Vishaal Kishore: avoiding the public policy simplicity trap

By Vishaal Kishore

February 3, 2016

Griffith Review 51: Fixing the System extract
Griffith Review 51: Fixing the System extract

Australian public policy labours under the weight of illustrious ancestors.

There was, in this country, a period that has been labelled the “Age of Mandarins”. During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, titans such as HC “Nugget” Coombs, Roland Wilson, John Crawford, Arthur Tange and others dominated the world of policy and public administration. These giants embarked on what Stuart Macintyre — in his recently published history of the period — has termed “Australia’s boldest experiment”. Along with political leaders of vision and skill, they fashioned (beginning with the post-World War II reconstruction effort) the very basis for modern Australian society — its institutions, its laws, its population, its social schemes, indeed its very way of life — through careful and at times brilliant planning, public policy and politics. They were nothing less than architects of the Australia of today.

In the words of HC Coombs, what was being seized was the “opportunity to move consciously and intelligently towards a new economic and social system”. And while there was more than a little flavour of “socialist” central planning that subsequently has fallen out of favour in today’s policy vernacular and public consciousness, in many ways the success of these titans has left an enduring glow: today’s public servants still see their ability to positively shape — through innovative public policy — Australian economic and social life.

But every golden age has its nadir.

Today’s world of public policy design-and-innovation struggles to breathe life into the promise of its past, caught in a state of stagnation and ensnared by a sensibility that robs it of its transformative force. This sensibility acts to stabilise existing ideas and ways of doing things, while unnecessarily limiting our ability to more creatively and fittingly design public policy. The ability of the policy elite to transform society or respond to its needs risks slipping from potentiality to mere conceit.

Here I offer some rebellious thoughts about the predicament of public policy and, potentially, some directions through that predicament; reflections from the field, as it were, from several perspectives. And while rebellion requires us to be somewhat controversial — perhaps even confrontational — rest assured, the rebellion is a friendly one. It is one in the name of, rather than against, public policy. If we seek, as we must, to improve our policy sphere to better meet the aspirations of our politics and the needs of our publics — to “fix the system”, as it were — some confrontation with the troubled status quo is inevitable.

And the stakes of this are high: in its current state, the public policy sphere is simply unable to deliver that which we need of it, and that which we are right to demand of it. The fortunes of our polity stand or fall on what happens next.

The challenges that public policy must meet are (perhaps) well known, or at least often recited. The public is demanding more of government in terms of services, interaction and indeed receptivity. Driven by changes in the private sector, citizens expect the same kinds of innovations from govern- ment as they do from their private providers.

And beyond pure service delivery, the kinds of questions that governments face — be they of growth, inclusion, sustainability — are morphing and altering their complexion. Technology is changing, economies are changing, societies are changing, the environment is changing. Change throws up complication and new challenges, and policymakers are asked to respond in new ways.

“Governments have failed to successfully re-establish and stablise their economic management roles …”

Governments have failed to successfully re-establish and stablise their economic management roles — in fostering growth, encouraging vibrancy and engendering resilience — following the shocks of the global financial crisis, which demolished much conventional economic policy thinking. A clear orthodoxy concerning economic management or policy has yet to take hold. While this itself may not be bad, it does mean that — at the level of policy in particular — fresh clarity about foundational questions of what economic success looks like, let alone how to go about getting it, is difficult to come by.

This is complicated by the increasingly urgent concern that our modes of collective and economic life may simply be unable to be borne by the planet indefinitely. Questions of changing climate, diminishing resources and irreparable harm to environments confront us as global problems, but — even domestically — questions of emissions, markets for pollution and necessary regulatory protections for ecological interests pose themselves for answer. We are asked from a policy perspective to excavate environmental and social costs that are often hidden, to understand them more clearly, and to consider which of them we are willing to incur in pursuit of economic growth, comfort and indeed much else (especially in light of the long-tail of some of these costs).

Not unrelated to this are questions of social justice, of equality and inequality, of the distribution of wealth, opportunity and the bases of respect and individual flourishing. Strides forward in understanding the social and economic sources of disadvantage, exclusion, inequality, ill-health and constrained wellbeing demand (indeed have demanded for some time) new approaches, multifaceted interventions, more holistic and inclusive approaches to social and political questions. This has been reinforced by growing appreciation of the need to diagnose and tackle hitherto hidden forms of exclusion and vulnerability — whether racial, gender-based, age-based, cultural or sexual. The scourges of family violence, elder abuse and child exploitation are being unearthed in increasingly horrible detail. The dynamics of cultural inclusion and estrangement are being sharpened in an age of terror and in a society riven by increasingly apparent chasms of alienation and difference.

At base, we are seeing a redefinition of the primary relationships in society — between individuals, between individuals and the state, and between society and its broader context. And although it is undeniable that our economy and society are transforming at pace, new ideas in public policy appear hard to come by. Notwithstanding constant calls for innovation, transformation and bold change, leaders from all areas often seem to do little more than mouth ideas that have been around, in one form or another, for decades. Models of policy thinking, development, administration and education remain largely unchanged since the rise of the modern bureaucracy in the 1800s and 1900s. At best, evolution in these has been marginal rather than core, and public policy seems to promise little more than a refinement of what we have rather than exploring that which our future demands. Put another way: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

‘Intellectual timidity’ and sloganeering

But surely it cannot be the case that there are no new ideas?

This objection hits upon an important point. There are many ideas, but my contention is that there is something about how they are approached by those involved in public policy that is problematic. This is a matter of the sensibility or style that the public-policy practitioner brings to the task. Specifically, there are two interlinked characteristics of this policy sensibility that are worth elaboration.

The first is intellectually timidity: seeking simplicity often at the cost of depth. Deep engagement with difficult issues is not a quality that appears to mark our public policy. Instead, policy has become dominated by slogans — three words, or perhaps a little longer.

Under the guise of “known problems” with “known solutions”, pious and repeated invocation abounds of the need to be “outcomes-focused”, to embrace “place-based solutions”, to “integrate”, to “go digital”, “do more with less”, to seek “social impact”. But repetition has not led to a great deal of clarity about what these ideas actually mean in concrete terms. The obvious becomes the start and the end of the process, leaving strategy itself without penetration or insight. There is a quotation, often attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

In many ways, today’s public policy is trapped by simplicity on the near side of complexity. For all of the slogans, schools and education, hospitals and healthcare, regulatory regimes and entitlement tend to look disturbingly similar to the way they did 10, 20, 30 years ago. Healthcare has not become meaningfully more digital or more integrated. There is little evidence that public services have become more productive. Red tape reduction has not been a shining success. Initiative after initiative to overcome fragmentation has not diminished constant calls for service integration. Poverty and social exclusion continue to haunt us.

Sloganeering is not a new problem for public policy — it was one known to even that so-called golden age of Australian postwar reconstruction. “Reconstruction” risked, at times, becoming a “magic word” or “merely a word to describe the yearnings after the unattainable”. But where the mandarins and politicians of yore struggled to overcome this sloganisation of policy, contemporary practice appears to have largely surrendered to it.

Doing public policy often starts from what we have, from an idea borrowed from elsewhere, or from an insight that is trivially true. Simplistic discussion papers are put out for “consultation” and implementation plans are produced. But in all of this, the policy question itself is given relatively little consideration on its own terms. The creative, imaginative task of public policy is abdicated.

Critically, the issue is this: we have gotten into the habit of refining rather than disrupting established models. And while there are good reasons for this at times, when significant challenges present themselves to public policy for solution, this kind of strategy may simply not be enough. Indeed, in times where fundamental change is required, sloganeering and merely refining established models become nothing more than pretty new curtains on a broken window.

“Chained by its past, limited by its routine and constraining of the individual, the bureaucracy has become paralysed at the level of ideas.”

This stagnation at the level of ideas is hidden by a “gritty realism” that casts — implicitly or at times expressly and unashamedly — the pursuit of new ideas as “academic” and “blue sky”. Eschewing the risks of irrelevance that supposedly attend such ideas, this sensibility ceaselessly calls for “so whats”, for ideas to be explained simply or not at all, for three bullet points and for a constant focus on “what can be achieved”. This pragmatic attitude at times borders on anti-intellectualism, making new thinking about policy not only redundant but also potentially morally or prudentially suspect. Indeed, this intellectual timidity, at its worst, has donned the garb of smugness: the conceit of the policy-maker as having all the answers is reinforced, but without basis.

The bureaucracy — once the stalwart of crafting and articulating public policy direction — has become the beleaguered home of this state of stagnation, taking on most obviously this sensibility of intellectual lethargy. Inheriting the very worst of the Weberian nightmare, the bureaucracy has struggled with, if not abdicated, its role in policy innovation. Chained by its past, limited by its routine and constraining of the individual, the bureaucracy has become paralysed at the level of ideas. Its youth are left uninspired. Its great thinkers, co-opted into executive layers of management, become hall monitors rather than protagonists in the great drama of public ideas.

This sensibility has become reflected in the self-perception of the bureaucrat’s role in the world of policy ideas. The intellectual terrain is not one in which bureaucrats necessarily consider themselves welcome, with forays relatively rare. In terms of capabilities, generalism of skill is so often the focus. What is lauded is the ability to work across policy areas, issues and projects. Depth of content, of insight or of understanding is relatively under-emphasised in favour of more “procedural” skills that support “collaboration”, “communication” and the like.

This intellectual timidity and obsession with simple “known answers” leads to a second characteristic of this contemporary policy sensibility: a disproportionate focus on the pragmatics of implementation. In the absence of substantive engagement and a default focus on refinement, implementation of incremental change becomes key: planning for it, delivering it, (maybe) evaluating it.

There is a growing literature around what is sometimes called “deliverology” — essentially a structured way of driving and monitoring implementation activities through setting targets, planning to achieve them and assessing what has been attained — that seeks to recognise that public sector organisations are not always well set up to deliver or evaluate the success of implementation activities.

While deliverology and approaches like it are certainly useful to an extent, the fervour and hastiness with which they have been seized upon — combined with the intellectual lethargy we have discussed — have risked converting every public-sector problem into an implementation problem. New ideas are not actually what we need, just greater discipline in executing solutions that are already known.

This is an extract from an essay first published in Griffith Review 51: Fixing the System, out now

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