Reimagining what type of governance will best serve the 21st century

By Adrian Brown

Thursday June 6, 2019

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There’s a strong sense that Australia’s current models of government, which have achieved important gains over the past 20 or 30 years, are reaching diminishing returns. Moving forward from here will require more than iterative reform — we need to fundamentally reimagine the role of government.

Two challenges with the current model are frequently mentioned.

Firstly, we are increasingly failing to achieve the outcomes people expect. While health, education and welfare outcomes have all improved, people’s expectations are rising even faster. At the same time, so-called “wicked problems” such as obesity, homelessness and poverty remain as stubborn as ever.

Secondly, we are facing a legitimacy crisis. Trust in government is a record lows in many countries, with large sections of society feeling marginalised or ignored. Too many people simply don’t believe government represents them or has their interests at heart.

At the Centre for Public Impact, we define legitimacy as “the reservoir of support” governments need to achieve impact meaning these two challenges are inter-related. Disappointing outcomes leads to reduced legitimacy which in turn makes achieving impact all the harder.

So how can we reimagine government to address these dual challenges? While we have yet to see a fully-formed new model, there are a number of strong themes that look likely to be part of the solution. I’ll highlight four here, along with some of the best examples I’ve seen in other parts of the world.

1. Pushing authority to information. Our government structures are still predominantly hierarchical. This works well in situations where the information to inform those decisions can be easily codified and passed up the hierarchy, but many of the challenges we seek to address are complex and require judgement and local knowledge only accessible in situ. As such, we should explore ways of distributing decision-making rights to those best placed to make those decisions. This means putting real power in the hands of frontline workers, communities and individuals.

Buurtzorg, the Dutch home care organization, provides an interesting case study of what adopting a self-managed approach looks like in practice.

2. Thinking in systems. Our models of change are often linear when the problems we face are complex. If the outcomes we seek are emergent properties of complex systems, then there is no point trying to “manage” or “deliver” them in a traditional sense. Instead, systems thinking helps us to focus on those aspects of the wider context that are likely to lead to better outcomes. For example, the extent to which information sharing and learning are encouraged between different players.

The Centre for Community Child Health in Auckland is challenging the traditional role of evidence by adopting a more experimental, innovation-led approach.

3. Being more human. Managerial reforms in recent years have emphasized technical efficiency but arguably under-invested in the more human side of change. This includes the important role that public service values have to play for those working in our public services as well as the need to take a more human-centred approach to the way we design services. It struck me that whilst everyone in the public sector is expected to have basic Excel skills, it would be more useful if everyone had basic ethnographic skills.

Wigan, a local authority in England, has transformed the relationship between the community and the council by adopting a human-centred approach at scale.

4. Opening up accountability. Governments are already far more accountable than most other large organisations thanks to democratic elections and constant public scrutiny. However, it is also clear that many of our current accountability mechanisms, such as multi-year election cycles, are insufficient or even broken. New participatory and deliberative mechanisms, such as citizens’ juries, are opening up decision making and accountability in interesting ways and worth exploring further. In addition, continuing to pursue the aims of open government by making as much of government business as open as possible also helps strengthen accountability and participation.

Ireland used a Citizen’s Assembly to explore the contentious issues around abortion and are now embarking on a similar process for climate change.

I learned about many fantastic examples illustrating each of these themes during my trip. At the moment though, these experiments tend to be happening at the edges, in small teams, and despite the system rather than because of it. We need to bring them into the mainstream.

Meeting the dual challenges of effectiveness and legitimacy will likely require some bold steps. Our current model of government (hierarchical, linear, technocratic, closed) has served us well but has run out of road.

Now is the time to reimagine government.

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