The New Synthesis in the Field: Conversation with Jocelyne Bourgon

Date Posted

3 Nov 2017


Digital Issue 1, 29 Nov 2017

How did your latest publication, The New Synthesis of Public Administration Fieldbook, come about?

The New Synthesis Initiative was launched because a group of very senior people, who had been in government for a reasonably long time, felt that there were significant changes at play; that what it meant to govern a modern society was changing. If this were true, then people in positions of authority in government needed all the help we could give them. So it started as a gesture of support for those in leadership positions in the public sector.

We must never forget that governance is about a relationship between the state and the citizens; the citizenry is not a cost-driver of government services, it is the most significant and important public value creator in society.

To begin with, the hypothesis was that there are significant, distinctive differences to serving in a post-industrial era, compared to prior times and that the institutions we have inherited, the conventions of public administration, come from a prior time. The idea was that we are not going to be able to resolve the challenges of the 21st century by relying on the ideas of the 19th, and the practices of the 20th. So we have to rethink public administration, reframe issues from a much broader perspective, and reinvent some of the practices, in order for public organisations to fulfil their mission. That was the beginning of the journey.

During the first phase of the work, a strange and unexpected consensus emerged. I say ‘unexpected’, because the purpose of the exercise was not to achieve a new consensus on a grand theory, but to bring a group of practitioners from six different countries together and have conversations about what it means to govern and to serve in the 21st century. The surprise was that a consensus formed around a set of principles which are, taken together, quite different from conventional thinking in public administration. This led to the first book: A New Synthesis of Public Administration.1

While my expectation was that the project was done by then, a number of colleagues and friends around the world wanted to test the ideas in practice. As a practitioner, I could not resist the appeal of that, so we said, “Yes”. When we grew to 1,000 people, we said “Okay, it’s time to do a new book”. This Fieldbook2 describes what people, in various domains of practice in a diversity of countries, have done with the framework we created; we were in awe at what they were inventing.


In what ways do these new ideas represent a shift from previous thinking about public sector and administration management?


There are a number of shifts. One is that classical public administration is based on a mechanical model inherited from an industrial age. Once upon a time, some people earned the right to exercise power. Their decisions were deemed to be serving the collective interest, and once they make decisions, these would be faithfully implemented down a system of hierarchy and delegated authority, and everyone lived happily ever after. Things were expected to work like a well-oiled machine.

This story is true to a degree, but incomplete: what’s missing is that governance isn’t only about making decisions and implementing them, but also about inventing solutions. It’s about co-creating a new future; collective problem-solving; adapting to changing circumstances. It’s about facing issues of increasingly complexity, which means that they don’t fit in the neat boxes of the industrial age. The classical model does what it is doing well and New Public Management is very useful if the issue you’re trying to resolve is managerial, but these two combined do not help to invent solutions to the problems we’re facing in a post-industrial era.

A smart government is: one that, with the least amount of effort, the least amount of energy, the least amount of resources, achieves the greatest level of result and impact.

In a way, the journey has been about reconnecting with fundamental principles, and moving away from what has been the tendency of the last 25 years, which has focused on techniques and management concepts, rather than on public purpose, collective interest, or citizenship. Old principles, like public administrations, serve a public purpose, and that purpose is not measured by agency results. It’s about building a better society, and can only be measured and assessed at the level of societal results.

State authority is very precious, but the real power is to use the authority of the state to harness and lever the collective power of everyone, every engine in society. It is a lever in the exercise of governance, as opposed to an exercise of authority by government alone.

We must never forget that governance is about a relationship between the state and the citizens; the citizenry is not a cost-driver of government services, it is the most significant and important public value creator in society. The investment and contribution of citizens far exceed the total investment of the public, private and civil sectors combined. Citizens are the driver, the fuel that propels society forward. To forget that, is to reduce their role to being a consumer, or a client of government services. It is to miss the big picture.


What insights have emerged from the application of the New Synthesis Framework in practice?


I’ve been surprised many times by how people are using and reinventing the NS ideas. I did not know if the framework was going to work better with highly developed societies or developing countries. Some of what appeared to be small shifts were ground-breaking.

Take a simple example of an “a-ha!” moment we’ve witnessed in our workshops. Somebody was dealing with garbage collection. If I’m the head of garbage collection, I may look at the issue from an agency-centric perspective: I’m facing increasing volume, increasing demand, I have limited resources, please give me more. My boss is either going to have more resources to give me, or they’re going to say, “Do more with less!”. With such narrow options, we end up with suboptimal results.

Now what if I reframed it in societal terms? What am I trying to achieve? Do I want a society that generates less garbage? Should I look at an economy with a capacity for not only recycling, but reallocating resources to more productive use? This is a very different way of looking at the issue. You can only get to the strategic discussion if you shift your attention from an agency-centric focus to a societal focus.

Leveraging is also a powerful concept. A few people have access to the levers of state. Now, what if public office holders use this power to serve a broader purpose, which is to enrol others, what would government need to do? Suddenly you find a new meaning for what a smart government is: one that, with the least amount of effort, the least amount of energy, the least amount of resources, achieves the greatest level of public result and societal impact. That is quite transformative.

Look at the other side of the equation: what about citizens? They demand services—this is the cost-driver mentality—and you focus on improving user satisfaction. But what if you look at it differently: that the results we value most in society are actually produced by citizens? What can government do to harness this phenomenal value?

For example, we don’t have a law-abiding society because we’re smart enough to make laws, but because citizens are willing to obey laws—citizens create a law-abiding society; create literacy; by their actions, they produce health outcomes and reduce healthcare costs. You have countries that spend twice the amount of GDP of other countries but with poorer results in health outcomes: what’s the difference? It doesn’t come entirely from government or the private sector, it comes from the behaviour of the people.


How do you hope that governments and societies will use this new book and its ideas?


I think there is a search for ideas, and therefore ideas will find a way to surface. When we started the New Synthesis Initiative, we had to convince people that there was a difference between dealing with a complex issue and a complicated problem. Today, you mention that and people nod and say, “Of course”. We still have to persuade them that there’s a difference when you’re dealing with a hyper-connected society and a high level of uncertainty—that problem-solving in the context of high uncertainty is different from when you’re dealing with incremental changes. But the awareness is there, that serving in the 21st century in the post-industrial era is different from before.

What governments everywhere are struggling with is: “How do I bring it all together?”. They’re exposed to techniques—to the fad of the day, the new recipes, the new how-to, the list of ten principles—and what they are looking for is, “How do I think my way through the problems society is facing in practice?”. If there is a contribution that the New Synthesis Initiative is trying to make, it’s not to give answers but to offer a way to search and to explore, so that people can invent their own “New Synthesis” to deal with their own problems in their unique contexts and circumstances.

There’s no comfort in what we’re offering; we are not providing answers. Instead, we are helping to frame lines of inquiry for people to search, invent and find their own solutions. But that’s what governments do: government’s core role is to invent solutions to the problems that stem from living in society. Governing is invention, it is innovation.

We simply try, modestly, to bring pieces together so that people can think their way through. That’s what the book does. And if some of the ideas are of value, they will find their way. The river will flow somewhere, and it will reach the people that are looking for these ideas.


An international expert in governance and public sector reforms, the Honourable Jocelyne Bourgon is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Civil Service College Singapore, President of Public Governance International (PGI), President Emeritus of the Canada School of Public Service, project leader of the New Synthesis Initiative and author of A New Synthesis of Public Administration: Serving in the 21st Century and The New Synthesis of Public Administration Fieldbook.

Mme Bourgon met with ETHOS Editor-in-Chief Alvin Pang during her last Fellowship visit to Singapore in August 2017.


  1. Jocelyne Bourgon, A New Synthesis of Public Administration: Serving in the 21st Century (Kingston, Canada: School of Policy Studies and McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).
  2. Jocelyne Bourgon, The New Synthesis of Public Administration Fieldbook (Denmark: Dansk Psykologisk Forlag A/S,2017).

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