The Understanding Public Value workshop was held over one and a half days on 11-12 July 2019 at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. It was funded by the Australian Political Studies Association and supported by the School of Political Science and International Studies, the University of Queensland. A number of public policy scholars from across Australia came together to explore the concept of public value and its application to public policy theory and practice.
Summary of key themes:
- Some participants saw ‘public value’ as a simple check, to support other processes when determining and implementing policy. Others saw it as a more holistic mechanism to determine the value of a policy, which would potentially serve as a significant element of decision-making and assessment of outcomes. These two perceptions would lead to dramatically different views of what further work or research is necessary. While the concept is fairly fit-for-purpose for the former, significant work on determining how to balance different viewpoints and how to measure potential impacts is necessary to fulfil the latter.
- There was general agreement that public value has wide application, but as a concept it is messy. There were many different ideas of where public value is created and by whom – and there was no consensus. It does seem to be context specific.
- So, can we have, indeed do we need, a precise definition? Is it just useful to have the concept front and centre in policy and implementation practice? The idea of talking about “saving public value” certainly links to the idea of reminding policy actors that there are broader societal implications that you need to take into account.
- Ideas of tensions and balancing came up often. Is it possible in a world of competing demands on fixed budgets and resources and divergent groups and interests to create public value without diminishing value for others? Do we need to talk about redistribution of public value? Or do we need to change the conception of the collective rather than the values?
- The way that the public sector develops, manages and positions operational capacities seems to have direct implications for the types of public value that are realisable. So, how can we enable public servants to create public value especially where the area is political?
- As well, there was agreement that time is a missing factor in public value analysis. What might constitute a balance in the three elements of the triangle could shift. Also, what might be considered public value may shift over time, and indeed what constitutes the public shifts over time.
- The public value concept seems to have been stretched to be some or all of paradigm, rhetoric, narrative and performance. Has it been stretched beyond usefulness? Do we need to get back to basics? How can we better connect value and values? Nonetheless the concept is useful because it resonates with policy actors and focusses attention on “value creating imagination”. It has the potential to change conversations and to foster the capacity for respectful conversations where there is value divergence. There was general agreement that we also need to start putting value on social and relational, not just economic (ideas of stewardship, trusteeship, fiduciary duty).