Challenge 5: The trouble with policy-makers thinking ahead

Julia Gillard espouses “evidence-based” policy and Bob Hawke set up a Future Commission, but policy-making is necessarily subject to all manner of short-term pressures. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

In part five of our multi-disciplinary Millennium Project series, Scott Prasser questions easy sloganeering about the importance of “long-term” policy-making.

Global challenge 5: How can policymaking be made more sensitive to global long term perspectives?

Doing policy for the long term, let alone connecting to global challenges is hard, if not impossible. Regarding the former, the pressures of day-to-day politics and policy means horizons for both bureaucrats and elected decision-makers are necessarily short, and their responses thus appear over-reactive to events and immediate political gains.

Connecting to global challenges from a national perspective is also difficult. It is often deemed to be in the nation’s interest to support, connect, and possibly subordinate national interests to so-called “policy challenges” that have been defined as such elsewhere, and are often driven by the very same type of politics (e.g., those of self interest, obtaining or holding advantage) but from different national perspectives. Trying to get a number of countries in the European Union to meet the European challenge of balanced budgets and a sustainable welfare system amidst the immense opposition of some, like Greece, to these very real policy goals highlights just how difficult this is.

So pursuing each these of two policy tasks – long term policy development and responding to global challenges – is difficult even in isolation, but getting them in sync is even more so. And there are the added issues of “do we want to?”, “can it be done?” and “how do we do it?”. In other words: desirability, capacity, and process.

Much of this debate can be seen through the prism of the present mania for evidence-based policy and the debasement of “politics” and politicians. The argument goes that if only policy was made on the basis of “evidence” and if we kept politicians out of things, then policy development, choices, and results would all be so much better. Hence, the increasing attempts to create institutions that are supposedly independent, such as the Productivity Commission and royal commissions, instead of being tainted by the short-termism and partisanship of party politics, elected officials, or the narrowness of “ideologies.” Nonsense!

The trouble with trying to think ahead shares with trying to make evidence-based policy the fundamental problems that information is never clear-cut, predictions are often wrong, data changes, scientists have personal prejudices, and “evidence” goes through cycles of fads and popularity. Just think, if some time ago government had acted on “evidence” that coffee was bad for you and banned coffee or took steps to reduce its consumption. More recent “evidence” is that coffee might be good for you. And then there was that scare that studies had indicated that the human race might face extinction because of the alleged decline in men’s sperm counts that has now been shown to have been based on flawed work.

Certainly “evidence”-based policy needs to underpin “good” (effective) policy. However, given the now 24-hour media cycle, the demand in our society is for instant solutions, and in the “labyrinthine complexity” of modern society, politicians often favour simple, easy to explain “announceables” over long-term, evidence-based, nuanced solutions. The real world of politics also leads politicians in this direction, as vested interests, values, context, timing, and political judgment jostle with research, analysis, and “facts” for major influence on policy decisions.

When governments do seek data, evidence, and expert advice as a basis for new policy directions on complex problems, or to consider long term issues, they have a wide range of approaches to choose from: they can seek a brief from within the bureaucracy; refer the issue to a statutory agency specifically established for the purpose of research and review (e.g., the Productivity Commission); request consideration by a parliamentary committee; commission an external consultant or researcher; or appoint an independent committee of inquiry (e.g., royal commissions and public inquiries). In other words, governments do think about long-term issues, but there are immediate demands to meet and an excess of capacity about what to do, leading to multiple choices and numerous options.

What is clear is that bodies set up to look at the future as a distinct policy focus, and that are separate from clear policy areas such as health, industry, and education, or a particular perspective like productivity, simply do not work.

We tried a Commission for the Future in Australia. It was established in 1985 by then-Federal Science Minister Barry Jones in the second Hawke Labor Government. By 1993 it had gone through four directors, changed its focus, cost $7 million, and was wound down shortly afterwards. Far more influential and effective has been the Productivity Commission and its predecessors, starting with the Industries Assistance Commission established in 1973 by the Whitlam Labor Government. It is not only what the Productivity Commission says that makes it effective, but how it works. Its effectiveness lies both in delivering mostly quality reports from its particular economic perspective, and also how its open processes of producing, consulting, and publically releasing those reports has helped inform debate, change the agenda, and make governments consider, if not always accept, policy ideas that have long-term impacts and that do take into account global trends and issues.

So, let’s look at how Australia is fairing in the current global financial crisis and its aftermath. We, almost alone (along with perhaps Canada) among Western nations have avoided a recession, had no bank failures, and possess a welfare system that is not bankrupt, and, thanks to decisions by past governments such as Menzies’ and largely supported by the Hawke-Keating governments, is targeted and to some extent seeks to modify behaviour rather than just accept it as the basis of funding.

Our economy is going well largely because of the resource sector. This did not happen overnight. The resources sector has long lead-times to develop and deliver. Thanks to the then-immediate short-term interests (jobs and votes), venal interests (perks and paybacks) and particular value-sets (development good, environment protection bad) by former state governments in Western Australia and Queensland, Australia is now sitting pretty and connected to the global trends of Asia’s century and China’s growth. Those responsible for those decisions were combining short-term politics with some long-term focus (they could see the demand taking off overseas), but let’s not over-emphasise the latter.

The best way that Australia can develop policies with long-term perspectives, and which link to global issues is not through special agencies with this mandate. Rather, it is by having a policy superstructure that allows multiple views, ensures transparent release of quality information, and promotes ongoing robust and rigourous debate where alternative views are not sidelined. And we should not devalue politics and the interest of politicians in all of this because democratic decision-making and policy actions are not about policy-by-experts, or just evidence, but about securing agreement to make necessary changes, and about change that is important and makes a difference.

We have done well with our federal system of government, our use of a range of policy advisory bodies within, on the fringes of, and outside government, and by a range of values that compete but that must meet certain standards of argument, debate, evidence, and pass the test of plain old democratic politics: will the punters accept it?

However, there are problems ahead. Lindsay Tanner, former Federal Finance Minister in the Rudd Labor Government, has taken a pessimistic view of modern policy-making, observing that important changes occur without serious public scrutiny and that the meaningful content of politics has been replaced by a sideshow where ideas and rational debate lose out to entertainment and trivialisation. So, let’s not get complacent. Good policy development never ends.

Comments welcome below.