In 2010, I had the pleasure of leading an international research network of senior leaders to explore the new frontiers of public administration. Six countries contributed: Canada, Brazil, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore.
We shared the view that, in spite of 30 years of reforms, most public organizations and institutions are not yet aligned to the challenges of the 21st century. We need new ways of thinking about old problems and different ways of addressing new and emerging complex issues.
Governments have always been called upon to face difficult problems. Setting priorities and making choices has always been difficult. Eliminating a sizable deficit while preserving public assets and maintaining public support is a difficult exercise. It entails a delicate balancing act and careful judgment about multiple trade-offs.
Governments have always been relied on to undertake complicated initiatives. They are complicated because of their scale, scope or the intricate nature of the enterprise. Trade negotiations and sending a man to the moon are complicated exercises.
Governments have always been faced with complex issues, but are now having to confront a growing number of such issues in an increasingly unpredictable environment. Global warming and terrorism are topical examples. Shocks, crises, global failures are characteristic of the world we live in. Their frequency and magnitude will continue to increase as the world becomes more connected, populous and interdependent.
Furthermore, the systems necessary to the functioning of modern society are becoming progressively more complex as the density of linkages and interrelationships increases. This is the case for food, water and energy supply, and for information, communication and financial systems.
Complex issues are multi-dimensional. Breaking them apart will not solve them. They require a holistic approach. They require a participative approach to develop a common understanding of the issue conducive to collective action and cooperation among multiple actors. Complex issues require boundary crossing among agencies and levels of government and between the public, private and civic spheres.
Citizens as value creators
We are used to thinking of government as the primary agent responsible for serving the public good and as the primary provider of public services. In this context better health means more hospitals, doctors or nurses ... and more public spending.
In reality the countries with the best population health are not the ones that spend the most per capita in these areas. In these countries, public results have become a collective enterprise. They have put in play the shared responsibility of citizens, families, communities, government and society. Modern technologies give them the means to expand their influence from public policy choices to program design, from program development to program delivery. This leads to new forms of collaboration and social innovations.
The traditional view of government as the primary public service provider runs the risk of crowding out the contributions people can make to achieve better public results. It may also lead to dependencies rather than building the resilience and solidarity of society. Most countries lack a robust reporting system on societal results that gives proper recognition to the public value created by citizens. They lack a modern understanding of shared accountability for the collective results needed to encourage societal progress.
A government-centric approach reduces the range of options open to government. An excessive focus on efficiency obscures the potential for effectiveness that a broader perspective would reveal.
Going forward, countries with an active citizenry, resilient communities and a civic spirit conducive of collective action will have a significant comparative advantage in pursuing an ambitious agenda.
Expanded public space
There will always be circumstances where governments are well positioned to act alone. It is the case when governments can define the issue, take the necessary actions, and achieve the desired outcome on their own. It may also be the case in times of crisis when the collective interest demands it.
But it is not the case when the desired outcome is beyond the reach of government acting alone or when the active contribution of multiple actors is necessary.
The challenges resulting from an aging population, poverty alleviation or innovation are beyond the reach of the traditional instruments of the state. These results cannot be achieved simply by regulating, taxing or spending. That being said, in all cases governments have an important role to play.
The role of government is to explore and discover how best to lever the collective capacity toward the desired ends. The best performing governments are those able to integrate in new and better ways policy decisions and implementation, politics and administration, capacity and aspirations. They focus on exploring how to adapt to one's changing environment ahead of time. They experiment in order to learn in practice how to mitigate preventable risks or to change the course of events in their favour.
An enabling framework
The New Synthesis project has refined over time an enabling framework to guide practitioners. The framework is made of four vectors: two focused on results and two on how to achieve them. Taken together they map out a space of possibilities.
The framework is a lens that helps frame questions, explore the range of options open to government, and reveal the implications that various choices entail. It proposes that the role of public organizations is to achieve results of increasing public value and to do so in ways that build the collective capacity for better results over time. This has a number of consequences.
First, this means that agency results are poor indicators of progress. Second, it means that public administrators must mediate the drive for efficiency with an equally important commitment to civic results. The active contribution of users has a number of advantages. It builds a strong foundation for more ambitious public results. When done well, it contributes to self-reliance and community resilience. Finally, recent research reveals that participation contributes to well-being and improves life satisfaction.
Public administrators, citizens and other actors in society form part of a dynamic and interactive system of governance where the authority of the state is used in different ways to achieve different public results. This lays the basis for public results as a collective enterprise.
At the crossroad of these lines of force there are all kinds of tensions. This is where means and ends, evidence and preferences, policy decisions and implementation must be reconciled.
The New Synthesis framework also delineates four interrelated sub-systems: compliance, performance, emergence and resilience.
A compliance sub-system is the foundation of good government. It ensures that society is governed by the rule of law. It defines the role of public institutions and ensures due process, transparency and accountability for the exercise of powers and the use of public funds.
A performance sub-system transforms public purpose into concrete actions. Most public organizations were designed for the mass production of predictable tasks. However, the increasing levels of complexity and uncertainty that confront governments place a premium on their ability to "serve beyond the predictable."
An emergence sub-system is needed to anticipate and explore emerging issues and possibilities.