Industry vs ecology: new models for public administration

Our current structuring of public bureaucracy (and arguably private sector bureaucracy too) is based in a 19th and early 20th century industrial model of how the world works. It divides the responsibilities and functions of governance into separate tasks, with their own goals and hierarchies. It seeks a managed, rational approach to delivery which is bounded by the functional responsibility and does not have regard for others’ responsibilities. It assumes that a hierarchical and planned approach is the best way to deliver. It bases and justifies decisions on central and professional expertise. It places economic efficiency as its guiding rationale and uses metrics -models, indicators, targets – which reinforce the rationale of its own approach. This is very much the model described by Max Weber in his early 20th century account of what bureaucracy is.

In this model, one government Department can (and does) pursue policies which create problems for others to pick up, be they social or environmental. Departments are left to compete for their respective remits, meaning underlying causes are rarely addressed. Different professions create differing cultures and values and reinforce sectoral divisions in civil society.

The competing analogy in this century is an ecological one. Here, things are not easily compartmentalized but interact one with another. As the introduction to the Brundtland report on sustainable development reminded back in 1987:

‘The real world of interlocked economic and ecological systems
will not change; the policies and institutions concerned must’

In the ecological model, issues and responses are seen as complex and not readily planned for or predicted. They cannot be addressed centrally but need to reflect local circumstances. They are not to be controlled but to be shaped and understood, often leaving decisions and management to localities where the linkages between issues are most obvious. The focus here is not on an economic efficiency or performance but on the long-term underlying health of society and the environment.

This model demands a reflexive form of governance where the bureaucratic role is one of enabler not planner and controller. It also demands the breaking down of institutional and professional divisions so that issues can be viewed collaboratively and with common understanding. The Welsh Well-being Act makes a first step in this direction with its common principles and goals, and its local planning and prioritization of delivery.

Matthew Quinn

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