Reimagining government: moving to an enablement paradigm

Back in April as the reality of COVID-19 became apparent, we at the Centre for Public Impact started thinking about how times of crisis often heralded radical policy changes. In my initial article on the topic, I stressed the need to shift from a delivery mindset to an enablement mindset – an enablement paradigm in which the core role of government is to create conditions in which communities can thrive.

In that article, I identified five elements of the enablement paradigm: thinking in systems, sharing power, putting relationships first, leading with humility and reorienting to learning. But sharing the idea was only the first step; facilitation to engage people around these ideas was vital.

To that end, CPI teamed up with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) to create the space for those in the public sector to learn, collaborate, share ideas and, hopefully, begin implementing change in their own organisations. And the Reimagining Government series was born.

The webinars focused on each of the five elements of the enablement paradigm, bringing together international panelists and audience members to explore the challenges and opportunities of each.

To some degree, the Reimagining Government series aimed to test how the enablement paradigm resonated with public sector audiences in Australia and New Zealand. Happily, we discovered there is great interest. In fact, each of the seven webinars in the series drew an average registration figure of between 400 and 500 people. The level of engagement and positivity, too, was uplifting; the vibrancy of the discussions and the number of attendees showed there is both significant interest in this conversation in our region, and also some tangible experiments already happening on the ground.

During the final webinar, the audience was asked which of the five elements was most important.

31 per cent of the audience felt thinking in systems was the most important, while 25 per cent said it was relationships.

And it was on relationships that the final webinar largely focussed. Leilani Bin-Juda, the CEO of the Torres Strait Regional Authority, said, ‘putting relationships first is the key’ to delivering policies that affect change. ‘Know the people you represent. You’ve got to get out there, in the communities, in the bush and talk to the people you represent. They are the ones who are going to help you deliver good public policy.’

Download the webinar chat summary

Common themes

Over the course of the webinar series, some common themes emerged, which made it clear that the various elements of the enablement paradigm work together.

Conversations revealed that leading with humility, sharing power, relationships, learning and thinking in systems, all act as enablers of each other.

In many of the webinars, the themes of the other sessions weaved their way through, demonstrating that the five elements are not discrete, but rather entangled and interdependent. 

One theme that featured across many of the conversations was exactly what Leilani was promoting: the importance of getting closer to communities, devolving power, listening more deeply to what communities want and need, and valuing community insight and expertise. This is critical for governments wanting to shift to an enablement paradigm.

Many panellists, across many different topics, also discussed the fact that more humility in government is needed, but existing structures work against this. Humility is essential both at the individual level – in how political and public sector leaders exercise their leadership – and at a systemic level – in how government understands its role vis-a-vis communities and other important players in the system.

Another theme that weaved its way through the series was the idea that many of the challenges that governments face are complex, not complicated. Complex challenges cannot be “solved”. They are dynamic and every intervention will necessarily bring about unanticipated changes. Government departments and systems are well set up to address complicated challenges, such as building a road, but not complex challenges, such as obesity. A shift to the enablement paradigm requires governments to embrace that complexity, and work in ways which better reflect the emergent and unpredictable nature of many social challenges.

Enablement hurdles

In addition to common themes, these conversations also revealed common barriers which stand in the way of a shift to an enablement paradigm:


Of course, the one great challenge that no one foresaw is COVID-19. But the pandemic has also acted as a catalyst for positive change and proactive conversations – the Reimagining Government series being a perfect example. In fact, audience members felt governments’ response to the pandemic has been overwhelmingly positive: governments have acted swiftly, collaborated across departments and jurisdictions, and engaged with local communities. COVID-19 has shown that governments have the capability to move fast if needed and to engage with communities on the ground. The question is, what can we do to support these changes to endure? 

COVID-19 certainly poses a challenge in moving towards an enablement paradigm, but from this challenge grows an opportunity. Audience members were grateful for the space these webinars provided them to talk about their aspirations and hopes for the evolution of the public sector. The webinars gave them room to imagine. There is clearly a hunger for these kinds of conversations, partly because of COVID-19, but largely because of long-standing deficiencies and the possibilities for improvement that flow from these. 

We close the Reimagining Government series with a sense of optimism and conviction that now is a great time to be driving this agenda forward, in Australia and New Zealand, and around the world. We’d love you to join us.

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