First empirical study of Productivity Commission’s production and communication of evidence blurs apolitical and political status

By Chris Woods

September 29, 2020

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In the first ever empirical study of its kind, researchers at UNSW’s Centre for Social Impact have published an investigation into the Productivity Commission’s production and communication of evidence that unsettles the commissions’ perception as an “arms‐length, independent body from government” and reveals a “more complex interplay of interpersonal strategies in both the production of evidence, shaping of recommendations, and communication of both.”

Published at The Australian Journal of Public Administration, the report ‘Investigating the production and communication of evidence by the Productivity Commission: Apolitical, political, or somewhere in between?‘ draws on interviews with current and former commissioners as well as secretaries and deputy secretaries involved in the commissioning process within government, i.e., the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet; Treasury; Finance; and Environment and Energy.

In seeking to understand the Productivity Commission’s (PC) role within the policy process, the report identifies practices undertaken by PC staff commonly attributed to “policy entrepreneurs – or individuals seeking to influence policy and political processes.”

“Our findings suggest that in different contexts and at different times, the PC shifts between being an apolitical or political actor.”

Notably, authors Celia Green, Gemma Carey and Eleanor Malbon cite the concept of a “purple zone”, introduced in the 2017 report ‘Into the Purple Zone: Deconstructing the Politics/Administration Distinction’, to describe the lived experience of public servants as they negotiate the inevitably-overlapping worlds of the “red zone” of political activity and the “blue zone” of administration.

The report highlights two relevant frames in which PC evidence is constructed:

  • “Economic rationalism”, the body’s underlying historic ideology that, as one participant noted in relation to the PC’s evolution into social policy advice (i.e., the 2011 inquiry into the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme), may not be the best way to examine social issues that are often more complex in terms of measures and outcomes than more direct economic policy issues might be; and
  • The realities of the policy process of which the PC is a part. The expansion of social policy work has likewise accelerated the need for “a greater involvement with the policy process than has historically been the norm, with PC staff engaging in activities that are similar to those used by what are termed ‘policy entrepreneurs’ in the political science literature.”

Examples of the latter includes “after sales service”, where commissioners assist government departments in unpacking their written reports, to shaping evidence production in order “to increase the chance recommendations will be taken up by government, and to take into account policy process factors such as the media environment and public perceptions.”

“Part of the role of commissioners to some degree is to be switched on to that,” one former PC research advisor said. “So the staff job is to go, ‘What is the right thing from the data and evidence we’ve got to be done?’ And the commissioners might be saying, ‘Yeah well in theory that might be the right, it’s not going to fly, so therefore how do we shape and structure things so that we make sure we still have viable options that will be politically acceptable as well rather than just putting out the completely unacceptable?’ So part of the job of the commission is on how to sell it.”

As the researchers note, while policy entrepreneurship does “not mean the PC is political in the sense of being aligned with a particular political party or political leaning, it could be argued that any attempt to influence policy is in itself a political action.”

One of many qualifiers provided by participants in this respect is the hypothetical that, if none of their recommendations were accepted, then the PC would not be “succeeding” in its role and its relevance as an institution could be brought into question; as Premium will explore in a deep-dive of the report tomorrow, there is a case that the report could have a positive impact on the commission in highlighting some of these pressures.

The paper concludes by once again acknowledging the practical realities of the Productivity Commission’s work while highlighting that these realities should both be understood and examined:

The PC is frequently referred to as independent and objective, and these principles are central to the high profile and authoritative role it holds in the Australian policy landscape. Our findings suggest that a more accurate framing of the PC would draw on the work of Alford et al. (2017), repositioning the PC in the ‘purple zone’ as an actor that is sometimes arms-length, and sometimes political.

As Alford et al. suggest, there is an element of practicality here – the functioning of government requires public managers to engage in political processes/acts at different times and a hard and fast line is not practicable. Nonetheless, given the legitimacy of the PC leans so heavily on notions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘independence’ many might reasonably assume that it does not engage in activities that could be perceived as more political in nature. This paper has raised critical differences between how the PC is perceived compared to how it operates, which demand further debate and examination.

Check out Mandarin Premium tomorrow for a broader analysis of the study and interview with authors Celia Green and Gemma Carey.

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