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Reflections on a career in the business and study of public management

Across his career as a public management academic, Professor John Alford of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government has seen many things change, and picked up some useful insights along the way.

Professor John Alford

After completing his MBA, Alford was asked by Melbourne Business School to start up a public sector program in 1988.

“This was the era of Reaganism and Thatcherism. Small government, privatisation and outsourcing were all the rage,” he explained last night at a reception to mark his retirement.

“The idea was that the best way to run the public sector was to make it more like the private sector, often based on an ideological preference.”

Two ideas began to crystallise for him.

“First is we can actually use the concepts and techniques of the private sector. But not simply by transferring and dropping them into the public sector unopened … instead we need to adapt them, modify them, rather than just have them unformed. To quote a US scholar, the two sectors present as being ‘fundamentally alike in all unimportant respects’,” Alford said.

The second idea was that the choice to “privatise or outsource a government function should not be decided on the ideological basis or left/right divide, where one side says everything not nailed down should be privatised and the other side says keep everything currently in government.

“Rather, we should meet that decision based on an understanding of the benefits and costs of each of the options. And to define the costs fairly broadly. A position of horses for courses, not one size fits all.”

As well as leading ANZSOG masters subject Delivering Public Value, Alford teaches in ANZSOG executive programs for public sector managers. From 2003 to 2010, he directed the executive fellows program.

Unlike many academics, Alford has dedicated his work to practical issues. His research, on which he has published widely in leading international journals, focuses on the concept of public value, strategic management in the public sector, contracting and partnering, public managers’ political astuteness, wicked problems, and client-organisation relationships.

Speakers at the reception noted his important role in developing case-focused study as a key technique at ANZSOG, an approach picked up after observing its use at the Harvard Kennedy School. Former ANZSOG Dean and CEO Gary Banks reflected that the use of case-based teaching was the organisation’s “secret sauce”.

Alford left the audience with a couple of thoughts.

“So what did I learn from all of this?

“Firstly, you should think expansively about what’s valuable. You should be entrepreneurial, you should push the boundaries. I sincerely believe public managers have a role to do that,” he said.

“Secondly, the horses for courses argument… I’ve been know to use a phrase, ‘it all depends’, in this context.

“Thirdly, the importance of gaining consent for whatever you’re trying to do. It is just so ill-understood in so many areas of working life. … This of course would be helped if you had a better idea of your authorising environment.”

To honour his significant contribution, ANZSOG will name its case study library — now the third-largest in the world — after him.

Colleagues around Australia and the world praised Alford’s body of research, as well as his humble, friendly and collaborative manner. Alford said he was looking forward to getting out and doing a range of different activities with his newfound spare time.

“All I can say is thank you. Thank you all.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.