Cassandra Wilkinson: NSW leads on evidence-based approach

The NSW government has put the infrastructure in place to drive more evidence-based policy initiatives. There’s a long way to go, and other states need to catch up.

The new head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in New South Wales, Blair Comley, has both big challenges and some terrific largely underutilised resources in his central agencies. Running contrary to a lot of misapprehensions about bean-counters, the most interesting work to improve evidence-based public policy is being done in Treasury.

This week I was pleased to be asked to speak at a Radio National Big Ideas event at Swinburne University on the subject of inequality. A recurring theme in comments from fellow panellists was that government needs to adopt more evidence-based policy to solve society’s ills. One panellist expressed frustration that as an academic she can’t understand how resistant government seems to be to evidence-based methods.

What is not well understood by many intelligent and well intentioned people such as my co-panellists is how little evidence government often has at its disposal. When it comes to publicly funded solutions to social problems from homelessness to unemployment to illiteracy, government has not often required experimental conditions that test hypotheses, gather data and reflect on results to inform future spending. When they do require it, this work can be the first item to go during “efficiency” drives because research isn’t considered frontline service.

The Commonwealth Finance Department’s 2010 Strategic Review of Indigenous Expenditure found:

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  • Les Hems

    I strongly support this evidence based approach and Cassandra’s argument, I also applaud NSW’s leadership in establishing the fundamental infrastructure in terms of a dedicated centre and a community of practice. What is now needed is a series of “experiments” – as in “scientific” experiments – well founded programs which are systematically evaluated and measured in terms of both process and outcomes. These experiments may take a couple of years to set up and complete but will deliver much greater value for individuals, communities and government in the medium to long term. Although this may appear as a government driven initiative – I believe there are opportunities for philanthropic support (surely critically important R&D is a fundamental purpose for philanthropic funding) and also social finance – not of the Social Benefit Bond scale in terms of capital and duration – but shorter “payment by results” mechanisms which require robust evaluation and measurement.