EGPA 2022 Conference | 6-9 September 2022

Public Administration for the Sustainable Future of our Societies

Some Takeaways from Plenary Sessions

Written by Dr. Louis Meuleman

With the central theme ‘Public Administration for the Sustainable Future of our Societies’, the 2022 EGPA Conference in Lisbon addressed how public administration and governance (PAG) should respond to the “poly-crisis” of our time, which includes financial crashes, viral pandemics, uncontrolled migrations, rapid climate change, related natural disasters, social protests and disruptions, and terrorist attacks and more conventional armed conflicts.

The three plenary sessions focused on different aspects.

The opening session on September 7 started with scene-setting introductions. EGPA President Jean-Michel Eymeri-Douzans emphasised the institutional capacity of PAG that is needed to tackle the current burst of wicked policy problems.

INA President, Luisa Neto, stressed the universality of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the need for public administrations to lead by example and of the capability to apply integrated approaches. We need a strong public administration, and this requires dedicated training. ISCSP President, Ricardo Ramos Pinto, added that we should step beyond the dominant academic paradigms towards more networked approaches, in order to create the societal impact that is needed. The principles of efficiency and effectiveness alone will not guide us to a rational use of the available resources to attain the SDGs: we need to consider how environmental, social and economic challenges can be considered in a systemic, integrative way.

From the political perspective, Mariana Vieira da Silva, Minister of State for the Presidency of Portugal, who is among others responsible for the quality of public administration, recalled the power, innovation and driving force of public administration during the recent crises. And we have a succession of crises. The current situation emerged before the country and its administration had fully recovered from the impacts of the financial crisis. Sustainability cannot be achieved if the public administration misses the capacity to respond adequately to the challenges. Because becoming a civil servant seems not attractive enough currently, we urgently need to stimulate career possibilities in the public administration, and increase training, to keep up with the complexity of the challenges. Addressing the challenges requires excellent knowledge, from all available sources. However, as the EGPA President commented, there is a huge gap between academics and policymakers that needs to be bridged.

Finally, as keynote speaker, Catarina de Albuquerque of the organisation ‘Sanitation and Water for All’ called for not only addressing the economic and environmental costs of, among others, the water and sanitation crisis, but also the deeply engrained inequalities that have increased globally. We need to realise that less than 10% of the global freshwater resources is available for human use, while agriculture uses 70% and industry 20%. The new economic paradigm should be achieving sustainable prosperity within planetary limits, as shown by the ‘Doughnut economy’ concept of Kate Raworth. All this requires a very strong public administration that engages in partnerships with civil society and business.

In the following discussion, trust came up as a key issue. People are sceptical when public administration promises to protect vulnerable groups. It was also discussed that effective partnerships require a change of mindset of both civil servants and civil society actors: ruling is different from collaboration, and advocacy is not the same as co-creation.

The second plenary session on Thursday, 8 September was on ‘Public administration, the state and the civil society organizations’ meaningful cooperation in the field of Human Capital Development to achieve sustainable development’.

Moderator Siria Taurelli of the European Training Foundation ETF pointed at the diversity of actors that need the education, skills, competencies and attitudes which enable them to contribute to sustainable development: it is not only about the state and government organisations but also about civil society organisations (CSOs) and business. What are effective strategies to engage CSOs in collaborative sustainability transitions? Andrej Frank of the umbrella organisation Lifelong Learning Platform explained that learning also happens beyond specific education and training, and not only at schools but also ‘on the job’ and in interaction and collaboration between PAG and CSO practitioners. He mentioned interdisciplinary, intergenerational and experimental learning, as well as ‘learning to learn’. These are all great opportunities for mainstreaming the SDGs in learning, but it is not yet much happening.

Margareta Nikolovska (ETF) presented a study on the role of CSOs in lifelong learning (LLL) and human-centred design (HCD) in EU partner countries, in contributing to public policies for sustainable development, illustrating this with the case of EU partner countries. One pertinent issue is the lack of trust between public administration and CSOs, and the need to engage in a strategic dialogue. In the discussion, it was suggested that CSOs should be involved already in the design of PAG-for-sustainability training.

The Conference on the Future of Europe was mentioned as a good example of engaging a wide group of citizens and CSOs in early strategy discussions of public administration. The health sector has many good practices on bringing civil society in in PAG training: the experiences of patients are crucial. This could be new principle for training: bringing in the end-user.

Finally, the EGPA President thought that introducing lifelong learning as a concept in career-model PA systems would be very useful.

After the focus of the second plenary on the human dimension, the third plenary session on Friday, 9 September focused on how environmental challenges exacerbate social challenges. Moderator Maria João Coelho of the Portuguese Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) highlighted that most of the top-10 priorities of the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Risks report are environmental and social.

Humberto Rosa (European Commission) informed that the European Commission has put sustainability as its top priority, with the European Green Deal (EGD) as a flagship economic strategy with a strong environmental and social dimension. The EGD is the EU sustainable development strategy.

Finally, the EGPA President thought that introducing lifelong learning as a concept in career-model PA systems would be very useful.

This was not only based on science. Public opinion and many elections have pushed for this paradigm change. The EGD has delivered already important new legislation and strategies, with the 2020 Biodiversity strategy and the 2022 Nature Restoration Law as key examples. This is a recognition that the biosphere is the underlying, foundational layer that makes economic and social processes possible. We are facing a poli-crisis but the climate and biodiversity crises are structural, where economic crises are rather conjunctural. We need strong, skilled and well-coordinated public administration to deliver on sustainability.

This analysis was supported by Júlia Seixas (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) who spoke about public administration’s challenges for a timely and effective climate transition. There is a need for more research on innovative solutions. Filipe Ferreira (ISCSP) advocated that sustainability policies should be more characterised by territorialisation. Finally, Catarina Soares Cunha (Oeiras International School) focused on conscious leadership at the age of transformation: all states have to act on the SDGs, globally and at all other scales. The lack of implementation on the SDGs forces us now to do better governance: having the Goals is not enough, they need better coordination and other governance mechanisms to attain them by 2030.

The discussions during the plenary sessions and across the conference give rise to the following concluding remarks and suggestions.

The concept paper for the conference suggests that sustainability and more concrete the set of SDGs is changing the transdisciplinary, cross-faculty framework for studying public policy issues with interacting cultural, ethical, political, social, legal, economic, technological, and natural science elements at all layers of governance (EU, national, regional and local levels) and across policy sectors, as well as engaging with civil society and interested stakeholders in these new policy processes oriented towards the SDGs.

Indeed, public administration is confronted with sustainability challenges “24/7”; all countries have signed up to the SDGs as the framework and guidance on tackling these problems; and the business world has recognised that most of the top-10 global risks are environmental and social. Sustainable development is not only a policy priority but very much also a governance challenge – or, in the words of the European Commission’s First Vice President at the UN General Assembly in 2015: “Ultimately, it’s all about governance[1]. We even need ‘metagovernance’ to orchestrate the various governance strands. This requires a change of mindset: “Effective governance means using all the institutions, tools and mechanisms at our disposal, and adjusting our approach to the context and the challenges in each country. There is no one-size-fits-all model, and it is imperative that we think outside the box to get our approach right”.[2]

The European Green Deal triggered a paradigm change in EU thinking about the economy: “Economic growth is not an end in itself. An economy must work for the people and the planet.[3] This makes the SDGs a clear PAG challenge. In 2021, the European Commissioner responsible for public administration Elisa Ferreira formulated the challenge as follows:

“Quality public institutions are crucial for the EU to address the climate crisis and the economic and societal transitions outlined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The quality of institutions and the coherent implementation of policies are part of the SDGs themselves (namely SDGs16 and 17). Public administrations are the foundation on which the EU builds its success (12). This foundation needs to be solid if the EU is to be strong”.[4]

At the same time, a majority of the papers presented at the conference did not reflect the political and societal sense of urgency, nor the new direction that PAG research should focus on. This shows that not only PAG needs to increase its readiness and capacity to pave the way towards sustainability transformations, but the academic PAG world would also need to reconsider its balance between being a wise observer and a knowledgeable partner.

The plenary sessions of the conference were more in balance with the main theme. Most of the 11 UNCEPA principles of effective governance for sustainable development[5] were addressed, with the principles on accountability and on future generations generally underrepresented.

Against this backdrop, the following suggestions emerge:

  1. The UNCEPA ‘Principles of Effective Governance for Sustainable Development’ can help setting national priorities on PAG reform for sustainability, as well as for the research needed to underpin and support these reforms. They are designed to provide practical, expert guidance to interested countries in a broad range of governance challenges associated with implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

  2. During the preparation of EGPA 2023 and further years, it is important to stress a preference for paper presentations contributing to the challenges for PAG to tackle and prevent the big issues of our time, which are in fact all addressed by one or more of the SDGs.

  3. The conference could also become more a platform for dialogue between scholars and practitioners of public administration and governance. Practitioners should be invited to EGPA, not only to participate but also to present real-life cases, which show lessons learned and pending or new problems that need further research.

  4. 4) In the same vein, academics should reconsider the balance between being a wise observer and a knowledgeable partner of PAG.

  5. Experiences have illustrated the power of peer learning between practitioners from different countries and departments. A recent study[6] showed that personal relationships between scientists and policy makers, combined with early and clear communication as well as a good sense of timing are essential for effective science-policy relations. IIAS and/or EGPA could consider boosting such personal relations by piloting ‘mixed’ peer to peer workshops with practitioners and academics from different countries and departments.

  6. Politicians and policymakers feel the need to underpin decisions with sound data, and to measure progress with sound indicators. However, the complexity and wickedness of many (though not all) sustainability problems implies that decision makers increasingly have to rely on qualitative data and indicators. This is particularly a problem with regard to PAG, where expert guesses and public perception are at the heart of far-reaching decisions. How to make sure that qualitative data and indicators are sufficiently sound, is an ill-researched area, where practitioners are in dire need of academic support.

  7. To end with an ‘ABC’:

  • Alignment: A better match is needed between public administration and governance quality and the specific requirements of the poli-crisis.

  • Balance: The balance between policy and governance, between the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ of PAG, needs to shift more towards governance.

  • Capacity: We need investing in the capacity and skills to address the burning societal questions of today and tomorrow, not only in public administration organisations, but also in research programmes, with a focus on coordination mechanisms, indicators and monitoring, as well as foresight.

References

  1. Speech of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans 'A World to Transform' Post-2015 Development Summit - The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 27 September 2015.

  2. Foreword by Frans Timmermans in: Meuleman, L. (2018). Metagovernance for Sustainability. A Framework for Implementing the SDGs. Routledge.

  3. European Commission, COM/2019/650 final. Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy 2020, p. 1.

  4. European Commission, COM_SWD(2021)0101. Supporting public administrations in EU member states to deliver reforms and prepare for the future.

  5. These 11 principles were endorsed by the UN ECOSOC Council in 2018. See https://publicadministration.un.org/en/Intergovernmental-Support/CEPA/Principles-of-Effective-Governance

  6. Bruno, Ellen (2022). Personal relationships key to successful science - policy interactions. Blog post published at the European Commission’s Knowledge for Policy Hub. The research mentioned is: D. B. Karcher et al. (2022). Lessons from bright-spots for advancing knowledge exchange at the interface of marine science and policy, Journal of Environmental Management, Volume 314.

Dr. Louis Meuleman is vice chair and member of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration, visiting professor at Leuven University (Belgium), senior fellow at the University of Massachusetts Boston (USA) and research associate at Wageningen University (Netherlands). He has a PhD in public administration and an MSc in environmental biology. He works at the European Commission in Brussels as coordinator of the Environmental Implementation Review. Earlier he was among others director of the Dutch science-policy advisory Council RMNO. He is an experienced speaker and trainer on a broad variety of public governance issues. His latest book is ‘Metagovernance for Sustainability’ (Routledge, 2018), a follow-up of his PhD on ‘Metagovernance of hierarchies, networks and markets’ (Springer, 2008). Website: www.ps4sd.eu

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