thinking and find better ways to measure progress. This will be particularly challenging for traditional bureaucracies that centralise power and structure themselves to protect existing power bases.

Another challenge identified during the webinars is how proponents of system change can more effectively measure success. We learnt that one starting point is to recognise that existing measures are often narrow and built to fit existing structures, not existing problems. It is important to incorporate measurements of trajectory and change impact, alongside more commonplace process and outcome measurements.

Making change stick

Covid-19 has revealed that despite global surveys showing declines in trust of governments, and institutions more generally, a well-communicated response to a clear and present crisis can revive trust and motivate collective action for the common good for now at least.

While returning to existing structures may be possible, is it desirable? Large scale, long-term system change is difficult but the current crisis has demonstrated that it can be done quickly and well. There exists a huge opportunity for governments to build on the increase in trust, brought about by the current crisis, to build new pathways for community engagement in whatever our new ‘business as usual’ turns out to be.

However, systems are made up of their component parts and this is the time for those of us working in public service to reflect on our role, however large or small, in bringing about a reimagining of government centred on a vision of government — not as chief controller — but as chief enabler. — Thea Snow and Daniel Gray

Find more information on the CPI/ANZSOG Reimagining Government webinars, and how to participate.

Find the original article here.

Published Date: 9 July 2020