Pieces of the Same Solution: Reimagining the Public Good
Dr Mille Rooney
We’ve come through a transformative election, into a new dawn of possibility. Australia’s Parliament not only has a new government and Prime Minister, but an unusual crossbench configuration eager to fight for climate, integrity and democracy. To make it happen, record numbers of people volunteered like never before, ran for office like never before, and shifted their voting habits like never before.
For the first time in a long time, it feels like our nation isn’t trying to stop the future. We have, in our leadership, new imagination, will and capacity to rise to meet the big challenges and embrace the big opportunities.
Certainly, the past few years of fires, plagues (human, mouse) and floods have rearranged the very furniture of our lives – our everyday ways of being, working, travelling, connecting and caring have been disrupted and transformed.
Too many of us have lost our homes and incomes. Too many of us have felt the personal costs of privatisation and years of underinvestment in health and aged care. And though mercifully few by global comparisons, too many are still dying and leaving behind grieving loved ones.
Yet through the portal of flames, floods, smoke and masks we’ve also seen glimpses of what is possible – what we can accomplish as a nation, especially when we choose to work together, listen to the experts and put people first. We’ve re-learned the value of public healthcare, public trust and public media. We’ve seen the very real ability of government to lift people out of poverty with the stroke of a pen (hello JobKeeper and doubling of JobSeeker).
For the first time in decades, Australians have seen that our leaders can actually choose what to prioritise. That ‘Economy First’ is indeed a choice, not a natural law.
What a moment it could be for us now to take these learnings and run with them. To recognise underneath the calls for stronger integrity, democracy and climate action is a call for a country built around the public good – built around infrastructure that ensures that what people need is available, for everyone, when and where it is required.
Many decades ago, evangelists for neoliberalism gave western leaders a new vision for reform: promoting ‘freedom’ based on the notion of unfettered individuals competing in a ‘free market’ with minimal state interference. They relentlessly promoted their vision as the true path to progress and happiness, and seized on crises to create ‘real change’ (in the words of Milton Friedman).
We are still living their legacy of policies, laws, anti-union agendas and tax cuts.
What if we could take this moment – in all its peril and possibility – to galvanise around a new vision, a new ‘why’, that spoke to universal needs and human motivations? What if we could find a way to articulate that the individual issues we care about are really just pieces of the same solution?
History teaches us that it’s possible, and that it doesn’t take universal agreement, but a tipping point of people who are ready to stop, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, fighting the old and instead build the new – making the old model obsolete.
What a moment to seize.
First, digging into the question, “What do people really want?”
Australia reMADE formed before fires, floods and pandemic as an independent, not-for-profit network keen to ‘build the new’: both by bringing people closer to democracy and by uniting our various causes and voices around the vision of what we are for, not just what we are against.
From the middle of 2020 through to late 2021, we embarked on a qualitative research project, asking Australians what was sustaining them and what they wanted more of – be it better roads, more community spaces, or different ways of doing democracy.
We recruited several hundred participants, embedded in more than 45 different organisations and networks, from diverse backgrounds, interests and political inclinations. Dr Millie Rooney and a team of Australia reMADE-trained community facilitators led a series of qualitative interviews and focus groups focused around two key questions, “What do you want available to you and your communities?” and “Forgetting who pays for it, who do you think should provide this?”. We gave these things a name, calling them forms of “public good”.
For starters, we heard the same half a dozen essential things in pretty much every conversation: housing, healthcare, education, jobs, access to nature and access to the internet. (And certainly, if our policy reforms did nothing else but address these challenges universally, we’d be well on our way to a magnificent country for all.)
But digging deeper, underneath the tangible ‘what’ people spoke about, we heard a very strong, consistent desire for a deeper sense of the public good, with profound implications.
We found that across significant participant diversity, including age, gender, political persuasion, cultural background and location, people expressed three foundational, underlying needs and drivers:
♦ the need or drive to connect with each other and with place;
♦ the need or drive to care and be cared for; and
♦ the need or drive to contribute locally and nationally to who we are as communities and as a nation.
Connection, care, contribution – the 3Cs. These are what we’ve come to understand as universal human motivations, and therefore cornerstones, of the public good itself.
After all, public goods are only truly serving the public good if they are available to everyone when and where they are needed — to achieve connection, care and contribution.
A road is only a public good if it is freely available and connects between places we need to go. A hospital and its fancy machines are only a public good if it is freely available and has the staff with the time, space and capacity to care for the (physical and mental) wellbeing of their patients.
And our democracy is only a public good so long as it is accessible and participatory both at election time and in between.
Perhaps promoting the ‘public good’ based on connection, care and contribution can make the neoliberal concept of ‘freedom’ (based on market fundamentalism) obsolete?
Because if we’re going to propose reform, let’s be clear about what we are reforming for. What are the values and beliefs driving us?
Is the true purpose of the welfare system to make people feel cared for, or ashamed? Is the true purpose of education to lift all of us to our highest potential, or to sort and strengthen pre-existing categories of advantage and disadvantage? Does nature have any real value beyond what can be monetised, and does passing on a healthy natural world to future generations demand transformative thinking and action now?
When we change our ‘why’ we get a very different set of answers.
How to put the public good into action
Instead of asking, “does this reform grow the economy” we start by asking, “does this reform promote and protect the public good?”.
♦ In other words: does this work, policy or solution help meet people’s need for connection (including the time, space and capacity to connect)?
♦ Does it help meet people’s need to care and be cared for (including the time, space and capacity to care)?
♦ Does it help meet people’s need to contribute, whether locally or nationally (including the time, space and capacity to contribute)?
When we do that, we not only see how solutions fit together, but we become ‘multi-solvers’: using one solution as a leg up on the rest, grounded in a ‘why’ that is cohesive, motivating and makes sense.
So let’s take an example of how we might consider a proposed policy through the lens of the public good and the 3Cs.
Our new Prime Minister has rightly promised to fix our crisis in aged care. A case study from The Netherlands shows us a way forward, and the many ancillary benefits that flow when we get the 3Cs right.
Buurtzorg is an organisation that provides homecare nurses (written up as a thoughtful case study in the book New Power, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms). It was created with a vision to centre care (of patients, their families, and the nurses themselves) and connection (with these same people and the broader community) and to enable greater flexibility of care while at the same time reducing the paperwork burden and staff turnover.
To achieve this, nurses were organised into small teams of about a dozen and were given the freedom to operate in ways they deem best suited to their context and collective learning.
Today, nurses are actually responsible for a wider range of things than they would be under a conventional model — from painting and setting up the staff tea rooms and offices, to managing the budget and testing each other’s skills. But this has led to both an overall reduction in paperwork and bureaucracy, and an increase in their sense of meaningful contribution and connection to each other and to patients.
As a result, Buurtzorg now enjoys reduced sick leave, low staff turnover, shorter stays for patients (because they are healthier and ready to leave sooner) and higher patient satisfaction. Nearly 20 years after it was founded, the model is a huge success and expanding.
Buurtzorg provides a stark comparison to the experience of healthcare workers in Australia who, even pre-pandemic, were leaving the profession at an alarming rate due to poor working conditions and patient/staff ratios. This has been a common experience across much of the world, and the Buurtzorg model is still expanding to meet the increasing demand of desperate nurses everywhere!
Of course, this approach doesn’t have to be limited to the care sector. Indeed, there are examples coming through in new ways of doing democracy (citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting, Kitchen Table Conversations) as well as business (the rise of B Corps and the Business Roundtable of CEOs declaring corporations must serve more than shareholder profits alone).
Or what might it look like to centre connection, care and contribution at the heart of something potentially seen as technocratic and mechanical, such as the transition from one power source to another? There are brilliant examples right here in Australia of this as well, including:
♦ The First Nations Clean Energy Network ensuring Indigenous communities lead the transition to renewable energy in ways that support community-owned energy supply and enable mob to live and work on Country;
♦ Cooperative Power, a not-for-profit cooperative, attempting to shift the control of energy and power generation and distribution back to communities; and
♦ The Next Economy facilitating collaboration and transformation in traditionally fossil fuel-dependent communities like Gladstone and the Hunter Valley — empowering local communities to transition in ways that leave no one behind.
Connection, care and contribution aren't just touchy-feely nice-to-haves. They are a powerful driver of human motivation, and key to the ‘how’ of public good.
What we value: expanding our definition of ‘infrastructure’
As a society we’re pretty good at thinking about physical infrastructure and acknowledging its importance. We’re happy to invest money in bridges, roads, hospital beds, buildings, even the funny cardboard polling booths at election time, as tangible and important public goods. It’s easily measured and fits neatly into funding spreadsheets. It’s important in its own right, and it’s also made important precisely because we are able to measure it.
We’re less practiced and skilled at thinking about infrastructure that is less tangible, but equally vital to the public good. What do we mean exactly?
When people in our research talked about public goods and a quality of life for everyone, the conversation very quickly turned to the importance of time. Time to chat with neighbours over the fence, time to sit down for morning tea with colleagues during a busy shift, time to attend a local council meeting and contribute to democracy. Time to be with our family and friends, raise our children and care for the people and places we love.
It’s well-documented across the research that people believe they don’t have enough time. Partly this is psychology: we live in a culture that still reveres overwork and equates ‘busy’ with ‘important’. But for many, the structural barriers are real (hello housing prices, care-giving, raising a family), and yet structural solutions are rarely championed beyond tinkering around the edges.
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‘Outsource more of your life and get back to work!’ seems to be the preferred solution of governments, because they’re still operating from the Economy-First model and the more services we citizens pay for (from meals, to childcare, to eldercare) the better the economy looks on paper.
But if we are to replace the old model, what kind of infrastructure do we need to invest in as a society to give people time to connect, care and contribute?
Here are just a few examples of what we might consider ‘enabling infrastructures’ to invest in the public good over the long-term:
♦ Staffing ratios that enable a nurse to be rested, alert and able to take the time to engage with individual patients and their specific needs. (We cannot believe we Googled “why higher staffing ratios in hospitals leads to better care” as if this should need some kind of proof, but there are ample studies showing this to be the case.)
♦ Universal carers’ leave that provides support for care work to be done in community, by family and neighbours. At the moment in Australia personal/carers’ leave only covers immediate relations or members of a household. We could even consider carers’ leave to include environmental care and care for Country
♦ Local festivals that provide opportunities for residents to connect with each other and with place via formal and informal gatherings. Even better might be the proposed Universal Basic Income for artists (the Republic of Ireland is currently trialling this) – supporting artists to create atmosphere and community.
♦ A four-day work week coupled with affordable housing policy or other measures to ease cost of living pressures – so that all of us, regardless of what we do for paid employment, have the time to participate in and strengthen cultures of connection, care and contribution however we choose.
♦ Attractive public spaces — public beaches, walking trails, playgrounds, community centres, parks — that beckon us out of our homes and into each other’s company, without demanding we open our wallets. (Because these physical spaces are more tangible we’re already pretty good at valuing them, especially in wealthy areas, but imagine if these kinds of ‘public luxuries’ were seen as essential public goods for everyone!)
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Countries all around the world are recognising the importance of explicitly valuing enabling infrastructure: whether it’s the increased focus on a ‘wellbeing economy', a growing recognition of the ‘rights’ of nature, or an explicit commitment to decent wages, working conditions and rights to organise (especially in the caring professions).
And while we can and should try to measure a wider range of things (as they’ve done in New Zealand with the Wellbeing Budget), we also need to get comfortable with the knowledge that not all public goods are tangible or measurable, and that doesn’t make them less worthy of investment or priority.
We can become as confident in valuing the enabling infrastructure of time and space to connect, care and contribute as we are in our calls for public transport and extra hospital beds.
The public good is a new ‘why’, a new paradigm whose time has come. A seemingly innocuous term, it comes with little public baggage and much opportunity.
Public good isn’t just something you have, it’s something you do; for the benefit of everyone.
We need to commit, as a nation and as local communities, to providing the public good by building a society based around connection, care and contribution.
That requires us to talk about the public good and connect it to the many policies and solutions we care about – generating a galvanising “why” and cohesive vision. It also requires us to truly invest in the infrastructure we need to make our vision come alive, both the tangible and the intangible things that enable connection, care and contribution to thrive.
Part of the power of the neoliberal agenda was that it didn't have to give the detail and it wasn’t just a grab bag of ideas. The central purpose and animating vision it offered gave a million policy makers enough to run with for decades.
Can our vision be just as bold, and our policies just as prolific and powerful to shape the next era?
Starting Points for the Public Good Agenda
♦ Our new Prime Minister to issue a Statement of Purpose for the government before the federal budget, based around or inclusive of the ‘3Cs’.
♦ Use Budget Night to address progress on each front (a la the US ‘State of the Union’ address), reframing success from debt/deficit and ‘winners vs losers’ coverage alone.
♦ Establish a Minister for Open Government, charged with increasing public trust and participation in democracy, including a robust federal ICAC.
Dr Millie Rooney is a social scientist, researcher and champion of participatory democracy and politics. She co-directs the strategic and daily operations work of Australia reMADE, writes regularly and is sought after on panels, podcasts and forums for her work on the public good and more. Find her on Twitter @_MillieRooney.
Lily Spencer is one of Australia’s leading impact communications specialists, Communications Lead for Australia reMADE and host of the reMAKERs podcast. She has deep experience spanning politics, social enterprises, advocacy and public engagement. Lily believes in building big, purposeful tents – based on sharing the vision of what we’re for, not just what we’re against. @LinkedIn or Instagram – LilySpencer_words.
Australia reMADE is an independent, not-for-profit community and leadership network bringing people closer to democracy; and supporting collaborative, transformative and ambitious change.