Award-winning research paving the way for public law reform

Deakin news

23 January 2024

Associate Professor Ben Saunders knows a thing or two about effective public governance. His original and innovative research took out the Article/Chapter (General) Award at the 2023 Australian Legal Research Awards (ALRA), placing him and Deakin Law School at the forefront of a new blended approach to public and corporate law.

Ben’s article ‘Ministers, Statutory Authorities and Government Corporations: The Agency Problem in Public Sector Governance’ investigated what good public governance could look like, and what needs to change from a legal perspective in order to get there.

"We have well-developed private sector governance in the corporate space," he says. "It's very well enforced, whereas in the public sector it's quite underdeveloped. Public sector governance has traditionally been based on the idea of political accountability, where the minister is responsible for the department and is accountable to parliament.

"This model creates agency problems, because ministers are supposed to scrutinise agencies within their portfolio, but are also politically invested in the performance of those agencies. What we need for good public sector governance is a professionalisation of that system, so that there are clear governance standards across the entirety of the public sector, and independently enforced."

This sort of work is relevant to all of us, says Ben, because the choices made by government affect our daily lives.

"Ensuring those entities are well-governed is really important to minimise corruption, and to ensure that public servants do not pursue their own interests at the expense of the public."

Ben says he believes it was his article’s originality and innovation that may have appealed to the judges.

"It's a topic that has received very little examination," he says. "Very few scholars have looked at this - it's a developing area, and most legal scholars tend to be siloed into public law or corporate law. This research straddles both.

"It incorporates corporate law and public law expertise, and it brings some very interesting theoretical issues from the corporate law space into public law to analyse a new problem."

Ben’s article was written as part of his post-doctoral research fellowship at Deakin. He says his article is just the beginning when it comes to effecting change of this scale, and that we can expect the wheels of change to turn slowly.

"Law reform's obviously a slow process and you need to build up a body of research to justify your conclusions," he says. "The next thing would be to write in an article outlining specific reforms, and then to turn that into a concrete proposal for reform."

So, is this the beginning of a new, hybrid-type of law, merging public and corporate expertise to produce meaningful and effective change in public sector governance? Watch this space…

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