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.





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