More about The Patchwork Nation: Rethinking government,
Section 1: The changing global context
Section 2: The New Tribalism - perils and possibilities
Section 3: Linking the patchwork - finding an Australian Way
Local Government Magazine
Need for a culture shift on community-building
While there is a degree of cynicism about the recent discovery by government of community-building, and fear that it is a subterfuge for further cutbacks in expenditure, I see it as an encouraging sign.
For too long, Australia has relied on centralised, all-powerful government to initiate and run services and facilities in areas which by their very nature demand a more local, innovative and varied approach. Parallel with the death of the Federation Agreement (which guaranteed most people a degree of state protection in the form of wages, social security and tariffs) we have seen not smaller, more responsive government, but a rise in central managerialism both at corporate and state levels. It never works in business and it will no longer work in government in a global information age.
Australia is what I call a 'Patchwork Nation', with very diverse regions, suburban neighborhoods and local communities. The logic of complexity in a modern society is that one-size-fits-all solutions dictated top-down by central policy-makers and bureaucrats fail to meet the very diverse needs of people and communities. Indeed they alienate voters from the political process, deny them their dignity and rights as intelligent citizens of a democracy and produce costly, ineffective processes that frustrate local initiative and fail to deliver the outcomes well-meaning governments still set as their goals.
The answer does not, however, lie in a naïve return to the romance of 'community'. While it is true that most community-driven initiatives derive from groups trying to fill unmet needs (a tennis court, a regional art gallery, a self-help group of some kind), a sense of community often derives from conflict rather than consensus, and the networks of support we now call 'social capital' can be exclusionary instead of inclusive. Voluntarism is driven as much by self-interest, group interests, as by concern for the common good. We will always need government to ensure the inclusion of those most in need, but we need new funding and administrative processes which will drive a new, more positive tribalism within the Patchwork Nation. Community-building can be deliberate rather than haphazard, it can be 'planned' rather than merely a response to gaps and competing local interests.
But the only way this will happen is with a change of culture. Governments must hand more of the planning and financial control to organisations at the local and regional level. Such a suggestion strikes terror in the hearts of central bureaucrats and the cry of 'accountability' is used to stifle any discussion of how it might realistically be done. But I believe it can be done, guaranteeing full accountability and social justice, with much better outcomes than the present system.
This would involve a more decentralised, hands-off approach, the creation of new community-based institutions as a focus for discussion, debate, planning and administration of programs, better use of and supplementation of existing community resources, and a more trusting relationship between governments and the people who elect them. Schools could become more active 'Family Resource Centres', the competing silos of government departments would be integrated around larger common interests (such as health and wellbeing, lifelong learning and employment, natural environments, safety and justice), organisational headquarters would be transferred to the regions and Area Resource Zones. Community Forums or the like would identify the unique needs to be filled by more responsive and diverse programs. Clear policy guidelines would still be set by government, but the what and how would be decided at regional and community level.
The language and culture of governance has to change from 'servicing' to 'resourcing' and 'capacity-building'; structures must reflect a whole-of-government, whole-problem-solving approach; there must be shifts in decision-making processes to re-build democracy and the civil society; the public service culture must become outward, not inward looking.
In short, we must begin to insist on more intelligent government, on active government community-building, not just a reliance on unreliable 'community' instincts. We do not need exhortations to volunteer. We need real resourcing and training in meaningful and innovative community action. The future demands no less.
Dr Don Edgar is the author of 'The Patchwork Nation: Re-thinking government, Re-building community', published by Harper Collins last September. He is a member of the Victorian Premier's External Reference Group on Community Building and was formerly Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Re-thinking government for a global age
There is more than a little confusion about the appropriate role of government in the coming global communication age. If we keep on arguing based on the old assumptions of the industrial era, no-one will get very far and many people will be hurt.
Globalisation does not have to mean the demise of national government. Nor does privatisation and outsourcing have to mean smaller government. But to call for bigger government is to ignore the problems of central managerialism and to assume having governments do everything for people was ever a sensible way to go.
Ken Davidson (18 Sept.) berates the Bracks government for rolling back the state when, in fact, Bracks calls for government to be an ‘urger, a promoter and a protector’. Government can be all that, and should be all that, without itself providing directly every service under the sun, even in core areas such as health, transport and education. Ross Gittins (13 Sept.) similarly argues government must do more to require the winners (in globalisation) to compensate the others, via higher taxes on the better-off and higher expenditure on education and retraining. So it must, but this does not mean governments must ‘be bigger than ever before’. More active, certainly, but in a different way.
What we need is an acceptance that life is now too complex for any one authority (government, church or business corporation) to dictate how things should be done. One-size-fits-all solutions are not solutions in a complex, culturally diverse and rapidly changing world.
Elected governments still have the right, indeed the obligation, to decide social priorities, economic targets, how taxes will be collected and what the funds will be spent on. But they must give up making central decisions about how those priorities and targets will be reached, setting ridiculous performance measures and wasting everyone’s time on paper-shuffling evaluations of services and programs that are often ill-suited to diverse community needs. Offering a red square to everyone when some need a green circle and others need a yellow triangle, then judging them on how well they fill the red square is manifest stupidity. If one region has lots of older people, or ethnic groups, or youth problems, what’s the sense of insisting they all spend human services money on programs some central planning group has decided is what every region must have?
In a patchwork nation, government can provide the stitching that holds it all together, but it has no right to dictate the same colour for every patch.
This is where globalisation of people power holds some promise yet is itself a danger. We are already seeing the damage caused by the globalisation of capital without any curbs on corporate power. The internet enables disparate community groups to wage common battle against the excesses of greed, as in Seattle, Davos and Melbourne. But there is no such thing as ‘the globalisation of solidarity of people’s power’ (Jorge Jorquera, 11 Sept.). In fact manipulation of people power by a few strong non-government groups would be worse than government control; at least we elect our governments and can vote them out every now and then.
Instead, government has to become more intelligent. Not bigger or smaller, but better at responding to and funding adequately what is good for the nation or state as a whole and what is good for the quality and justice of everyday life. We need clear policy guidelines and broad criteria for the outcomes expected from spending public money. But this does not require an army of bureaucrats who know and care nothing about the differing needs and circumstances of people in places as diverse as Broome and Devonport, Bendoc and Patchewollock.
It requires a new trust in people power, the capacity of mature people to know their own needs, to spend public money responsibly, to devise programs and services that meet both their unique circumstances and the broad social guidelines set by government. That would mean a total rethink of government departmental cultures, a vast retraining scheme to teach such people how to get out there where the real action is and work with community groups, and a total restructure of the way services are ‘delivered’. In fact services would not be delivered (from the experts, government or non-government, top-down, to the needy). Instead, the whole system of government would be revamped to resource communities to build their own networks of support, and develop innovative solutions to their unique social and economic needs.
Most business leaders now understand (as Michael Osborne obviously (Peter Ellingson, 13 Sept.) does not) that ‘teamwork’ in a global communication age is not conformity to group think, nor the opposite of individual thinking, but that complexity requires constant re-grouping, creative destruction, building on and responding to diversity. Governments have to learn that too, or public disenchantment with their arrogant assumptions of we-know-best will grow and people power may turn nasty.
The task of government is to re-build community, to resource people so they can develop innovative, entrepreneurial, regionally and locally appropriate ways of meeting their own needs within a clear framework of social fairness and sensible accountability for outcomes set by government without rigid parameters and unnecessary bureaucratic supervision.
Dr. Don Edgar is Adjunct Professor with RMIT’s Centre for Workplace Culture Change, and the author of The Patchwork Nation: Rethinking Government, Rebuilding Community published by Harper Collins.