A Note from Our President - April 2021

Copied from our current (April 2021) Public Sector Journal

Is soft power our super-power?

Just this week, the Global Soft Power Index 2021 was published. New Zealand was recognised as the fastest rising nation in the new rankings, reflecting the way we have collectively responded to COVID-19. Now, like me, you may have had no idea that the Global Soft Power Index even existed and may share my scepticism of indices run by brand management firms. However, it did trigger some thoughts.

“Soft power” is defined as the ability for a country to use its reputation, networks, and standing to have influence around the world. It is about being able to attract, build, and mobilise networks of people. It is the opposite of might-based “hard power”.

Soft power is fundamentally about understanding the strength of networks and connections and drawing on them to achieve a positive collective outcome. It is very similar to the concept of social capital. At the heart of each is the notion of reciprocal relationships – trust that others will respond in kind for the greater, collective good. Trust is sustained by experience. Soft power is earnt not mandated.

To date – in the face of a fiendishly tricky virus – the power of an idea, the trust that many of us still have in our institutions and the strength of our connections, has helped us pull together in a way that is the envy of other nations. Our soft power is seen as a comparative advantage.

However, experience demonstrates that soft power and social capital are fragile. Earning and retaining soft power is hard work. Not all networks are created equal. What is and will undermine our ability to pull together to defeat COVID-19, child poverty, climate change, or anything that requires collective action is inequity of outcome – during as well as at the end of the journey.

Our best chance of success lies in nurturing, valuing, and involving our full range of networks and connections in idea generation, solution seeking, decision making, and implementation. For the public service, this means learning how to share power and responsibility with others at the regional, local, and community level. It means being prepared to have the hard conversations about what this really entails. It means exploring with te ao Māori how to extract the full potential of the reciprocal relationship embedded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi for the benefit of ngā tāngata katoa. Perhaps then our soft power will truly become our super-power.

Liz MacPherson, President of IPANZ