Text size: A A A

Parkinson: implementation is harder than policy, don’t undervalue it

Implementation is “150 times harder” than policy, says Australia’s most senior public servant. The “set and forget” approach must make way for adaptive feedback, with innovation as a natural by-product.

Implementation “should never be seen as the poor cousin of policy development,” says Martin Parkinson, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, yet too often it is.

“Only recently, an executive from the Indigenous Affairs Group of the Department stood up to remind her colleagues that implementation is 150 times harder than policy, a fact too often forgotten by policy officers,” Parkinson recalled at Thursday’s Australasian Implementation Conference in Melbourne.

“For some reason, many of us involved in the design of new policies think that the work we are doing is somehow harder or more intellectually challenging than the work of those operating at the coal face; the people ensuring that policies actually deliver outcomes that they were intended to achieve on the ground. As a result, there is a tendency to either not seek the input of those with implementation expertise or, perhaps even worse, to ignore this input when it is provided.”

Changing the perception of implementation as the poor cousin of policy development “will go a long way to improving the effectiveness of public servants and the community sector alike,” he argues.

PM&C’s own experience absorbing several delivery portfolios after the 2013 election, most notably Indigenous Affairs, emphasised the expertise gap between central and delivery agencies.

“To say this has been an adjustment in the way PM&C has traditionally operated is an understatement.

“Not only were our IT, business processes and management information systems found lacking, but so was our focus and culture. If we were to have any chance of succeeding with the task given to us, we needed to think about things differently. In particular, we needed to think a lot more about implementation.”

Meaningful engagement, asking hard questions

Policymakers should eschew a “set and forget” approach, instead creating “a continuous and adaptive feedback loop between policy design and implementation”.

“This means learning from the past and maintaining meaningful engagement with implementers. It also requires policy officers to ask hard questions — like what happens after this painstakingly crafted policy leaves my desk and enters the real world.”

Parkinson noted that a failure to consider how policy would work in the real world had led to significant stuff-ups such as pink batts and VET Fee Help.

“Policy makers wrongly assumed that the clients of VET Fee Help were well placed to operate as market agents, making choices that would maximise their long-term earning potential. Some providers responded in a profit-maximising way to the incentives that were set, albeit in ways that wouldn’t pass a basic ‘pub test’ of ethics.”

Strengthening connections between policymakers, implementers, think tanks and the social service sector will enable government to work better by “be constantly environment scanning, allowing us to see earlier and more clearly the opportunities for better outcomes, as well as identifying the emerging or inherent risks in our approaches,” he said.

“If we are operating in this way, innovation is not a shock. Rather, it becomes the product of iterative experience which allows policy makers to operate at the forefront of policy thinking and implementation design, bringing lessons with us from the past while simultaneously thinking about new approaches for the future.”

Read the speech here.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.