Evidence-based policy still requires 'the art of sweet persuasion'

By Stephen Easton

July 13, 2018

3d rendering of a single large silver hook hangs from a string without any catch on a blue background. Business tricks. Lure and bait. Attracting clients.

The evidence-based policy movement places facts ahead of feelings, but perhaps it also corresponds with a decline in the arts of political negotiation and marshalling public support for major reform.

It’s an interesting view that came up in a recent discussion of how governments can achieve lasting, successful reform and what hurdles stand in their way, hosted by the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation at the National Library.

The case study du jour was the Hawke government – because it basically managed to re-introduce university fees and convince unions to accept lower wages, without controlling the Senate, and without angering its voter base to the point of being turfed out at the next opportunity.

In the years hence, there have been many evidence-based critiques of the university funding model, which remains in place today, and the impact of the Prices and Incomes Accords. So too of other examples mentioned like floating the dollar, or the Howard government’s introduction of the GST and stricter gun control laws.

Still, all remain impressive feats of public policy reform, demonstrating both the art and science of government.

On stage were Bruce Chapman, the economics professor who helped devise the income-contingent loans scheme for universities, and John Dawkins, the education minister he worked for at the time. A “devil’s advocate” role was played by Professor Linda Botterill, head of the University of Canberra’s School of Government and Policy, who was also an advisor to the subsequent Keating government and has collaborated with Chapman regularly in the intervening years.

Botterill, who joined the public service in 1984, has “fond memories” from the era but also observed the remarks from Dawson and Chapman had been heavily infused with nostalgia.

“I think we have had a bit of a rosy picture,” she began. “I think there’s a few points that need to be made; that first of all, some of the reforms that were introduced in that period were one-offs, low-hanging fruit, that were consistent with global trends in terms of policy direction.”

One thing the Hawke government was very good at was negotiation, however – both in parliament and with various stakeholder groups. They were armed with strong expert advice, from the public service and their advisers like Chapman, but did not shirk the hard work of consensus-building.

“They were very good at convincing, and I think that one of the problems that we’ve had as consequence of the evidence-based policy push is we’ve lost the art of political rhetoric,” said Botterill.

“We have forgotten that when we are talking to people with whom we don’t agree, we need to appeal to common values and bring them along with us and persuade them. When governments are trying to convince the community that they’ve got the values-juggling exercise right … they do that through skilful persuasion.

“And I think a lot of that persuasion is missing from contemporary debate. I think we’re too quick to fall back and say, ‘The evidence tells us this.’”

Real-world policymaking vs the textbooks

She has catalogued various examples where the rise of the evidence-based policy movement has led proponents of a particular policy idea to forgo “the art of sweet persuasion” and instead claim the science is on their side and rudely denigrate anyone who disagrees.

The UC professor said the iterative development of the labour accords demonstrated that an effective way of getting parties with different interests to work together on “contentious issues” was by starting with agreement on “the means of policy change” and leaving the ends aside.

It is more realistic for groups with very different and sometimes opposing values to agree on what the policy will do, than to agree on what it aims to achieve, she explained.

“It was also a triumph for practical, real-world policy making over some of the more textbook, rational models that we’ve been hearing a lot of in recent years, particularly in the incarnation of evidenced-based policy making, but also in things like The Australian Policy Handbook, which talks about policy cycles and everything being terribly orderly,” Botterill added.

An iterative process also helped the labour accord negotiations move forward in a way that seems almost unbelievably constructive compared with today’s political environment. Botterill recalled it was a simpler time, of public service typing pools, carbon paper and hand-delivered letters, or Telex systems if you were important enough.

There was no 24-hour news cycle and no websites, more “focus on the issues” and less risk of the next “gotcha moment” – there was a “reflective policy environment” because everyone had more time to think matters through, and less capacity to express their views immediately and publicly.

Regardless of all that, Botterill made the most important point of all for proponents of evidence-based policy to keep in mind: the idea that “there are objective policy reforms out there that aren’t occurring” because of incompetent or weak leadership is far too simple.

This proposition was implicit in the guiding words for the evening’s discourse, she said, but in the real world, “reform is in the eye of the beholder” and “policy problems aren’t just out there waiting for the clever analyst to trip over them and discover a solution” — “They’re constructed. And they’re constructed based on values.”

There is empirical research to back this up too, she added. Nearly all humans have some shared values, but only about 10, and they prioritise them their own ways. The majority of the population sits somewhere in between the extremes of any political debate.

This implies that even if technocrats worked out the supposed best policies according to some scientific methodology, these would never enjoy full public support. There are “very, very few” policy questions that technical expertise alone can easily answer, in Botterill’s view, and the more “value-laden” they are, the more difficult it is to find a way forward with evidence alone.

“It’s a choice about looking over here and not looking over there. And when we make that choice, we’re making it based on what’s more important to the community. In so doing, we construct the problems in a way that helps us understand them.

“Are the unemployed in their situation because of structural problems in the economy failing to deliver the jobs? Or are the unemployed lazy?”

When the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was confronted with pictures of protestors burning their glossy government brochures in 2010, Botterill said it was because its consultations had “prioritised environmental values over all others” – namely the economic concerns of rural communities.

The bottom line is that whatever new challenges are presented by social and technological change, or a perceived decline in political leadership skills, major reform is always hard to achieve – because it is never possible to simply wave around some expert advice and tell the electorate what’s good for them.

There is also an element of chance in it; fortune favoured the Labor governments of the 1980s and ‘90s at several crucial moments, as Dawkins readily admitted.

Thou shalt not upset the farmers

Chapman and Botterill have collaborated on work around HECS-style income-contingent loans, which they believe can successfully be applied to everything from drought assistance to criminal fines or paid parental leave.

The elegant policy tool was Chapman’s main suggestion of a reform “begging” to be enacted, and Botterill’s exploration of what stands in its way provided another illustration of how expertise and evidence rarely have the power to overcome community values and sectional interests.

Announcing a fourth year of drought assistance to farmers recently, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud gave the standard assurance that the money was “not just a handout” to farmers, paired with the upbeat observation that many would make healthy profits when the rains returned.

He also made the frank observation that not everyone wins in a competitive market, and said Australian governments would not guarantee against misfortune in all cases. He’s not the first to have to walk this line, of course, and it’s not a peculiarly Australian thing either.

A lot of governments around the world subsidise their farmers, who generally enjoy a special status among their compatriots. They quite often welcome some public assistance, especially in hard times, but are also strongly averse to being thought of as welfare recipients in need of a hand-out.

The main vehicles of financial drought assistance presently include the Farm Household Allowance, a means-tested income support payment, and concessional loans that are now the concern of the new Regional Investment Corporation.

The loans are on special concessional terms and Littleproud has since tried to demand a better deal from bankers as well, but there is political risk in saddling farmers with debt all the same, as some will still struggle to pay it back.

On the other hand, there are many other ways in which all taxpayers subsidise agricultural businesses, which in many cases will make considerable profits when the rains return, and that isn’t really fair or economically sensible.

“For a very long time governments gave hundreds of millions of dollars to farmers in grants,” said Chapman. “This is fairly regressive stuff, because while they’re income-poor, particularly in drought, they are not asset-poor.”

Chapman believes income-contingent loans should be the main vehicle of drought assistance, and there is great efficiency in having a single financial instrument that provides assistance to the most disadvantaged and calls in repayments from those who bounce back.

He said extensive modelling had shown an income-contingent loan would be much fairer, in the same sense as it is for university students, compared to the no-fee model of the Whitlam years – with all taxpayers providing tuition to about 10% of the population, predominantly from middle and upper class backgrounds, who earned a substantial private return on the public investment in their education.

“Even Karl Marx knew this was regressive,” Chapman observed. Illustrating again the power of personal values and interpretations, he noted that Cate Blanchett got a standing ovation when she cited fee-free university as Whitlam’s greatest achievement at the former Prime Minister’s funeral.

Presumably, Blanchett’s view places the public value of a more highly educated population ahead of the private return to graduates. But Chapman recalls that before fees were abolished, a large majority of students actually didn’t pay anyway, as they had scholarships, and there were also a few other big achievements of the era.

“What about the ending of conscription? How about taking the troops out of Vietnam? How about Medibank universal health insurance? And recognition of China? Universal coverage of sewerage in Sydney?”

Extensions to paid parental leave could also be financed by a form of contingent debt in a system that would be revenue-neutral, he said, and income-contingent criminal fines would also be a more efficient system than the current punitive approach, where many go unpaid anyway and taxpayers spend even more money punishing the non-compliance.

“A few years ago two indigenous young women died in Western Australian prisons,” Chapman reminded the audience. “They were in there because of non-payment of fines.”

Chapman argued that forms of income-contingent debt should be applied to many other issues as well, but he left it to Botterill to explain why, again, it’s just not that simple.

Farmers are a very special group strongly tied in with Australia’s national identity and this kind of “agrarian sentiment” runs deep in most societies, she explained, probably due to the profound impact of the prehistoric emergence of agricultural civilisations.

She recalled from her own time in the public sector that no matter who is in government, a cardinal rule is they must not upset the farmers, because just about everyone else cares about them and wants to help out in the dry times.

“Farmers are special and that, I think, is at the heart of the fact that yes, Bruce and I spent a very large number of years trying to pull together an income-contingent loan for drought, but until it’s seen as a way of helping and supporting farmers, rather than being an impost on them, we are going to … knock up against that very strong agrarian sentiment.

“Not just amongst farmers, but amongst the broader community as well, who are very quick to jump to their defence.”

This led Botterill back to the MDBA bureaucrats and the farmers burning booklets on the TV news. “Even though people say that they want to see improvement in the health of the Murray-Darling Basin, when it was the farmers versus Canberra-based public servants, it’s the farmers that get the sympathy across the country.”

Video: the complete 2018 Wilson Dialogue, “Removing Reform Roadblocks” from ANU TV on YouTube.

READ MORE: The interdisciplinary mix you need for evidence-informed policymaking

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