Policymaking works best when government is able to take a multi-disciplinary approach, says former secretary Gordon de Brouwer, but parts of it can get lost in abacus games.
The Commonwealth Treasury takes too narrow a view when evaluating policy, according to the former secretary of the Department of Environment and Energy.
While economics is a “great discipline”, over-relying on it has skewed policy analysis at the powerful central agency.
“You do your job much better when you bring together a range of disciplines, rather than when you just use one discipline,” de Brouwer said during a panel discussion on expertise in policymaking at the Melbourne School of Government.
“I think this has frankly been one of the failures of Treasury … it relies so heavily on economics.”
De Brouwer earned a Public Service Medal for his development of international economic policy and was previously a professor of economics at the ANU’s Crawford School.
Implementation sticking point
“Its problem is that it doesn’t focus as much on the implementation of the policy,” he said.
“It looks at the idealised, first-best, analytic solution, which is often from quite a narrow model or framework. It doesn’t talk about implementation and it doesn’t talk about whether policy resonates or makes sense to people, and ultimately will it stick.”
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Government “hums” when it is able to take a genuinely multi-disciplinary approach — something it does manage to achieve much of the time, he says.
Reflecting on recent debates about the long-term impact of consultants and outsourcing on policy, de Brouwer thinks capability has been lost from some parts of government, but notes “there’s still a lot of expertise in the system”.
The thrust of trust
For ministers and senior bureaucrats, engaging with external experts is an exercise in working out the “game being played”, he said, describing trust as hugely important.
“If an expert or a scientist comes in, and they are just consumed with passion for what they’re talking about, then the minister will be looking to see: do they have distance from what they’re talking about, can they see it objectively, or are they just consumed by it? What can I use of that?
“Because if it’s just a person who’s very passionate about an idea, then how does a minister use that passion? The minister will use the idea or use something around the framework, not the passion. Experts and ministers smell each other out. It’s really: how credible are you? What’s your agenda you’re pushing on me? What do you want me to do? And are you credible? So the trust really does matter.”
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De Brouwer also believes a lack of straightforward communication with the public is one of the drivers of the turn towards populism.
“I think part of that issue, that phenomenon, is that many politicians don’t seem authentic. They have scripted lines,” he says.
“They don’t believe what they’re saying, and people don’t believe what they’re saying, and they feel also dispossessed by some of the decisions.
“… Sometimes there’s an attitude of superiority towards the people they’re working with, or serving, rather than genuinely listening. So all this is a wake-up call to more authentic government, so not just speaking to your speaking notes, and public administration that’s genuinely engaged with people and can explain things and talk through things.”
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