The next Australian government should replace the “narrow” Productivity Commission with new institutions that would work with a broader range of policy experts and stakeholders, according to a proposal by the peak body of the community services and welfare sector.
The economics-focused Productivity Commission approach to policy is “out of date”, thinks Peter Davidson, principal adviser at the Australian Council of Social Service.
“It’s a model where you take difficult and complex public policy issues, like climate change or the NDIS, to a kind of an economic high priest, so to speak, and they make a declaration from on high after consulting with submitters,” he tells The Mandarin.
While the PC has improved in recent years, it still lacks deep expertise in complex areas of policy such as human services and doesn’t do enough to engage with stakeholders, argues Davidson.
“With the relatively narrow range of expertise it has, it’s missing some key inputs, so as a result the policy proposals are narrowly based and formulaic generally — generally it’s ‘more market, less government’.”
The result of this approach — “where there’s a market solution to every problem” — can be seen in employment services and aged care, where the profit motive is often misaligned with the needs of vulnerable clients.
ACOSS’s alternative proposal is twofold. The first part is a standing national reform council, which will work with experts and stakeholders from across government, business, unions and community organisations to advise the government on long-term whole-of-government policy challenges.
While the Productivity Commission primarily looks through an economic lens, the council “would draw on and integrate economic, social and environmental goals and perspectives”, according to ACOSS’s pre-election priorities paper.
The second part of the proposal is a series of fixed-term expert commissions on specific policy areas. These would be wide-ranging whole-of-government problems: inequality, digital transformation, and tax are a few of the subjects suggested by the peak body.
Commissions would draw, in a flexible way, on expertise across governments, academia, and the experience of people affected by public policies.
“Its whole purpose is to address each of those issues in turn, so there’s a sharp focus. We think that’s a better model,” Davidson explains.
“It means governments have to pick and choose half a dozen issues at any given time to focus effort on.”
The idea is based on the work of economist Mariana Mazzucato, who argues mission-oriented policy approaches can be powerful. As a series of time-limited projects focused on specific policy areas, these commissions could throw up solutions to some of the knottiest problems facing government, ACOSS believes — and would be a substitute for royal commissions on policy questions.
Repairing the trust deficit
Opening the institutions of government up to broader sections of the community could improve policy on complex problems and help boost Australians’ low trust in government, Davidson thinks.
“In the absence of more transparent ways to influence government, governments are influenced especially by powerful interests via lobbyists,” he says. “The concern there is some get their foot in the door, especially those representing wealthy and powerful interests, so this would help redress that balance.”
ACOSS, like many others, is also concerned by the degradation of public service capacity. The organisation has included its proposals in a submission to the Thodey Review of the Australian Public Service.
“We see this as a small part of the solution to that problem, because by working in a transparent way with external stakeholders and experts on difficult issues and challenges, it forces the public service to come to the party and governments to hopefully invest in that capacity.
“We see the public service as being at the heart of this process — it’s not an alternative to good public service advice.”