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New book offers unique insight into the craft of public administration

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

Shearer is a professional in the field of management and organization development, with more than 30 years’ experience working with large and complex organizations, corporations, and statutory government bodies in the public and private sectors. She is currently the executive director for the Public Multinational Business Client Experience within the Australian Tax Office. Shearer stresses that all of the content and views expressed in her publications and presentations are hers alone and do not reflect those of her employer.

Constructing the craft of public administration: Perspectives from Australia (2021). Palgrave Macmillan

By Christine Shearer

This book, drawing on recent empirical research, provides unique insight into the most senior echelons of the Australian Commonwealth Public Service and explores how departmental secretaries construct their craft today.

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

The influence of economic rationalism on public sector reforms and the suitability or otherwise of the new public management (NPM) for the public sector and its administration and the consequences of trying to impose managerialism on this sector are explored.

Such reforms and the contemporary management ideas on which they were based, including new managerialism and NPM traveled, were translated and transformed, with some elements accepted and others rejected. The institutionalised, governmental, bureaucratic and political domain of the public sector is fundamentally different to the discretionary, innovative, entrepreneurial, and managerial-oriented logic of the private sector and hence the NPM reforms are deemed inappropriate for public administration.

The research asks: how does the environment and context of the public sector in which departmental secretaries practice, shape their public administration craft?

Australia’s commonwealth public administration is situated within 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 considerable extent, the environmental influences on Australia’s Public Service impose restrictions and prescriptions on the Departmental Secretaries that in turn direct, shape and constrain the craft of public administration such that public administration is somewhat circumscribed and prescribed. While these features are contrary to the notions of entrepreneurial and innovative activities proposed through much of the public sector reform literature, such as the NPM, they are the reality of public sector life.

The research considers: how have contemporary management ideas influenced departmental secretaries and their work?

Public sector reforms inspired by contemporary management ideas, given the unique character of the public sector, have been widely regarded as unsuitable. Some of these NPM ideas underpinning reforms, when they traveled, appear to have been translated, transferred and transformed as proposed by the proponents of the theory of translation, sometimes to suit the public actors, their places of work and the activities they performed.

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

Where such ideas are accepted, this is usually based on an assessment of the suitability of these ideas as deemed to ‘fit’ the existing public sector. Ideas were judiciously considered and what appears to have endured is the unique craft of public administration by departmental secretaries.

The research explores: who are the departmental secretaries who construct the craft of public administration? The research explores who these public actors are and how a range of factors, such as their demographic backgrounds, their membership of a specific culture, how they were recruited into the public sector, as well as the dispositions, behaviors and principles deemed necessary for employment in this sector influence the way they construct the craft of public administration.

The background to their appointment as departmental secretaries and the qualifications and experiences they bring to these positions is considered: these inform our understanding of the craft of public administration.

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

The research further considers the values ​​and ethical positions that departmental secretaries adopt and apply to their work, as this underpins their public administration. Departmental secretaries are found to be public actors, resembling Weberian bureaucrats who construct the craft of public administration as an ethos, rather than managerialists who regard it as a rationalized and ethically indifferent activity.

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

In executing their roles and responsibilities, departmental secretaries are required to navigate a plurality of activities arranged on a spectrum spanning rational-instrumental work at one end and work that is highly political-interpretive at the other end.

Collectively this work incorporates: 1) rational-instrumental work such as leadership, governance and administration; and 2) political-interpretive work such as stewardship, stakeholder management and policy.

The empirical findings show departmental secretaries to be ‘boundary riders’ that 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, inconsistent, changeable and fluid. The substantive constitution of public administration takes place at the center, or ‘the “fulcrum point” or the “frantic 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 craft of public administration incorporating three core factors: ‘public actors, governmental bureaucratic political environments, and a duality of activities to be navigated in the execution of roles and responsibilities’ and a further category of the ‘fit’ of contemporary management ideas are provided. The model contributes to an enhanced understanding of the well-rehearsed debate about the politics-administration divide, and how it could be interpreted and applied in the design of government institutions, and the relationship between political and bureaucratic actors.

Recognizing it is possible to reform and modernize public institutions and public administration, for such reforms and modernizations to be successful they must acknowledge the institutional logic that prevails and pay homage to such logic. In the case of the craft of public administration, a governmental, bureaucratic and political logic exists and has done so for more than a century.

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

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


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