Public policy schools: because governments can't do it alone

By Stephen Easton

July 4, 2016

Specialist academic institutions that focus directly on government are a vital influence on the side of good public policy and effective public administration, not least by adding to a reliable and independent evidence base and directly educating a lot of public officials.

Universities also provide safe spaces to openly discuss society’s big challenges, says Helen Sullivan, the foundation director of the highly successful University of Melbourne School of Government, established in 2012.

“If public policy has ever been bounded by national boundaries, that is no longer the case.”

Around the end of the year, Sullivan takes up a new challenge as director of the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, which recently hosted its high-powered annual leadership forum.

It’s vitally important that public servants seek out a wider range of views to inform advice to government, both from independent sources, advocates and organisations working at the coalface, and those aligned with interest groups. Beside their main purpose, academic institutions should see themselves as facilitators of those all-in conversations, says Sullivan.

“I think universities are getting better at that and public policy schools are absolutely the place where those kinds of things should happen, and where you should be able to explore issues that maybe, for various reasons, governments and administrations feel they can’t deal with, but are going to be important issues for the future,” she told The Mandarin.

“Universities can provide that safe space, if you like, for conversations between people from different sectors about issues that, yes, can’t really be discussed in the government space.”

The MSoG is not a stand-alone graduate school in the traditional sense, she explains, but a “network organisation” that brings academics together from different disciplines across the whole university to look at governance and public policy in international relations, development studies and administration.

Crawford, on the other hand, is a freestanding institution with a formidable reputation across the Asia-Pacific region, situated in a cluster of buildings that are home to 11 research centres and producing its own journal along with several other regular publications.

The venerable graduate school has evolved over the years from the research school set up in the 1960s by its namesake Sir John Crawford, whose strong contribution to improving standards of public administration is known as the Crawford doctrine.

“They’re very different schools in that structural sense but I think the ambition for both is exactly the same,” Sullivan said. “How do you help people make good policy decisions? How do you enable people to be a bit wiser in their decision making? How do you help build stronger institutions, and how do you help people achieve better outcomes?”

Both also look beyond Australia’s borders, welcoming students from overseas and looking at topics of regional and global significance, which is important as the big trends and challenges are rarely confined by borders.

One thing Sullivan took away from the recent Crawford Australian Leadership Forum was “a really clear sense that if public policy has ever been bounded by national boundaries, that is no longer the case”.

Empowered consumers vs. disillusioned voters

Having spent more of her life in the United Kingdom, Sullivan watched the Brexit referendum with great interest and was somewhat horrified at the result on a personal level, but she sees it as symptomatic of a world-wide issue affecting governments all over.

“That’s a very particular thing and it’s shocking but you can see versions of that going on all over the world as people become more and more frustrated with the political establishment and feel more disenfranchised,” she explained.

She sees the same trend in the surprising rise of Donald Trump in the United States as well as the fatalistic view, common in Australia, that voting has almost no effect because the politicians who might form government are all pretty much the same. Independent academic research is perhaps the most powerful tool society has to confront such uncomfortable truths.

“It’s a real sense of disconnect between politicians and the people, and that’s always bad news for public policy because it always means that public policy is at risk of being made on the basis of very, very poor decisions, very bad evidence, if any evidence at all, and certainly not on the basis of really responding to what the global and national priorities are.”

Sullivan says a version of this breakdown in the relationship between governments and the public can even be seen in China’s one-party system, if you know what you’re looking for. Australia may have made it through the global financial crisis but the failure of recent governments to prepare for the end of the resources boom is likely to add to growing anxiety here about whether governments are up to the task in the present, let alone a dangerous and uncertain future.

Sullivan noticed that sense of anxiety and political uncertainty came up a lot in discussions at the CALF, Crawford’s flagship event which attracts heavy hitters from all over the world. But she also noticed a tension with another common narrative, that of the agile, empowered consumer who is more educated and more demanding than ever.

“That conversation was going on, but at the same time and sometimes in the same sessions, we were having the conversations about increasing disenfranchisement in certain communities and people not being able to get qualifications, or jobs, or houses, and feeling like the life their parents had and would ordinarily be promised to them was somehow now out of their reach,” she explained.

“The two things seem to me to be absolutely in tension. On the one hand we’re talking about people being more adept and more savvy and consuming more, and on the other hand we’re talking about greater inequality and people having fewer resources at hand to consume.

“And also there is a big question mark about whether consumption ought to be what we’re focusing on, given that the world is changing and we’re moving into what the geographers and the physicists call the Anthropocene.”

Forums like the CALF highlight the valuable role played by institutions like the Crawford School and the MSoG, as public servants wrestle with these tensions between competing interests and looming crises in international relations, the environment and the world economy.

“It was a really, really good event in terms of bringing together people from government and business and the not-for-profit sector with academics,” said Sullivan.

“It’s the kind of thing that gets said all the time, that we need to do this, but we don’t often enough. Or if we do, we don’t do it terribly well, and [CALF 2016] was a really good forum.”

“There are so many issues, whether it’s climate change or inequality or migration, that have a profound impact nationally or locally but can only be addressed by thinking about public policy at the global level. So we really need to broaden our understanding of what public policy is and how we make and shape it.

“That’s got implications for public servants as well as for politicians. We need to make sure that our public servants, wherever they are in the world, have got the right skills.”

Agile academia

As she prepares to move on from her post at MSoG, the school has achieved a lot Sullivan can look back on proudly in just a few years with minimal resources. Call it agile, if you will.

“We’ve really established ourselves over the last three years; we’ve made a big impact, people know who we are, and people know that they can come and engage with us on a variety of things,” she said, nominating a research program on indigenous self-governance as one of the school’s most important contributions.

“In terms of the research, we’ve done a whole range of things, looking at public policy in Asia, different aspects of financial regulation, and the state of the federation in Australia.

“But I think the thing that stands out for me, one of the great achievements, is that we were always determined — as a school of government in Australia — that we would focus on indigenous self-governance, and it’s a program that is actually having some policy impact, which is great.”

Then there’s MSoG’s Pathways to Politics program, launched jointly by female frontbenchers Tanya Plibersek and Julie Bishop last year, which aims to increase female representation in government based on a similar program from Harvard University.

The pilot, she explains, was “specially designed to help women understand the nature of politics” including preselections, campaigning and all the practical stuff like drilling down into polls.

“What I’m also really pleased with is that we’re a school that does everything from public policy through to development studies and international relations — and we have a new program, public administration — but what we’ve been very successful at is building links across those programs,” Sullivan adds.

“So people really understand not just the thing they’ve come to study but also have opportunities to engage with and talk about issues from other points of view.”

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roger dennis scott
roger dennis scott
5 years ago

There is a danger that university Schools committed to the study of “government” become preoccupied with national and international dimensions. Media and student enthusiasms are sustained by academic rewards structures which reward “internationality” and penalise parochialism. This creates a deficit of understanding and interpretation of what is happening nationally and particularly at state level.

The poor record of academic punditry in the recent election (and Queensland 2015) and some weird ideas about the Westminster model and its local variant are testimony to this. Melbourne is just starting to rewaken, with Professor Sullivan referencing “public administration” as a new program. It has an illustrious past in this discipline, as does Sydney, Queensland and Tasmania. The bulk of public employment and the bulk of the actual expenditure of public funds occurs at state level – even if federal parties make choices on how the money is raised and allocated.

Once upon a time, every student interested in government found it difficult to avoid studying national government and many were also aware of the benefits of studying state government for their future career prospects. Sadly this is no longer the case, so even the best and brightest graduates have to discover that their shiny qualifications in international relations are less helpful to their actual work inside or dealing with state governments than boring old courses in public administration.

Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
5 years ago

Yes, Helen Sullivan, we should be focusing on consumption, there is no question mark about it. The amber lights were flashing in 1972 when Limits to Growth was published, but the warnings have been ignored by our leadership class. Now humans are consuming more of the Earth’s renewable natural resources than the life-support systems are producing and system collapse is looming. The scientific consensus on this is unambiguous, and has been since the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005, but the evidence is passing under the radar of the policy community.

The tension between a restless “consumer” who is more demanding than ever, in an age of unprecedented material abundance, can be fairly readily explained if you replace consumer with “citizen”. People are not just mindless consumers. People have a civic persona as well as a self-referential persona; and even the self-centred dimension is not all focused on consumption. The public is disenfranchised because they know that no matter which politicians they vote into office, they all turn into economic rationalists. Take privatisation of public assets for example. Virtually every poll results in a vote of 70% plus against selling public utilities, but it keeps on happening.

Until politicians and the policy community reacquaint themselves with the concept of public interest and realise that the public interest does not equate to the interest of participants in the market, the
disenfranchisement and cynicism will continue.

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