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Public Administration Privatised

Diane Stone

Centenary Professor in the institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the Unviersity of Canberra

The League of Scholars has released a list of top performing Australian universities that are global leaders in the research field of business and economics. Why was ‘public administration’ research included in this mix? Locating ‘public administration’ within business studies is reflective of the long term ‘hollowing out’ of government capacity and outsourcing public services that also pulls public administration scholarship into business-like modes of operation.

According to former American President Woodrow Wilson’s classic definition, ‘public administration is the detailed and systematic application of law’.  Woodrow’s definition is out-of-date. It creates an artificial divide between the private and public sectors not only in social science scholarship but also in the minds of the public. But this ossified century old understanding of public administration also marks the trajectory of ‘new public management’ reforms towards a modern-day loss of institutional memory and capacity in Australian government that has come with the long term trend to contracting out of public services.

All governments face social and economic challenges wrought by rapid advances in technology that fuel regulatory innovation and reform. Globalisation too has created new interdependencies and networks among the public and business sectors. With privatisation and new public management reforms from the late 1980s, contracting out has become the norm around the world. Business and policy studies have both evolved with these changes.

The growth of Business Schools peaked some time ago.  In an over-saturated field, Business Schools have expanded into new disciplinary areas, especially public administration and policy. This evolution reflects the reality of everyday synergies between government and business.

Outside Business Schools, there has also been a boom in the provision of post-graduate and executive education in public policy and public administration across Australia. These educational developments have paralleled the growth of ‘big government’. Career advancement in public service often requires further training, and graduate degrees for the public sector, to prepare new generations of public servants for the complex and often technical problems faced by government.

The study of business and economics in isolation from other disciplines is also a vestige of last century.  Through the global CORE initiative of the Institute of New Economic Thinking, Australian professor Wendy Carlin has promoted new curricula approaches to teaching economics that reflect on real world problems, bringing in historical and policy insights, rather than a focus on economic theory.  There has also been a blossoming of PPE degrees – politics, philosophy and economics.  

Contemporary public administration scholarship today is part of this evolution and highlights the interconnections of the public and private spheres. These connections are seen in regulatory practice, in ‘public-private partnership’ and private regimes of ‘soft law’ and standard-setting as well as in the integral role of business and non-governmental organisations in policy delivery and implementation.   

For well over 100 years, Australia has been developing its own brand of scholarship in policy and administration despite the relatively small size of the scholarly community. Policy history stresses the colonial legacy of the establishment of a strong state. Federation and the constitution created a unique ‘Washminister-style’ of governance over time.  A complex multi-level governance structure developed inside Australia that finds a corollary in Australia’s participation in a range of regional governance bodies and international organisations. These legacies provide fertile ground for policy researchers to analyse and advocate ‘best practice’ in public administration.

In the cut-throat business of university and disciplinary rankings, Australia is a world leader in the research of public administration.  The League of Scholars puts the University of Canberra at Number #1 in Australia for research in public administration. And more impressively, its research is ranked #22 globally. 

For a young university, this is a remarkable achievement given that so many of the Group of 8 universities have long established graduate degrees in policy studies, public management and administration. It begs the question, how has this happened? 

Being Canberra based is an obvious advantage with door-step access to the Australian Public Service. But it has been a decade of strategic investment that has propelled the University of Canberra up the global rankings by creating the research-intensive Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA); by recruiting four of the world’s most highly-cited scholars as public policy professors; by establishing new graduate programmes in public administration tailored to federal department needs; and by cultivating competence in policy outreach and community engagement.   

Such strategies come at a cost for any university at a time when public sector budgets in Australia for student places are drastically cut and research funding constricted. But research and innovation – especially world-class research – cannot be done on the cheap when the global competition is so tough.

Australia ranks highly for its public sector excellence in the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index. This is in spite of both academics and senior public servants lamenting the hollowing out of internal departmental capacity for long term thinking and strategy, and the trend towards increased investment in policy advice from the business sector.  Now the third most significant export industry for Australia, the highly competitive trade in educational services generates much needed revenue for higher education institutions. 

Public administration research is pulled along by these two dynamics of hollowing out and market-internationalisation to more become more private in orientation: Academics not only chase scarce research grants but also consultancy work, fee-for-service government commissions and partnerships with think tanks and other bodies. Slowly but surely, public administration is being privatised. 

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