Seeing the beauty in public policy

Seeing the beauty in public policy

Ruby-Ann Burgess (Ngāti Pākehā) is the recipient of the 2022 IPANZ Public Administration Prize for the top student in PUBL 311 Emerging Perspectives in Public Management at Victoria University of Wellington School of Government.

She was born in Oxford, in the UK, but comes from an Ōhinehou (Lyttelton) Pākehā family, and she grew up in Nelson. Ruby has a Laidlaw College Diploma in Christian studies through Bishopdale College (2018) and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in public policy from Victoria University of Wellington (2019–2021). In 2022, she worked as Parish Manager for St Michael’s Anglican Church, Kelburn, and as a tutor at the School of Government. In 2023, Ruby is undertaking a Master of Philosophy, Politics and Economics through Victoria University of Wellington.

Ruby shares how studying public policy has excited and changed her.

Finding beauty

Sometimes you discover beauty where you do not expect to find it. When I first began my undergraduate degree in 2019, I was majoring in development studies and minoring in cultural anthropology, and I thought that I was going to end up somewhere overseas doing some kind of development work for a disadvantaged group. I certainly had no notion of studying public policy.

In my first year, I took a public policy paper as an interesting side subject that might come in handy when I began working overseas. At the end of 2019, I ditched development studies and cultural anthropology entirely and switched to majoring in public policy and minoring in Māori studies – in doing this, I thoroughly focused my future plans and dreams on Aotearoa New Zealand.

Policy struck me almost immediately as something beautiful – a strange thing to think and certainly confusing to my friends, who had chosen more arty majors. Something about the methodical, analytic nature of the discipline – combined with the dynamic way it responded to the realities of the public’s needs – “spoke” to me. Beautiful was the only word I felt could describe it.

Seeing injustice

My interests have always sat in the realm of social justice – an interest awakened in me by spending large (perhaps excessive) amounts of time doing community volunteer work as a teenager. Primarily, this was with vulnerable children and their families. Despite growing up in a stable and loving home, I was consistently exposed to children and guardians experiencing poverty, domestic violence, family upheaval, and the CYFS (now Oranga Tamariki) system. I remember becoming quickly and increasingly aware that the world was not fair, that life was not easy, and in many cases, it was unmanageably difficult. I remember feeling the injustice of how one mother I knew owned a pair of jandals as her only footwear, which she would wear through the approaching winter. Her youngest daughter kept losing shoes and needing new ones, so there was no money left to buy shoes for herself. I went to an op shop the next day with my mum and bought a pair of leather lace-ups – my mum assured me the brand was actually quite flash – and a pair of socks. The woman was thrilled by the gift, but I felt a deep sense of guilt. At fifteen and with no paid work (except for the pocket money I had saved from birthdays and Christmases), I could still afford to buy shoes. Meanwhile, the woman struggled to make her husband’s income and government top-ups stretch to cover food for her family of five.
These were the formative experiences that carried me into adulthood and into my Christian faith.

Exciting understandings

When I began to study public policy, my understanding of social justice suddenly expanded – I saw that things could change not just on an individual or whānau level, but on a much larger level through NGOs and the national government. I knew that the small scale, day-by-day tracking and supporting of children and their whānau was still essential, but now I could see the potential for action that had a broader impact. For people struggling, for guardians wrestling with the foster care system, or for grandparents whose benefit could barely cover their dependent grandchildren, there were policies that could address those problems as a whole – perhaps there was more to social justice than listening ears, open hearts, and free meals. What if I could be involved in changing the systems around them? These are not new ideas, but they were new to me, and they were exciting.

The barriers to justice

Obviously, the creation of public value and the enhancement of social justice, while wonderful ideals, are not so easy to achieve. You can feel overwhelmed when faced with the harsh realities of need. It seems like every student I know feels despair at the state of our world – at climate change and capitalism, at prisons and population growth. Issues seem to become more complex the more one tries to understand them. The world is a complicated and nuanced place; many of the problems that policy must address intersect and tie together until finding even a beginning point seems impossible. The needs of the public are varied and often conflicting. The clarification of outcomes is not always straightforward – we may seek to increase wellbeing, but whose definition of wellbeing do we use? Which group’s wellbeing will define how our policies are selected and formed?

A unique tool

When it comes to the pursuit of justice, equity, and improvements in wellbeing, the government is in a unique position. No other entity has the same scale and authority. No other entity has the capacity to address so many different aspects of public need and to create public value in so many areas. No other entity has the capability to address wicked problems – made possible (though still incredibly difficult) through the collaboration of different ministries with different resources, expertise, and perspectives. This makes public policy a unique tool for social justice in Aotearoa. The opportunities seem to be limited only by our imaginations and creativity, by our willingness to try and fail, then try again.

This year, I am beginning a Master’s in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. This programme uses the power of these three disciplines to inform what good governance looks like. My personal focus, though, will be more specific: using philosophy, politics, and economics to inform good policy – from process to outcomes. Once again, I find myself excited.

Years on, when I think of the harsh realities that people faced when I worked as a volunteer, I can still feel overwhelmed. But when I think of the discipline of public policy or see my tutorial students starting to click with the ideas we’re discussing and imagining the future opportunities that will shape governance in Aotearoa, I feel hope that together we can implement beautiful responses.

Itiiti rearea, teitei kahikatea ka taea

The rearea is small, the kahikatea is tall, it accomplishes