How can we think about stewardship?


The concept of “stewardship” is rising in prominence as a driver of contemporary public service practice in Australia and internationally. The Productivity Commission recently described it as being core to the reform and delivery of human services in Australia; the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation identifies it as the crux of the trust relationship with its members and the Australian Future Fund has adopted it to guide its long-term asset strategy. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet describes its entire role in stewardship terms.

Although stewardship might seem like a new term in a public service context, it is, in fact, one that has been around for some time and has been applied in diverse ways over the years. In this article we provide some clarity around the concept of stewardship, drawing on our recent research.

Defining stewardship

Reviewing the academic literature reveals at least three universal features of stewardship models. First, definitions or descriptions of stewardship invariably involve a steward taking responsibility for some object or cause to the benefit of others.

Second, stewardship is adopted when resources are constrained. Restricted resources, include environmental, financial, personnel and informational. In some cases, stewardship is required because individual actors do not recognise that the resource is constrained. For example, an individual might not consider their carbon emissions to be a problem, but collectively, emissions have significant consequences for the climate system.

The third common factor shared across definitions of stewardship is that of a beneficiary. Beneficiaries can be clearly identifiable as a group within the community, such as participants under the National Disability Insurance Scheme, or they can be of a more indeterminate character, such as the whole community (to varying degrees) in the case of environmental contexts where ecosystem services, such as clean air and water, are stewarded.

If we examine the literature carefully, we can distinguish between the outputs and outcomes of stewardship. Stewardship outputs are actions driven by a need or desire to achieve an outcome that might need to endure beyond, or operate independently, from a defined policy goal. Stewardship outcomes comprise measurable change/s in at least one of the three universal stewardship components as a result of the stewardship outputs: (1) resource constraints: constraints on a resource are measurably reduced or eliminated; (2) beneficiaries: measurable increase in benefits to beneficiaries; and (3) responsibility: individuals or groups take on a (greater) level of responsibility for a resource, cause or process.

Typology of stewardship approaches

From our research, we developed a typology of stewardship approaches, comprising four composites, each viewing the role and means of stewardship in different ways. These types are not intended to be understood as individuals, per se, but rather are collections of individuals who share beliefs about the purposes and activities of stewardship approaches. It is possible that a number of these different types could be present in any given stewardship setting.

The Guide

Remains responsible for the resource on behalf of the beneficiary

The Guide is defined by a position of responsibility in relation to constrained resources that inevitably means making decisions of compromise. An example of this is a government agency tasked with allocation of public funding in a manner that seeks to achieve fair and equitable distribution of resources while best meeting the objectives of the community. The Guide approach is particularly driven to ensure accountability. The Guide is likely to operate at large scales and set goals over long temporal periods (e.g. government departments with broad responsibility for achieving reduce climate emissions).

The Gatekeeper

Grants access to privately held or controlled resource

The Gatekeeper will have direct control over a resource but will not typically be involved in policy-making processes. Engagement with these actors is necessary to meet policy objectives (e.g. landholders engaged in environmental conservation, private company that controls a publically important resource, or a hospital with good community relationships). Governments (often acting as the Guide) would seek to work with these kinds of stewards to gain access to these resources, but would often not seek to hold the resource directly. The Gatekeeper often operates on local scales and observes success over shorter timescales.

The Giver

Makes a sacrifice for the ‘greater good’ that increases the value or abundance of a resource

The Giver is motivated by a desire to make a contribution by means other than financial or direct reward. In contrast to the Gatekeeper approach, ‘the Giver’ actively seeks to sacrifice individual benefit for that of the collective. Through such a sacrifice, they can effectively extend the resource base (e.g. augmenting payments or delivering service beyond what is required). As with Gatekeepers, the Giver approach typically operates on a local scale, although the giving may be towards a globally significant goal. Such a perspective is likely to favour shorter-term goals, where efforts can be seen to make a positive contribution but can also lead to longer-term collective goals. It is possible that the Giver and Gatekeeper approaches are adopted concurrently.

The Maximiser

Distributes resources for maximum efficiency, utility and benefit of the collective

The goal of the Maximiser is to create “collective benefits” outside of any concept of ethics, volunteerism or sacrifice. This approach might involve processes to help improve the efficiency of allocating resources within a system, attempting to reduce duplication or overlap between public and private resources to achieve greater ‘bang for buck’. For example, this type of approach might be used to generate multiple community health benefits by designing education programs that simultaneously appeal to different sectors. Such a perspective also seeks to identify co-benefits by strategic allocation of resources. In doing so, a Maximiser perspective is not wedded to a particular temporal or spatial scale, but works according to context.

We offer that this typology can be a useful tool in identifying the purposes, beneficiaries and levers of stewardship when developing such an approach (Table 3, see full Issues Paper for more detail). The typology can be a helpful resource to use with stakeholders to discuss the aims and objectives of any stewardship approach and help to identify where potential challenges might arise in terms of different stewardship initiatives conflicting with one another during implementation processes.

 

Strengths and weaknesses

The below table summarises the strengths and weakness of stewardship approaches as well as the dominant object of stewarding and levers.

  The Guide The Gatekeeper The Giver The Maximiser
Strengths Overarching, powerful Controls the resource Strongly motivated by social levers Fiscally responsible
Weaknesses Politically sensitive, changeable, high level Competing priorities No direct resource access Motivated to externalise costs
Dominant object of stewarding

Outcome (change)

Process

Output (action) Output (action)

Outcome (change)

 

Dominant levers Administrative Social Social Economic

Adapted from ‘Is All Stewardship Equal? Developing a Typology of Stewardship Approaches’ by Dr Katie Moon, Dr Dru Marsh, Dr Helen Dickinson, Dr Gemma Carey from the UNSW Canberra Public Service Research Group.

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