New Book, Narrative Policy Analysis: Cases in Decentred Policy

Editor R. A. W. Rhodes

The main aim of this book is to show how decentred analysis contributes to the study of public policy, both theoretically and practically. We seek to substantiate the claim that it offers novel theory and methods with a clear practical application. However, the book has two subsidiary purposes.

First, it displays research by the Centre for Political Ethnography at the University


of Southampton. All the contributors are based at Southampton or they are colleagues at other universities who are working with us.

Second, the book is part of the ‘Understanding Governance’ series published by Springer-Macmillan. The first book came out in 1997 so this volume commemorates 20 years of publishing. We have published 25 books with 2 in the pipeline, and counting. There is no danger that any of the books will enter The Times bestseller list but we persist, and many an author is in print because we do. Here’s to our silver wedding anniversary.

Narratives or storytelling are a feature of the everyday life of all who

work in government. They tell each other stories about the origins, aims and effects of policies to make sense of their world. These stories form the collective memory of a government department; a retelling of yesterday to make sense of today. This book examine polices through the eyes of the practitioners, both top-down and bottom-up; it decentres policies and policymaking. To decentre is to unpack practices as the contingent beliefs and actions of individuals. Decentred analysis produces detailed studies of people’s beliefs and practices. It challenges the idea that inexorable or impersonal forces drive politics, focusing instead on the relevant meanings, the beliefs and preferences of the people involved.

This book presents ten case studies, covering penal policy, zero-carbon homes, parliamentary scrutiny, children’s rights, obesity, pension reform, public service reform, evidence-based policing, and local economic knowledge. It introduces a different angle of vision on the policy process; it looks at it through the eyes of individual actors, not institutions. In other words, it looks at policies from the other end of the telescope. It concludes there is much to learn from a decentred approach. It delivers edification because it offers a novel alliance of interpretive theory with an ethnographic toolkit to explore policy and policymaking from the bottom-up.

The book’s decentred approach provides an alternative to the dominant evidence–based policy nostrums of the day.

Introducing the new Centre for Political Ethnography

Ethnography reaches the parts of politics that other methods cannot reach. It captures the lived experience of politics; the everyday life of political elites and street level bureaucrats. It identifies what we fail to learn, and what we fail to understand, from other approaches. The Centre aims to rescue ethnography from its current void in political science and build the UK’s first centre for ethnographic research in politics and administration. It will be an interdisciplinary platform for colleagues nationally and internationally who are interested in ethnographic research in politics and administration. It will practice the ‘art of translation’ for multiple audiences.

The Centre for Political Ethnography

So You Want to Be Chief of Staff to the Australian Prime Minister? Here’s How

DipticBy R.A.W. Rhodes, Professor of Government at the University of Southampton and Griffith University (Personal website, Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by R.A.W. Rhodes here.



[The Gatekeepers is a new book by R.A.W. Rhodes and Anne Tiernan. Below, Rhodes shares with us a brief summary of this new work. – Editor.]

So, you want to be the Chief of Staff to the Australian Prime Minister. This book provides invaluable lessons to foster that ambition.

Australian prime ministers need help to manage the many challenges and dependencies of political leadership. Their Chief of Staff provides critical support to both the person and the office of prime minister. The job is to help prime ministers to cope with the endless pressure of events and surviving to win the next election. It is about making sure the urgent doesn’t crowd out the important while pursuing the Holy Grail of coordination. It is about winning the battle for support in cabinet, caucus and country.

This book explores the work of the Chief of Staff from the perspective of those who have done the job under governments from Fraser to Rudd. It identifies eight lessons that key individuals who have held the Chief of Staff position wanted to pass on to their successors. The lessons are not rocket science but that doesn’t make the job easy. The Chief of Staff must adjust to the personalities, preferences and working styles of the prime minister. They must navigate the murky networks and pressures of life at the centre of government. As gatekeepers and shock absorbers, the Chiefs of Staff take the blame for their prime ministers, but it is not necessarily their fault.

This important book offers unparalleled insights into how things really work at the centre of Australia’s central governing networks from the perspective of those who have been there. It is based on unique access to former Chiefs of Staff as well as interviews with the leading participants of the day. It draws together and systematises the Chiefs of Staff views about what to do and what not to do, about how to do it and how not to do it, and does so in their own words.

You can buy the book here.

R.A.W. Rhodes Gives Plenary Lecture at 2014 IPSA

DipticBy R.A.W. Rhodes, Professor of Government at the University of Southampton and Griffith University (Personal website, Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by R.A.W. Rhodes here.



The lecture reflected on trends in governance in the face of challenges that include fragmentation and complexity. We have witnessed a shift from the new public management (NPM) to the new public (or network) governance (NPG). This shift challenged our ideas about the role of the state; often summarised as a shift from rowing to steering. With the shift came an arsenal of specific public service reforms associated with performance measurement, marketization, and choice in service delivery. Reform succeeded reform with no time for the intended changes to take place, no evaluation, so no clear evidence of either success of failure. Rather, we are left with the dilemmas created by the overlapping residues of past reforms. Yet the reforms keep on coming.

This lecture offered a stock take of the reform journey and sought to answer the question of how do we reinvent bureaucracy for network governance. I suggested we need to recover the craft of public administration. The classical Weberian bureaucrat working in a hierarchy of authority and conserving the positive state tradition remains a central figure but now there are many more skills to master. Some skills are relatively new; for example, entrepreneurial leadership. Others have an archaic ring, but old virtues have acquired a new salience; for example, diplomacy, and prudence or practical wisdom. I conclude we need to sift through detritus of past reform to identify what worked and to ‘reinvent’ the bureaucracy we needlessly cast aside for the fashion of the day.


Puzzling About Political Leadership – Rhodes and t’ Hart

By R.A.W. Rhodes, Professor of Government at the University of Southampton and Griffith University (Personal website, Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by R.A.W. Rhodes here.



Since Machiavelli, political leadership has been seen as the exercise of practical wisdom. We can gain insights through direct personal experience and sustained reflection. The core intangibles of leadership – empathy, intuition, creativity, courage, morality, judgement – are largely beyond the grasp of ‘scientific’ inquiry. Understanding leadership comes from living it: being led, living with and advising leaders, doing one’s own leading.

In sharp contrast, a ‘science of leadership’ has sprung up in the latter half of the twentieth century. Thousands of academics now make a living treating leadership as they would any other topic in the social sciences, and political leadership is no exception. These scholars treat it as an object of study, which can be picked apart and put together. Their papers fill journals, handbooks, conference programs and lecture theatres. Some work in the real world of political leadership as consultants and advisers, often well paid. This buzzing, blooming confusion would not persist if such knowledge did not help in grasping at least some of the puzzles that leaders face and leadership poses. And there are puzzles aplenty.

The first puzzle is whether we are looking at the people we call leaders, or at the process we call leadership? Leader-centred analysis has proved hugely popular but many now prefer to understand political leadership as a two-way street; an interaction between leaders and followers, leaders and media, leaders and mass publics.

The second puzzle is whether we are studying democrats or dictators. Democracy needs good leadership yet the idea of leadership potentially conflicts with democracy’s egalitarian ethos. Political leaders holding office in democratic societies live in a complex moral universe. Other heads of government gained power by undemocratic means. They sometimes govern by fear, intimidation and blackmail. Is that leadership? However, even such ‘leaders’ may aim for widely shared and morally acceptable goals and rule with the tacit consent of most of the population. Understanding leadership requires us to take in all its shades of grey: leading and following, heroes and villains, the capable and the inept, winners and losers.


The third puzzle ponders whether political leadership matters. Leaders use their political platforms to inject words, ideas, ambitions and emotions into the public arena, to shape public policies and transform communities and countries. But when do they make a difference? What stops them from being a force in society? Or are political leaders a product of their societies? Finding out who gets to lead can teach us much, not just about those leaders, but about the societies in which they work. So, we ask who becomes a political leader, how and why? What explains their rise and fall?

The fourth puzzle explores the relative importance of their personal characteristics and behaviour compared to the context in which they work. Sometimes political leaders are frail humans afloat on a sea of storms and sometimes they survive at the helm when few thought that possible. They achieve policy reforms and social changes against the odds, and the inherited wisdom perishes. How do political leaders escape the dead hand of history?

The fifth puzzle wonders if the success of leaders stems from their special qualities or traits – the so-called ‘great man’ theory of leadership. However, we have to entertain the possibility that these allegedly ‘great’ leaders might have been just plain lucky; that is they get what they want without trying. They are ‘systematically lucky’.


The sixth puzzle is about success and failure. How do we know when a political leader has been successful? The temptation is always to credit their success to their special qualities, but no public leader ever worked alone. Behind every ‘great’ leader are indispensable collaborators, advisers, mentors, and coalitions; the building blocks of the leader’s achievements.

Political leadership is both art and profession. Political leaders gain office promising to solve problems but more often than not they are defeated by our puzzles. There is no unified theory of leadership to guide them. There are too many definitions, and too many theories in too many disciplines. We do not agree on what leadership is, or how to study it, or even why we study it. The subject is not just beset by dichotomies; it is also multifaceted, and essentially contested. Leaders are beset by contingency and complexity, which is why so many leaders’ careers end in disappointment.

R. A. W. Rhodes is Professor of Government at both the University of Southampton (UK); and Griffith University (Brisbane, Australia). He is the author or editor of some 35 books including recently Lessons of Governing. A Profile of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff (with Anne Tiernan, Melbourne University Press 2014); and Everyday Life in British Government (Oxford University Press 2011).

Paul ‘t Hart is Professor of Public Administration at the Utrecht School of Governance; associate Dean at The Netherlands School of Government in The Hague; and a core faculty member at the Australia New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). He is the author or editor of some 35 books including recently Understanding Public Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan 2014); and Prime Ministerial Leadership: Power, Parties and Performance (co-edited with James Walter and Paul Strangio (Oxford University Press, 2013).