‘The talent flooding out of the public service should concern us all’: Glyn Davis on institutional memory loss, staff caps, and other challenges to public service


Glyn Davis. Picture by Alan Porritt/AAP

THE BIG INTERVIEW: ‘Accidental public servant’ Glyn Davis is a distinguished professor at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy. Davis talks to Martin Stewart-Weeks about good policy processes and the factors making it hard for public servants to do their jobs well.

Martin Stewart-Weeks: So let’s start, as they say, at the beginning. Why, and when did you become a public servant.

Glyn Davis: I’m an accidental public servant, like lots of people. I was a PhD student at ANU, trying to live on a Commonwealth scholarship — and starving.

In my first year, Malcolm Fraser announced a new review of the public service, which was a surprise because we’d had the Coombs commission only six years before. The review secretariat was looking for a young researcher who could do some background papers and contacted my PhD supervisor, Pat Weller. He recommended me so I suddenly found myself as a research assistant grade one with the Australian Public Service. It wasn’t glorious but it paid more in six weeks than a year of my PhD scholarship.   

I really enjoyed working with very talented people. It was a short, sharp burst. I wrote a series of briefing papers about subjects I knew nothing about, which was fun pre-internet. You had to go to libraries and read books. 

What impressed me was the dedication of the team, mid and senior level. They put in very long hours. On Friday nights, if the work wasn’t complete they stayed at their desks until it was done. It was my first serious encounter with public servants and I thought “these are serious, impressive smart people.”

When that came to an end. What happened, did you go off and finish your studies? And then what happened in terms of your engagement back in the public service?

I did what I came to do, finished the doctorate, began an academic career in Brisbane, and headed to America on a postdoctoral fellowship. We returned to Brisbane in January 1989, after missing the entire Fitzgerald inquiry. When we left, Bjelke-Petersen was firmly in power. By the time we returned he had been thrown out by his own side, and now his successor was struggling. It would prove an astonishing election year.

With colleagues, I ran some public seminars that year about the future of the Queensland Public Service. We invited all three party leaders to speak. Given the revelations of the Fitzgerald inquiry, the quality of public administration became an electoral issue.

You were doing that off an academic base?

Yes, I’d come back to work at Griffith University where we hosted CAPSM, the Center for Australia Public Sector Management, which was a well-funded centre. We ran a year-long series of discussions about what should happen to the Queensland public service, which was closed and very insular — closed because it did not let people transport their superannuation from interstate, which proved a very effective barrier to external recruitment. 

CAPSM ran well-attended public events and public sector reform became a significant issue in the campaign.

After the election, I was approached and asked to help implement some of the changes discussed along the way. I did point out my experience at the Commonwealth had been brief and my expertise, such as it was, could only be described as ‘academic’. 

Nonetheless, I was happy to accept an appointment to assist in public service change. I thought this would last about six weeks, but in time it became three years as a public service commissioner with a new Queensland Public Sector Management Commission. 

We did significant work on public service reform and in my last year, I was asked to set up a cabinet office based on the model developed by Gary Sturgess and Nick Greiner in NSW.  This was my last assignment before returning, permanently I assumed, to Griffith. I had already signalled to Premier Wayne Goss my desire to return to university and my career as an academic.

Kevin Rudd was chosen by the government as the new Cabinet office director-general.  

I was very grateful for the experience with the Queensland Public Service and again admired the quality of the people I met — a reminder of just how committed public servants are to their work, which can be inspiring.  

Eighteenth months later, perhaps less, Kevin Rudd left to run for politics. I was asked by the premier to consider applying to be director-general of the Cabinet office. I thought about it, applied, and was interviewed by a panel chaired by the head of the Premier’s department.  

As it turned out, I was in the role for only 14 months or so.  1995 proved a traumatic year for the Goss government. It went to an election but returned with only a one-seat majority. That majority was challenged and lost in the courts, and the government lost the subsequent by-election.

Meanwhile, the Opposition, led by Rob Borbidge, had committed to abolishing the Cabinet office. They were opposed to the institution on principle, although I never quite understood what that principle was. But I respected their right to make such a change, and on the change of government, I resigned and went back to academic life.

What was in your head about the public service? What did you learn about your own approach to leadership, and who had an impact on you through that first phase of your exposure to the public sector? What what was your conception at that point about the whole policy game?

As an academic interested in public administration, I was delighted to work in government, first as a doctoral student and then as a Griffith University lecturer. It seemed a way to contribute and to learn — to test what I understand from the literature with the lived experience of public service work.

It turned out the fit was pretty good — the administration literature gives a reasonably accurate and informed view of how public policy is made. This was confirmed in an amusing exchange with a former student named Gary Hardgrave, who went on to win pre-selections and become a Liberal member of parliament and eventually a minister. 

I ran into Gary while he was a minister.

‘You know that stuff you used to teach us about politics and policy?’ he said, with apparent complete surprise.

‘It turned out to be pretty accurate.’  

So why work in government? Largely because I wanted my academic work to be deeply informed by practice in the field.  And also, I did get “leaned on” in terms of “you have to serve your country, to give back.”  

What do you think you enjoyed most inside the system that you couldn’t have had access to or experience outside? Can you think of anything that shifted in your engagement with this world because you were briefly, or more than briefly, inside the game?

I’d been very interested in the argument about whether managerialism worked. I’d been part of studies and looking in particular at the prison system. The prison system was a big problem for Queensland governments for a range of reasons, administratively but also politically.

My interest wasn’t the politics but controversy meant prisons was high on the government’s agenda as a set of problems to be addressed. I worked with a pioneering reformer, director-general Keith Hamburger, a committed and intelligent advocate of better prisons. I learned about his constraints as a decision-maker, but also his ability to innovate within a politically and industrially fraught sector.

Of particular interest was a controlled experiment. Two prisons were needed, it was designed so one would be traditional public sector and the other private. We would get a reasonably good comparison about performance. We would learn whether, if you use private-sector methods, you get a better outcome.

The bottom line seemed to be the privately run prison did much better in its first years, but the public prison, faced with the competition, just improved and improved and improved. 

Over time, the differences narrowed. The public prison worked out what the private prison was better at, what to copy, but also what should be maintained to reflect public service values. So these are not mutually exclusive models. They can each do interesting things and mutual learning is possible. 

The thing I enjoyed as well was working with some very experienced senior leaders in the bureaucracy. This included some talented Queenslanders who had worked in the Commonwealth and could now return since jobs were advertised and superannuation could be transferred.  

An interesting object lesson in itself of the value of a good process. 

A lot of talent came home. It brought Commonwealth and international experience, with a high skill set. These recruits brought different styles of behaviour and that was good for everybody. 

And, a little like the private prisons, over time, the Queensland public servants started to become more competitive. There was a return to further study, more career planning, better management of talent. Competition lifts standards for everyone.

Okay, let me go back to the chronology. So back to Griffith?

After the Cabinet office, I returned to teaching and research at Griffith in February 1996, became a professor a few years later, and settled into my chosen career. 

In the middle of 1998, Premier Borbidge called a state election.  He was defeated in an incredibly close contest which left an independent holding the balance of power. 

The incoming Premier, Peter Beattie, asked me to return as director-general of the premier’s department, saying in effect, “this will be tough because it’s going to be a minority government. You have the experience because of the Cabinet office.”

This was not an easy choice — I was enjoying the work with colleagues at Griffith, including a large international study of public administration based in Berlin. I was learning German in the evenings to participate better, and revelling in the expanded academic horizon. I was very happy doing what I was doing, and not looking to move. 

As always with large decisions, this involved a long walk on the beach with my wife Margaret. It meant weighing up personal interests against service when asked.

Eventually, I did the role for nearly four years. Peter Beattie proved a fabulous premier to work for because he was respectful of public service and never asked officials to do anything that might be construed as political. He never tried to interfere in public service appointments and was as committed to the principles of merit as any public servant. That’s a gift for any head of a premier’s department. Queensland was lucky, since in my experience Wayne Goss shared these same values.  

By 1998, when I returned to government, I’d had the advantage of some years back on campus reflecting on policymaking.  Some years earlier colleagues and I in the Cabinet office had written a handbook for policymaking in Queensland, complete with the phone numbers of officials to call on specific questions.

When the Borbidge government abolished the Cabinet office they also declined to authorise any further reprints of the Policy Handbook. It circulated privately hand to hand in photocopies, an authentic Queensland samizdat.

You’re the author of a banned book! 

A co-author of a book that couldn’t be mentioned in polite society, the publication that could never be mentioned. So my co-author Peter Bridgman and I sat down after we both left government and wrote it again, from scratch. We worked from first principles and did not use any of the original material, so it could be no argument about authorship. 

This became The Australian Policy Handbook, which has now gone through six editions, adding a further co-author on the way.

The Australian Policy Handbook is used across the country and regularly cited. It has found a national audience but has been criticised as well. That’s fine of course — debate about policymaking is always welcome. In any case, for Peter and I, The Australian Policy Handbook was another outcome of wanting to reflect academically on the experience of the public sector — the “reflective practitioner”.

How do you reflect on where you ended up at the end of those four years in your sense of both the value and the impact of the policy work? People are beginning to get to the stage where there’s a loss of confidence in the whole business of policymaking itself. As you well know, institutional trust has disappeared but we’ve sort of lost a bit of that Mojo. In your case, the track was very much in and out of government. 

The idea of working in and outside government is something I saw often when I worked in America. Most of the senior academics at the Kennedy School where I was a postdoc had spent time in an administration and were comfortable in both worlds. It is an opportunity less often available in Australia.

It’s a point that Mike Pratt shared with me when he had the same experience in America when he got over there and the lack of similar transition in Australia between sectors, which he’d noticed in his own corporate career. And one of the reasons he took the Treasury job and Service NSW was because he felt that more regular exchange between sectors should happen more often.

There are differences between the system, of course, and a Westminster approach relies appropriately on permanent public service. Still, we could find more opportunity for academic experts to spend some time in the field and contribute their knowledge.  It’s been harder in Australia to do. 

It’s a strangely stubborn issue; I noticed in the Thodey review it rears its head. We’ve been talking about that for a while. But back to your time as Peter Beattie’s head of premier’s.

Peter Beattie had an ambitious plan to expand the Queensland economy.  He wanted it to add biotechnology, new industries built on technology and research. This was the origin of his “Smart State” strategy. We worked to support universities build new capabilities, greatly helped by American philanthropist Chuck Feeney. The Smart State initiative began a different conversation about what it meant to be a Queenslander. The premier even changed the slogan on number plates, sending Queenslanders a message. 

This was really fulfilling policy work. Again, Peter Beattie very respectful of the public service, giving us a licence to innovate and challenge. The strategy was politically led, the role of the public service was to take a set of ideas and give them form and options.  It was a happy marriage of political leadership and public service expertise, and exemplary case of how you can make profound change through that partnership. 

That would have been a very positive experience. So were you there, right through his premiership?

I served in the director-general role until the very end of 2001, when I returned to Griffith as vice-chancellor.

Once more it was an extraordinary opportunity. A lot of life is luck. 

So that was the end of my public sector career. In subsequent decades I served as vice-chancellor for nearly 17 years in two institutions.

Over that time, you’ve been involved in a number of reviews of the public sector, including the Thodey review you’ve just completed. It’s not like your involvement more broadly in the public sector has disappeared altogether.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate, on three separate occasions to be invited to participate in reviews of the Commonwealth public sector. In 1982, in a very modest way, in 2010 (the Moran blueprint) and then recent work with David Thodey. 

The Australian Public Service in 2020 is unrecognisable from the one I joined in late 1982.”

The Australian Public Service in 2020 is unrecognisable from the one I joined in late 1982, though the same is true of just about every part of our lives.   

Give me a bit more sense about its unrecognisability. In what dimensions particularly what do you call out that shift or some of the shifts that you’ve witnessed as you’ve looked at that arc over such a long period?

On a per capita basis, the public service today is smaller than in 1982, much smaller. Though the APS has grown in absolute terms, it has done so far slower than national growth in the economy and population.  

In 1982, the pubic sector included many entities that were eventually sold off — the Commonwealth Bank, Australia Post, Telstra, Qantas and others. These giant public utilities were once part of the Commonwealth. 

But even the core agencies were bigger.  I gather there are fewer people in the Commonwealth Treasury today than in the 1980s, though the challenges of economic management are no less pressing. 

We’ve slimmed down the public service a lot. A remarkable amount of work once done inside the public service is now purchased. Contracting has become a core management tool. It is less clear we have developed the capabilities to manage contracting at the level you might expect given the amounts of money rolling through. 

All sorts of authority we assumed only public servants could wield are now ceded to private contractors.

You couldn’t think of anything more basic in some ways in terms of the public realm.

Government is now surrounded by a dense network of for-profit and not for profits providing many of the services.

I guess I’m part of it in the sense of a small contractor and network folks like me as well as the big players. It’s a completely different kind of rhythm, isn’t it?

It’s a networked model, not a direct-controlled world. It has a much higher set of risks than the previous model, but the potential innovation is much higher. 

And also, maybe, an influx of insight, knowledge, a wider and more diverse skill base, or is that just wishful thinking?

I think that’s wishful thinking — it is the talent flooding out of the public service that should concern us all.  It’s all those people you meet in consulting firms who used to be public servants. Many get better paid and no longer have to take responsibility for outcomes.  

What’s the institutional implication of that?

A loss of institutional memory, a loss of learning. We can no longer say “well we tried that a decade ago, and it failed.” It means a thinner base of people to work with at senior levels, fewer policy officers stretched across more topics. 

People with no time to build policy expertise in an area find themselves running large operations. Of course many are bright people up to the challenge, but if people are stretched too thin for too long, things start to go wrong.

Which presumably then provides further impetus for looking outside for help. It feeds that cycle. 

Ministers want cover, so they get a consulting firm to write a report. This did not happen so often in 1982. On the other hand, many talented public servants were taken up running huge compliance machinery — the Public Service Board and other internal regulatory agencies. 

Today, the controls used are much more rudimentary, such as a numbers cap on staffing. During Thodey report consultations, a number of secretaries told us they send work to the private sector, which they could do more cost-effectively inhouse but are prevented from doing so by controls on total numbers of staff. 

Talk about unintended consequences; we are undermining the very thing we thought we were supposed to be achieving by slimming it down.

Indeed. The staffing cap has no administrative logic to it, so it drives perverse behaviour. 

There were no female secretaries until the Hawke years.”

What do you feel to has been the shift in leadership at this point? As you’ve been engaging with and reflecting on the public sector over a 35-year arc, what’s your sense now of the leadership challenge and how the game has changed for leaders inside the public service?

First, the APS is more reflective of the community than in 1982. There were no female secretaries until the Hawke years.

I think it was Helen Williams in Communications. 

There were no senior Indigenous leaders either. Of course, the Commonwealth today is still not fully representative of Australia’s community, but it is a vast improvement.  

Indeed the public service has become more diverse than the political system. The ministries in recent years seem been less diverse than the public servants supporting them. 

Second, the abolition of tenure under John Dawkins has profound implications. In retrospect, it was a major mistake. 

Can you remember at the time what you thought? Because I’ve got a feeling, most of us — and I was fairly  junior at the time — I somewhat looked up to Dawkins and all he and Peter Walsh others were doing, and I thought, “this is good, this will shake things up.” Can you recall how you thought about it then, as opposed to retrospectively?

The Dawkins move was part of a national trend. Tenure was abolished for senior public servants, who worked now on five-year contracts. 

I worked under this system and encouraged the transition in Queensland. With the benefit of hindsight, we went too far. It became acceptable for ministers to fire CEOs, just by claiming incompatible working styles. 

What does that do institutionally?

We can only speculate how behaviour changes when a secretary must think carefully before giving challenging advice. When then deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce fired his head of department and boasted about it, he sent a powerful message about his view of an independent public service.

 It is a chilling signal when there are consequences for saying “that’s not a good idea, minister.”

“We have ventured into “Washminster”, a confusion of systems.”

So the very thing that you mentioned earlier about your experience with good Treasury people 25 years earlier, learning how to mobilise a respectful but firm engagement with the political level — that’s going to just evaporate, surely?

Well, we rely much more now on the courage of individuals, and there are fewer institutional safeguards. Of course, there are courageous individuals, but the risks of being so are higher. The Thodey report includes a list of all the Commonwealth secretaries who have been fired — and it was compiled before the prime minister dismissed a further five long-term public servants as departmental heads. It makes for sobering reading. 

Third, we have ventured into “Washminster”, a confusion of systems. We’ve half embraced bits of the American system. 

This has happened during my time. No doubt I played a part so must not point a finger at others. Certainly, I like the idea of some permeability between sectors, but not the undermining of professional public services. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, we should ask ourselves some tough questions. Did the pendulum toward responsiveness go too far? I fear it did. The Thodey report includes a number of recommendations to provide greater security for secretaries and more accountability for ministerial staff, but these have not been accepted.   

Do you think we’ve reached a point where there’s no way of recovering that?

The proposals recommended in the Thodey report would help rebalance the system, so all is not lost. Sometimes ideas just take time to find a sympathetic audience.

Do you think it’s tougher being a public service leader at the moment? And I’m talking about the top of an agency particularly, I understand leadership happens at many levels, but just in a very crude way to compare 2020 versus 1982 or 1995 is it tougher now than it was?

I agree it is tougher to be a public service leader now, for a number of reasons. The first is the lack of security. The second is fewer resources to deploy, so much of your work is contracted out.  And the third is the difficulty of holding really good people. This is a really serious problem. 

Some agencies are trying to run very antiquated systems.”

Although we have the prospect of much better information systems, they haven’t all flowed through to the public sector yet. Too often officials must make decisions on pretty ordinary information. Martin, you know about this, you’ve just written an important book on the topic.

Some agencies are trying to run very antiquated systems. These are hopelessly out of date in a world in which the banks and utilities have all invested in much better data and information systems. The contrast makes the government look unsophisticated. If a service company like a bank is spending some 15% of its operating budget on IT systems and government is spending 1-2%, the gap in capability will just get wider. 

It seems to me the difficulty with that is the longer you leave that gap, the worse it gets. It’s getting worse at a rapid rate. So somewhere, somehow, someone’s got to intervene, not unlike it seems to be the problem that we haven’t dealt with some of the climate change stuff 20 years on.

The Thodey report includes a long section on data future. It is an area in which the government has accepted the recommendations for a “future capable APS.”

I don’t want this to be a commentary only on the Thodey review but more broadly and very personally as you reflect about the state of the public sector as an institution.

I’ve read the review report and there are some powerful statements, including the great quote from John Howard about the sort of cultural and institutional reason why a strong public service is so important. 

But are you, at the edge of the new decade, an optimist or a pessimist about where this institution is at the moment, and where it might be heading in the next let’s say 10 years?  Where do you come down?

A gratifying aspect of the APS review process was conversations with people across the public sector. I saw the same dedication I first noticed in 1982 — people who cared, people for whom this wasn’t just a job. That was really encouraging.

We met all the secretaries and again I saw a very committed group of people. They knew what had to be done and who knew how to go about it in a sensible, pragmatic way. There are skilled, seasoned operators at the top of the system. That was again, really encouraging. 

They understood, for example, that APS IT systems are not adequate.  In budget discussions every year they had argued passionately for investment.  They could see the downside of caps on employment. And despite such constraints, I saw much determination to get the best results possible in difficult circumstances.

So I’m an optimist.

What would Glyn Davis in 2020 say to the 38-year-old Glyn Davis if he came into his office and said, “I’m a really successful academic, but I’ve just been rung up to see whether I’d like to go and work for the New South Wales Premier’s office?”  Or what would you say to your counterpart who’s in his or her mid-30s saying, “I’ve just got this chance to have a crack at the public service, what do you think I should do?”

I have never worked as a ministerial adviser, so may not be a good source of advice here. There is a legitimate role for ministerial advisors, but I think it’s a completely different world and should be kept separate from public service processes. 

That said, there are times when people are called to serve their state or nation because of their expertise and background. Whether as an advisor or a public service, it is something you have to think about deeply and profoundly and you have to have a good reason for saying no.

And then they say “Okay, thanks Glyn, I quite like that, but I’m still interested in your sense about whether this will be good for my career. What am I going to do, am I going to be effective, is it worth it?” 

Serving your country doesn’t always mean you get to do what you want or think you could do!

Of course, if your work is not getting any traction and nobody cares, then it’s legitimate to say this is a two-way agreement and consider your options.

But nobody gets a blank piece to redesign the world the way you like it. You get invited to be part of a team. This means you have to argue for your ideas inside a larger machine. Be a source of good ideas, don’t worry about who gets the credit.  There is dignity in seeing your contribution meld into something larger. 

I still find very clear examples of public servants who can — if I could put it like this — create their own luck. But you have to be a bit energetic and effortful as opposed to assuming that ministers and others will just come to your desk and drop it in your inbox.

I agree — there is influence possible by being a policy entrepreneur inside government, helping sow ideas and help bring them into fruition.

I’m going to finish up with a question that’s very specific to your current role as CEO of the Paul Ramsay Foundation. As you have moved into this new phase, what are your reflections having now been a public servant, an academic, the author of a book on how to do policy, a vice-chancellor, an advisor, and now leading and setting an agenda for Australia’s largest philanthropic foundation?

I was surprised! Leading a foundation was not on my agenda when I finished at the University of Melbourne toward the close of 2018. I had hopes of returning to teaching and writing.

Yet running a university includes a deep engagement with philanthropy. Melbourne set itself a goal of raising a billion dollars and will successfully close that campaign shortly. 

So along the way, I spent time with my international peers learning about fundraising, visiting international foundations and acquiring some experience in the sector. A highlight for me was being part of a team that secured a $65 m grant for the University of Melbourne from Atlantic Philanthropies to support mid-career training for some of the most talented First Nations people in Australia and New Zealand. This was deeply gratifying.

I began to see how foundations can do what government cannot, but finding experiments that are controversial and difficult. There are no political consequences for foundations if they fund a grant to try an idea, and it doesn’t work. 

And that’s the attraction — being able to support initiatives that make a difference for the most disadvantaged Australians. I took the role with Australia’s largest foundation because it is a chance to break cycles of disadvantage, to champion the most innovative policy workaround.

By choosing its partners and programs with care, and testing results through rigorous evaluation, the Paul Ramsay Foundation can take risks, fund new approaches, seek new hope for people who are doing it tough. We can try and fail, fail better, start again, learn what works.

And when a program proves its worth, we can argue the case to government on policy grounds, demonstrate better approaches to familiar problems. Hence new investments by the foundation in corrections, in young people who run into the justice system, in homelessness and domestic violence. Hopefully, we will add to the sum of knowledge and experience and become a voice for policy innovation. 

If you think about a program as a social science experiment, if it’s properly evaluated and written up and shared, then it is rather like running a Cabinet office. 

But with a degree of freedom you wouldn’t expect in a Cabinet office.  

Just so! If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing boldly.

And a chance to do that at a scale that very few can aspire to.

Yes. The board and team strongly believe that Australia’s wealthiest foundation should use its good fortune for the benefit of the nation’s poorest people.

There’s a nice symmetry about that.

Paul Ramsey was raised by the Jesuits and it is perhaps a Jesuit view of the world.

It’s almost like the philanthropic world can become on behalf of these big public challenges — I often use this concept of “public work” — the risk-takers and the experimenters, or at least one of the elements that can be more down that path. If a government’s smart, it means that it can play a role that actually feeds into and off that capacity for risk. Is that the kind of symbiosis you think is possible?

What I see in the big American foundations is their emphasis on thinking ahead. They fund projects when they can see the possibility for operation at scale. A successful social housing experiment in one city might provide a template for others. A local approach to opioid addiction that makes a difference might work elsewhere.  

The other key lesson is that great foundations encourage people to take control of their lives, not decide for them. It is about supporting individual capability so people can have the life they value. 

This requires humility in approaching the work, a recognition you might be able to analyse the problem successfully but still not know the answer. Because it’s not your life in question.

Which is a shift in itself of course in terms of what has often been I think a traditional reflex inside the public service, a little along the lines of yes, you’re in trouble and we have a service to fix that. 

I spent a bit of time recently with a director from a charity in the United Kingdom that helps women coming out of prison not to go back. That’s the ambition.

The recidivism rate is lower for women than for men but it still remains. But the first principle is, only work with women who want to work with them. It is voluntary or nothing.

For those interested, the charity makes contact with prisoners six months or more before they finish their sentence. They start a conversation about what they will need, work with them on a plan, make sure someone is waiting when they released, ensure there is a home to go to. The first job interview is already arranged and waiting.

The charity stays all the way through on an agreed plan. It is “with and by”, not “to and for”. And certainly not “tell”. The resulting recidivism rate for female prisoners in the United Kingdom is just 3%, which is 10 times lower than the average for those who do not participate.

Here is a charity changing lives, all done on minimum resources.  Now their challenge is to persuade the UK prison system that it would be much cheaper to invest in this service upfront rather than lock up women again and again.

How hard do you think that’s going to be?

Despite that level of success now for some years, they’ve had modest success attracting government interest. But they’re not giving up!

Which reinforces how hard it is in these large public systems. That raises a whole other topic. In the Thodey review, I noticed quite a heartfelt observation about how we often know what to do, the real problem is we don’t seem to get on and do it. Why is that?  What stops us inside the public service? Is it the political constraint, is it just too bloody big sometimes to get the evidence understood? Why does it seem to be so difficult to get this rhythm of implementation and execution?

Any big policy is locked into a series of programs, often with five-year horizons.  Funding has been contracted out, people hired, schedules published, interests established.  

So it is not surprising there is scepticism when a group of strangers turn up and say, “actually there’s a completely different way we could do this, one that means we probably don’t need you and these structures.”

That’s part of why it’s a tough gig, You just really can’t just turn it off.

And that’s not to suggest bad faith. The people who run prison systems are always interested in better ways to proceed but often they are not the decision-makers. Many of these choices are political, and that means worry about public response.  Arguing for more prisons and tougher penalties is so much easier than suggesting investment and care in prisoners might be the way forward.  

It’s a pretty tough conversation to prosecute and the fact that it’s not easy gets forgotten and people outside wonder why don’t they just make the change, they’re just being recalcitrant, resistant to change.  The point you’re making is perhaps it’s not that simple. 

That’s right. A society that made choices such as closing other institutions that looked after people’s mental health issues has left prisons as sometimes the last refuge. There’s nowhere else to go. So prisons find themselves performing functions far from their intended mission and skills.  

Learning about such issues, thinking about alternatives — this is why policy is so fascinating. Whether you’re in academia or government or philanthropy, policy is the best game in town. 

And it is the game, right, increasingly if we bring this right up to the current moment in a world that seems to be rapidly imploding around trust and institutional legitimacy, getting this right must be close to the top of our agenda, surely?

But this game has to be played at its peak and clearly we’re not at the peak.

But it’s endlessly fascinating and it’s worth doing. And that’s why, for lots of us, this is our lives. 

 

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Chris Johnson
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