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Strategy and boundary challenges

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Tom Burton: Welcome to The Mandarin. Today, we’re speaking with Janine O’Flynn, professor of Public Management, and the Director of the Master’s of Public Administration at the Melbourne School of Government at Melbourne University. Welcome, Janine.

Janine O’Flynn: Thank you.

Tom Burton: Janine, the school’s been doing a lot of thinking about the 21st century public servant and its challenges, and in particular, challenges around executive education and leadership. Could you explain to us what you’ve learned out of that, and how that’s been reflected into your program?

Janine O’Flynn: Sure. A group of us here have been trying to define, what will the 21st century public service look like? Working with colleagues at the University of Birmingham and trying to map out — what are the skills needed, what are the capabilities that we need in a workforce to confront the big challenges that we face? Not only for those working in the public service, but for those who are working with government and across those public policy areas, we’re trying to address these big problems that we confront as societies. That’s been inspiring us to look at our programs, both at our Master’s level, but also in our executive programs. What can we do to really make a difference in developing those leaders and managers for the 21st century?

Tom Burton: And you’ve articulated five broad challenges you see for those public servants and people within the government ecosystem — they’re not just bureaucrats, they’re people in the NGO space, people who are working with government in various ways. So if we explore those five challenges — the first challenge is the strategic challenge. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Janine O’Flynn: Sure. For me, the strategic challenge is really… what is it that we want to do? What are the goals that we have, how do we articulate them, and what’s the plan for trying to achieve them? In the government space, it’s a bit different to what happens, of course, in the private sector. We operate in a political market, quite different to an economic market, although obviously there’s overlaps, but how do people who are operating in that zone figure out what it is that the big outcomes are? What are the goals, and how do we try and put together some sort of plans? Whether they’re well thought-out, or on-the-go emergent-style strategies to try and confront those.

And in our world, that opens up a great space to think about, how do we think about strategy, how do we think about planning, what’s the relationship between politics and those actors who are operating in that very complex environment and ecosystem? That tries to address those.

Tom Burton: And obviously, we’ve been talking about strategy for many, many years. It’s not particularly new. So what, if you’re trying to sum a little bit, what do you think the change is in the environment that’s driving this new sort of thinking? How would you put that down?

Janine O’Flynn: The world is different. We don’t just operate within the confines of the public sector when we talk about public administration. Many of us would make the case now that government no longer has a monopoly on that, either in design or delivery, implementation — there’s a very complicated set of boundaries that we have to think about.

Different sectors work together to try and address some of these issues. We have a range of actors involved in public service delivery systems. We work across jurisdictions: in the Australian case, across three levels of government, and often, in some public policy areas, internationally. And then we confront these other types of — boundary challenges, we think about them as — which are around knowledge.

How do we get different parts of that system to work together when we have different understandings of the way the world works? We might have been educated and trained in different ways. Put an economist and a psychologist and an anthropologist together and try to get them to agree on how human behaviour works, for example. How do we understand that complexity? How do we think about the bridges for crossing some of those boundaries, and stitching together these solutions for complex challenges that we face?

And for us, that’s a particular skill that modern managers and leaders need to have. How do they think about those boundaries? Sometimes, you want to try and dissolve them. Sometimes they serve really important purposes. But at some point, you have to span them. There’s this whole sense of developing what we would call boundary spanning skills, and the ability to do that in a way that will help you to reach the strategies and goals that you see—

Tom Burton: The key point, if I’m simplifying it, is that it’s got far more challenging, more complex, and more uncertain, really, than in previous generations — there’s the obvious global piece, the government’s working in a much more cooperative environment. The models of contestability, etc., are forcing them to think about markets. Is that the sort of space we’re talking about?

Janine O’Flynn: Yes. So an easy example to think about is, well, who is it that actually delivers what we call public services, now? Everything from detention centres, through to employment services, child care, education, across the piece in terms of what citizens expect the state to deliver to them, is no longer delivered by the state. In many cases, none of it’s delivered by the state, even if it’s funded and regulated or planned by the state.

There’s a whole incredibly complex system of providers and actors who are engaged in that. So, that creates a set of boundary issues, and we’ve started to organize in different ways to try and confront that, or solve it, or tame it.

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The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.