Governance even more hierarchical, risk averse as legacies linger

By David Donaldson

July 25, 2016

Public administration watchers in Australia have been discussing moves towards less hierarchical governance structures and stronger collaboration with other sectors for a long time.

But in some places not a lot has changed, thinks Meredith Edwards, former deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In fact, some have even backslid.

“There is evidence that some agencies have become more and not less hierarchical with stronger executive control, and public servants have become more and not less risk-averse, with middle management becoming less and not more empowered,” Edwards writes in a chapter for the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s new book, The three sector solution: delivering public policy in collaboration with not-for-profits and business.

There’s a noticeable gap between the rhetoric and reality when it comes to institutional reform, she says:

“Unless considerable change beyond the incremental takes place into the future … then it follows that the reality will be a widening gap or mismatch between the problems to be solved on the one hand and, on the other, public institutions and behaviours. There is a need to adapt the organisations to fit the problem wherever the problems do not fit the boundaries, rather than expect the problems to change to fit organisational structures.”

These same issues have been canvassed for a long time without making much headway, Edwards argues. She gives the example of a forum held 15 years ago on the topic “New players, partners and processes: a public sector without boundaries?” One speaker noted back then that “despite the rhetoric there have not been enough examples of genuine collaborative partnerships between government and the third sector to begin to adequately measure the effectiveness of this mode of boundary spanning”.

“Sadly, the same could be said today”, Edwards thinks, despite plenty of discussion in the meantime.

Hybrid governance

In recent years the rhetoric coming from governments and governance experts has increasingly moved towards promoting what the literature calls “new public governance”.

Basically this theory acknowledges that power in the contemporary state is distributed — that is, unlike in the 1970s when the public sector was vast and delivered all sorts of services itself, today the corporate and not-for-profit sectors work alongside governments to deliver public services. Government is more reliant on other organisations and networks; in some cases its role is as a key player rather than the player. Governance must inevitably adapt.

But while the discourse speaks about new public governance as a distinct approach from those that came before, in reality agencies tend to have “hybrid” governance systems, argues Melbourne School of Government associate professor Helen Dickinson.

In her chapter of the ANZSOG book, Dickinson explains:

“Rhetorically speaking, it would seem that governments have gone through a period of profound governance reform; however, in practice, the impacts of this reform process are less palpable. The reality is that hybrid forms of governance prevail, with a complex overlay of different governance arrangements. This observation has significant implications for the way we organise public services and the kinds of skills and values we require of public servants.

” … Rather than seeing wholesale shifts we are faced instead with overlapping layers of different reform processes.”

The result of outsourcing more services has been a fragmentation of governance — although they return some influence through the apportionment of grants and contracts, governments don’t retain direct control over programs run by private companies and NGOs. As a result, cooperation has become increasingly important. The analogy of a palimpsest is apt: while each system is scrubbed away to make way for the new, bits of the old remain and form part of the overall picture.

This matters because much of the scholarship, and indeed discussion, of internal government reform assumes that different organising principles give rise to distinct, separate systems.

Different leadership and skills needed

It also requires a different approach to public sector leadership and skills. Under less hierarchical or hybrid models, values become important to make sure collaborating organisations are working towards the same goal. One hazard for community organisations interacting with government is that the pursuit of grant dollars can lead to mission drift; productive conversation is needed to ensure goals are sticking to all parties’ initial principles to ensure a sustainable ongoing relationship. Dickinson continues:

“Where community organisations can be clear about their values and strengths, they are able to challenge issues that are not appropriate and advocate on behalf of their communities. Community organisations need not be ‘policy victims’, but for this to be achieved there needs to be constructive dialogue on all sides and not just finger pointing.”

Navigating these types of systems also needs different skills to those traditionally targeted by the public sector. Dickinson says that studies have shown:

” … public services typically recruit for quite traditional sets of skills and capabilities — often related to professional roles. Yet, in navigating complex hybrid systems, there is a series of ‘softer’ and more relational skills required of the workforce, such as the ability to communicate narratives effectively, collaborate, critically analyse multiple forms of evidence, coproduction skills and international literacies.”

While these can be seen to some extent currently, “this is often despite recruitment and development processes, rather than because of them”, she thinks. Public sector and community organisations need to “pay close attention to the skills and capabilities of their workforce in a strategic sense.”

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