"New Synthesis" - A framework for generating solutions with citizens, rather than for them

This is the most terribly written book that every public administration practitioner should read. Well, I should rephrase that :-) This is a must-read for people working in public administration, but it takes a bit of suffering to get through it. Luckily I was helped by the fact that 340-pager was made available to our business unit for free, combined with a strong incentive by my boss to get familiar with its concepts as our unit prepares for aligning itself with its main message:

That we as public administration practitioners “are called upon to serve the public good and the collective interest in the face of increasing complexity, uncertainty and volatility”. And only by shifting our strategies, systems and minds towards a framework that balances public policy with civic engagement as well as government authority with openness and collective power, are we able to face the challenges of public administration in the 21st century.

Developing a framework for public administration in the 21st century
The New Synthesis Project has been established in 2009, bringing together officials, scholars and experts from six countries (Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands, Singapore and the UK) and more than 24 organizations through five international roundtables, five post-roundtable reports, and 17 case studies. The project has generated significant insights into preparing governments to serve in the 21st century. The underlying idea was “to expand the circle of people committed to modernizing the role of government in a post-industrial era”, based on the realization that public administration as a practice and discipline is not yet aligned with the challenges of serving in the 21st century. For a brief introduction to the project, you can see this video.
The book starts with the observation that today’s crisis, challenges and opportunities are too complex to be managed by government (or one goverbment agency) alone. Public administrations which are based on the closed, top-down, one-way concept of mass public service delivery that emerged in the industrial age are poorly equipped to master the uncertainty and unpredictability of scenarios like the financial crisis, natural disasters, terrorism or pandemics. The New Synthesis acknowledges that “on its own, government has neither the power nor the tools needed to successfully address complex issues and achieve complex results”. In order to achieve complex results for society, for example education, taxes, school buildings, salaries for teachers and curricula can only get students that far. What is in fact needed is a complex interaction of policies, teachers, families, infrastructure, community support, many of which require the contribution of actors beyond government. The main realization behind this is that “issues that affect the collective can only be solved by the collective”.

Generating solutions with citizens, rather than for them
The New Synthesis therefore proposes an approach that shifts away from thinking of government as the solution provider with citizens remaining passive recipients, a view which devalues their contributions and limits options for society.  Instead, the book suggests seeing government’s role in generating solutions with citizens through means of co-creation and co-production based on openness, innovation and civic empowerment.

A cumbersome read
The author, Jocelyne Bourgon, who served many years in the Canadian administration, condenses the results from the roundtable discussions and case studies of the New Synthesis Project into a framework that tries to encompass the entirety of what public administration in a post-modern environment means. In pursuing this rather ambitious objective, she unfortunately falls prey to her dwelling in this topic on a very abstract level, and a lacking ability to communicate clearly and concisely what the essence of her argument is. This is ironic, given the fact that the vast majority of the book consists of real life case studies that exemplify on every step of the way what the ideas of the New Synthesis mean in practice. But even in doing so, her elaborations remain often vague and unspecific. By the end of Part 1 which lays out her theoretical framework, she eventually manages to get her points across, but only after one makes it through what are 125 pages of a very cumbersome read, full of unnecessarily academic language, professional jargon and fuzzy formulations that don’t lend themselves to conveying her points to an audience that hasn’t worked on this topic daily for the last few years.

Unhelpful illustrations
The book tried to mitigate this problem by providing the reader with illustrations that map the “enabling framework” of the New Synthesis in a graphical and more understandable way. However, the graphic representation of the framework around the axis of government authority and collective power, as well as public policy results and civic results, carving out the four quadrants of performance, emergence, compliance and resilience, achieve exactly the opposite. By the end of the book I was still looking at the illustration wondering how exactly I had to interpret it, and how the different parts would relate to each other. The author could have equally thrown all those rather generic keywords (some of which really don’t mean much without deeper explanation and context) randomly into one bucket and it would have meant as much to me. If the meaning of an illustration is not immediately and intuitively (or at least with just a few explanatory words) understandable and if it creates more questions than it answers, it somehow seems to fail its purpose. And the problem of the book is that it relies heavily on this illustration to explain the entire framework.

Why you still must read this book
All this aside, however, the substantive points laid out by the framework are extremely sound, well researched and of utter relevance to the topic at hand. Bourgon puts the finger on all the vulnerable spots where public administration in its usual form (it’s modern form that was shaped by the industrial age) is not equipped to handle the challenges of the 21st century. And she is proposing a way of reform that would enable government to face those challenges.
According to the results of the New Synthesis project, in order to move towards a public administration that can do so, the following elements need to come together:
  • Awareness that the multitude of issues, possible solutions and stakeholders that lead to public results are all interconnected and cannot be looked at separately from each other.
  • Understanding that the purpose of public policies ultimately are to achieve civic results, and that they should be managed and measured accordingly, through better access, stronger voices and expanded choices for citizens.
  • Understanding that government needs to work directly with its citizens to co-create and co-produce public results (e.g. through innovation labs as practiced already by UNDP through its innovation work in Europe & CIS), instead of seeing itself as a one-way solution provider.
  • Understanding that in a dynamic, uncertain and unpredictable environment the best way to achieve results is through iteration and adaptation, and that for this reason "public organizations need to operate as public platforms for innovation, exploration and experimentation". This shows a strong link to the evolutionary development approach championed among others by Owen Barder (http://www.owen.org).
  • Appreciation of the principle of emergence (growing innovative solutions in complex environments) and understanding the need for building anticipative capacity, inventive capacity and adaptive capacity within government through research, learning ,knowledge management, prototyping and crowdsourcing.
  • Ability of public institutions to learn to work within networks rather than strict hierarchies, and across boundaries rather than within closed siloes. This relates closely to the contribution of next-generation knowledge management (KM 2.0) to organizational development as it was introduced to UNDP in the last three years through its Knowledge Strategy 2009-2011.
  • Commitment to open data, open government and open management in general. Or as Bourgon puts it: "Trust breeds trustworthiness. Systems designed based on distrust impose high costs on society and are unlikely to lead to better results".
  • Understanding that civic empowerment, social innovation and participation of citizens in creation and production lead to increased resilience of societies in times of crisis.
  • Understanding compliance within public administration as a matter of shared accountabilities and responsibilities across agencies and external actors, rather than as a mechanism for performance control of isolated entities (e.g. a programme or ministry).
This is not a complete summary, but just the main points that stood out for me. It becomes clear that all these items relate very closely the mandates of capacity development, knowledge management and innovation that me and my colleagues are concerned with daily. So yes, my critique of the communication deficiencies of the “New Synthesis” notwithstanding, I recommend this book highly to every practitioner involved in any of those three areas. The New Synthesis Project is on to something here, and we as development practitioners seems well advised to get involved in this global discussion. I am very much looking forward to seeing how this discussion among public administration community will evolve further.


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