Labor pledges new evaluator-general as program experts’ friendly collaborator

By Harley Dennett

Tuesday November 13, 2018

Key points:

  • Labor pledges $5m/year for evaluation office
  • Evaluator-general would sit in Treasury
  • Career progression for evaluation experts

The federal Labor opposition has promised a more collaborative relationship between program experts and evaluation experts if it forms government after next year’s election.

Rather than another adversarial watchdog sitting outside executive government, Labor’s proposed evaluator-general would sit inside the Department of Treasury functioning as a collaborative partner.

It would also have a mandate to encourage departments to make effective use of administrative data, and facilitate more career opportunities for government’s professional evaluators.

Andrew Leigh, shadow assistant treasurer, will propose the model tonight in a speech at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, Canberra, on building a better feedback loop for improving government programs.

Dr Leigh has diverged from the independent evaluator-general model that Nicholas Gruen had developed — originally published in The Mandarin — in order to foster a more collaborative environment. Dr Gruen’s model was more akin to the independent auditor-general, whereas Leigh’s model operates in-house.

Leigh compares it to evaluating a drug company. An outside auditor could go in and find areas to determine if they were cooking the books, but an outside company couldn’t — after the fact — evaluate whether the drugs actually worked if if all they were doing is giving their drugs to sick people. To work out if pharmaceuticals are effective or not, you have to have a credible control group, you have to be randomising from the outset.

“If you take that analogy to government, if we want to test what works using a randomised trial we need to be in there on the ground floor,” Leigh told The Mandarin ahead of his speech.

In this Leigh hopes Treasury can step up its game, saying that during his secondment in 2008-2009 that it had excellent secondary analysis, but it wasn’t engaged enough with the process of program development. The creation of an office will support a career path for evaluation expertise, in turn, producing better results for the community.

“We need to recognise that evaluation has enormous value and building up a stronger body of expertise in evaluation in Australia is an important part of this.

“This will help Treasury officials get a more direct understanding of how particular programs work, and in some cases that will engender a grain of sympathy to the challenges that agencies are tackling.”

The office will initially be funded with $5 million per year starting in 2019-20, if Labor takes office.

A one-off payment of $40 million was allocated for indigenous program evaluation last year after senior officials in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet realised that decades-long programs inherited in machinery of government changes had never been evaluated for effectiveness.

Reforms for Productivity Commission

Labor has also been pushing the government to reform the Productivity Commission to make addressing inequality part of its mandate.

The opposition and Senate crossbench passed a bill through the upper house yesterday to “expand the functions of the Productivity Commission to include the undertaking of research on inequality and its effects on the Australian economy and community; require the commission to have regard in the exercise of its functions to the need to mitigate the negative effects of inequality; and provide for reporting requirements.”

The Morrison government has opposed the bill, so it is unlikely to pass the lower house in this term of parliament.

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