There are plenty of examples of excellence overseas but we’re often dismissive of other countries’ experiences, or just too busy to do the research, argues Andrew Wear, author of the new book Solved!
On each of the big challenges facing governments — education, health, gender equality, climate policy — there are countries that have figured out effective policy solutions, but too often governments fail to learn from their success.
“In Australia we seem to have a view that we’re constrained, and that there’s a limited menu of policy options that are possible or feasible, but that’s clearly not true,” says Andrew Wear, Victorian public servant and author of Solved! How other countries have cracked the world’s biggest problems and we can too, released this week.
“If you look around the world, there are countries achieving incredible outcomes, getting results that are successfully tackling those big problems. Clearly, if other countries can do it, then we can too,” he argues.
“I wanted to create a sense of optimism and hope by drawing together some of the solutions that other countries are deploying to enhance the menu of possible policy options for countries like Australia, and really change the conversation about what’s possible.”
The success stories ignored in Australia
For each big policy area, Solved examines one country that’s doing well.
“A lot of public policy focuses on the intervention or program design, and what I’ve tried to do is tell the stories of those jurisdictions, where they came from, what they did to get where they are, the people involved,” Wear explains.
The cases extend well beyond the usual Anglosphere suspects Australians are more familiar with — Singapore stands out in education, Iceland leads on gender equality, and South Korea has moved “from warzone to the world’s healthiest nation”. Australia serves as an example of success in multiculturalism and immigration.
It would have been easy to write a book purely about the Nordic countries though, he adds.
Not only is high-taxing Scandinavia well ahead on issues like inequality, health and welfare, they’ve also performed better economically over the past couple of decades than countries like the United States or UK.
“It’s very easy for people to dismiss. There’s a mentality, particularly in Australia, that that’s the Nordic countries, they’re different, we couldn’t possibly be like them.
“It’s a view I don’t share. Clearly we have different politics, a different culture and history and institutions, but there are policy interventions that could be adapted or translated, that we can take inspiration from, that can be added to our toolkit.”
East Asia is another big area we often neglect in spite of its recent success.
“One thing that might make some people uncomfortable is that we might need to start looking to East Asia for policy inspiration,” thinks Wear.
“Countries like Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan. Not in all policy areas, but in some they are absolutely outperforming us massively, and we need to ask what they’re doing that we can learn from — whether that be in economic competitiveness and growth, innovation, life expectancy, education outcomes.”
It may surprise some that Indonesia is the subject of the chapter on democracy.
“Clearly it’s an imperfect democracy and has many challenges, but its democratic transformation has been phenomenal. In a lot of ways some of the institutions in place in Indonesia surpass what we have in Australia,” he argues.
“For example, Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission. We still don’t have an independent corruption commission nationally in Australia that can investigate politicians. Indonesia has had one for many years. That I find outstanding, that a democracy like Australia can and should be taking inspiration from a newly transforming economy like Indonesia.”
Wear, who is about to take up the role of director of economic development at the City of Melbourne, thinks public servants should spend more time learning about best practice in other jurisdictions in their portfolio.
“In my experience it’s fairly rare in the bureaucracy to have a senior executive say: go and do an analysis of what the best-performing jurisdictions in the world are doing in your area, and come back and provide the minister with some advice. I’ve never seen that before.”
Breaking out of the constraints of the current discourse will require thinking about where we should aspire to be — and then gradually shifting the dial.
“As public servants, I don’t think we do policy transfer very well. The notion of looking to other jurisdictions for policy inspiration, systematically reviewing what other jurisdictions are doing and transferring that where relevant into our system, where we do that it tends to be with other states, rather than looking internationally.
“We don’t tend to think globally. In fact there’s almost like an antipathy towards thinking globally.”
Flying overseas to observe how other countries respond to these big problems is incredibly useful, he adds — but “the Herald Sun test” makes it difficult.
“International travel is frowned upon, and is certainly not supported in any systematic way.
“Look at Singapore for example. Public servants from middle management up are travelling overseas three or four times a year to go and learn for policy inspiration. Even teachers are supported to go to Finland, to go and learn what other teaching jurisdictions are doing. It doesn’t all have to be travel, but there’s a real aversion to systematically doing that, and I think that’s problematic, and limits our thinking.”
Wear says travel has been useful in his role of director of innovation at the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions over the past few years, working with the biotech sector.
He’s been to several cities in North America to see how governments support the industry there.
“That experience has been incredible. I’ve written about that and translated a lot of it to policies in my work here in Victoria. The thing that’s important is not only the visit and the learning, but the relationships that are built out of that.
“In Victoria now we have some very substantial ongoing collaborative relationships between people in the biotech sector in Toronto, Boston, and other cities. We’re working on joint projects together. That emerges from face to face contact, there’s no substitute for relationships and face to face contact.”
Speak to people
It’s a similar story even if you’re doing desk-based research.
“In my experience of writing the book the best and most efficient way of doing this was to talk to people first,” Wear argues.
“So my method was to look at big data sets for outcome measures. I used the OECD a lot, World Bank, World Economic Forum, to see which country is achieving the best outcomes. Then I would essentially cold call people and invite them to a Skype call, experts and people who are prominent in the area, and really get their view on what that jurisdiction was doing to make them such a success.
“What they would do is very rapidly point me in the direction of a few thematics about what that jurisdiction was doing that was potentially interesting, potentially valuable, then I could go back and do the desktop research of the literature, or drill down further into the data.
“But I think if you try and build a view from the academic literature up, it’s really hard. There’s nothing like talking to people. Even better is visiting a country first hand is visiting a country first hand, seeing with your own eyes and experiencing and feeling what another country is doing. I really wish we could do that more systematically.”
The role of government
The evidence shows proactive government can make a real difference in the economy, Wear adds — and nowhere is this clearer than in the land of small government itself.
“The perception of the US’ economic success is usually that it’s built on small government, free market activity, but when you really dig into the performance of the US innovation system, it’s really built on phenomenal public sector R&D spending and innovation programs,” he argues.
If you look at Boston’s biotech sector, the Massachusetts government “has invested hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars” building the industry, through initiatives such as investment attraction activities, and building laboratories, startup incubators, and publicly accessible scientific equipment and platforms.
There’s a “massive internship program for universities and school students to spend time in industry, feeding the life sciences workforce”.
“It didn’t happen by some sort of free market osmosis, it was actually created. That is somewhat surprising, it goes against the grain of the sort of stories we tell ourselves in Australia about how you build globally competitive economic sectors. Actually the role of government is really strong and really important.”
But those messages can easily be missed if you don’t spend time learning what other countries are doing.
“I would just encourage people to think big and look beyond the shores of Australia for policy inspiration.”
Solved! is currently available free when you sign up to Mandarin Premium.