The tree falling in the woods

Is a blog a blog if no one reads it? I can’t imagine I am the first person to think or write about this, indeed there’s probably a whole literature on the varied contours of blogs, blogging and bloggers.  I wonder about it only because a very social media savvy colleague and friend found out about my blog last week, when it came up in conversation (no idea how), and remonstrated with me for not promoting it and building up my readership. Now maybe if my primary purpose in writing the blog was to publicise the book (assuming of course it is ever completed) then she would have a strong case. But it isn’t, rather it’s meant to be a way of disciplining myself to actually make progress on the book, or at least write a number of words on a regular basis. That reference to disciplining took me off into investigating Foucault and surprise, surprise finding something else I haven’t read on ethics, governmentality and the self.

So whether or not anyone reads this, the act of writing it is important to me and I hope for progressing the book. One thing I hadn’t really thought about was the rules I would set myself in relation to writing posts. But over the last few weeks rules have emerged, including only writing blog posts when book writing has occurred, linking the post to what I am writing about, and trying to record things I discover about how I write so that they might help me, or at least not hinder me, in the future.

So is this blog just a more legible version of a diary? or a public declaration of how I am continuing to underperform as an efficient author? or a recording that sits somewhere in between public and private? At/on a boundary one might say.

I am still operating on the principle that I when I sit down to work on my book I will write about whatever element of the current book chapter that appeals to me, and that I will write without revision until I have said what I would like to say. This represents an entirely new way of writing for me, a control freak who hitherto has written to very tightly structured plans and edited contemporaneously with a verve usually associated with my dog Dylan’s approach to a chewy treat.  As with Dylan’s chews there was often very little text left at the end of this process.

So today I decided to write about the public and private dimensions of ethics. I have been puzzling over this for a little while and not being an expert in ethics I may have this entirely wrong but it does seem to me that ethics and ethical conduct is language normally associated with people’s public behaviour. So we associate ethical conduct with the adherence to accepted ethical standards of particular professions and/or institutions. The institutions and the actors are required to behave ethically in a the public domain. But we tend not to think about human actors’  dishonourable conduct towards each other in private as unethical; rather it’s deceitful, dishonest or just plain bad. But if we accept that integrity in our private conduct is as relevant a concept as integrity in our public conduct then why wouldn’t we also think about it in ethical terms?

Before we get to that the work of Janet Newman (female academic role model par excellence) alerts us to the need to stop and pause at the word ‘public’.and what it is possible for that word to mean in a divided, complex, and diverse world. Newman (2007) argues that marketisation and ‘modernisation, social diversity, and transnational flows challenge traditional ideas of ‘the public’ and confront liberal values that have hitherto defined public action in the global north. In response she suggests that we reconceive ‘the public imaginary’ as an emergent property of values which privilege transnational ethical and political claims and social and political practices of state and non-state actors that support local public action cognisant of the dominance of ideas about ‘publics’ that can limit this action. This proposal necessarily encourages diversity and failure and the role of public institutions is to guard against this and facilitate its realisation.

Building on Newman’s deconstruction and reconstitution of ‘the public’ in the context of collaboration and human actors highlights the way in which ethics can confuse our understandings of individual conduct as a public or private action. Notwithstanding the fact that in many parts of the world ‘work’ comprises and constitutes ‘life’ despite the first world cries of ‘work-life balance’, we still retain a distinction between public and private conduct and associate particular norms or codes of behaviour with each. Who ‘we’ are at work will vary and will be shaped by our agency over how we can express our identity, but for many of us there will be ways in which we behave publicly that are distinct from our private conduct.

Newman’s critique reminds us that long established norms of ‘public conduct’ are insufficient in the contemporary context. What is needed is a concept of public actors and conduct that supports ‘a ‘being together of strangers’, open to difference, passion and play (Young, 1990: 236–241). Young’s characterisation acknowledges the desirability of ‘publics’ but demands that they and any public action be inclusive of diversity and affect and emotion. Barnes et als (2007) study of public participation endorses this characterisation and Lepine and Sullivan (2009) explore it as the basis for the future role of local elected councillors as ‘public persons’. While this ‘public face’ need not necessarily be in conflict with or even compared with a ‘private face’, our conventional associations of emotion and intimacy with private actions rather than public persists and can act to blur our confidence in how to judge appropriate behaviour.

This discussion is relevant to collaboration in a number of ways. Evolving the concept of ethical public conduct to include diversity, affect and emotion adds complexity to an already congested arena of multiple professional, organisational and/or traditional ethical codes. At the same time it opens up a distinct identity for a collaborative public actor that may be more appealing than the ones available in their organisations. Ethical standards and practices may arise from the generation of norms that are associated with the workings of groups (or collaboratives) and can act to enable or constrain their functioning. These group norms may risk marginalising the collaboration by signalling it as an ‘exclusive club’, something that should call into being reference to an ethical standard linking public conduct to public interest. Ethical conduct is at least as much about individuals as it is about organisations or institutions and this is clearly evident in collaborations where the interplay between individuals within the collaboration and their engagement with their organisations or professions are equally important to their operating effectively.

Get well soon Janet.









Progress of a sort

Writing freely is challenging for someone who has always anguished over academic composition, and to be honest can spend far more time than is strictly necessary on drafting emails, or even birthday cards. It’s why determining to write a blog in parallel with the book could be seen as a grave act of masochism, imagine how much time I could spend on crafting each blog piece, and then worrying about the next….? This anxiety is compounded by the fact that some people have been kind enough to tell me they have read the blog. Though not all academics, they are all accomplished or aspiring writers of one sort or another. Cue more anxiety about their assessment of not just the content but the construction of this blog.

So writing the blog freely is just as much of a challenge as writing the book freely, though I anticipate that the drafting of the book will be rather more extensive.

I have been lucky enough to receive some very good advice on writing from a novelist Nina Killham who talked me through some of the processes she uses to get words on the page, not necessarily always perfect words, but words that can be worked with. Determined to act on her advice today I was rather hamstrung (or I suppose that should be wriststrung?) by the presence of innumerable mosquito bites on my hands and wrists, an unwelcome, though probably not unanticipated consequence of conversing out of doors on a balmy Melbourne evening.

Armed (sorry) with enough anti itch cream to suppress the angriest of bites I  sat at the computer to continue my wrangling with ethics and public policy collaboration.

One of the unavoidable topics in any discussion of collaboration and ethics. is the capacity for collaboration to deny an ethical position. Choosing the word collaboration over others (networks, partnerships etc) means that the spectre of the rather dark underbelly of co-operative practices is ever present and so must be dealt with. A challenge though is how to stay on course, by which I mean how to focus on the dimensions of collaboration and ethics that are relevant to public policy, as opposed to more general discussions of politics or the habits of organisations? One obvious way in is through considering how collaboration acknowledges and accommodates difference and diversity and the ethical challenges raised.

For individuals the act of collaboration may pose a threat to their ethical stance, particularly if they are being asked to adapt or align their ethics in support of collaboration in ways they believe to be detrimental to their ethics or their identity. Public service professionals may experience this when being asked to work in multi-sector collaborations involving private or not for profit organisations with different values. Sometimes the tensions may arise between public sector professional groups eg health and social care professionals, police and youth workers, planners and community development workers.

Ethical difficulties can also be experienced by those involved in collaborations with public bodies. Community organisations or representatives may feel themselves compromised ethically in their engagement with ‘partnerships’, that are often designed formally to ‘empower’ them. These ethical dilemmas may be even more intimate. For example Piquemal (2005) focuses on the ethical stance of Aboriginal children in the classroom when they are asked to contribute to work that may be put on display, ie made public. She recounts how children will use practices of privacy and confidentiality to hold to themselves aspects of their culture that may share informally but not make explicit. Piquemal interprets this as a strategy that allows Aboriginal children to ‘live with’ the complexities of the contemporary world. This idea of ‘living with’ echoes other work on public administration and ethics that emphasises ‘being with’.

What is at issue in these examples may be different ethical principles concerned with doing ‘good’, being ‘good’, or doing what is ‘right’. This is where an alternative conception of ethics, focused on ‘bearing desire’ through collaborative relationships may be more productive, analytically and practically. I am thinking about how this might be.

Difference and diversity does not just matter to collaboration in the context of human actors. It also features in the context of institutional or country histories and traditions. The introduction of the term ‘network’ and ‘networking’ into the public administration lexicon provoked considerable discussion, particularly amongst academics involved in development administration about the wisdom of adopting a way of organising that to some signified unethical practice. This is not merely an argument of North versus South or developed versus developing countries. There is sufficient evidence of the use of networks as a means of securing and sustaining influence at all levels of governance in all parts of the world, to correct that misapprehension. Rather what this highlights is that different countries will have different ways of governing, shaped by different ethical codes, and expressed in different kinds of practices. These may not be easily translatable into a set of values that sit completely comfortably with those espoused by policy makers in advanced economies or global institutions.

The easy segue is into debates about ‘good governance’ and corruption and the importance of promoting the former while stamping out the latter. The irony of the importance of networks in addressing corrupt institutions that are themselves characterised by network design is not lost on scholars. This is an important debate and one that public policy has to address not least because contemporary governance is now so closely associated with collaborative institutions and practices that impact on core principles of administration eg accountability, transparency. Emerging debates about ethical governance are rooted in part in these developments and resonate with public policy makers in all parts of the world.

What does it mean to govern ethically on issues that cross boundaries and demand a collaborative response? Eg refugees and asylum seekers. And how does that translate into ethical collaborative practice? And what does that mean for individuals? Much more thinking to do.