Rethinking public affairs education for a globalized world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 August, 2015, 10:26am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 August, 2015, 10:26am

Hong Kong is faced with a challenging public policy environment characterized by an ineffective system of governance and challenging public policy problems including lead contamination in our water, outrageously expensive housing, an ageing population with no prospects of replacement, an overburdened public health system, and so forth. These issues and others are not unique to Hong Kong but characterize the megacities the world over. Only the details vary from place to place.

The persistence of these problems is the result of many factors including ineffective governance arrangements, lack of political will, path dependence – we are living out the results of choices made decades ago in a different incentive environment – and failure to understand causal linkages. Public affairs education and research can help us to address some of these problems by deepening our understanding of the complexities of governance in particular environments and helping us to better understand causal linkages (why we are where we are) and to improve diagnostics.

We now operate in a globalized world which means that public affairs education which focuses on solutions should draw on the best international practice. Key issues for a globalized context include: What competencies are necessary for policy makers in a globalized world? Undoubtedly they need expert knowledge of how similar problems are addressed elsewhere; how to integrate technical knowledge with a nuanced understanding of culture and context. How does globalization impact modes of teaching and learning? Using smart technology policy professionals should be interacting with peers in various parts of the world working on similar problems.

In a globalized context how do providers of public affairs education understand the changing needs of their stakeholders, especially prospective students to ensure that public affairs education is aligned with societal needs? Finally, how best to bring local perspectives to global problems and for us, to bring an Asian perspective to public affairs education traditionally dominated by the West. This requires dialogue and comparison. Public governance in the East and West is often built on very different constitutional bases, meanings of legitimacy, and governing principles. How best to understand the implications of these differences for practice and designing solutions.

One approach to addressing some of these challenges is to offer joint programs of research and teaching that bring together the best of East and West. To this end the University of Hong Kong and the University of Southern California are launching a new Master of Global Public Policy designed specifically for policy professionals in a globalized environment. The program seeks to bring together experienced professionals from the public, private, and third sectors (including civil servants, employees of state-owned enterprises, those working in government liaison positions in private companies, employees of multi-lateral organizations such as the World Bank, OECD, and various development banks, and international NGOs), recruited globally, to focus on solutions to common public policy problems.

Such a program should focus on key issues such as urbanization, environmental sustainability, social justice, global development, and financial sustainability, and produce solutions that address problems holistically, and that are based on collaboration across sectors.

Urbanization is a global trend, yet sustaining the world’s great metropolises and ensuring quality of life is of key importance. The traditional prescription for high density living based on efficiency will no longer do. As we have seen in Hong Kong high density living destroys community and leads to alienation and poor quality of life. We need to re-construct urban spaces that allow communities to thrive.

The headlong pursuit of economic growth with little regard for sustainability, especially of the environment, has produced disasters all around us. Ignoring the environment characterized developments on the mainland for decades and probably contributed to the massive explosions of illegally stored and very hazardous chemicals in Tianjin during the past week. Understanding how human agency impacts the environment should be a key component of any global public affairs program. 

Poverty, and modern day slavery and human trafficking should play no part in a modern polity, yet they are all around us.  A global program of public affairs education must focus on how these problems which hold back human development may be addressed.

Globalization has resulted in improved efficiency through economies of scale and specialization, but it has also destroyed local economies and indigenous industry. A global approach to public affairs education should honestly assess the impact of globalization and craft solutions that address these problems, not simply accept globalization as given. Clearly in the cultural realm we see that globalization has not resulted in a single world view. How to mobilize the best local solutions to address global problems should be a focus on such a program.

No public policy program could be complete without considering the financial sustainability of our communities. This is not simply a matter for economists and public finance specialists, but must concern us all. How to ensure that communities are able to mobilize resources to protect and develop public goods should be a key component of public affairs education.


John P Burns is Dean of Social Sciences and Chair Professor of Politics and Public Administration at The University of Hong Kong (HKU). This opinion article is prepared for the academic conference about "Why public policy matters and how it works in the fast-changing world" to be held on HKU campus on September 15, 2015.