Wisdom in Public Administration – The elephant in the room

Questioning institutions and conventional wisdom is a foundation stone of democracy. In an environment of "post-truth politics" and hybrid governance, how can we ensure that those working in the public sector are trusted, equipped and encouraged to weigh up evidence, to negotiate consensus among different stakeholders and to design public policy and public services that promote the public good? Thu-Trang Tran, a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, explains why we should be looking for - and cultivating - wisdom in public administration.  

We need to wise up to the role of wisdom in public administration

We readily nod in agreement when we hear calls for greater leadership in public policy. But replace “leadership” with “wisdom”, and many of us would need to pause and ponder what wisdom would look like in public policy.

Wisdom is elusive. And because it is elusive, it warrants greater empirical understanding for us to properly re-imagine this ancient notion for our contemporary times. I take up this challenge as a PhD journey to find wisdom’s place in our system of governance.

My inquiry was not borne out of inspiration from my policy work. Rather, the endeavour resulted from a confluence of my innate curiosity and need to find a positive lesson somewhere, having dutifully played the role of the “nameless and faceless” bureaucrat that retrofitted “robust” policy arguments for reactionary political commitments. I bore witness to the actions of “unwise” but well-intentioned reformers and “strategic” “leaders”; I saw through the technocracy to see the social and political construction of evidence and data; and I wrote countless enumerations of “public interest” in policy documents, media releases and letters, all of which left me wondering where is the wisdom of the public in this? Why isn’t wisdom part of the everyday parlance?

The reality is that the bureaucracy is built on a foundation of implicit values with exteriors painted in neutral beige. But rather than echo the Weberian call to mute emotions and values, I suggest we take a different tack of unearthing those masked values for open and wise debate, and that wiser practice and wiser outcomes are as worthy pragmatic aspirations as “strategic”, “innovative” and “agile” governance practices.

Wisdom may be in short supply and hard to specify, and thus it is all the more important to recognise it when it is manifested and cultivate it.

The aim of my research is to understand how public administration practice can become wiser. What is wise practice in the public administration profession? And what institutional foundations must be laid to seed wise practice and wise outcomes? The answers to these questions will be proffered as an alternative model to current public sector management frameworks. Wisdom comes from having perspective, and thus my project will also be comparative, contrasting very different approaches to understanding wisdom in Australia and China with a view to establishing a globally relevant understanding of wisdom in public administration.

On Wisdom

To understand wisdom fully and correctly probably requires more wisdom than any of us have

Robert J. Sternberg (1990)

There is no uniform definition of wisdom. Among philosophers and psychologists, wisdom can be seen as a cognitive process, a virtue, an individual good (a “personally desirable state or condition”), or a social good.

Empirical studies of wisdom only really began in the early 1970s and have been largely concerned with what it means to be a “wise person”. Wise people are rare.

A challenge of defining wisdom by its component attributes is that it can read like an unattainable wish list of platitudes. Also, researchers found that what wisdom entails varies across culture, profession, age, time and generation, and educational background.

The few researchers who investigate cultural variations of wisdom concepts find that while there is significant overlap in the component attributes, there are notable distinguishing features of wisdom that is particular to each culture. It may be that these differences reflect the degree of “positivity” given to such features by people situated in their historical, social and cultural contexts. This sociology of wisdom is deserving of more focused academic inquiry.

There is something of a consensus amongst researchers that Western constructs place relatively greater emphasis on cognitive abilities. My early survey results and interviews found that public administrators’ concept of wisdom centres on knowledge and intelligence, and the right or “wise” decision or judgement applied to the task at hand.

By way of contrast, Eastern constructs of wisdom are more inclusive and integrative, valuing a balanced exercise of cognitive, affective, intuitive, and interpersonal faculties; and wisdom is not exclusively in the domain of the mind, but also that of “experiential realization”, emotions, character and virtues. My fieldwork in China in November will provide an alternative understanding of wisdom in public administration.

Wisdom in Public Administration

A functional understanding of wisdom might see its application in various scenarios: self-reflection and life review, spiritual introspection, advising others, and management of social institutions. This last function has received little attention. My project takes the first step along this line of inquiry, extending the analysis from wise persons, to wise outcomes and wise institutions. To this end my project will involve civil servants in action-research workshops about barriers and enablers of wise practice.

In an institutional setting in public administration, wisdom is readily associated with leadership. Alongside this, recent public administration reform agendas seek to tackle other elusive concepts such as values, ethics, and culture, moving beyond the rational and technocratic ethos. My project will seek to follow a case study in a Tasmania government department where a wisdom assessment project is being conducted with executives.

International researchers characterise the concept of wisdom as “big, important and messy”, and see its translation into policy theory and practice as essential to the future of society. But messy it certainly is, and it may be the case that empirical wisdom researchers are the proverbial blind men feeling their way around the elephant.

Wisdom of the crowd

If you would like to shape what wise practice in public administration looks like, please fill out a short survey at https://wisdomproject.typeform.com/to/V9glSx

Thu-Trang Tran (@ThuTrangT) is a senior strategy advisor in the Victorian Government, sessional lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. The views and opinions expressed in this post are her own and do not represent the views of her employers. A version of this post has also been published on the ANZSOG blog