Public policy lessons from across the ditch

Alison LinkedinThis week’s blog is by Alison Duncan. Alison heads up the economic and trade team at the Australian High Commission in New Zealand. She has previously served in Indonesia and Solomon Islands. 

She undertook ANZSOG’s Executive Master in Public Administration  from 2013-14.  In 2015, she was awarded a Young Public Sector Leader Award by the Institute of Public Administration of Australia in recognition of her academic and professional achievements.

Having spent six years of procrastination, guilt, booze and cramming sessions to achieve my undergraduate degrees, the last thing I ever thought I’d do was go back to university.   But absence makes the heart grow fonder and, in 2013, I decided to take the plunge and do a Masters degree.

My reasons for choosing the Australia New Zealand School of Government’s (ANZSOG’s) Executive Master in Public Administration were prosaic. My employer was willing to pay for it and I was looking for ways to beef up my credentials for a diplomatic posting to Wellington where my fiancé’s older children lived.  Somewhere down the list of reasons was a vague interest in public administration.

It’s ok for me to say this openly now without fear of castigation from my employer or ANZSOG because my early indifference quickly turned to enthusiasm. Far from the boring Contract Law lectures I suffered through as a 19-year old, the ANZSOG course was engaging, interactive, challenging and even fun.  It brought together around 100 public servants from most of Australia’s jurisdictions and New Zealand to think about, debate and try to solve the various challenges thrown up for governments of today.

For me, as a Commonwealth public servant, some of the most valuable learning came from interaction with my peers from New Zealand and the Australian states and territories. The cross-fertilisation of ideas and experience opened up new avenues of inquiry, new ways of thinking and encouraged me to question established practice.  It also taught me a lot about New Zealand which, now that I’m serving here (yep, I got the posting!), has helped me to understand and appreciate the similarities and differences between our systems.

Learning about the Cave Creek tragedy, the privatisation of Kiwirail and the efforts to embed cultural change at New Zealand Police gave me insights into how the New Zealand public sector operates, the lessons it has learned along the way, and how those lessons shape its decision-making now. Watching old footage of David Lange destroying Jerry Falwell in a debate on nuclear weapons helped contextualise New Zealand’s proudly independent views on foreign policy.  And hearing from my fellow students that New Zealand Cabinet papers are often published online immediately after Cabinet meetings was a revelation, precipitating a fascinating and robust discussion about how transparency influences the way public servants advise Ministers.

I was particularly interested in understanding how the New Zealand Government engaged with and developed policy on indigenous issues. Having a fellow student from Te Puni Kōkiri, New Zealand’s agency charged with advising the Government on issues and policies affecting Maōri, was a great opportunity to learn about this important area of public policy.  It highlighted for me the vast differences between the indigenous experiences in Australia and New Zealand, but that lessons nonetheless could and should be learned.  Participating in a pōwhiri at the Te Papa Tongarewa marae for our graduation was a moving experience which capped off a fantastic two years.

It’s important that these valuable learnings don’t end once the degree is awarded. ANZSOG alumni have much to offer governments on both sides of the ditch and governments need to harness those skills to improve their own methods and policies.

Now that I’m serving in New Zealand as a diplomat, I’m always on the look-out for interesting and innovative public policy initiatives that might be of interest to Australian governments. As a unitary state with a small population, New Zealand has a fairly unique agility to try out new ways of doing things.  From Bill English’s ‘social investment approach’ to implementing digital identities and perhaps even trialling driverless cars, New Zealand does things that are worth watching.

The Australian High Commission is keen to stay in touch with ANZSOG alumni. We will be working with ANZSOG’s alumni program to engage alumni in New Zealand.


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