Governments must embrace change, says expert

Gerry Stoker
Univesity of Southampton professor of politics and governance, Gerry Stoker.

By Rob O’Brien

Local governments will have to modify their management style in the face of the financial crisis to focus more on people rather that targets, a UK expert in politics and governance has said.
In an interview with GovernmentNews Gerry Stoker, a professor of politics and governance at the University of Southampton in England, said that the current environment presented local authorities with an opportunity to change the way they managed their organisations.
“It is going to require some very substantial changes in the way that local governments work and operate if it is going to be up to the kinds of challenges we face,” he said.

“In dealing with the financial crisis, one of the problems that local government around the world has been tied into a kind of new public management of looking at performance through a set of targets and figures and that was quite helpful and valuable in an era of growth.

"But you when you have to start making very substantial choices about what you’re going to provide and what you can’t provide… you need a different style of management – one that is more connected to the people in your own organisation and also people outside of your own organisation."
Professor Stoker, the author of Why Politics Matters which won the 2006 political book of the year award from the Political Studies Association of the UK, said that local governments were currently undergoing a shift in their style away from “management by numbers to management by people”.
“On some of the financial issues and environmental issues… [local authorities] actually need the skill, intelligence and information gathering that enables you to pick up on what’s going on in your communities in terms of what’s good and what can be built on," he said.

“It’s a question of whether we can design local authorities that are capable of catching the wave and surfing it effectively, rather than just ploughing through the water hoping their effort will achieve what they want."

Professor Stoker’s current research deals with issues of governance in complex settings, citizen empowerment, strategies for encouraging civic behaviour among citizens and political disenchantment in western democracies.
He said that citizens don’t feel they can influence decision makers and have become more demanding of their governments and critical of what they expect them to achieve.
“So we’ve got a double bind… we actually think we’ve got less influence and at the same time we expect more from governments, and that’s one reason cynicism and distrust is so wide spread,” he said.

But he added that the recent Victorian bushfires and the ongoing financial downturn had shown that in a time of crisis people do still turn to their governments for leadership.

“What that suggests is that if governments can learn to operate in a different way, maybe there’s still hope for the citizen and government, because the two clearly need each other."
Professor Stoker will be addressing the Municaipal Association of Victoria’s (MAV) Future of Local Government Summit in Melbourne next month.

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