Convening an ecosystem of changemakers reimagining government in Australia

Jeremy Beck, Unsplash

Late last year, Nicole and I hosted an initial conversation which was designed to bring people together who self-identified as working in the space of reimagining government in Australia.

We didn’t know exactly what we wanted from this gathering, or where it would lead. We simply wanted to bring people together to create a space for new conversations, connections, and explorations. The rest we would work out as we went.

The conversation went well, and people seemed interested in continuing, so we met again earlier this year for a second gathering. We centred the conversation around the question “what are we useful for, together?”. But people swiftly — and rightly — pointed out that we were moving too quickly. As a group, we had not yet gotten to know each other. We needed to spend time building relationships and trust before we could move to action.

So, Nicole and I regrouped and, building on the feedback we’d heard, created a plan for 2021.

First, we realised that we needed to spend some time discussing WHAT it is that we’re working on. What does reimagining government mean? What is in and out of scope? Is there a set of collective values underpinning our vision for reimagining government?

After that, we need to spend a bit of time thinking about WHO we are. We need to explore group size and composition. We also need to think hard about whose voices might be missing. And perhaps do some ecosystem mapping, to better understand the roles we all see ourselves playing in the system.

Only after that will we be ready to reconvene around the HOW. How are we going to work together? What values will guide how we work as a group? What do we want to achieve, and how will we work together to achieve it?

The session

With this as our plan, we dedicated our April session to the WHAT. We spent time discussing what reimagining government does and doesn’t mean. We had about fifteen people join the conversation including people working in state and local government, academia, the not-for-profit sector and also public purpose consultants.

We began this discussion by asking participants to work by themselves to define “reimagining government”. We asked them to shape their definition using a combination of words, images and sketches in an attempt to broaden thinking and avoid mission-statement style definitions.

For the second half of the session, we broke into smaller groups to explore the boundaries of what we mean by “reimagining government.” We did this by asking groups to plot into two concentric circles what is at the heart of reimagining government, what is at the periphery, and what sits outside altogether.

What we heard

Here’s some of what we heard about what reimagining government means for us as a group, at this moment in time…

Reimagining government does mean:

  • Redefining the metrics of success
  • A willingness to tackle some sacred cows
  • A change in world view where communities/ individuals are at the centre — not services
  • Greater empathy and humility in government
  • Greater diversity in government — especially leadership!
  • Devolution of power
  • Justice and equity
  • Capabilities approach (Martha Nussbaum)
  • Participatory decision making and valuing lived experience
  • Asset-based approaches
  • Understanding and changing power structures
  • Embracing complexity and uncertainty
  • A dignity-first approach
  • Transparent, compassionate government which prioritises learning and relationships
  • A shift in mindsets and beliefs
  • Imagining and creating compelling alternatives to the status-quo.

Reimagining government does not mean:

  • Machinery of government changes
  • More funding for the same approaches
  • A leadership development initiative
  • A fixed or singular ways of doing things
  • Creating a formal top-down lobby group
A snapshot of our April Miro board

We also had some fascinating conversations about language (certain people working in government are being told not to use the language of “ecosystem), and economics (to what extent is this conversation entangled with the dominant neoliberal economic paradigm, and what does that mean for this group, and this vision?).

Where to from here?

Nicole and I are now going to spend some time working with the conversation we captured to develop a definition of “reimagining government” that is good enough for now, and safe to try. We don’t want to get bogged down in trying to come up with a perfect definition when we know none exists. We just want to develop a definition for the group that is strong enough to act as an anchor which can help us if we start floating away to places we, as a group, didn’t intend to go.

And, in a few months, we’ll regroup to explore who we are now, and who we need to be to take this work forward.

If you have any suggestions, questions or feedback, we’d love to hear from you!

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