In conversation with Professor Meredith Edwards AM FASSA, FIPPA on her role representing Australia in the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA).
Professor Edwards, you have been involved with a United Nations Committee for a few years now, could you please tell us a little about the committee and your role in it?
For the past eight years I have been attending week-long meetings of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA). CEPA was set up as a Committee in 2001 by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). CEPA is responsible for supporting the work of ECOSOC on the promotion and development of public administration and governance among its Member States and provides ECOSOC with a report on its findings and recommendations. The current emphasis is on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
How is this committee formed and how does it function?
CEPA’s 24 members are elected as individuals from Member State countries and meet annually in New York. Observers from a range of organisations can also attend. CEPA member papers are published on the UN website where the proceedings are also broadcast live on UN web TV. (www.publicadministration.un.org). CEPA is ably supported by a Secretariat from within the Division for Public Administration and Development Management, a division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).
Tell us about the committee’s agenda and how it is achieved?
Last April the Committee at its 16th session met to consider the specific agenda topic of Ensuring effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals: Leadership, action and means. We covered the critical role for the SDGs of: (a) institutional leadership; (b) understanding the needs of local authorities and supporting them for their implementation role; (c) consensus to be built across all income groups if poverty eradication polices are to succeed; (d) building professional and ethical public services and other institutional arrangements; and also (e) the desirability of a set of principles and practices of effective governance for sustainable development.
Where there any other outcomes from the meeting in April this year?
At its meeting, CEPA also prepared a contribution to the UN 2017 high-level political forum on sustainable development on the subject of challenges for institutions in eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world:
‘In its contribution CEPA emphasised that a transformative approach to policymaking and the modus operandi of public institutions is needed in order to leave no one behind and realise the principles of effectiveness, accountability and inclusion’.
(For more detail on CEPA’s findings and recommendations, see CEPA, Report on the sixteenth session at www.publicadministration.un.org)
What are some of the specific contributions you have made to CEPA over the last few years?
My specific areas of contribution at the last CEPA meeting were twofold:
(a) contributing to and presenting a paper on Towards a set of Internationally Recognised Principles of Responsible and Effective Governance, and
(b) participating on the panel of CEPA members which, from a short list, selected winning entries for the UN Public Service Award.
Last year, at the fifteenth session of CEPA, we discussed the possibility of developing a set of internationally recognized principles of governance. We agreed that, as part of our continuing effort to provide more action-oriented advice on public administration, there was a need for a set of principles of effective governance that were: few in number, expressed in non-technical language and relatively easy for non‑specialists to recall. The aim was to provide helpful and practical guidance to countries in addressing a broad range of governance issues, with regard, in particular, to the on-going implementation of the SDGs.
At the fifteenth session, we noted that there is a set of three principles of governance contained in and integral to the 2030 agenda, namely effectiveness, accountability, and inclusion, and that these might be tested further in a wider audience.
CEPA decided to continue discussion of this issue this year, bearing in mind that any eventual set of recommendations by the Committee must be guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and other UN documents.
My role at this year’s meeting was to summarise the paper on the principles of effective governance that had been prepared for us by the Secretariat.
The paper was an initial start at identifying principles and practices that would best help nations pursue the SDGs. A key point was that good governance standards are aspirational and describe a number of broadly defined capabilities such as the rule of law, low aggregate levels of corruption, and participatory decision-making at all levels. These characteristics are contained in definitions of governance, such as those found in the 2030 Agenda of SDGs yet, they can be difficult to achieve for many countries. The challenge for many countries is to think about feasible improvements in governance capabilities and to focus pragmatically and selectively on key problem areas according to their own contexts and capacities.
Could you please elaborate on the 2030 Agenda?
There was an historic UN Summit in September 2015 at which world leaders adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to form the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These goals build on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now go further with the aim of ending all forms of poverty; eradicating poverty being agreed as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. While there are concrete policies and actions to support the implementation of the 2030 agenda, implementation is reliant on countries’ own sustainable development policies.
(More information is at www.un.org).
Tell us more about how the Principles of Effective Governance and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be implemented?
Our aim was to develop a set of governance principles that would be operational. We wanted them to address the tension between aspirational governance goals and the need for practical improvements in governance to achieve particular development outcomes. The hope was that this approach might spur countries to think about feasible reforms that take into account each country’s starting point and prioritise key problems according to each country’s capacities and context.
Based on the paper (and its illustrative attachment), the Committee suggested that the three overarching principles contained in the 2030 Agenda could form the basis of a draft (effective governance) framework. Within the three principles a number of elements were identified for further elaboration and to which, then, country practices could apply:
- effectiveness: competence, sound public policy and cooperation
- accountability: integrity, transparency, and independent oversight;
- inclusion: non-discrimination, participation, subsidiarity, and intergenerational equity.
Do these principles address complexities of different countries and how they can be implemented effectively?
It was emphasised that an understanding of country context is essential to inform specific guidance. Ideally, the law would serve to provide checks and balances on the exercise of power but in practice it may end up either reflecting the interests of the powerful, or giving way to informal deals. That is the unfortunate reality in some countries. So, for example, preventing and combating corruption in a country with a challenging governance environment could focus on a basic service such as health and look into the distribution of power and resources among different actors in order to identify ways of changing the system of incentives and so influence behaviours, and ultimately, health outcomes.
Depending on how individual countries formulate the principles with their component elements, they could use them to gauge the effectiveness, accountability, and inclusiveness of public institutions. It is hoped that the principles and the documentation of related country practices might inform a global research agenda for public administration and development.
We agreed that the advantages of developing principles of governance at the UN, compared with other existing standards, could be their universality, practicality, and their explicit link to the 2030 Agenda of SDGs. Members suggested that, to take the agenda on effective principles, elements and practices forward, the Secretariat could consider organising a round table of relevant stakeholders in advance of the 17th session. In parallel, countries could be encouraged to provide examples of reforms and practices linked to a set of indicative principles that might also be of benefit for peer-learning purposes.
Finally, tell us, what is next? What is planned for the future of CEPA?
CEPA at its 2018 meeting is expected to discuss how to get institutions and their policies ready for implementing the 2030 agenda and how to support institutions as they move toward building sustainable and resilient societies. That meeting is also expected to discuss what effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels will look like, including elaborating on the principles of effective governance building on our work at the sixteenth session this year.
Thank you Professor Edwards, for your insights into this important role that you have had over the last few years in representing Australian Public Administration at the UN.
Link: About Meredith Edwards