The concept of “stewardship” is increasingly being looked to as a driver of contemporary public service practice in Australia, and elsewhere. The diversity of contexts in which stewardship has arisen suggests a concept that is capable of broad application to achieve many outcomes. But, an alternative reading could sound warning bells, suggesting a concept that is being applied beyond its logical and theoretical constraints.
In this Issues Paper we review the evidence relating to stewardship to explore what the existing literature tells us in terms of what stewardship is, how to steward effectively and the types of outcomes a stewardship approach is capable of producing. In doing so we find a limited evidence base for a universal concept that can be meaningfully applied across disciplines. Although much has been written about stewardship and its importance, rather less is available in terms of agreement about what this concept is and how it operates, and a solid evidence base that clearly demonstrates the outcomes of stewardship practice is largely absent. In this review we integrate what evidence exists to explore this important concept but note that further research is required to fully articulate what stewardship is and how it could most effectively operate in practice in different contexts.
We identify that no single meaning of stewardship can be found and its definitions vary across disciplines and policy fields. Although it is applied in a diverse range of ways, the concept does have a set of universal features: all stewardship models involve taking responsibility for something, within a context of constrained resources and for particular beneficiaries. In terms of who is stewarding, we identify that in a public policy context it is typically government agencies, but not exclusively – other partners play important roles in stewardship. In the context of the public service, stewards are not typically individuals, but collections of individuals who may or may not share similar sorts of goals and aspirations.
In terms of what is being stewarded, we find great variation across policy fields and different domains of practice. What is common across these fields and domains can be classified as stewardship processes, outputs and outcomes. We note that these classifications are linked in important ways and when operating effectively could reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle. The paper also explores the ways in which stewardship can be achieved, noting that a great array of different activities are undertaken under this broad umbrella. No single process or set of practices is associated with stewardship in a distinctive sense. Many of the kinds of activities that we find related to stewardship can also be observed in traditional approaches to the design and delivery of public services. What appears to be distinctive, however, is the context in which levers are used and the relative balance between the types of approaches.
Given that we did not find a single theory able to integrate different perspectives on stewardship, we have developed a typology of four composite stewardship approaches - the Guide, the Gatekeeper, the Giver and the Maximiser – each containing different perspectives in terms of what stewardship should achieve and how it can operate. We demonstrate how these approaches have subtle but important differences in terms of the ways in which they view the purposes and processes of stewardship. We argue that some of the challenges we witness in terms of stewardship approaches seem to stem from the interaction between different perspectives on what stewardship is and how it should operate.
Having set out what we know about stewardship, drawing on the research evidence, we consider where next for stewardship, outlining the range of gaps in our knowledge concerning this important concept. We conclude by pointing to the urgent need to fill these gaps with high quality interdisciplinary research.