Efforts with ethics

There’s a chapter in my book on Collaboration and Ethics. It’s one of the chapters that I am least confident about in the sense that I have probably written less directly on this than I have on other aspects of collaboration featured in the book. But the more I think about it the more I realise that understanding ethics in the context of collaboration is essential to thinking productively about public policy.

The book is all about what I consider to be key dimensions of collaboration in public policy hitherto neglected or underexplored. There are lots of reasons for this, principal among them the pre-occupation amongst public administration and management scholars to focus on the instrumental questions of collaboration – what it does, the costs and benefits of how it does it and how it might do it better. My interest is more in the things that come up along the way and what they might mean for collaboration, whether it’s the symbolism of multiple kettles in a multi-disciplinary centre’s kitchen, or the emotional investment managers make in underfunded, marginal collaborative interventions. After decades of working in or with public policy collaborations there seemed to me to be enough material in the rather unexpected or unconventional to merit attention.

I first talked about this in my inaugural professorial lecture ‘Collaboration Matters’ at the University of Birmingham in 2010. Then I did some other things for a while but came back to these ideas and added a whole lot more in my keynote at the Policy and Politics Conference in 2014. I am very grateful to Sarah Ayres and her colleagues for inviting me to speak and particularly grateful to the constructively critical audience who engaged so directly with my ideas and helped refine them further. Particular thanks to Nicola Headlam and Allan Cochrane for getting me to take space more seriously.

The framework for the book comprises four dimensions: material, political, cultural and spatial; and seven elements: ideas, ethics, emotions, expertise, objects, practices and rules. I’ve tried hard to develop a fancy graphic that captures the interactions of all of these but failed.

I also wrote about some of these ideas in a chapter for an edited collection by Damon Alexander and Jenny Lewis published in 2015. The chapter ‘Performing a Collaborative Self’ focused on the role of ethics, emotions and expertise in shaping and re-shaping collaborative identities and performances. I have since drafted the book chapter on expertise and recently began thinking about ethics again. Hence today’s blog and book work.

As with all the chapters the challenge is to cover the ground of the issue being discussed, in this case ethics, but not to forget that my interest and hopefully the reader’s is in how ethics inform public policy collaboration. This is often tricky as questions of collaboration and almost anything can take you off in multiple directions, often leaving you very far from public policy!

It’s always essential for me to have one or two core texts that deal with the issue in the context of mainstream public policy. For ethics Tony Fitzpatrick’s (2008) Applied Ethics and Social Problems is a great resource. But there’s also that moment when you find something that chimes with the questions you are asking and aligns, however obliquely with things you have been thinking about. That moment for me came with finding Catlaw and Jordan’s (2009) ‘Public Administration and “The Lives of Others” Towards an Ethics of Collaboration’, Administration and Society, Vol 41, No 3. A great provocative piece that not only takes as its source one of my favourite films, but draws on Lacan to propose an ethics of collaboration in public administration that is about ‘bearing desire’, creating space to be-with others in ways that are disentangled from externally imposed values, drivers etc. This approach recognises that public policy is essentially a collaborative venture as human lives are now so enmeshed, but this is not merely prosaic observation, rather collaboration affords the opportunity for this enmeshing to be personally purposeful and meaningful. This chimes with my ideas first proposed in ‘Collaboration Matters’ that public actors stick with collaboration in spite of evidence that they should not, because of the value they attach to endeavour and its collaborative quality.



Procrastination or not?

I read somewhere recently, can’t remember where now, that procrastination is a much misunderstood condition. Rather than simply being a way for word-shy writers to avoid getting down to it (whatever it is), procrastination is in fact a valuable resource for creativity. The act of procrastinating makes the space and the energy (may have made that bit up) for new ideas and words to emerge and for bursts of creativity to occur.

So what better excuse need I, an inveterate word-shy wordsmith to set up a blog? Infinitely preferable to poke around the bits and pieces of wordpress.com than sit at my laptop not writing glorious, or any other kind, of prose. And if the pay-off is aforementioned glorious prose emerging as if from nowhere then who am I to complain?

There is a rather more substantial root to this sudden growth of interest in blogging. And that is the small matter of a book that has been ‘forthcoming’ for rather too long. So long in fact that the dear dear publisher who commissioned it has retired. And I am in need of something drastic to make me attend to it.

It’s not that I don’t want to write the book, though that was probably true for a while until enough time had passed for me to revise the proposal in a way that reflected what I really think needs to be written about and for no one else to really notice the shift. It’s not that I haven’t had advice and support from colleagues about how I might ‘just get on with it’ including most recently a rather insistent and persistent voice telling me to ‘shut up and write’ using a version of ‘The Pomodoro Technique’. And I don’t have writer’s block, while I am not a speedy writer like my remarkable colleagues Helen Dickinson and Sara Bice for whom the word prolific seems insufficient, I do publish regularly and in a range of media.

It’s rather more that this book is a solo venture.  I am fine with that from the standpoint of determining the contents and the style and the sources. But I rarely work alone and my preferred state is a collaborative one. And I have been lucky enough to have been in the way of lots of opportunities in my career to develop new collaborative projects, teams, programs and most recently a School – the Melbourne School of Government. So however much I want to write the book – and I do – I am so much more comfortable working with others to write, research, teach or build institutions.

Ironically of course the book is all about collaboration – collaboration and public policy to be precise. It draws on the wide range of research and other evidence I have gathered over the years to consider some of the under considered aspects of collaboration and public policy and to make the case for why we should understand them better.

So this blog is the latest attempt to get and keep me on track. Let’s see where procrastinating regularly on this site gets me.