Andrew Podger: the state of policy analysis in Australia

By Andrew Podger

Wednesday October 7, 2015

Policy Analysis in Australia [edited by Brian Head and Kate Crowley, pictured above] is a weighty book — timely and relevant, particularly right now as a new Prime Minister promises a new era of engaging with an intelligent public about economic policy reform and of returning to good cabinet government practices.

I will not attempt to summarise the book but instead address three closely related themes that run throughout the book: the increasingly divergent sources of policy advice, attitudes to formal evaluation and advice, and the importance of public engagement. In doing so, not surprisingly I will throw in my own two-pennyworth of opinions particularly about the public service.

The increasingly divergent sources of policy advice

A common theme in the book is the increasingly divergent sources of policy advice, a trend common to other western democracies. It is implicit in the contemporary use of the term “governance” and is reflected in Rod Rhodes’ thesis of network government.

In his chapter, Pat Weller presents a sharp contrast between the policy process in 1972 and that operating in 2013. In doing so he firmly rejects the idea of a past golden age in policy advising, highlighting the narrowness of the former approach.

Peter Shergold also refers positively to the increasing competition amongst policy advisers. As Peter has argued elsewhere, there can be many benefits from such competition, including through keeping public servants on their toes. But as Kathy MacDermott demonstrated in her 2008 book, The Frank and the Fearless, the benefits might not arise if the competition is not one of ideas but one of access to the minister’s ear and to power. In that case there can be serious risks of particular interests and political partisanship crowding out disinterested professional expertise and thwarting intelligent engagement with the public.

Technological change and the power and pervasiveness of the media have certainly forced a professionalisation of politics including a thickening of the relationship between politics and administration. Yet there is increasing public awareness that this is not all good or in the public interest.

Popular comedy has moved on from Yes Minister with its ridicule of an arrogant civil service undermining elected politicians and their advisers, to The Thick of It with a foul-mouthed chief of staff bullying both ministers and public servants, and now to Utopia with empty-headed advisers and media managers and the few experts left in the public service struggling to get anything done.

Malcolm Turnbull would do well to complement his proposed improvements to cabinet processes with a re-think of the role of chiefs of staff and political advisers, moving away for a focus on control of the public service to taking full advantage of the considerable assets available in terms of experience and expertise and intellectual horsepower.

There is reason, however, as Weller and Wanna suggest in the book, to suspect a loss of policy capacity in the APS over recent years. This has been revealed in a number of capability reviews suggesting a risk averse culture and an inward-looking approach focused on shorter-term tactical issues not longer-term strategic policy. A contributing factor has been a reduction in the demand by ministers for strategic policy advice from the APS.

Brian Head addresses the issue of public sector capacity directly in his chapter, suggesting the problem is not just about lost capacity but also about the need for new approaches to address current complex policy challenges, approaches that involve wider engagement including across jurisdictions and with external expertise.

This is an important point, also made in various public service reviews over the last decade and more including the MAC report, Connected Government, which Peter Shergold and I instigated in 2004. Yet progress has evidently been limited and in some respects has gone backwards. My own view is that excessive political control has contributed to the problem, rewarding tactical advice and inhibiting informed engagement with outside expertise and stakeholders. Coupled with budgetary pressures, the focus on political control and communications management has also led to reduced investment in longer-term policy research and analysis.

We do not need to return to the public service having a monopoly over policy advice to government, but we need politicians to recognise that the service is uniquely placed to offer disinterested professional advice with the experience of implementing past policies, and can assist ministers to assess the advice they receive from other quarters; the service does this best if it fosters productive external relations itself, is led by people appointed on merit, not perceived political biases, and if it maintains investment in strategic policy capacity and technical expertise.

Attitudes to formal analysis and evaluation

John Wanna notes that formal analysis and evaluation has remained embryonic and largely perfunctory in Australia. I think there is much truth in this and it may help to explain why our widely applauded performance management initiatives continue to have trouble in gaining traction in the Parliament and in public discourse.

The historian, Keith Hancock, wrote in his 1930 book, Australia, that:

“The Australians have always disliked scientific economics and (still more) scientific economists. They are fond of ideals and impatient of technique. Their sentiments quickly find phrases, and their phrases find prompt expression in policies. What the economists call ‘law’ they call ‘anarchy’ … The Australians are a good-tempered, open-handed people. They dislike refusing favours, and they do not count costs.”

In his book, The End of Certainty, Paul Kelly presented the argument that global pressures had forced Australia in the period from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s to jettison long-held beliefs in White Australia, protectionism and a regulated labour market, implying perhaps greater acceptance nowadays of economic law.

Allan Fenna, rightly in my view, dismisses in his chapter the strident attacks on public service neo-liberalism from Michael Pusey and others, highlighting the positive role of public service advisers in identifying Australia’s structural and economic weaknesses and in promoting economically rational policies. (I must admit to bristling at Brian Head and Kate Crowley’s description of Pusey’s 1991 book as a “seminal work” in this area and their omission of references to John Paterson, Mike Keating and Ian Castles for example; though I also accept Head’s concern expressed later in the book about the narrowness of NPM’s business models and control strategies.)

It is hard to deny a continuing unease in public and some academic discourse in Australia about the science of policy analysis and evaluation. Of course, policy-making everywhere has always been as much an art as science, as Vickers famously explored in the 1960s in his book, The Art of Judgment, and it is fundamentally political. But the unease about formal analysis runs deeper in Australia and represents an ongoing challenge for our political and public service leaders.

Shergold, for example, admits that, while evidence-based policy might be the aim, preparing policy-based evidence is not an uncommon job for public servants today. Such lip service to evaluation and performance management may disguise an ongoing reality in Australia that policy analysis is only scientific when external forces demand that of government and, even then, the analysis is rarely the key ingredient.

Perhaps my concern is unjustified, and the Australian style simply reflects healthy pragmatism and the necessary combination of evidence and political reality. The Australian style is also reflected in the particular approach we tend to use in policy analysis even in academia where the emphasis continues to be on qualitative approaches rather than quantitative methodologies as Head and Crowley and Michael Di Francesco note in their chapters.

There is a renewed push for strengthening performance management right now as Commonwealth agencies respond to the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability legislation enacted last year. The hope is that, this time, governance arrangements and accountability will truly be driven by results and that executive decision-making and parliamentary oversight will focus on performance information.

Such attempts, still driven mostly from within the public service, aimed at promoting more careful and systematic evaluation and policy analysis should be strongly supported even if the impact on decision-making and debate in the Parliament remains limited, as I suspect it will.

The importance of public engagement

Ian Marsh and Darren Halpin’s chapter on the role of parliamentary committees, and the potential expansion of that role, is consistent with Marsh’s long-held view that the body politic has been weakened seriously over recent decades and we have not yet replaced the deliberative policy forums previously provided by our political parties. The dominance of the executive over the legislature in Australia has been remarked upon for over 40 years, but Marsh’s concern goes beyond this and beyond the Australian experience.

He has been advising the UK Parliament on how it might strengthen its role in the policy process, and he has promoted here and elsewhere the ideas of Charles Sabel in experimentalist government, a systematic approach to trialling and evaluating policies using external as well as internal expertise, and then engaging with the legislature and the broader public.

Several other chapters in this book also emphasise the importance of public and informed engagement, including Brian Head’s.

A central problem in my view is whether the professionalization of politics, or as Ian Ward in his chapter on the media calls it, “the professionalization of political communication”, will always inhibit intelligent public engagement and deliberative policy development. Can Turnbull succeed against the current orthodoxy of close political control?

Personally, I remain an optimist but many would call it naiveté.

Ward explains carefully the reasons for the wider role of the media in the policy-making process, as facilitator of public discussion and in offering political actors and interest groups incentives to operate in the media outside the private channels of influence relied upon in the past.

There are many negatives about this trend: the pressure for governments to respond too quickly to an insistent 24/7 media; the empty headedness of much of the interactive aspects of social media; the tendency to invective and exaggeration to gain attention; the dramatic reduction in the capacity of the old media with its loss of in-house expertise as its revenues have been decimated; the blurring of traditional distinctions between reporting and commentary; and the exploitation by commercial interests of the blurring between advertising and reporting and commentary. These are all growing challenges for the Australian Press Council of which I am a public member.

But there are also positives, not least being the increased profile given to expert analysis and commentaries whether in the (remaining) mainstream media or the myriad of of new on-line publications and blogs. The media cycle might have changed dramatically, but it remains true that articles and speeches and reports of substance command attention over the following hours and days as other parts of the media respond including via other experts commentary and analysis.

Of course, as Media Watch regularly demonstrates, the herd instinct may often follow a fake or shallow story, but an able political leader can make the process work to their advantage, promoting informed public discussion of substantial issues.

What are the implications for the public service and for ministers and advisers? The recent response on both sides of politics has been to strengthen controls over the public service and for the public service leadership to retreat. Lip service is paid to open government but all the incentives work the other way.

The better answer is to embrace open government, but with a professional attitude to communications management. The Reserve Bank and the Productivity Commission offer examples of this approach.

Senior departmental officials will always need to be more circumspect, not taking the limelight from ministers and not breaking confidences, but they too could do more to release information pro-actively, and to explain the basis for policies and the context in which they operate. They should be more willing than I have seen in recent years to participate in public and academic forums. But this requires a more permissive partnership with ministers and advisers with mutual respect for respective professional roles.

A government committed to engaging with an intelligent public on economic policy reform needs to make use of its public service assets in the process.

This is an edited speech by ANU public policy professor Andrew Podger for the launch of Policy Analysis in Australia (Policy Press, edited by Brian Head and Kate Crowley)

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