Spreading limited public service resources too thinly can lead to poorly developed policy, according to a new report from the Grattan Institute.
The research published on Sunday is aimed at ministers and their advisors who choose to take a more strategic approach, and wants to “help politicians and public sector managers to prioritise competing proposals for reform”.
Report author John Daley, Grattan Institute Senior Fellow and former CEO, argued that prioritisation can improve policy reform.
“Australian governments would govern better if they were better at prioritising their overall agenda, the agenda of individual portfolios, and their responses to individual policy issues,” he wrote.
He noted that several resources are scarce in government, including political capital, ministerial time, public attention, public tolerance for reform, bureaucratic resources, and money. Because the resources for reform are limited — and because many potential initiatives compete for these resources — prioritisation is needed.
Ministers and their advisors should undertake an explicit prioritisation process to help stop their agenda from becoming cluttered with too many initiatives, the paper said.
“An explicit process of prioritisation means that new initiatives are not added to the agenda without thinking about the collateral impacts on other work,” it stated.
“A disciplined prioritisation process may also drive a better early assessment of reform proposals before substantial resources are committed. The discipline may compel a better understanding of a proposal – its costs and benefits, both policy and politics – leading to a rational decision not to proceed.”
While budget processes can help governments prioritise, the report recommended a more strategic approach and prioritising beyond the budget process, as “they tend to lead to too many initiatives at once, underplay reforms that pay off over the longer term, and don’t pay enough attention to the limits of political capital”.
When prioritising their agenda strategically, governments should consider two factors: the overall impact on wellbeing, and the feasibility of reform. They should also try to prioritise particular reforms rather than outcome targets, the report noted.
“The value and feasibility of an area such as ‘mental health’ can’t be assessed, whereas value and feasibility can be assessed for a particular reform such as increasing the resources for psychiatrists embedded in local health networks,” it said.
“Prioritising an area for reform rather than a specific policy change risks prioritising changes in policy that are relatively low return. We cannot presume that government intervention will remedy every social ill.”
Daley argued that this was one problem with the approach of the New Zealand government’s Wellbeing Budget, which nominated priority areas such as “improving child wellbeing”.