The theory of public administration: the world comes to learn

By David Donaldson

Friday November 21, 2014

“We all have experience of practical leadership in our day-to day-work,”  says Agnes Lo, an assistant commissioner of the Census and Statistics Department of the Hong Kong SAR government, “it’s just that we don’t have the time to sit back and look at it from a theoretical perspective …

“This course has given us the opportunity to do that.”

The Mandarin was invited along to chat to some of the international attendees of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s annual three-week Executive Fellows Program on their second-last day. The program is aimed at public servants at deputy secretary, first assistant secretary or equivalent level and is run by program director Robin Ryde. It features a range of lecturers, including from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

This year’s cohort has seen the highest number of international attendees so far, coming from countries around the Asia-Pacific region. They join senior bureaucrats from all jurisdictions in Australia and New Zealand. The response has been universally positive.

A common theme in discussion with the fellows is that many of the challenges faced in their day-to-day jobs are the same across the region. They all agree they’ve learned as much from hearing one another’s stories as they have from the lectures.

Agnes Lo says the experience of undertaking her first leadership course has reiterated that many of the issues she deals with are in fact “global issues”. She says she’ll be able to take back some of the insights she’s learned “to be implemented with adaptation” in her own work in Hong Kong. She’s also enjoyed how interactive the seminars are, helping participants to explore their own potential. “We’re all very self-motivated,” she added.

“It gives us a tool to think about what we do.”

Karma Galay, chief programme officer at the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs in Bhutan, says he’s enjoyed the chance to network with other senior public servants from the region. He thinks that while he already does much of what is taught in the class, it’s been valuable to be able to reflect on it theoretically. “It gives us a tool to think about what we do,” he said.

Most of the international attendees were sponsored to attend by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, apart from the Hong Kong government, which paid for its own attendees.

Nichodemus Mosoro, deputy secretary at Papua New Guinea’s Department of Justice, welcomes the opportunity to strengthen the relationship with Australia. He explains the course has helped develop his management skills, which can help dealing with the “problems of politics”.

“The problems will not go away,” he told The Mandarin, “so it’s important we are facing those challenges, rather than running away from them. I’ve really liked how after we learn the theory they present practical cases to tie it all in. I want to express a big thank you to the Australian government for funding this opportunity for us.”

Strengthening personal ties between officials means issues of significance to both countries can be dealt with more easily, says Indonesian consul-general for Melbourne Dewi Wahab. “It’s been good to meet public servants from a wide variety of agencies in Australia and New Zealand. We know that we can always contact them if we need to now,” she said.

Wahab also emphasises the importance of building the capacity of public servants in developing states. “The role of public servants is very important in nation-building,” she said.

All agree that one of the most enjoyable aspects has been just getting the time to pause and consider how they do their jobs.

“I’ve treasured these three weeks,” said Alice Wong, Assistant Secretary General at the University Grants Committee Secretariat of Hong Kong Civil Service Bureau. “It’s been great sitting in class listening to theories and getting to stand away from your work for a little while. It’s been a luxury for us!”

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