Federal Treasury is looking to supercharge its engagement with the academic community by introducing an annual policy research conference such as the one run by the Reserve Bank of Australia.
Secretary of the Treasury Stephen Kennedy told an audience at a dinner held at the University of Sydney this week that the links between policymaking and academe are important and that governments could do more to foster links between academics and the public service.
Kennedy said his department was also looking to implement a visiting fellow’s program so that academics could spend their academic sabbatical working side-by-side with analysts in the department.
These new initiatives to bring the academic and public service communities closer together are the latest attempts to get researchers involved in developing public policy,
Empirical research is essential for providing evidence of ‘pros and cons’ in policy debates, Kennedy said, and academic research is key ‘to getting the right balance’.
The Australian National University has a program that helps public servants increase their knowledge and research capacity, and Kennedy noted that this is already showing dividends.
“The Sir Roland Wilson Foundation, named after Australia’s longest-serving Treasury secretary, established a program at the ANU over a decade ago that supports mid‑level public servants to undertake postgraduate study,” Kennedy said.
“Sixty‑four scholarships have been granted to public servants across 23 agencies, and 26 people have now completed their study and are actively lifting capability in the public service.”
Practical examples of the benefit of highly-skilled public servants with research and analytical skills was evident during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our staff were able to draw on their academic training to make use of real‑time microdata to understand the evolution of economic circumstances of the pandemic, notably in the two published reviews of the JobKeeper payment,” Kennedy said.
The nature of policymaking and the fact that not every compromise reached in implementing policy was necessarily in the national interest also got an airing from the Treasury secretary.
“Policymaking is difficult. Climate change is perhaps Australia’s best recent example of how difficult it can be. It is especially difficult when many forces are arranged against the best outcome for the community,” he said.
“These groups represented the interests of their members in ways you would expect. They are, after all, advocates for their members’ interests.
“I don’t see anything wrong with this, it is part of our democracy. But it is important to understand that using policy primarily to strike a balance among different sectional interests is not the same as pursuing the national interest.”