400 heads are better than one: Tales from a public management conference

Sue Olney

With more conferences and events happening each year, deciding on where to share your practice and research findings and where to seek professional development is challenging. It can help to know more about key conferences and how they may inform your work or be a vehicle to share your insights. In this post, Sue Olney (@olney_sue) gives us an overview of the International Research Society of Public Management Conference hosted by INLOGOV, and provides some highlights as well as links to interesting sessions. 

The annual conference of the International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM) attracts delegates from around the world interested in new developments in public management and the implementation of public policy. The theme of the 19th annual conference, held at the University of Birmingham from 30 March 2015 to 1 April 2015, was hosted by INLOGOV and titled Shaping the Future – Reinvention or Revolution? In a packed program around four hundred academics, new researchers and policy practitioners shared their insights and research into the potential for public organisations and their partners in delivering public services to respond, reflect, reinvent, and revolutionise in the face of fiscal, political, environmental and cultural upheaval. Australia was well represented by policy luminaries including Gemma Carey, Helen Dickinson and Helen Sullivan, Jenny Lewis and Damon Alexander,Siobhan O’Sullivan, Brian Head, John Alford, Jo Barraket, John Halligan,Owen Hughes, Warren Staples, Deborah Blackman and Janine O’Flynn.

As a first-time attendee moving from implementing social policy into research I was encouraged by the strong links between scholarship and practice evident at the conference. The opening plenary, involving ex MP, ex civil servant and international policy activist Clare Short, community activist Jess Steele, Councillor and Birmingham City Council Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services Brigid Jones and Local Government Ombudsman Jane Martin and chaired by the University of Birmingham’s Chris Skelcher, promised a ‘citizen’s-eye view of public services’ and unflinchingly explored the challenges of developing and implementing policy in the context of competing priorities, diverse and sometimes incompatible demands, scarce resources, outsourced and fragmented government services and shrinking government bureaucracy. The panellists argued that citizens should be encouraged and empowered to play a greater role in identifying and addressing local issues but acknowledged that public sector reform over the last two decades – marketisation, outsourcing, commissioning, internal cost-cutting and the individualisation of social services – has muddied the waters for collective action. They also argued that these changes have sapped the bureaucracy’s ‘motivation to serve’ and called on governments to find new ways of working with citizens to ensure innovation is not stifled by accountability in tough economic times. The plenary segued into fifty three panel sessions over three days tackling complex questions about the role of government, public value, austerity, inequality and the relationship between evidence and policy, under themes ranging from what citizens and governments expect of public servants; local governance; democracy, third sector and citizen engagement; sectoral challenges in public management; research and knowledge utilisation in public management; resources, accountability and technology; public-private partnerships; public management in developing and transitional states; and networks, complexity and innovation.

The conference closed with the University of Melbourne’s Helen Dickinson, the CEO of Skillshare International Cliff Allum and experienced health and social care executive Cynthia Bowerreimagining the 21st century public servant as a commissioner, storyteller, resource weaver, system architect, networker, municipal entrepreneur and broker, in a hopeful and thought-provoking plenary chaired by the University of Birmingham’s Deborah Youdell. In between, we attended a civic reception with the Mayor at Birmingham’s Council House and a gala dinner at the International Convention Centre next to the spectacular Birmingham library.

I gravitated toward sessions about the third sector and spent the conference torn between keen interest in the research into policy struggles on this front and despair at the pervasiveness of market approaches to delivering public services. There were numerous examples of policy development affecting the most vulnerable members of society running counter to evidence, with governments appearing to favour short term fiscal and political gains over long term social change. Two very different papers likely to interest readers of this blog are Exploring the public-third sector boundary – designing and managing a dynamic partnership for innovative services with young people , which found that while the third sector is an important player in the coproduction of services for hard-to-reach young people its diversity produces mixed results – a challenge for governments wanting to replicate programs – and The New Intersections of Philanthropy, the Third Sector and Public Policy: Revealed, Reinvented, Revolutionised?, which explores the changing nature of philanthropy where ‘giving’ is being replaced by ‘social investment’.

All the conference papers are available online here and there is unfiltered commentary on the conference as it rolled out on Twitter under #IRSPM2015. The real value of gatherings like these is the opportunity for researchers to test their ideas, to defend or strengthen their theories in response to expert feedback or what they learn from listening to other people, and to forge international alliances to build new knowledge. If two heads are better than one, a conference-load is bound to be pushing research into public management in the right direction.

Sue Olney

Sue Olney has worked in the public sector, the private sector and the not for profit sector and participated in numerous cross-government and cross-sector initiatives to promote access and equity in education, training and employment in Australia. She is doing a PhD at the University of Melbourne on employment services for the long term unemployed and recently presented some of her findings at the IRSPM conference in Birmingham.

This blog post was also posted here on the 8th May, 2015

Homo subjectivo: Do western public management ideas work for people in the Middle East?

Abena Dadze-Arthur

It is that time of the year again: Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, has descended upon the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.  Despite being a Christian, I always thought I knew what Ramadan was about.  I could readily recount that Ramadan constituted Sawm, the fourth pillar of Islam, where Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking between dawn and dusk for a whole lunar month. I even fancied myself culturally astute enough to appreciate Ramadan as a time for spiritual cleansing, in which Muslims reflect on their behaviour towards others more closely in order to promote compassion, harmony and peace in society.

But as I was to realize, understanding the concept of Ramadan is not the same as understanding the meaning it has for those whose lives are shaped by it, and who shape their lives around it.  The subjective significance of Ramadan only became clear to me when I spent three years living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and worked for the government on implementing western public management practices to improve public services.

I learnt that Ramadan comes with a wonderfully festive spirit, which captured even us non-Muslims in inexplicable ways.  I also found out that the pace of life changes dramatically, and, especially in the first weeks of Ramadan, my bosses and colleagues were too hungry, tired and short-tempered to work productively or make important decisions.

Most surprisingly, I realized that Ramadan rescued from its imminent demise our very first public consultation project.  For months, we had been unable to get local people to share their personal experiences of public services.  Ramadan, however, made it culturally appropriate to have these conversations with service users because traditionally, it is a time when the Sheikhs have always sat down and listened to the woes of their people.

Harnessing the power of the public for service improvement became only one example in a series of western public management concepts that hinged on mobilizing the opportunities and constraints offered by the local culture.  But what exactly is culture, other than an umbrella term to describe everything in general, yet denote nothing in particular?

If we accept, as the sociologist Max Weber put it so eloquently, that human beings are creatures suspended in a web of meaning that they themselves have spun, then culture is this subjective web of meaning.  We speak of a ‘culture’ when people assign similar meaning to an object or event as a result of their shared, similar life experiences.  A group of people can have shared life experiences across time and place: they might belong to the same nationality, or work in the same project team, have similar social standing, believe in the same religion, be alumni of the same college, or have migrated along the same routes…the list goes on.  This makes any one person share webs of meaning with different groups of people, and therefore belong to a variety of cultures ranging from a particular local culture to a global generational culture.

Of course, people’s interpretation of an event, such as a western public management reform initiative, and their motivation to respond to it, are arguably momentary states.  However, these momentary states are the result of the interaction of two types of relatively stable structures: the mental structures, or understandings, people hold internally, and the world structures that are external to people.  The relative stability of the world and personal understanding means that in a group of people who share similar life experiences, the same meanings arise time and time again.

Scholars and practitioners of public management agree increasingly that we are all homo subjectivo (I discuss this in more detail in my conference paper).

Accordingly, cultural construction matters in transferring policy concepts and adapting public management reform successfully and durably.  The neglect of existing organizational, professional, social, economic, political and traditional cultures have already ended in disappointing results for reform-eager governments despite following best practice.  Evaluations have pointed to cultural barriers to explain ineffective government reform initiatives in Switzerland, South-Africa, Korea or Brazil, to name just a few.

Therefore, western public management ideas will only work for Middle Eastern governments, and for any other government for that matter, if policy-makers can access, and manipulate, the subjective world of public administrators and service users.  Doubtlessly, this is no easy feat for two reasons:  Firstly, cultures come in plurals and potpourris, which means that looking at only the organizational culture or only the social culture will not suffice.  Secondly, operationalizing the analysis and effective manipulation of cultures to implement reform is an area that is, as of now, still developing.


Abena Dadze-Arthur is a researcher and public policy adviser with ten years experience of developing user-centric public policy for Western and non-Western governments across a wide range of public service areas.  Abena is currently pursuing her doctoral research on social practices and cultural schemas that shape public management reform in Abu Dhabi Government.