Opinion: why a paradigm change is needed in public service thinking

By on 18/04/2022 | Updated on 19/04/2022
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In a fast-changing and increasingly complex world, cookie-cutter solutions to public policymaking will no longer suffice, argues academic Jochen Prantl. Here, he outlines the factors prompting the need for change and offers his advice to civil and public servants on how to tackle wicked policy problems

The operational environment for global public policymaking is undergoing rapid transformational change. Power shifts and power diffusion proliferate the number of actors, vectors, and factors shaping public policy. 

Globalisation has pushed the connectivity and speed of interaction of socio-ecological systems to unprecedented levels. State capacity is at a premium. As the 2021 U.S. National Intelligence Council report, Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World explains, there is a stark disequilibrium between the demand and supply side of government. This is a very serious problem that has triggered polarisation, populism, protest, and internal conflict in a range of countries, including the United States. State capacity to deliver public goods is severely challenged, because of hyper-connectivity and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While diffusion makes power easier to obtain, it also makes it harder to use and easier to lose. The exponential speed at which these changes are happening is diminishing the policy space for individual governments and actors. Thus the need to develop strategies that are fit for purpose is very urgent indeed.

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Public servants need to expand their thinking and take a systems approach to resolving the increasing number of ‘wicked problems’ governments are facing at home and on the international stage. A wicked problem is one that requires an understanding of the complex systemic context within which it resides, is highly interconnected with other problems – for example, the nexus between pandemics and climate change – and cannot be addressed with ready-made or cookie-cutter solutions.

To address this, I have worked on how to help public servants look at these problems in new ways. Our original diagnostic framework and policy tools has been developed through a large multi-year collaborative and co-creational research project with the public sector we have been running since 2015. Our latest research paper is the most substantive elaboration of the framework to date, but we also have a number of other reports and articles from different parts of the project, especially relating to our case files on Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, South America, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

We recognise that the key challenge is one of mindset, even as we introduce a set of diagnostic and policy tools that can be scaled and employed to deal with complex policy issues. Using key insights from complex systems thinking, the framework advances a set of principles and guidelines for mapping and managing strategic problems by reshaping policy ecosystems to achieve the outcomes policymakers want, rather than addressing a specific problem in isolation. Naturally, government policymakers and university academics have different priorities when addressing policy problems. Government is primarily concerned with improving structures and processes for policymaking, so that their policies and instruments are better informed by solid frameworks that consider cross-cutting issues. Academics may be more interested in building comparative empirical knowledge about how policymakers adapt to changing operational environments and in theorising such adaptations. 

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So, in a nutshell, what is our advice to public and civil servants on how they should think about policy problems, and what are the lessons for how they should personally approach their work on policymaking? Three critical arguments stand out:

  1. Our academic research and policy training shows that the very structure of the public service and risk-aversion in how it operates is part of the problem. Public servants tend to compartmentalise problems, which impedes public policy problem solving.
  2. The interconnectedness of policy issues needs a paradigm that grasps the broader structures and systems within which policy issues are embedded.  This requires what the Nobel laureate and physicist Murray Gell-Mann called ‘a crude look at the whole’. What is needed goes beyond the whole-of-government approach and calls for innovative thinking, public policy-making that accepts policy failure as a source of policy innovation.
  3. Public service must have an in-built learning infrastructure to allow for constant reassessment of policy solutions. Yet, this cannot be achieved without a paradigm change that encourages thinking out of the box, making mistakes, and using that as an opportunity to learn and innovate.

Some of those prerequisite skills can be acquired through training. The main challenge though is a paradigm change in mindset and a willingness to operate out of well-established comfort zones. The main lesson is to be bold and bolshy and opt out of departmental boxes and stovepipes and create networks inside and outside the public service, including academia and civil society. Being a public servant is first and foremost about being a policy entrepreneur and protagonist, and about being of service to society at large rather than exclusively being of service to the minister of the day. Policy co-creation – involving academia, public service, and civil society – is not a silver bullet. Yet, it goes a long way to develop a mindset and framework to facilitate policy innovation and integrated policymaking in what the late Cambridge theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has called the twenty-first century of complexity.

About Jochen Prantl

Jochen Prantl is professor of international relations at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, Canberra

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