New book offers unique insight into the art of public administration

An excellent new book by Dr Christine Shearer, entitled The Craft of Public Administration: Perspectives from Australia has been so well received by her academic peers that we asked her to write an article explaining its purpose and content for readers of Mandarin.

Shearer is a management and organizational development professional with over 30 years of experience working with large, complex organizations, corporations and statutory government agencies in both the public and private sectors. She is currently the Executive Director of Public Multinational Customer Experience at the Australian Revenue Service. Shearer stresses that all content and opinions expressed in his publications and presentations are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.

Building the public administration profession: perspectives from Australia (2021). Palgrave Macmillan

By Christine Shearer

This book, drawing on recent empirical research, offers a unique insight into the highest echelons of the Australian Commonwealth civil service and explores how departmental secretaries construct their profession today.

In the context of a comparative analysis of the multiplicity of contemporary management ideas and significant public sector reform initiatives, and national-level movements by successive governments of the 1980s through the policies of Westminster (UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) are examined to determine their impact on public administration in the third decade of the 21st century and what it might constitute.

The influence of economic rationalism on public sector reforms and whether or not New Public Management (NPM) is relevant to the public sector and its administration and the consequences of attempting to impose managerialism on this sector are explored.

These reforms and the contemporary management ideas on which they were based, including new managerialism and traversed NPM, have been translated and transformed, with some elements being accepted and others rejected. The institutionalized, governmental, bureaucratic and political realm of the public sector is fundamentally different from the discretionary, innovative, entrepreneurial and managerial logic of the private sector and therefore NPM reforms are deemed inappropriate for public administration.

The research asks the following question: how does the environment and context of the public sector in which department secretaries practice shape their public administration profession?

Australia’s Commonwealth public administration is situated in a number of intersecting and complex environments, including: a political environment; a constitutional, legislative and regulatory environment; a financial environment and a modern media environment.

To a large extent, environmental influences on the Australian civil service place restrictions and prescriptions on departmental secretaries who in turn direct, shape and constrain the craft of public administration so that public administration is somewhat circumscribed and prescribed. While these characteristics run counter to the notions of entrepreneurial and innovative activities proposed in much of the public sector reform literature, such as NPM, they are the reality of public sector life.

The research examines: How have contemporary management ideas influenced department secretaries and their work?

Public sector reforms inspired by contemporary management ideas, given the uniqueness of the public sector, were widely seen as inappropriate. Some of these ideas of NPM which underpin the reforms, when they have traveled, seem to have been translated, transferred and transformed according to the proposals of the proponents of the theory of translation, sometimes according to the public actors, their places work and the activities they performed.

Contemporary management ideas and public sector reforms enter the APS through the sponsorship of those with decision-making power, such as the incumbent government and in particular the departmental secretaries of the four main central departments of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, Treasury, Finance and the Australian Public Service Commission, in APS. Evidence shows that the disposition of these parties will determine the acceptance, adoption, promotion or rejection of ideas and reforms.

When such ideas are accepted, it is usually based on an assessment of the relevance of these ideas considered “fit” to the existing public sector. The ideas were judiciously studied and what seems to have endured is the unique profession of public administration of the department secretaries.

The research explores: who are the departmental secretaries who build the profession of public administration? The research explores who these public actors are and how a series of factors, such as their demographic origins, their belonging to a specific culture, how they were recruited into the public sector, as well as the dispositions, behaviors and principles considered necessary for the jobs in this sector influence the way they construct the profession of public administration.

The context of their appointment as department secretaries and the qualifications and experiences they bring to these positions are taken into account: these inform our understanding of the profession of public administration.

The processes by which department secretaries learn or practice public administration and their views on the nature of this work are also explored.

The research further examines the values ​​and ethical stances that corporate secretaries adopt and apply to their work as this underpins their public administration. Department secretaries turn out to be public actors, resembling Weberian bureaucrats who construct the profession of public administration as an ethos, rather than managerialists who see it as a rationalized and ethically indifferent activity.

The research examines: how do department secretaries construct or perceive their roles and responsibilities in the context of ongoing reforms?

In carrying out their roles and responsibilities, department secretaries are required to navigate a plurality of activities organized on a spectrum spanning rational-instrumental work at one end and highly political-interpretive work at the other end.

Collectively, this work includes: 1) rational-instrumental work such as leadership, governance, and administration; and 2) policy interpretation work such as stewardship, stakeholder management and politics.

Empirical results show that department secretaries are “frontier riders” who constitute public administration in a rational-instrumental transactional manner on some occasions, while on others they are drawn into the political arena. . They are required to navigate the interface between a duality of activities on a spectrum encompassing rationality, instrumentality and politics because their work is contingent, incoherent, changing and fluid. The substantial constitution of public administration takes place at the center, or “the ‘fulcrum’ or ‘frenzied interface’ of this spectrum.

Public administration has little to do with generic ‘management’, but rather is a complex myriad of bureaucratic activities associated with the business of government.

A conceptual model of the art of public administration incorporating three fundamental factors: “public actors, governmental bureaucratic political environments and a duality of activities to navigate in the execution of roles and responsibilities” and another category of “Compliance” management ideas are provided. The model contributes to a better understanding of the well-running debate on the political-administrative divide, and how it might be interpreted and applied in the design of government institutions, and the relationship between political and bureaucratic actors.

Recognizing that it is possible to reform and modernize public institutions and public administration, for these reforms and modernizations to succeed, they must recognize the institutional logic that prevails and pay homage to this logic. In the case of the profession of public administration, a governmental, bureaucratic and political logic exists and has existed for more than a century.

What the research suggests is that the established profession of public administration is fit for purpose by incorporating incremental changes and improvements over time based on its unique logic.

* Disclaimer: All content and opinions expressed in my publications and presentations are my own and do not reflect those of my employer, the Australian Tax Office.


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