Six months into reimagining government in Australia and New Zealand
In late January this year, after almost three years in London, my little family and I landed back in Melbourne.
2020 has not been the year we — or anyone — expected. It has been challenging beyond belief (and I say this recognising that the challenges have been, for many people, far more significant than for me). And yet, for me, 2020 has also been one of significant growth and excitement as I’ve begun working with the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) to reimagine government in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ).
As I approach my six-month anniversary with CPI, I wanted to share some reflections about reimagining government in ANZ so far. But before I do, it is probably worth briefly recapping what I mean when I talk about reimagining government.
At CPI, we believe that structures and systems of government have been shaped through an industrial lens, resulting in policies and services that are not fit for purpose. We have social workers who burn out. Health systems that feel alienating and confusing. We are experiencing rising levels of homelessness, obesity and mental illness, and environmental challenges almost too great to fathom. And yet, while governments around the world spend billions of dollars trying to “fix” these challenges, the approach clearly isn’t working.
Given this, we need a new vision of government founded on beliefs which better reflect the world we live in. Imagine what government would look like, and how it would organise itself if it was centred in the following three beliefs:
- Most of the challenges we face as a society are complex.
- The quality of human relationships matters a great deal.
- Progress is best achieved through experimentation and continuous learning.
As Adrian Brown, Executive Director of CPI explains, “Each of these beliefs represents a radical shift from the prevailing mindset found in many governments today. They imply a different set of values to guide government action.”
With this vision in mind, what have I learnt through working with CPI over the last six months?
There is a real energy and enthusiasm for reimagining government in ANZ
The first thing I’ve learnt is that antipodeans are passionate about the idea of reimagining government. Together with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, CPI ANZ ran a webinar series on the topic of reimagining government. Over seven webinars (which you can access here), we had almost 1000 people join the conversation — the vast majority from Australia and New Zealand. People are energised by the vision we’ve been describing, optimistic that change is possible, and the vast majority are telling us this is a conversation they want to continue when the series ends. We at CPI are now thinking hard about how to take this conversation forward.
I’ve also been lucky enough to have already found opportunities to work with governments at all levels in Australia: joining City of Melbourne for their City of the Future event; working with the New South Wales Housing and Policy Group on their Creating Value Challenge; and partnering with the Australian Taxation Office Design Branch to explore the concept of system stewardship.
We’ve also begun conversations in New Zealand with the New Zealand Public Service Association Te Pūkenga Here Tikanga Mahi, Inspiring Communities, Auckland Co-Design Lab and the School of Government at the Victoria University of Wellington about convening the “coalition of the willing” who are committed to furthering this agenda.
Beyond this, I’ve been struck by how many organisations exist which complement and strengthen the vision of CPI. These include: Sydney Policy Lab, States of Change, Australia Together, Clear Horizon, Orange Compass, Purpose, Wicked Lab, TACSI, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Paul Ramsay Foundation, Dusseldorp Forum, Public Purpose, The Systems School, Collaboration for Impact, the Public Sector Innovation Network, Australian Futures Project, Centre for Policy Development, and I’m sure many more who I haven’t yet connected with. I’ve spoken to many people, and have been so grateful for their enthusiasm and willingness to partner and build a vision together, rather than wanting to hold things close.
One challenge I’ve observed is that philanthropic funding available for this kind of work feels harder to come by here than in Europe. There are less foundations to partner with, and building a new vision for government is seen to be something that should be funded by government itself. This is a conversation we’ll need to pursue.
Working with an international team is challenging but also very rewarding
Joining CPI has meant joining a team based on the other side of the world. Being so far away has presented some challenges, as well as benefits.
Firstly, I’ve realised that it’s hard — really hard! — to build trust and relationships by Zoom. I’ve also realised how much I rely on and enjoy having close and trusting relationships at work. Relationships with colleagues help me understand and navigate team dynamics. They make work fun. Relationships at work make challenges feel surmountable, and successes worth celebrating. They help build energy, a joint vision, and a sense of collective purpose.
I normally build friendships quickly. But being so far away has disrupted the usual friendship-building opportunities. As a result of the time difference, I tend to only join for key team meetings, meaning I miss the coffees, chats, and banter, which are so critical to relationship-building (and which have continued for the CPI team via Zoom and Slack even during remote working). Missing this has meant that, while friendships and trust are definitely beginning to build, it is taking far longer than it normally would. This has been harder than I thought it would be.
The flip side to this is that being part of a global team helps me feel more connected to the rest of the world. One thing that struck me while I was in London was how easy it is to feel part of a global network. The same doesn’t hold true in Australia. I feel so lucky to be working with a team from literally all over the globe because of the way that it sustains my connection to global perspectives, practices and networks.
Finding my voice
While I don’t love the phrase “leaning in” for a bunch of reasons, we all know what it means. And some version of this has certainly been a defining feature of my last six months.
Joining CPI as the sole team member on the ground in ANZ has required a lot of deep breathing, a bit of discomfort and some bravery. I’ve written about things I don’t necessarily feel qualified to write about; spoken publicly about things I don’t necessarily feel qualified to speak about; and led pieces of work that I don’t necessarily feel qualified to lead. This isn’t a comfortable place for me. Yet, while I’ve certainly made mistakes, I’ve come to realise that’s OK — not at a purely intellectual level, but at the level of actually believing it to be true.
Over the last six months, I’ve certainly encountered push-back and challenge to my ideas, but always with generosity and kindness. Through this process, I’m learning (so much!), growing, finding my own voice, and building the confidence to shape things in a way that reflects my style and approach.
I don’t yet know exactly what the next six months will hold for CPI ANZ. I have (many) ideas, as well as some exciting conversations on foot, but the world is strange at the moment, so who knows where things will go.
In the meantime, I’ll just keep trying to follow Donella Meadows’ wise words: “Defy the disciplines. In spite of what you majored in, or what the textbooks say, or what you think you’re an expert at, follow a system wherever it leads.”