What can non-government experts offer policymakers?

By Melissa Conley Tyler

July 13, 2022

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Bridge institutions like AP4D can use imaginative narratives to help connect the world of research with the world of policy. (contrastwerkstatt/Adobe)

Often it is assumed that what busy policymakers want is a list of things they should do. But for external experts looking from the outside in, without access to the full suite of information available to policymakers, it is very difficult to propose specific, costed policy options.

What non-government experts are well-suited to provide are compelling, big-picture narratives. Busy policymakers always have hectic schedules, much of which is spent dealing with the crises of today under intense pressure. In terms of value-add, the bigger picture is where those from outside government are best placed to be most constructive.

A recent article by the ANU’s Jochen Prantl and Evelyn Goh looking at the implications for policymakers of the “twenty-first century of complexity” backs up this approach.

They argue that in a globalised era characterised by hyperconnectivity and the diffusion of power, governments around the world must cope with both a shrinking policy space and the interconnectedness of policy issues. This means that more effective strategies are required to minimise uncertainty, mobilise power and maximise the policy space:

“To be successful, strategists and policy-makers must be innovative and adaptive, and need to grasp details as well as adopt a more holistic view of the system context within which apparently discrete issues are embedded.”

Their prescription for policymakers is “mapping and managing strategic problems by reshaping policy ecosystems to achieve the outcomes policymakers want, rather than addressing a specific policy problem in isolation.” Key to this is having a strategic narrative. Internally, this helps frame worldview, set agendas and reconcile core interests and objectives. Externally, this “represents and interprets a policy issue in a simple and compelling way to facilitate support from key stakeholders and strategic audiences.”

A new initiative called the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D) seeks to do just that by outlining ambitious visions for how Australia can shape a shared future with Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It stems from the premise that Australia faces a more difficult, complex and dangerous environment, and stresses the importance of a galvanising narrative that integrates the elements of statecraft and sets out a big-picture vision for Australia’s engagement.

The two reports and nine options papers published by AP4D are the culmination of 12 months of consultations with more than 250 non-government development, diplomacy and defence experts. The papers are consciously future-facing, propositional and constructive. While each has a thematic focus, there are commonalities in terms of the overall vision being outlined:

  • Australia is an active and engaged partner in mutually beneficial partnerships, leveraging its expertise and experience to support local and regional priorities.
  • Australia frames its engagement with both regions as valuable in their own right, not through the lens of geostrategic competition. Australia de-emphasises the focus on either as a stage for great power contestation in its foreign policy approach. 
  • Australia anchors its regional development, diplomacy and defence engagement in a strategy of shared interests and positions itself as an invested partner.
  • Australia is willing to invest in the necessary resources to maintain its status as a trusted and influential partner to governments, civil society and business in the region. 
  • Australia recognises the necessity of applying all arms of statecraft in engaging with Southeast Asia and the Pacific, ensuring both sufficient investment across development, diplomacy and defence and the effective coordination of the activities of each in support of common strategic objectives. 

These vision statements fit the idea of a strategic narrative that Prantl and Goh call for. They are detailed enough to lay out clear overarching goals but pliable enough that policymakers can pursue them in the context of the resources and expertise available.

AP4D’s work also connects with the crucial human faculty of imagination. Writing on how Australian strategy should reflect its changing environment, the late Brendan Sargeant emphasised the importance of strategic imagination: “the ability to conceive of a different order and a different Australia within that order.” AP4D papers explicitly ask the question “what does it look like…” to stimulate this.

For example, the paper “What does it look like for Australia to be a partner in climate leadership for Southeast Asia” asks readers to go on an imaginative journey at odds with the recent past. It paints a picture of Australia as a key part of the region’s green economy transition, with Australian renewable energy resources exported via cable from northern Australia or via green hydrogen shipped from elsewhere in the country. One where Australia’s natural endowment of minerals such as nickel, copper, lithium and cobalt – critical to the development of solar panels and electric vehicles – enables it to support the region’s needs. It paints a vision that would lead to job creation in raw materials, technological development and service delivery.

Narratives that fire the imagination are powerful. As Michael Wesley puts it, “Powerful public narratives tend to be self-fulfilling because they inspire large numbers of people and institutions to act in the way the narrative prescribes.” This means that they are especially valuable to policymakers:

“In policy terms, government programs that gel with public narratives have a much greater chance of success than those that are sold in rational interest or narrowly partisan terms… Finding a new narrative is more urgent than developing a new foreign policy approach to manage the major complexities in our regional environment.”

Narratives are an important part of what non-government experts can offer policymakers. Bridge institutions like AP4D can use imaginative narratives to help connect the world of research with the world of policy.

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