Third time lucky?

So here we are again more than a year after I started this blog and six months over my intended date to deliver the completed manuscript to the publisher. Any hope I had that the end of 2016/early 2017 would provide time to write undisturbed was dashed by the necessity of another operation on my not quite fixed leg in November, yet more rehab and the move to Canberra in early January. Since then the demands of my new job have rather consumed my time despite one or two moments of scribing productivity and the ongoing delight of my research collaborations.

Now I happen to love my new job, which is fortunate. But I am all too aware that for my own health and wellbeing I need to continue to be productive as an academic. This is not just or even mainly about maintaining credibility with colleagues or contributing to the university’s research profile,  both of which are of course important. But paradoxically perhaps I know that despite my difficulties with writing I need to do it in order to keep myself in the right mental and emotional shape to do my directing job.

And so I am embarking (again) on the book project. Foolish, stubborn, deluded, I may be. But while the appetite to write it remains then I will keep on. I have excellent advisors, in particular the formidable academic author Helen Dickinson who reads and offers helpful critique on each draft I produce, and suggests every so often that it might be about time for another! And there are others who are kind enough to say they like my work and would like to read more, or who take every opportunity to ask me if I am writing, query why not and point me in the direction of new techniques to improve my productivity.

I am fortunate that the my subject – collaboration – shows no sign of becoming redundant. The context has certainly changed significantly since I began researching public policy collaboration, and there have been quite spectacular shifts in the last year or so – Brexit, Trump, to name just two. But these have not (to my mind at least) diminished the importance of understanding collaboration in public policy settings. Rather they have opened up new questions. One of these questions was explored last week at the ANU when I was fortunate to be part of a panel discussion with three Australian national treasures, academic and architect of income contingent loans in higher education Professor Bruce Chapman, journalist Laura Tingle and past leader of the Australian Liberal Party John Hewson. The event aimed  to explore whether ‘neoliberalism’ had run its course and what that might mean for Australia.  I was in no position to say anything insightful about the latter given the experts assembled on the panel so I focused instead on broader themes.

I reflected on the nature of those people who felt ‘left behind’ by the neoliberal enterprise, people who had opted in under ‘New Labour’ governments in the UK on the basis that the benefits of globalisation would be shared, but had now discovered that they weren’t. I considered how these people were joined by others in their fear that established institutions were no longer within their sphere of influence, whether that be the EU or national governments. Citizens responded with the only lever left, voting, often in ways that were counter-intuitive. And finally I reflected on those for whom neoliberalism had delivered in spades, the global elites, who now find themselves beyond the control of mere governments.

I proposed that one response to this scenario of inequality and disconnection was to think more about the ethics of governing, to explore how the institutions, rules and tools of governing may have had their ethical underpinning distorted or simply stretched too far. My admittedly trite summation was for citizen to move from a driving concern of ‘because I am worth it’ to one of ‘because it is worthwhile’. This does not negate the agency of the individual but does suggest that this agency can be employed in the service of societal rather than individual goals.

What does any of this have to do with collaboration and public policy?

Well a couple of things. The first is that the various groups I identify above – the left behind, the disconnected and the out of reach, are all engaged in different ways in within group collaboration. The growth in self-help activities in places where the state has failed or absented itself is an important expression of this as Kimberley Kinder demonstrates in her book on Detroit. Other examples of this are emerging from an international study of collaborative responses to austerity in 8 cities that I am involved with. At the other extreme global elites appear to be adept at networking for their continued success, though often we know little about them, see for example the Bilderberg Group. The impact of these different in group collaborations on public policy is unclear but their potential relevance is significant albeit the balance between ‘because I am worth it’ and ‘because it is worthwhile’ might be rather different.

The second is the gap that exists between these different collaborations and groups. This is a key concern for governance and public policy as an absence of social solidarity can adversely effect economic as well as social and political conditions – not to mention action on climate change. It is here that ‘because it is worthwhile’ overtakes ‘because I am worth it’ in a ethics of governing. But what does this have to do with collaboration? Well it is unlikely that outside of authoritarian regimes, governing on the basis of ‘because it is worthwhile’ is in the gift of national governments or global institutions. Interdependence now defines national fortunes in almost all spheres and demands astute political responses that are collaborative in nature. This in turn demands a preparedness to build a shared social solidarity across groups and nations, again a collaborative enterprise. The prevailing winds may appear to be blowing the other way as Trump pulls out of the Paris Agreement and asserts ‘America First’ at every opportunity. But there is evidence of alternative weather amongst US states and other countries and this is predicated on the need for cross-national collaboration.

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