'Stop watching the West Wing': rethinking how we do government

By David Donaldson

March 6, 2019

Craig Ritchie speaking at ANZSOG conference, Feb 2019. Source: ANZSOG

We should look to the time before managerialism to see what government has lost, argues AIATSIS boss Craig Ritchie.

If you had the job of reimagining public administration in Australia, what would you do differently?

This was the titular challenge of ANZSOG’s ‘Reimagining public administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms’ conference in Melbourne.

Craig Ritchie, who has held various senior APS roles and is currently CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, has a few ideas.

“I think we need to probably stop watching the West Wing, and using that as a model for how you operate, how to be a player,” he told the conference.

“Less Washington, more Westminster. For me, less West Wing, more Sir Humphrey.”

Pre-managerial public administration

Reimagining public administration will need to involve revisiting the old ways “to draw from the past to make up for some of the deficits” of more recent reforms, Ritchie thinks.

“We’ve been through several broad approaches to public administration. There’s the old school, classical administration, that’s what I watch when I’m depressed and I go home and binge watch Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister,” he joked.

“If we’ve learned anything from [the banking royal cmmission], it tells us that in some parts of the private sector there is not much that we want to replicate.”

“Then in the last quarter of the 20th century there was a really strong managerial turn in our work, then that needed correcting, so we had this idea of new governance.

“If management is about an emphasis on authority, power and control, then you kind of thought well, that’s probably a bit overcooked.

” … Part of our reimagining will require us looking back at the pre-managerial public sector. Not trying to recapture and replicate, but take from there some of the things we sacrificed in our drive to be objective-driven and managerial and in control and in charge. We need to bring some of that into the contemporary world.”

The recent fashion of looking to the private sector for examples of better governance has definitely lost some of its sheen, too.

“Can I also suggest to you this reimagining will require us to stop looking at the private sector for models of organisational and operational life,” he thinks.

“We have, in this country, just had a royal commission, and if we’ve learned anything from it, it tells us that in some parts of the private sector there is not much that we want to replicate.”

Narrative and identity

Ritchie, who is the only Indigenous Commonwealth agency head, urged those in the policy game to be aware of the power of story.

“On the question of governance, can I suggest it’s a mistake to think about governments purely in terms of structures and systems and processes, and to forget the question of narrative. The real power in governance in shaping the world is, I think, in narrative,” he said.

“There’s a saying that’s attributed variously to the Hopi Indians or Plato—let’s go with the Hopi, shall we—that those who tell stories rule the world.”

Any attempt to improve how government works must recognise that “the work we’re involved in and our systems are deeply and profoundly cultural in origin, and start to use our cultures as a basis for recalibrating.”

The importance of narrative is especially noticeable for Indigenous people when confronting government—”a system that’s designed from its roots in whiteness”.

There is “an unremitting external definition of us, our situation, our problems and the solutions to those problems”, Ritchie argues.

“Other people deciding what’s wrong, what needs to be fixed and how to go about it.”

MORE FROM ANZSOG’s ‘Reimagining public administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms’:

Marcia Langton: Government accelerating Indigenous people into ‘permanent poverty’
Be a clever leader, not just an intelligent one, says Maori Development boss Michelle Hippolite
We need to talk about ministerial control: Glyn Davis

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