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Rethinking public administration leadership: an education

The 21st century world of public administration comprises a series of challenges that confront leaders and managers. Developing leaders to deal with this complexity and deliver outcomes demands that we think differently about how we work with them.

If there is one thing we have learned from decades of reform it must be that there is no “one best way” and that quick fixes and simple solutions often leave us worse off. What we need to focus on is developing leaders that have the ability to determine “what works”, “when” and “how”.

The challenges

As an academic who is deeply engaged in the world of public administration, both in theory and practice, it’s not hard to point to problems. New ones emerge that we may not have seen before, and entrenched ones persist regardless of the various ways in which we try to solve them, collaborating across boundaries being a classic of the latter. This mix is pushing us to draw on a more diverse range of perspectives, and also look more broadly to what is happening globally.

Whilst public administration as a field has always been multidisciplinary, the disciplines in the mix are changing as we reach into other fields looking for new ways of understanding: systems theory, psychology, complexity theory and neuroscience being just some of the fascinating new additions. The embrace of new perspectives offers enormous opportunities for seeing these problems in new ways, for developing novel means of addressing them, and in guiding our next generation of leaders.

But the increasing scope of “public administration” raises the question of how we can make sense of all of this complexity? I argue that in the world of public administration there are five key challenges that confront leaders and that in setting them out we can lay a foundation for how we move forward both conceptually and practically.

Each of these raises a series of sub-issues, questions and challenges. Each challenge and the means of addressing them will, unquestionably, differ depending on the context within which they present themselves. There is also no doubt that the challenges are interconnected and this makes the job of leaders in the 21st century world of public administration require a different mindset and new skills, a task expertly covered by my colleagues Helen Dickinson and Helen Sullivan in their recently launched report: Imagining the 21st Century Public Service Workforce. Part of this also emerges from the fact that the “public sector” no longer has a monopoly on the complex world of public administration.

So what are the big five challenges as I see them?

  1. The strategic challenge: What do we do? What choices do we make? How do we make them? How is this challenge similar or different across the public, community and private sectors?
  2. The boundary challenge: What boundaries exist between sectors, jurisdictions, organisations, worlds of knowledge and professions? Why do we need to work across them? How do we do it? What enables or blocks us? How do we lead in this cross-boundary environment?
  3. The organising challenge: How do we organise to deliver on mission? Who does what? And how?
  4. The performance challenge: What are we trying to achieve? Why are we measuring and what do we measure? How do alternative performance regimes impact on relationships?
  5. The reform challenge: What drives reform? How do we innovate? How can we get reform to “stick”?

Developing 21st century leaders

The University of Melbourne has a long held interest in public administration. But as we considered the implications of the above challenges for the design of our new Masters program, a number of principles emerged.

First, the experienced practitioners entering our program should come from across the three sectors — community, private and public — and across the world. Governing is a complex practice and exposure to this diversity equips our participants to better cope with, and manage, these challenges. By having our expert participants sit side-by-side to confront these challenges, they learn from each other, alongside leading international academics and expert practitioners, in a collaborative learning environment. In turn the program and curriculum needs to also work across disciplinary boundaries.

[pullquote] “… what works in Hanoi may not work so well in Thimphu and might need considerable adaptation to take hold in Melbourne.” [/pullquote]

Second, we needed to accept that there are no easy answers in the complex practice of public administration and work from the more challenging position that often the only answer to tough questions is “it all depends”. This acknowledgement of the increasing uncertainty and complexity of public administration holds true whether we are looking at the challenges of designing public financial management systems, devising effective management systems, using evidence to support or rebut decisions, or exploring the ethical challenges that confront leaders in their day-to-day lives. Throughout the program we come back to this position — there is no easy answer; what works in Hanoi may not work so well in Thimphu and might need considerable adaptation to take hold in Melbourne. There is no one best way and part of our role is working with participants to develop the mindset to cope — and indeed thrive — with that simple fact.

Third, future leaders need to develop a much more diverse mindset and tools to navigate this world effectively, deliver outcomes, and make a difference. These include the foundational disciplines of public administration — law, economics, political science — but also more experiential subjects such as ethics, evidence and management. Public sector leaders also need exposure to cutting-edge ideas in behavioural approaches to tackling policy and administration problems, and to be able to grill the practitioners leading these changes.

Fourth, in designing a new program to meet the needs of 21st century leaders, we had to acknowledge they are not necessarily bound to their sector, or their nations, and will be increasingly mobile. Many will tackle these big challenges from different perspective and vantage points within their increasingly global careers. This internationalist approach means offering opportunities to work with others on applied projects, through internships in Australia or abroad.

The complexity and uncertainty of modern public administration demands brave leaders, and challenges universities like mine to provide a modern program which equips them to be successful effective 21st century leader, wherever they might seek to make a difference.

Author Bio

Janine O'Flynn

Janine O'Flynn is professor of public management at the University of Melbourne and an adjunct professor at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.