Daniel Goodwin

Barry Quirk’s compass: Re-imagining government

Re-imagining government is a timely, interesting and well-written book which will provide a useful compass for those seeking to navigate the choppy waters of change.

In it Barry Quirk considers the kinds of organisations that are now required for public service. For him these are not standard command and control hierarchies, but extend into and indeed are part of the communities they serve. Modern public service is done with, not to, communities and they are part of the constituency within which public leadership, both political and managerial, is exercised.

For Quirk there are three key purposes of government: the necessity of solving community problems, securing welfare and having the legitimacy to determine common good. For him, that legitimacy comes from discussion by leaders with communities, based on five core ethical principles. These can be paraphrased as treating people according to their own wants and intentions, letting them choose for themselves, empathising with them, helping them if it is possible to do so without wasting that effort, and encouraging them to help each other through reciprocal arrangements. Quirk sees these as underpinning decision making based on ’emotional maturity’, not emotionless detachment, and the ability for leaders to engage in deliberative forms of decision making.

Central to this strand of thought is a clearly articulated view of the importance of public trust and what constitutes a balanced relationship between politicians and officials: “…a productive relationship between elected politicians and public officials is central to good government. Politicians lead and set the tone, officials advise, politicians choose and then officials implement the chosen way forward. Balancing issues requires poise, moving a community forward requires willpower. And at the deepest of levels, leadership requires sympathy for others combined with the courage to choose in the midst of uncertainty.”

To achieve this, Quirk believes public managers need to exhibit leadership and public leaders need to develop managerial understanding and grip. Both need to be “personal, authentic and appreciative of others”, to meet expectations and engage the community, but at a much lower cost and greater productivity aimed at the common good. This is a deep-rooted, ethical approach, one which will be significantly tested in the changes that are underway.

There are some unevenesses in the book: The proof readers have missed at least a couple of handfuls of errors which jar; the section on cost of public service is very good, yet it seems to lack  closer references to some of the strong ethical themes that are contained within the earlier chapters; and most importantly the conclusion has some important ideas which I wanted to know more about but which were a bit lost in the dash to the finish.

Nevertheless this book will be kept in my nearest bookshelf along with the others I keep handy for my challenging times.

Book details: Quirk, B. 2011 Re-imagining government: public leadership in challenging times. Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke


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This entry was posted on July 22, 2011 by in Local Government Futures, Place and planning, Public Value.
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