Public Service Research Group takes flight at UNSW Canberra

By Stephen Easton

May 17, 2017

A new academic research group dedicated to supporting “effective public service implementation and evaluation” has formally taken flight, bringing together the growing expertise of the University of New South Wales School of Business in public administration.

The new group was launched last night at the UNSW Canberra campus, the home of the Australian Defence Force Academy.

“We think that the implementation of policy is a crucial area for our group to focus on and fills an important gap,” said PSRG director Helen Dickinson, an associate professor who also leads the group’s work on diversity, equity and inclusion.

She quoted the head of the Australian Public Service, Martin Parkinson, who said implementation was seen too often as “the poor cousin of policy development” despite it being about “150 times harder” in his view.

“People tend to focus on the design of policy and assume if you get that right, everything will be okay,” said Dickinson. “We know that’s not the case and we’re more interested in the messy side of policy and public service, such as what happens around implementation, or when things don’t quite go to plan.”

Partnering with organisational clients like government agencies is a big part of the PSRG’s work, and it aims to perform research that has a practical benefit for those who work in public service. “We put a lot of effort into knowledge translation and making evidence more useful to practice,” explained Dickinson.

Associate Professor Helen Dickinson

Consisting of around 20 academics with backgrounds ranging from political science to health, systems theory, project management, economics, accountancy, HR, environmental studies, geography, public management, public administration and industrial relations, the PSRG has recently recruited eight experienced career researchers. It is also connected to a network of national and international associates to ensure they have the best range of expertise and skills for any task at hand.

The PSRG’s “inter-disciplinary, inter-methodological” approach sets it apart from other research groups of its kind, according to Dickinson, who highlighted its growing relevance given the changing face of modern public service.

“The reality of public services today is they’re designed and delivered by more than just the public sector,” she said. “There’s been a big expansion of contracting out services into private and not-for-profit community organisations and there’s a greater expectation that different groups and people have a say in policy-making processes.

“We think it’s extremely important to bring together those different sectors in the works we do, because that’s the nature of contemporary government.”

She said this collaborative approach would allow the PSRG to “work closely with clients to solve real issues they’re dealing with, rather than take a cookie cutter approach to research and problem solving”.

Along with the “diversity, equity and inclusion” stream that is led by Dickinson (and involves researchers such as Dr Sue Williamson and Dr Meriah Foley) the PSRG’s work has two other focus areas, led by internationally renowned academics.

The first, led by Dr Gemma Carey, focuses on “large scale systems change and reform” and looks at big projects like the National Disability Insurance Scheme that require multiple government and non-government organisations to collaborate and work across boundaries to deliver whole-of-system solutions.

Professor Deborah Blackman heads up the “public service capability” stream which considers human resources systems, performance management, culture, workforce development and project management in the era of outsourcing, where government agencies are less involved in direct service delivery.

“Those three themes, which were developed to address ongoing public service issues, encapsulate what we do, providing a practical framework for us to build on,” said Dickinson.

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