By uncovering good and bad examples of policymaking, can we coax politicians to lift their game? Former NSW Treasury Secretary Percy Allan explains the research project that found common ground between the left and the right.
The end of hegemony
The battle between Left and Right is intensifying. Major parties thinks they will win this contest at the ballot box.
Yet the latest Fairfax Ipsos poll found that three in ten voters support minority parties or independents. Not since the great depression and the second-world war has Australia exhibited more voter disenchantment with the established political order.
The ANU Election Study, using interviews with voters on each federal election-day, shows a declining trend in voter satisfaction with democracy from 86 per cent in 2007 to 60 per cent in 2016.
A survey by the Lowy Institute found that slightly fewer than half of Australian voters aged under 45 agree that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.
Voters are electing gridlocked upper houses of review because they no longer trust governments to do the right thing. Throwing a spanner in the works to deny any party absolute power is now par for the course.
Process before policy
Winning back trust is crucial. I believe the public has turned against government not so much over policy, but the way policy is decided, announced and executed.
Ministerial policy decisions are increasingly made by political cabals without adequate departmental research and community engagement. The result is half-backed ideas foisted on the public that trigger intense backlashes.
A better way is what public administration scholars call a “business case” approach, but one crafted for social not commercial ends.
That involves establishing the known facts and stakeholder views about a situation, identifying the alternative policy options, weighing up their pros and cons, sharing that with the public and inviting its reaction, after which finalising a policy position to put before parliament or effect by regulation.
The research project
That’s why I proposed and co-funded (with EY and the Susan McKinnon Foundation) a newDemocracy research project to rate the quality of government decision making at federal and state level. By uncovering good and bad examples of policy making, hopefully we might coax politicians to lift their game.
The research project’s steering committee was self-selected from a newDemocracy forum of over 100 opinion leaders held in Melbourne and Sydney earlier this year. Participants were asked to work together to answer what could be done to restore trust in public decision making.
It was decided to resuscitate a benchmarking exercise first tried in 2012 when I was National President of IPAA (Institute of Public Administration Australia).
But the committee insisted on a twist – instead of choosing a professional consultancy firm, it wanted both a Left and Right think-tank to separately benchmark the quality of government decision making at state and federal levels against recognised best practice.
The think-tanks we commissioned were Per Capita, self-described as “progressive” and the Institute of Public Affairs, self-labelled as “free market”.
For best practice we used the Wiltshire criteria, which is a ten-step process for making public policy that had been used by IPAA previously.
The author, Kenneth Wiltshire AO, the highly regarded public administration professor at Queensland University Business School, told us:
“My 35 years of research suggest that good policy processes result in better outcomes than decisions made without a strong evidence base and close consultation with stakeholders.”
The key questions asked
To help the think-tanks to apply Professor Wiltshire’s framework to benchmarking state and federal government policies case, we distilled his criteria to ten key questions with his concurrence:
- Need. Is there a statement of why the policy was needed based on factual evidence and stakeholder input?
- Objectives. Is there a statement of the policy’s objectives couched in terms of the public interest?
- Options. Is there a description of the alternative policy options considered before the preferred one was adopted?
- Mechanisms. Is there a disclosure of the alternative ways considered for implementing the chosen policy?
- Analysis. Is there a published analysis of the pros/cons and benefits/costs of the alternative options/mechanisms considered in 3 and 4?
- Pathway. Is there evidence that a comprehensive project management plan was designed for the policy’s rollout?
- Consultation. Was there further consultation with affected stakeholders after the preferred policy was announced?
- Papers. Was there (a) a green paper seeking public input on possible policy options and (b) a white paper explaining the final policy decision?
- Legislation. Was there legislation and adequate Parliamentary debate on the proposed policy initiative?
- Communication. Is there an online official media release that explains the final policy in simple, clear and factual terms?
The government case studies
We then contacted the offices of the Prime Minister, three Premiers (NSW, QLD and Vic) and two dozen political journalists requesting examples of government policies enacted in the last three years that they thought would make good candidates for testing against the Wiltshire’s criteria. No government office got back (missing an opportunity to advance their proudest achievements), but some journalists shared their thoughts.
The think-tanks then jointly selected 20 case studies to examine. They concurred on eight federal ones and twelve state ones (four each for NSW, Vic and Qld). They then spent several weeks separately investigating how each case study answered to the ten key questions.
Their draft reports showed a wider disparity of ratings than expected from the Wiltshire criteria which test whether particular activity occurred or not; for example was a Green paper issued to elicit public feedback on policy choices? The answer should be a simple Yes or No, not disagreement.
At first, the think-tanks were somewhat reticent to swap their work since their normal mode was battling each other over policy ideas not holding a powwow to check process findings.
But once they got together they amicably resolved obvious contradictions in findings. As a result differences in their answers on 200 process matters (20 case studies by 10 criteria questions) shrunk from 75 initially to finally just 23.
They told us narrowing their conflicting scores further was unlikely because judgement still came into play. For instance did something constitute a Green or White paper if its contents were deemed inadequate? Was the legislative step legitimate if debate was curtailed and the bill rammed through parliament? Were alternative options truly considered if comparing the status quo with the minister’s favoured idea was all that was covered? Fair enough.
But the amazing thing was that the think-tanks’ yes/no scores on the ten Wiltshire criteria were remarkably similar in 18 of the 20 case studies.
The two case studies where there was slightly less agreement were the Federal National Energy Guarantee and the Federal Marriage Law Postal Vote. However, each think-tank’s total rating for each of these case studies was similar, even though their reasoning differed.
It was clear from both the IPA and Per Capita reports that the process most neglected in government decision-making was cost/benefit analysis followed by a lack of blueprints for rolling out policy declarations and inadequate use of Green Papers to elicit public feedback before announcing policy decisions in White papers.
Most heartening was that two think-tanks that hold contrary views on many public policies could reach broad agreement on policies that had been done well and those that had been done poorly. This suggests that Australians might agree on the process they want governments to follow in making policies especially where they are costly or contentious.
The final ratings
After viewing the findings, the research project’s steering committee ranked the case studies as follows:
- Vic – Voluntary Assisted Dying Law 2017 (Average rating 9/10)
- Qld – Legalising Ride-sharing Apps (Average rating 9/10)
- NSW – Criminal Justice Reforms (Average rating 8.5/10)
- Vic – Access to Medical Cannabis Law 2016 (Average rating 8/10)
- Fed – Electoral Amendment Act 2016 (Average rating 7.5/10)
- NSW – Greyhound Racing Laws 2016-2017 (Average rating 7.0/10)
- Fed – Creation of ‘Home Affairs’ Dept. (Average rating 2.0/10)
- Fed – Marriage Law Postal Survey (Average rating 2.5/10)
- NSW – Local Council Mergers (Average rating 2.5/10)
- Qld – Vegetation Management Laws 2018 (Average rating 2.5/10)
I exempted myself from NSW Local Council Mergers and Greyhound Racing Laws because of a professional conflict of interest. But it’s interesting that greyhound racing laws obtained a satisfactory score because the process adopted had improved after a public backlash.
The other ten case studies averaged total ratings of between 4.0 and 6.5 out of 10. They included:
- Fed – Broadcasting Reform Law 2017 (4.5/10), Abolition and Replacement of the 457 Visa (5.0/10), Company Tax Cuts (5.0/10), Future Submarine Program (6.0/10) and National Energy Guarantee (6.5/10)
- NSW – Fire and Emergency Services Levy (4.5/10)
- Vic – Climate Change Law 2017 (5.5/10)
- Qld – North Queensland Stadium (4.0/10), Tackling Alcohol-Fuelled Violence (5.0/10),
You can read the media statement summarising the two reports as well the full IPA and Per Capita reports at newDemocracy.
The lessons“Committing to such a decision-making process could transform politicians from being villains to heroes.”
Those of us who championed this research project want major political parties to commit to applying evidence-based and inclusive engagement processes when making major policy decisions in government. Major means anything very costly or likely to be controversial.
This should result in not only better policies, but also prove good politics. It would mean redefining political leadership to doing things differently.
Firstly, fathoming the facts to establish the bald truth and then sharing that reality with the public rather than pandering to pre-conceived falsehoods or prejudices.
Secondly, floating a range of options with their pros and cons (and ideally quantifying their triple bottom line economic, social and environmental benefits and costs)
Thirdly, giving the public an opportunity to not only react to these possible options, but propose other solutions through a separate Green/White paper exercise.
Finally, after all the kites have been flown choosing the one that has the best chance of succeeding and then selling it with a conviction based on road testing its evidence base and its public acceptability.
Such leadership would not be abdicating responsibility, but navigating a feasible way forward because other options could be demonstrated to be less beneficial or more painful over the medium to longer term. And the chosen policy would not be easy to derail because of faulty facts, uncontested assumptions, misreading public opinion and ignoring alternatives since it would be stress-tested in advance.
Committing to such a decision-making process could transform politicians from being villains to heroes. It would also restore politician’s faith in the public and the public’s faith in the democratic process.
The alternative is a drift to autocracy where voters install a strong charismatic leader in the hope that will act wisely in the public interest. As history shows, such rulers have clay feet or worse still become despots. Government needs a better policy process, not a political messiah.
Percy Allan AM chaired and co-funded with EY and the Susan McKinnon Foundation the Evidence-Based Policy Research Project conducted through the newDemocracy Foundation. He is a Visiting Professor at Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Principal of Percy Allan & Associates a public policy consulting practice and a former Secretary of the NSW Treasury.
This article first appeared on Pearls and Irritations, republished with permission.