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.

Finding your voice

One of the things I remember being told as a phd student and something I have faithfully passed on to others is the importance of ‘finding your voice’ in your writing. Some people find it quickly and easily, and sometimes that ease reveals a naive or even crude voice. Others take a long time to find it and it emerges not wholly formed but in fits and starts, sometimes fluid and in command, at other times stuttering and at the mercy of all the giants of knowledge whose shoulders you are trying to scramble up on. However it is come upon it reflects that point in research when you are no longer in thrall to others’ views and arguments, but able to deploy knowledge, data and evidence in the service of your voice.

Needless to say it took me a good while to find my voice and when I did I found myself then doing battle with my supervisor over it as it wasn’t quite the voice that the supervisor had in mind. This is difficult territory for a phd student as your supervisor knows more about getting a phd than you do (at that stage) and so it is wise to listen. But once you have found your voice you then need to nurture it so that it becomes stronger and can be sustained. Developing a tone or accent that appeals to your supervisor but does not feel authentic to you can have lasting consequences for you once you start writing independently and need to be confident and resilient in the face of peer review and critique.

Wrapped up in this experience of finding your voice are issues of gender and age and experience of different kinds of writing. All of these things can make using your voice in ways that meet the requirements of the particular form, phd, journal article, book, blog, while still retaining what is essentially you, somewhat complicated.

The reason for harping on so long about the phd experience is that it is significant in shaping your voice and your confidence in using your voice. Or at least it was for me. And the difficulty I had in finding and holding my voice in that process appears to have impacted on my subsequent writing endeavours. I don’t slot into my voice easily as some appear to. But rather I find myself flailing about and seeking refuge in over planning or more and more reading (though that has not been a problem for quite some time!).

I am writing about this now because in getting back into ‘the book’ I have been through the over planning and reference seeking (if not reading) and then all of a sudden something shifted and there it was- my voice, and what I wanted to say. And the words came. They are not all the right words and they are likely as not not in the right order, but they comprise a draft chapter on ethics and collaboration that is in my voice.

I am not entirely certain how to explain this, though it may just be effort combined with serendipity. But one thing occurs to me. I have not written an academic journal article for some time. For most of my academic life I have been engaged in drafting academic journal articles. While I write for a range of journals in different disciplines they all operate according to the rules and standards that define academic journal publishing. It is hard work to get anything published (as it should be) and it takes time and effort – so much so that writing in this way can become the default writing mode. And while it is a mode that permits the exercise of a voice, it does so in a particular, and I think for me constrained way.

Writing for a broader range of audiences and in a range of different kinds of digital and other media  – professional journals, newspapers, blogs and dare I say it, even tweets has given me different opportunities to find and use my voice. Purists will no doubt criticise my lack of attention to scholarly journal articles and that’s fine. Their time will come again as my research council funded projects come to a close. But for now I am happy to be drawing on all these modes of writing to advance the book. Long may it continue.





The object of my affection

Well it’s been a long time.

7 months to be more precise. Pretty spectacular failure on the book progress blog and indeed on the book. But I have an excuse, and a pretty good one I think. I broke my leg. I didn’t just have a mini-break, but more of a round the world trip of breaks, my age and other factors adding to the number of stop-overs and detours associated with my recovery.

I discovered that I could manage most things to do with work with a broken leg. Indeed being in the University Hospital of the university where you work means that it’s quite easy to have meetings by your bed. And of course the internet means communication with anyone, anywhere is possible almost anytime. That is once you have convinced the good people at the hospital to give you back the laptop, ipad, and phone you had with you when you fell and broke your leg, and which remarkably sustained no damage whatsoever.

And wheelchairs and crutches and good colleagues (and Uber) mean that it is possible to get to and from and around the University to go to meetings, teach etc etc.

But it was almost impossible for me to think deeply and creatively. My mind just wouldn’t do it. The slightest effort in that direction resulted in fatigue and general mind fog. So I focused on other things, one of which was getting a new job.

This of course presents its own challenges, including, if not especially, to the book. I have been in this position before, on a number of occasions and each time the book project is the one that has suffered as I settled in, got to grips with, devoted myself to and then got completely absorbed in the new job, project etc.

A stark choice faced me. Should I be guided by my past experience and just give the book up now? Or should I try and use the time I have between jobs to devote myself to it and see what I can achieve?

Wise heads might suggest giving up. But here’s the thing. I love the idea of this book. Over the many years I have been wrestling with what I want the book to be about, and for the most part writing and publishing on all manner of other things, this book just refuses to dislodge itself from my head. It sits there and sits there representing itself to me as what Lauren Berlant (2011) describes an object of desire ‘a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us’. To phrase ’the object of desire’ as a cluster of promises is ‘to allow us to encounter what’s incoherent or enigmatic in our attachments, not as confirmation of our irrationality but as an explanation of our sense of our endurance in the object, insofar as proximity to the object means proximity to the cluster of things that the object promises, some of which may be clear to us and good for us, while others, not so much’ (pp23-24).

This seems to me to be a pretty good assessment of how I feel about the book, my book, as yet still  very incomplete.

The reference to ‘objects of desire’ is taken from  Berlant’s book  Cruel Optimism (Duke UP 2011). Cruel optimism is a relation that exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Now I don’t want to think about my book in this way but there is a risk that it has/could become that. Another good reason for focusing on it for this short period and seeing whether there really is anything there, and if not, then calling a halt and focusing on flourishing.

The theme of this blog is not unsurprisingly connected to one of the chapters I have been working on this last week or so, a chapter on objects in collaboration. I have sent a first draft off to a critical friend for a review, so here’s hoping that unlike Mr Casaubon my great project is not doomed to failure.


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.





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 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.