Jocelyne Bourgon served as Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet from 1994–1999, the first (and only) woman to have held this job. As a result of her long-term interest in the challenges that public administrators face in a changing world, she has formed, championed and now leads what she calls the New Synthesis project.
The New Synthesis of Public Administration is a journey of discovery aimed at preparing governments to be fit for the challenges of their times and creating resilient societies fit for the future.
The ideas behind the New Synthesis (NS) project began to take shape in 2006 when the International Institute of Administrative Sciences (IIAS) invited me to deliver the Braibant Lecture that year. In that lecture, I exposed my early thinking about the need for a New Synthesis of Public Administration and what some of its components might look like.
Following an exploration phase in 2007-2008, a prototype for an NS began to take shape, a research program was launched and resources were mobilized in Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Singapore to advance the work. By the end of 2009, it was supported by a dedicated team and a collaborative network of practitioners and academics from 24 organizations in the six countries. The group became known as the NS6.
In 2010, the focus turned to deepening, enriching and continuing to debate the concepts relevant to the project. From March to December, roundtables took place in The Hague, Ottawa, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore and London, as did a series of group discussions in Perth, Melbourne, Canberra, Wellington and Auckland.
In 2011, the focus turned to capturing the results of five years of work in a book, A New Synthesis of Public Administration: Serving in the 21st Century, to encourage the dissemination and discussion of the key findings in academic circles and among practitioners interested in public service reform.
A theoretical framework substantially different from conventional public administration had been presented. But would it work in practice?
The NS project entered a phase known as NSWorld. The main effort during this phase was to build an inventory of international public sector reform initiatives to test the applicability of the NS Framework in a diversity of contexts. The inventory currently captures examples from some 40 countries all over the world. (The documentation is available online at www.nsworld.org.)
By the end of 2012, the elements were in place to test the relevance of the NS Framework in a diversity of domains of practice. The concept of a laboratory emerged during discussions with the president of the Civil Service College in Singapore in July 2012. It was seen as a way to test the NS Framework in practice, in real-life situations and in a diversity of domains.
The purpose of NSLab
The New Synthesis (NSLab) Laboratory was a ground-breaking experiment that took place in Singapore in spring 2013. It brought together “master practitioners” with the NS project leader to test the robustness of the NS Framework in a variety of domains of practice.
The lab sought to achieve outcomes at two levels:
• Individual: to equip practitioners to lead initiatives, achieve complex results and commit to tackling the outcomes identified in the real-life case studies they brought with them; and
• Institutional (system-wide): to create a shared commitment among participants to a collective effort for advancing public sector reforms in Singapore.
Senior public officials from 17 organizations in domains as diverse as central ministries, line ministries and statutory boards participated in the lab. Drawing from key NS findings, lessons learned from other countries and the wealth of participant experience, the NS project leader played the role of “Master Weaver” of a New Synthesis adapted to Singapore’s context and circumstances.
The NSLab challenged participants to continually move between exploring concepts, learning from practice and integrating findings:
• Exploring concepts: By engaging critically in the NS concepts and exploring the implications of NS as a mental map to face complex problems and intractable issues;
• Learning from practice: By sharing and acquiring insights from each other and from other places, contexts, disciplines and practices about what is being done and can be done to prepare government for the challenges of the 21st century; and
• Integrating findings: By developing an awareness of what can be converted into practical application in their context and by integrating learning and insights into an NS narrative adapted to Singapore that encourages a systematic approach to capacity building.
The power of positioning
NSLab session 1 explored how the power of positioning helps reveal the multi-dimensional nature of complex issues and the need for cooperation across government and its systems. Public sector leaders are accustomed to achieving agency results. But participants learned that changing the way they think about the mission of a public agency can change the way they shape policy responses, deliver services, relate to others and engage citizens. Positioning shifts the focus of attention from agency results to system-wide results and societal outcomes.
The power of leveraging
NSLab session 2 explored the power of leveraging. Participants learned the need to work with others, inside and outside of government, to move results up the value chain of societal and civic results. Participants learned that leveraging encourages emergence and builds resilience by creating conditions that allow others to act to address, resolve and find solutions to issues of interest to society. It contributes to better outcomes through a mutual responsibility. It helps government to tap the collective intelligence of society to detect, anticipate, course-correct and mitigate risks, leading to the improved likelihood of successful outcomes for government and society.
Leveraging requires new skills and capabilities in the public service to understand the perspectives of others and to create the conditions that encourage them to engage in a collective effort.
The power of engaging
NSLab session 3 explored the power of engagement. Even when working together, public agencies may not be able to achieve some results or solve intractable problems. An increasing number of public policy issues require the contribution of citizens, communities and society as value creators.
Government acting alone and in a conventional manner will likely remain the preferred approach in a number of instances. It is therefore important to clarify when government is best positioned to act alone, when it would be unwise to do so, and when the desired outcomes can only be achieved with the contribution of users and beneficiaries as value creators.
The NS argues that successful engagement requires clarity of purpose, an appropriate mode of engagement for the desired outcome, clear rules of engagement and a good understanding of the risks associated with each form of engagement. In the context of the NS, engaging means involving users and beneficiaries in the co-creation, co-design or co-production of public outcomes to maximize the impact and minimize the cost to society, or empowering communities and individuals to self-organize to solve issues of interest to them – this contributes to building resilience.
Ultimately, government is and will remain the steward of the collective interest in all circumstances, no matter whether it is acting alone or in partnership. The more dispersed the authority and delegation of power is, the greater the importance of the stewardship role.
With the key components of the NS Framework tested against the challenges facing 17 master practitioners from a variety of domains, it was clear that the NS Framework was robust. The focus then shifted beyond particular challenges to explore a collective agenda. What capacities are needed to build an adaptive government and a resilient society? Could the NS Framework be used to create a New Synthesis for the civil service as a whole? Could the NS Framework be used to create a narrative of change in support of government priorities?
Dynamic and adaptive state
NSLab session 4 marked a significant shift to the application of NS concepts. Participants joined in a collective effort to map out the capacity-building needed in the public sector and in society to support the government’s transformation agenda for “a better home” and “a more resilient society.”
Participants debated what would be needed for them, personally and collectively, to give meaning to government-wide priorities. They identified the gaps between desired outcomes and the current reality, and started to explore what government could do to bridge the gaps.
Participants began a rich conversation that highlighted that successful public sector reforms are a search for balance among economic well-being, social well-being, quality of life, wellness, intergenerational fairness, etc., to propel society forward. Successful public sector reforms build the capacity of governments to evolve with society, to adapt to changing circumstances and to influence the course of events in a way that favours the collective interest.
NSLab session 5 focused on capacity building of both people and institutions. Nothing happens without people, and nothing lasts without institutions.
Participants explored the need to change the way government thinks about policymaking from a decision-making process to a reciprocal and interactive process that encourages a collective effort and a shared responsibility for public results. Public policy responses forge a relationship that engages the responsibility of government, citizens and society. This, in turn, transforms the relationship between the professional public service and elected politicians.
Participants addressed the need to enhance the capacity of public organizations to work across multiple boundaries. They identified measures that would help prepare the civil service to be fit for the challenge of its time, including:
• the ability to frame issues and manage activities based on societal outcomes;
• the ability to engage with clarity of purpose and intent, to produce public results with others; and
• the leadership capacity to transit from old to new paradigms to serve the greater public good.
NSLab session 6 closed the experiment. In session 6, participants were given a written summary of the evolution of their case. The project leader documented their journey of discovery over the course of the 12 weeks. It is hoped that the case summary will assist participants to pursue the discussion with their colleagues.
Why the NS Lab worked
The success of the first NSLab can be attributed to a number of factors:
• Dedicated support by a lead organization. The Singapore Civil Service College (CSC) was the lead organization is the NSLab experiment. The dedicated support of CSC’s management and staff was key to the success of the NSLab. They demonstrated a strong sense of purpose, and showed the willingness to innovate and experiment in the face of unknown risks and uncertainties.
• Designed for practitioners: The NS Framework was developed for practitioners. The NSLab was learner-centric, with improvements throughout the process to ensure that each session met the needs of participants.
• Commitment of master practitioners: 17 senior public servants each invested time and effort to updating their personal challenges and took the time to share their learning.
• A master weaver: A successful lab requires a master weaver who has an ability to synthesize complex ideas and an extensive knowledge of public administration, of the NS framework and of lessons learned in other countries.
• Real-life case studies: The use of real-life case studies permitted richer learning. As the cases evolved, participants were able to use the NS Framework as a different lens to view their particular challenge and make changes that would result in better outcomes.
• Time to absorb: The break between sessions gave participants time to absorb, consolidate and integrate their learning.
Where to next
The NSLab demonstrated that the NS Framework is robust, that it works in a variety of domains and that it can help to develop agile and skillful public sector practitioners. In the coming year, I plan to work with country partners to design programs for public officers at levels above and below the first NSLab cohort and to disseminate the learning to a wider audience. Participants in this first lab will meet again in one year’s time to reflect on their progress.
Over the coming year a dedicated effort among interested partners will be made to develop a handbook that will provide practitioners anywhere in the world with a set of resources to guide them in using the NS Framework to address their particular challenges. Opportunities will be sought to continue to experiment with the NSLab approach in countries facing different challenges in very different circumstances.
And so the journey continues….for there is no end to the search for good government and good governance.