Opinion: government must shift focus from authority over people to stewardship of complex systems | The Mandarin – Thea Snow

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Opinion: government must shift focus from authority over people to stewardship of complex systems | The Mandarin

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Opinion: government must shift focus from authority over people to stewardship of complex systems

By Thea SnowWednesday November 4, 2020


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If someone were to ask you, “what is the role of government?”, what do you think you’d answer?

Perhaps it might sound something like this:

  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary: the organisation, machinery, or agency through which a political unit exercises authority and performs functions and which is usually classified according to the distribution of power within it; or
  • Columbia Encyclopedia: a system of social control under which the right to make laws, and the right to enforce them, is vested in a particular group in society.

Or, it might not.

While the definitions above aptly describe the dominant understanding of the role of government, a growing group of academics and practitioners (including the Centre for Public Impact) are beginning to suggest that a different approach is needed. We are advocating for a shift away from viewing government as being about authority and control and towards seeing the core role of government as being to act as stewards of complex systems.

What does system stewardship mean? Through our work with a number of public sector agencies both here in Australia, and overseas, we have discovered that there is no single definition. Government as system steward is described in many different ways including: “guiding complex systems”; taking “a less transactional, more relational approach” to engaging with service delivery partners; and thinking beyond efficiency and effectiveness to “the common good”. A very recent paper describes it as, “a new way of working that allows governments and their agents to effectively influence and steward systems from which outcomes emerge.”

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Opinion: government must shift focus from authority over people to stewardship of complex systems | The Mandarin