In praise of proper public policy process: if professional pundits can agree, can’t we all?

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday October 16, 2018

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Conventional wisdom suggests politics revolves around competing ideas but the process by which policies are developed is also important, as an interesting research project has highlighted.

There’s been widespread coverage of one interesting outcome: two think-tanks with very different ideological standpoints arrived at strikingly similar conclusions, when they were asked to rate 20 state and federal policies in terms of the processes that produced them.

With their focus on deregulation of markets and small government, the pundits at the Institute of Public Affairs don’t often agree with their progressive counterparts at Per Capita. But given the same tool – a set of 10 steps described by public administration professor Ken Wiltshire in a 2012 research paper – and asked to rate the same things, it’s not so surprising they came to similar results.

But the intention was to show it should be relatively easy for politicians and citizens of all backgrounds to agree on what a good process looks like, and by that measure the project has succeeded.

This comes with another uncontroversial proposition: that policies forged though genuine consultation and honest appraisal of empirical evidence are more successful and more acceptable to the public, regardless of the intention behind them.

“My 35 years of research suggest that good policy processes result in better outcomes than decisions made without a strong evidence base and close consultation with stakeholders,” commented Wiltshire, an emeritus professor at the University of Queensland Business School.

Unfortunately, research evidence itself is now routinely politicised and only accepted insofar as it supports one or other partisan position, allowing politicians to simply reject the facts they find inconvenient. The organisers of the study think this is actually to their detriment.

All major parties should commit to standardised “evidence-based and inclusive engagement processes” for big decisions, argues the steering committee for the project, which was jointly funded by EY, the Susan McKinnon Foundation and former New South Wales Treasury secretary Percy Allan, an independent public policy and management consultant.

Everyone likes to claim they base their policies on evidence but there is “no agreed standard” of what it means, commented Iain Walker, executive director of the newDemocracy Foundation, which ran the exercise.

The organisers suggest dubious decisions, policy on the run and captain’s calls have probably contributed to the well documented decline of public trust in democratic institutions, which is commonly linked to declining support for the major parties in Australia, due to compulsory voting.

“I believe the public has turned against government not so much over policy, but the way policy is decided, announced and executed,” writes Allan, who was a major driving force behind the project.

“Ministerial policy decisions are increasingly made by political cabals without adequate departmental research and community engagement. The result is half-backed ideas foisted on the public that trigger intense backlashes.”

Allan believes politicians need to remember that “good policy process is also good politics” and this means building some level of consensus. Governments need to “target real community needs through fact-gathering and citizen-input when crafting a policy” instead of suddenly throwing out unexpected ideas, in order to build and maintain more robust and enduring public support.

The ex-mandarin has been involved in a lot of reviews over the years, since going freelance, but in this case was a prime instigator. Allan championed the idea of seeing if two ideologically opposed organisations could find common ground over process, using the 10 Wiltshire criteria, at a symposium hosted by the the newDemocracy Foundation last November.

A statement from the nDF makes clear that it did not intend to present the criteria as an “unchallengeable” ideal of the perfect process.

“Rather, the Wiltshire standard exists as a solid and fair basis for a starting point given that the author and the commissioning entity were not viewed by nDF as having any significant bias influencing its drafting.

“The result of this exercise means that the convening of a range of think-tanks who are active politically could feasibly … agree to ‘Wiltshire 2.0’ if the desire for a standard is seen as a positive development.”

Home Affairs establishment panned in mixed report card

The non-partisan Susan McKinnon Foundation contributed to the funding because the project aligns with its key goals of fostering better governance, leadership and decision-making in government. Its statement focused on the negative findings which showed there’s plenty of room for improvement:

“This project is a step towards quantifying and benchmarking good policy process. It shines a light on how often our governments are failing to undertake critical steps in a rigorous evidence-based and consultative decision-making process.

“We need greater accountability and transparency in our policy system to deliver better outcomes for Australians and restore trust in our democracy.”

In separate reports, the IPA and Per Capita researchers generally concurred on the best and worst examples of government decision-making processes from the 20 options.

The legalisation of Uber in Queensland and the introduction of Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying law got the top scores under the Wiltshire criteria, while the legalisation of medicinal cannabis in Victoria and criminal justice reforms in NSW also did well.

Summarising the reports from the two think-tanks, the steering committee say they found “acceptable” the processes behind the federal government’s 2016 electoral act amendment and the NSW greyhound racing laws passed in 2016 and 2017, which featured a stunning backflip from then-premier Mike Baird.

Four processes were deemed not good enough by either group, according to the Wiltshire standards.

That which led to the creation of the Department of Home Affairs only scored an average of 2/10 across the two reports. The internal horse trading in the Coalition that led to the same-sex marriage postal survey did only marginally better, averaging 2.5, in line with the way the NSW government cooked up its council mergers policy, and the development of Queensland’s vegetation management law, introduced this year.

“The two case studies with less than 80% identical scoring were the Federal National Energy Guarantee and the Federal Marriage Law Postal Vote,” the committee added.

“However, each think tank’s total rating for each of these case studies was similar, even though their reasoning differed.”

The researchers from the two think-tanks also strongly supported the key point that regardless of different ideological perspectives, good process produces the best policies, and that means genuinely considering a wide range of evidence and consulting with citizens and other stakeholders.

READ MORE: Percy Allan: process, not policy is where the left and right can agree

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