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Edition 51

Contents
Essay

Avoiding the simplicity trap

AUSTRALIAN PUBLIC POLICY labours under the weight of illustrious ancestors. There was, in this country, a period that has been labelled the ‘Age of Mandarins’.[i] During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, titans such as HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs, Roland Wilson, John Crawford, Arthur Tange and others dominated the world of policy and public administration. These giants embarked on what Stuart Macintyre – in his recently published history of the period – has termed ‘Australia’s boldest experiment’.[ii] Along with political leaders of vision and skill, they fashioned (beginning with the post-World War II reconstruction effort) the very basis for modern Australian society – its institutions, its laws, its population, its social schemes, indeed its very way of life – through careful and at times brilliant planning, public policy and politics. They were nothing less than architects of the Australia of today.

In the words of HC Coombs, what was being seized was the ‘opportunity to move consciously and intelligently towards a new economic and social system’.[iii] And while there was more than a little flavour of ‘socialist’ central planning that subsequently has fallen out of favour in today’s policy vernacular and public consciousness, in many ways the success of these titans has left an enduring glow: today’s public servants still see their ability to positively shape – through innovative public policy – Australian economic and social life.

But every golden age has its nadir.

Today’s world of public policy design-and-innovation struggles to breathe life into the promise of its past, caught in a state of stagnation and ensnared by a sensibility that robs it of its transformative force. This sensibility acts to stabilise existing ideas and ways of doing things, while unnecessarily limiting our ability to more creatively and fittingly design public policy. The ability of the policy elite to transform society or respond to its needs risks slipping from potentiality to mere conceit.

Here I offer some rebellious thoughts about the predicament of public policy and, potentially, some directions through that predicament; reflections from the field, as it were, from several perspectives. And while rebellion requires us to be somewhat controversial – perhaps even confrontational – rest assured, the rebellion is a friendly one. It is one in the name of, rather than against, public policy. If we seek, as we must, to improve our policy sphere to better meet the aspirations of our politics and the needs of our publics – to ‘fix the system’, as it were – some confrontation with the troubled status quo is inevitable.

And the stakes of this are high: in its current state, the public policy sphere is simply unable to deliver that which we need of it, and that which we are right to demand of it. The fortunes of our polity stand or fall on what happens next.

THE CHALLENGES THAT public policy must meet are (perhaps) well known, or at least often recited. The public is demanding more of government in terms of services, interaction and indeed receptivity. Driven by changes in the private sector, citizens expect the same kinds of innovations from government as they do from their private providers.

And beyond pure service delivery, the kinds of questions that governments face – be they of growth, inclusion, sustainability – are morphing and altering their complexion. Technology is changing, economies are changing, societies are changing, the environment is changing. Change throws up complication and new challenges, and policy makers are asked to respond in new ways.

Governments have failed to successfully re-establish and stablise their economic management roles – in fostering growth, encouraging vibrancy and engendering resilience – following the shocks of the global financial crisis, which demolished much conventional economic policy thinking.[iv] A clear orthodoxy concerning economic management or policy has yet to take hold. While this itself may not be bad, it does mean that – at the level of policy in particular – fresh clarity about foundational questions of what economic success looks like, let alone how to go about getting it, is difficult to come by.

This is complicated by the increasingly urgent concern that our modes of collective and economic life may simply be unable to be borne by the planet indefinitely. Questions of changing climate, diminishing resources and irreparable harm to environments confront us as global problems, but – even domestically – questions of emissions, markets for pollution and necessary regulatory protections for ecological interests pose themselves for answer. We are asked from a policy perspective to excavate environmental and social costs that are often hidden, to understand them more clearly, and to consider which of them we are willing to incur in pursuit of economic growth, comfort and indeed much else (especially in light of the long-tail of some of these costs).

Not unrelated to this are questions of social justice, of equality and inequality, of the distribution of wealth, opportunity and the bases of respect and individual flourishing. Strides forward in understanding the social and economic sources of disadvantage, exclusion, inequality, ill-health and constrained wellbeing demand (indeed have demanded for some time) new approaches, multifaceted interventions, more holistic and inclusive approaches to social and political questions.[v] This has been reinforced by growing appreciation of the need to diagnose and tackle hitherto hidden forms of exclusion and vulnerability – whether racial, gender-based, age-based, cultural or sexual. The scourges of family violence, elder abuse and child exploitation are being unearthed in increasingly horrible detail. [vi] The dynamics of cultural inclusion and estrangement are being sharpened in an age of terror and in a society riven by increasingly apparent chasms of alienation and difference.

At base, we are seeing a redefinition of the primary relationships in society – between individuals, between individuals and the state, and between society and its broader context. And although it is undeniable that our economy and society are transforming at pace, new ideas in public policy appear hard to come by. Notwithstanding constant calls for innovation, transformation and bold change, leaders from all areas often seem to do little more than mouth ideas that have been around, in one form or another, for decades. Models of policy thinking, development, administration and education remain largely unchanged since the rise of the modern bureaucracy in the 1800s and 1900s. At best, evolution in these has been marginal rather than core, and public policy seems to promise little more than a refinement of what we have rather than exploring that which our future demands.[vii] Put another way: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

BUT SURELY IT cannot be the case that there are no new ideas?

This objection hits upon an important point. There are many ideas, but my contention is that there is something about how they are approached by those involved in public policy that is problematic. This is a matter of the sensibility or style that the public-policy practitioner brings to the task. Specifically, there are two interlinked characteristics of this policy sensibility that are worth elaboration.

The first is intellectually timidity: seeking simplicity often at the cost of depth. Deep engagement with difficult issues is not a quality that appears to mark our public policy[viii]. Instead, policy has become dominated by slogans – three words, or perhaps a little longer.

Under the guise of ‘known problems’ with ‘known solutions’, pious and repeated invocation abounds of the need to be ‘outcomes-focused’, to embrace ‘place-based solutions’, to ‘integrate’, to ‘go digital’, ‘do more with less’, to seek ‘social impact’. But repetition has not led to a great deal of clarity about what these ideas actually mean in concrete terms.[ix] The obvious becomes the start and the end of the process, leaving strategy itself without penetration or insight.

There is a quotation, often attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr.: ‘I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.’ In many ways, today’s public policy is trapped by simplicity on the near side of complexity.

For all of the slogans, schools and education, hospitals and healthcare, regulatory regimes and entitlement tend to look disturbingly similar to the way they did ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Healthcare has not become meaningfully more digital or more integrated. There is little evidence that public services have become more productive. Red tape reduction has not been a shining success. Initiative after initiative to overcome fragmentation has not diminished constant calls for service integration. Poverty and social exclusion continue to haunt us.

Sloganeering is not a new problem for public policy – it was one known to even that so-called golden age of Australian postwar reconstruction. ‘Reconstruction’ risked, at times, becoming a ‘magic word’[x] or ‘merely a word to describe the yearnings after the unattainable’[xi]. But where the mandarins and politicians of yore struggled to overcome this sloganisation of policy, contemporary practice appears to have largely surrendered to it.

Doing public policy often starts from what we have, from an idea borrowed from elsewhere, or from an insight that is trivially true. Simplistic discussion papers are put out for ‘consultation’ and implementation plans are produced. But in all of this, the policy question itself is given relatively little consideration on its own terms. The creative, imaginative task of public policy is abdicated.[xii]

Critically, the issue is this: we have gotten into the habit of refining rather than disrupting established models. And while there are good reasons for this at times, when significant challenges present themselves to public policy for solution, this kind of strategy may simply not be enough[xiii]. Indeed, in times where fundamental change is required, sloganeering and merely refining established models become nothing more than pretty new curtains on a broken window.

This stagnation at the level of ideas is hidden by a ‘gritty realism’ that casts – implicitly or at times expressly and unashamedly – the pursuit of new ideas as ‘academic’ and ‘blue sky’. Eschewing the risks of irrelevance that supposedly attend such ideas, this sensibility ceaselessly calls for ‘so whats’, for ideas to be explained simply or not at all, for three bullet points and for a constant focus on ‘what can be achieved’. This pragmatic attitude at times borders on anti-intellectualism, making new thinking about policy not only redundant but also potentially morally or prudentially suspect. Indeed, this intellectual timidity, at its worst, has donned the garb of smugness: the conceit of the policy-maker as having all the answers is reinforced, but without basis.[xiv]

The bureaucracy – once the stalwart of crafting and articulating public policy direction – has become the beleaguered home of this state of stagnation, taking on most obviously this sensibility of intellectual lethargy. Inheriting the very worst of the Weberian nightmare, the bureaucracy has struggled with, if not abdicated, its role in policy innovation. Chained by its past, limited by its routine and constraining of the individual, the bureaucracy has become paralysed at the level of ideas. Its youth are left uninspired. Its great thinkers, co-opted into executive layers of management, become hall monitors rather than protagonists in the great drama of public ideas.

This sensibility has become reflected in the self-perception of the bureaucrat’s role in the world of policy ideas. The intellectual terrain is not one in which bureaucrats necessarily consider themselves welcome, with forays relatively rare.[xv] In terms of capabilities, generalism of skill is so often the focus. What is lauded is the ability to work across policy areas, issues and projects. Depth of content, of insight or of understanding is relatively under-emphasised in favour of more ‘procedural’ skills that support ‘collaboration’, ‘communication’ and the like. [xvi]

 

THIS INTELLECTUAL TIMIDITY and obsession with simple ‘known answers’ leads to a second characteristic of this contemporary policy sensibility: a disproportionate focus on the pragmatics of implementation. In the absence of substantive engagement and a default focus on refinement, implementation of incremental change becomes key: planning for it, delivering it, (maybe) evaluating it.

There is a growing literature around what is sometimes called ‘deliverology’[xvii] – essentially a structured way of driving and monitoring implementation activities through setting targets, planning to achieve them and assessing what has been attained – that seeks to recognise that public sector organisations are not always well set up to deliver or evaluate the success of implementation activities.

While deliverology and approaches like it are certainly useful to an extent, the fervour and hastiness with which they have been seized upon – combined with the intellectual lethargy we have discussed – have risked converting every public-sector problem into an implementation problem. New ideas are not actually what we need, just greater discipline in executing solutions that are already known.

But, of course, design and execution both matter: if what you want to implement is flawed, no matter how good you are at implementing it, success will not be forthcoming.[xviii] And hidden behind the comfortable slogans about ‘knowing the answers’ and ‘ceaseless implementation’ lurks the cold fear that, in fact, we may not have a clear picture of what the future policy settings and paradigms should look like. Rushing to the busy-ness of implementation can satisfy the need for activity, but can cut short the consideration of genuinely new ways to tackle profound problems of the public sphere.

Of course, none of this is to say that incrementalism is not an appropriate strategy for change in particular moments, nor that it cannot deliver benefit in particular contexts. Neither is it to say that pragmatism is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. The point here is that these tendencies can become pathological – the pendulum can swing too far in one direction.

Indeed, in large part, policy-makers of the contemporary bureaucracy seem to have conflated two usefully separated ideas: the notion of different – perhaps radically different – thinking and ideas; and the process of enacting change in a way that does not generate unmanageable volatility in public-sector systems, processes and services for people. The challenges of our present demand different thinking. Implementation can be managed incrementally if it must.

An example might help to illustrate. Consider the 2010–11 National Health Reform agenda. Following an independent report, the Commonwealth Government released a series of documents that set out a plan – based on an adaptation of the Victorian health system model – to overhaul national arrangements concerning health system funding and performance reporting across the country. The documents contained a number of aspirational and motherhood statements, but also conceptual gaps, conflicts and ambiguities. For example, one concept was a ‘national efficient price’ that would be calculated to ‘strike an appropriate balance between reasonable access to public hospital services, clinical safety and quality, efficiency and effectiveness, and financial sustainability of the public hospital system.[xix]’ Sounds great – but who knows what it means?

With the policy ‘determined’, the states, the Commonwealth and an army of consultants started poring over the released documentation for the purposes of ‘implementation planning’. A flurry of activity ensued, Gantt chart upon Gantt chart was created, but foundational issues in payment, pricing and activity reporting remained underdetermined. The result? For the following four years, state after state challenged the agenda in national forums and in the media, claiming that its operation impeded rather than fostered health-system improvement and federal co-operation. Ultimately, much of the agenda was dismantled in 2015.

The National Health Reform experience demonstrates the risks of pathological focus on implementation and shortcutting the substantive policy idea. Simple, sloganised solutions quickly implemented are not the recipe for addressing the largest questions of public policy.

THIS SENSIBILITY, WITH its tendency to fly from substance and focus on pragmatics, has a marked ‘thinning’ effect on public policy, at the level of ideas, of values and of method. For example, in the wake of the GFC, economic constraint, budget emergencies, calls for fiscal repair, for austerity and for a chastening of public expenditure have rung out across the public sphere. But while such a context might have inferred an increased role for a renewed and reinvigorated intellectual engagement with public policy, the result has in fact been the opposite.

Times of constraint have resulted in drier economic ways of thinking about resources and how we get the most out of them – thinking has seldom plumbed the rich depths that exist within the venerable discipline of economics. The drive for simplification in policy discourse has led to a triumph of Economics 101 over 301, of simple tropes over sophisticated new analyses.[xx] The slogans of ‘efficiency’, ‘productivity’, ‘fiscal repair’ and the like tend to be hollowed out of real meaning, kept at a level of abstraction that is hard to disagree with (who doesn’t think efficiency is a good idea?), but difficult to take to the next level of meaning.[xxi]

Even more than this, the recourse to ‘vulgar’, simplified economics results in another difficulty: it provides a false appearance that principles and values are somehow irrelevant to the solution of important public policy debates. ‘Doing public policy’ becomes an activity akin to engineering: mechanical, process-based and indeed a matter for real engineers. Policy becomes disconnected from its human effects, trapped by bland quantification, and less able to grapple with questions of values, of ethics, of how things should be. [xxii]

It is rare in Australia’s public sector for ethicists to openly practise their craft. Documents produced by departments tend to have little more than the most cursory and rhetorical relationship to values and principles. Notwithstanding constant calls for a ‘person-centred’ public policy, these seem largely to have remained at the level of mantra recitation rather than a genuine and thorough-going engagement with the concrete experience of people who come in contact with public-policy settings and regimes.

Policy-makers tend to be relatively uncomfortable in the domain of the normative. But questions such as ‘what kind of economy should we have?’, ‘what does individual freedom really mean?’ and ‘what as a society are we simply unwilling to tolerate in terms of disadvantage?’ are policy questions that cannot be answered without principles and without values. We cannot be creative without some idea – be it contested, messy, incomplete – about that which we want to create.

Mechanical and thin public policy cannot deliver for its public.[xxiii] At some point, value controversy and substantive disagreement cannot be mediated by comfortably simple – almost scientific – processes.

Public policy is not just process, science or engineering: it is irreducibly about values, principles and norms. The thinning of public policy practice – empty of imaginative and innovative force – merely leads to a dead end.

THE SPREADING INFLUENCE of this sensibility is most acutely felt within the bureaucracy – the erstwhile and self-styled home of policy-making. But its effects are being experienced far more broadly.

Politics itself – sensing the weakness in the supposed engine room of public policy – has responded in many places by keeping its own counsel. And there are varied arguments for how and why this has come to be the case. For example, the rise of political staffers and a culture of short-termism have been identified by figures as diverse as Jennifer Westacott,[xxiv] chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, and Terry Moran,[xxv] former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, as factors responsible for the degradation of public policy thinking.

No doubt this is part of the story. However, the arrow of causation is not completely clear. The bureaucracy has not done a great job of demonstrating its value in terms of innovation, ideas or strategy.[xxvi] In short, there is something here about chickens and eggs: it is not clear which came first – the rise of political staffers, or the retreat of public servants. Either way, what is clear is that the rise of political staffers cannot – alone – explain the predicament of public policy.

‘Blame’ for the weakness of our policy sphere must be shared, it cannot be easily traced to a single locus. Perhaps most importantly, oft-heard laments from within the public service that it is the hapless victim of weaknesses at the political level should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. The bureaucracy has – by weakening its intellectual engagement in policy design – been complicit, if not formative, in eroding the relationships and robustness of the policy sphere.

Behind the closed doors of government, ministers of both stripes time and again express exasperation that the slogans that mark out public policy are old enough to get their driver’s licences. But in the cut and thrust of political life, it is a rare leader who is able to generate and harness innovation in public policy unassisted. A team of twenty political staffers, no matter how young or how smart, cannot match a functioning bureaucracy of a thousand. Attempting to forge policy directions without the assistance and expertise of the bureaucracy has not been a successful strategy for politics, and risks errors of both idea and implementation.[xxvii]

The troubles in public policy are compounded. A way out remains remote.

ONE WILL SCARCELY find a major policy initiative in this country in which consultants of one sort or another – strategy firms, project managers and implementation specialists, technical advisers or end-to-end professional service firms – are not involved. Do these external advisers correct for an overly timid and intellectually constrained public service? Are they able to spur innovation and new ideas?

Once again, we find we have reason to worry – the two-pronged sensibility that has captured the policy sphere acts as a significant dampener on externally sourced innovation in public policy. Two points bear mentioning. First, we must consider how ideas from consultants and advisers find their way into public policy. In consulting, an idea only gets steam if someone buys it. An idea is only worth spending time on to the extent that a client can be convinced of its importance and value. By and large, this is the nature of the for-profit consulting market, and it is where hope for externally sourced innovation becomes problematic – where the creeping sensibility in public policy has its day.

Consultants are constantly forced to conform to the biases and preconceptions of their clients. Revenue, and the next sale, depend upon it. While the ideal consulting model (like the ideal bureaucratic model) may well be based on ‘frank and fearless’ advice, frank and fearless does not always sell. The sensibility that does not value robust engagement with complexity – that considers slogans compelling in the absence of substance, that views with suspicion deep confrontation with new ideas as lacking in ‘realism’ – constrains the ideas that are admitted through the external ‘channel’ of consultants.

Furthermore, it is also worth noting that consultants and consulting firms have not necessarily helped themselves. In part hamstrung by the approach taken by those to whom they seek to sell, consulting firms, like government, seem to be relatively unable to break the hold of the status quo, to change the debate, to engage in the bigger picture. Thought leadership is often too thin on insight to capture the debate. And even where there is insight or a bigger vision, there is a paucity of thought given to how to engage in a conversation that changes the environment for reform. Glossy brochures are all too often generated without a clear vision, and seem to be aimed at people other than those whose opinions influence change. Conversations, even with great thought leaders, seem to be too sporadic, narrow and, in the end, often progress without the voices that could change the debate.

More than anything else, consulting engagements, especially in the public sector, tend to be overly transactional in nature. Particular projects are bought by clients in relatively isolated fashion. The benefits of the ‘trusted adviser’ model[xxviii] – the holy grail of management consultant literature and practice, based on a longer-term and robust relationship between consultant and client – seem hard to recapture. Isolated projects are largely unable to draw on a strong repository of insight, or on deep understanding of the client’s predicament. Even the best of firms are not meaningfully ‘ahead’ of their clients in terms of understanding, in terms of the biggest frame for change, or in terms of assisting them to manage the political dynamics that are fundamentally the precursor and precondition for change[xxix].

The result? External consultants end up delivering relatively more of the same, rather than genuine innovation or new ideas. They alone cannot throw off the yoke of the damaging sensibility that has settled over public policy.

ACADEMIA, THE NATURAL home in our society for the generation of ideas, has also been harmed by the rising tide of this sensibility. Sealed off from the cut and thrust of policy formulation by a sensibility that struggles with intellectual engagement, the academy, unwittingly at times, comes to embody the caricature of itself that the gritty realist seeks to impose upon it. Much progressive scholarship in public policy has flown into high theory or complex model building and has under-emphasised (or at times denied the need for) articulating the relevance of the insights that it has gathered there for policy formulation.[xxx] Roberto Unger has characterised this academic trend as involving ‘adventures in consciousness disconnected from the practical reformation of society’.[xxxi]

Perhaps, in and of itself, this is not necessarily problematic. There are many occasions where the incentives placed upon academics in terms of publication targets, research quotas and the like are not geared towards contribution to the world of public ideas. However, where the academy does seek broader reach of its ideas, and presumes to intervene in ‘live’ policy debates, the sealed nature of academic work becomes problematic. From a policy-maker’s point of view, much of this work can be accused, not unreasonably, of intolerable disconnection from reality. Combined with the policy-maker’s unwillingness to engage with complex ideas, the tendency for the academy and bureaucracy to ‘speak past each other’ is strong.

Scholarship that has remained closer to earth has nonetheless evinced a tendency to think from the academy ‘out’ rather than from public life ‘in’. This scholarship has sought to engage with public policy, but on its own terms, addressing the questions that it (and indeed the bureaucracy) thinks it best suited to address. Sophisticated meditations on methodology, evaluations of specific interventions or programs, the mining of particular data sets for dot points that can be passed on to policy officers, specific papers and reports on narrow questions – these are the roles forced on the academy when engaging with public policy.

In a sense, in the marketplace of ideas, this scholarship and form of engagement has transformed the academy into ‘just’ another service provider to government, usually in the production of detailed analyses or evaluations, but seldom in struggling with the hardest questions of public policy. The pathologies that trouble the consulting market also come to pervade the academic–policy interface. The relationship becomes overly transactional and calibrated to bureaucratic preoccupations and preconceptions. In this country, it is rare to find enduring relationships of trust, insight, experimentation and collaboration between academic institutions and government. Where they do exist, they tend to be ad hoc rather than systemic. There are few robust channels for ideas from academia to flow into the policy-making sphere.[xxxii]

Context is important, and some of this is to be expected. Australia’s policy sphere has historically tended to be something of a closed shop. Unlike in the United States or the United Kingdom, where a broad ecosystem of think tanks, academic institutions and research institutes wrap around and feed the policy-making sector, Australia’s bureaucrats and politicians have tended to be inclined to hold more tightly the policy space. But when the bureaucracy erodes in capacity and in policy aspiration, the closed shop approach shows its limitations.

And tragically, even when a great policy-relevant idea generated in the academy does manage to find its way into policy-making, the predominate tendency towards reductivism and simplification in public policy often so denudes that idea of content that it becomes restricted to reforming the margins rather than the core of policy domains, or is seen in such a messianic and fad-like manner that its effects can almost never live up to the hype.

An example is what is often called ‘Nudge’ theory – the application of behaviouralism and behavioural economics to questions of public policy. Following its popularisation by two US academics, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler[xxxiii], policy-makers across the globe became extremely excited by the approach and its promise to shift individual behaviour without the need to redesign incentives, in ways that respected the idea of individual choice. Everyone wanted a Nudge Unit (often based on the successful UK model), and Nudge was becoming cast as the approach that was going to change everything – whether in health, housing, transport or education.[xxxiv] But of course, Nudge is merely one tool in policy-making. It demands volumes of scrupulous research and interventions to be very carefully designed. It will not work in every circumstance and not every question of public policy is a behavioural one.

But the messianic view of Nudge tends to miss its limitations, and under-emphasises the hard work that goes into make its interventions work. For all of the hype, successful implementation, in this country at least, of Nudge-based policy reform has unsurprisingly been exceptional rather than the norm[xxxv] – which is a shame given the benefits that genuine Nudge interventions may well be able to deliver for public policy.

THIS CONFLUENCE OF effects in the bureaucracy, in politics and in the adjacent ideas industries gives rise to and sustains this intellectual stagnation in public policy – pervading these domains and defining the relationships between them. Of course this does not mean that there is no good work in public policy, that there are no ideas at all, that there is no one who struggles valiantly against this sensibility, or that our domain is completely empty. There are pockets of excellence, of brilliance and of insight. But, given the 24-hour news cycle, the rise of staffers and short-termism in politics, weakening relationships between the public sector and the ideas industries, the core characteristic of the public sector has become managerialism and timidity, smothering rather than encouraging these islands of dynamism and innovation.

And while simple tales of causation or blame are difficult to tell in an accurate or robust fashion, the practical result is more easily discernible: our public-policy approaches are not fit for purpose in dealing with the current and future challenges that our public sphere must face. We are left with a world of public policy that does not befit, and cannot sustain, the principles of democracy and collective flourishing that mark the aspirations of our public life. In the absence of new ideas, new approaches and new vigour, these persistent problems for which we currently have no solution will remain unsolved. We will continue to labour under what has, in other contexts, been named (somewhat dramatically) ‘the dictatorship of no alternatives’.[xxxvi]

But it hasn’t always been the case that the domain of public policy has been so phobic of thinking and ideas. Indeed, one need not look far into the history books to see happier times in the relationship between ideas and public policy.

While debate may rage concerning how golden the golden age of Australian public policy really was, one thing is certain: the myth of that period has left its mark. And something was different about that time and the engagement that it saw between policy-makers and their subject. The aspiration to redesign Australian social and economic life was grand.[xxxvii] The key bureaucratic voices in the debate were – for the time – relatively broad, comprising not only economists and lawyers, but also philosophers, journalists, academics and other secondees.[xxxviii] Its starring actors engaged in public debate concerning their motivating ideas, published essays and articles for broader consumption[xxxix] and delivered lectures and addresses to broader audiences.[xl]

Beyond this country, think of the use of genuine and sophisticated Keynesian economics in the post-Great Depression, postwar and Bretton Woods periods;[xli] or think of the diverse and innovative intellectual sources that formed the foundation principles of the US’s New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s. Social philosophers, academic economists and law professors were important architects of those principles and many of the New Deal’s key policies.[xlii] And recall the great developmentalists of Latin America and beyond – including Prebisch, Singer and Cardozo – who generated new policy approaches for economic development, captured leadership positions and agendas in national governments and international organs, and shaped the way entire generations of policy-makers in the Global South pushed for fairer, more thoroughgoing economic development in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.[xliii]

Finally, just think back a few years to the so-called neoliberal or Washington Consensus. In important ways, this was the policy inheritance of two interestingly divergent but politically aligned schools of economic thought – the Austrian School and the Chicago School.[xliv]

Ideas have driven policy. Ideas have driven action. And while we might well debate the worthiness of some of these ideas to shape public policy, the relative contemporary absence of the ideas or that debate from our policy debate is to the detriment of our policy sphere.

WHAT CAN WE do about this? My comments here are relatively more suggestive and ‘exhortative’ – prompts for a conversation rather than a fully articulated plan of action.

The first exhortation concerns a change in sensibility, or perhaps a broadening of aspiration. There is a need for public policy to become braver about ideas than it is at the moment. The notion that new ideas can come from within, that the biggest names[xlv] of policy and of theory can be intervened upon by those who make public policy, must be embraced. It is possible for progress to be made, for fundamental change to emerge, for new ideas – not just recycled refinements – to mark out the future of public policy.

The task of policy reform does not start and end with finding someone else’s idea and tailoring it to one’s current context. Current problems require new solutions. The greatest names of policy – be they Coombs or Crawford, Keynes or Ricardo, Marx or Hayek, or even Gandhi or Keating – are not only inspirations, but in important ways also peers of those who seek to engage in policy. These greats were once rebels, fighting policy insurgencies against dominant ideas that acted to constrain their imaginations. But revolution in thought and action does not come from surrendering to orthodoxy any more today than it did yesterday. The greats of tomorrow are the rebels of today. And failure to rebel today risks leaving tomorrow with little in the way of greatness.

Again, many of the most difficult ideas that policy needs to engage with are deeply normative in nature; they concern the human and ethical dimensions of collective life. These ‘higher-order’ purposes concern moral and ethical principles, not just economic ones. Principles about right action, flourishing lives, and the highest ideals of our politics are at stake here – not just the efficient use of our scarce resources. Our policy approaches have long fled from engagement with questions of values and ethics – of which policy settings aid individuals to engage in family or communal life, to participate economically, to be politically active and engaged – in short to live a flourishing life.

While the quantified world of ‘vulgar’ economics or indeed of process re-engineering might feel like safer ground for policy-makers, the harder, messier, more dangerous business of ethics and values are where future engagements in public policy must be had.[xlvi]

And so this is the first exhortation: that policy-makers embrace their roles as protagonists in the drama of public ideas. That they understand their creative task in respect of the very hardest of those ideas. That they engage with ideas as a way to reimagine, and ultimately reshape, our social and political worlds.

BUT, IT IS not all songs of glory and battles of ideas. There is a second exhortation. This creative role for policy-makers is one that must be shared. My second exhortation is a call for modesty.

Given the complexity of our public systems – be they in health, education or industrial development – their future and their reform cannot be imagined using a single perspective or by a single actor. And for all the need for policy-makers to imagine and bring forth those futures, it is simply the case that they cannot do this alone – it is only through alliances with others in adjacent industries that this can occur.

Here, some of the literature concerning innovation can start to point us in interesting directions. In our thinking about innovation, it was Schumpeter[xlvii] who first and unambiguously pointed to the starring role of the entrepreneur in economic innovation and indeed in the engine room of capitalism. Theory soon realised that entrepreneurs do not act alone: they draw and rely upon ‘systems of innovation’, upon a broader knowledge-generating and supporting environment comprised of institutions, groups, actors, roles and practices.[xlviii] These include universities, government labs, research institutes, state corporations, public funding agencies, private capital investors and, of course, policy regimes.

Although public policy ‘gets a guernsey’ in innovation theory, it is often the case that innovation is seen as something that private-sector actors do, although enabled by a policy environment. Policy is a tool to the end of private innovation. But beyond what we might call ‘innovation with the aid of public policy’, what has been less a focus of the literature is ‘innovation within the domain of public policy’. And here, the same decentring of the lone-wolf public-sector innovator must be achieved in the same way as focus has shifted from the entrepreneur as the sole hero of innovation. Systems of innovation are just as important in public-policy innovation as they are in private-sector innovation.

What does this imply? I think that, as well as being more ambitious, policy-makers must also become more modest in terms of their own imagined ability to innovate alone. Rather they must collaborate – they must expand what they perceive as the sources of insight and imagination in public policy. Universities, firms, think tanks, research institutes, consumer groups, scientists, practitioners, individuals and communities all must be brought into focus as players and places where the kind of ideas that we need in public policy might grow and blossom.

Reaching beyond perfunctory – if expensive – consultation processes and summits, trusted and insightful voices across the economy and civil society must be brought into the policy debate in new, systematic, robust and proactive rather than reactive ways. Today’s slogans of ‘co-design’ and ‘collaboration’ must be made concrete and given real content. Policy development genuinely opened for contestation.[xlix] Much of this, I suspect, will require re-establishing a dialogue about purpose in our public policy as way of giving form to policy debate as its participants expand in number and in diversity. And while care must be taken in how this is done, there can be no mistake that it must be done – for, at the end, it is the pathway by which public policy can re-inherit the great task of government for the people.

PUBLIC POLICY MATTERS. It is the way that we give shape and form to our society, our markets, our standard of living, and the flourishing of our populations, now and into the future. Its importance demands that we treat it with preciousness, that we bring to it our very best – our best minds, our best ideas, our best processes and, perhaps above all else, our best courage.

An approach to public policy that brings anything less than our best – an approach marked by intellectual timidity and pathological focus on pragmatic implementation, one that smothers innovation and fears ideas and substance, that thins public policy to its most threadbare and that drives trusted voices from the conversation – does not honour the great task of public policy. It does not honour the people who policy-makers have the privilege to serve. It does no honour at all to those who purport to serve.

Above all else this sensibility risks denuding the policy sphere of its ability to sustain the necessary demands of our democracy and public life. We must resist all of this. We must address this creeping sensibility. We must broaden our policy aspiration and our policy conversation. We must do nothing less than rescue public policy from its perilous position. Recent changes in political narrative at the national level provide us with hopeful directions – we must help public policy rise to the challenge.

These comments have been provocatively framed in order to generate a reaction. Passionate disagreement, furious agreement and all of the probing, testing, discovery and revelation that lie in between are the very form of the kind of collaboration that our policy debate lives off. For when it comes to innovation in the public sphere, we are all in this together and completely or we are not in it at all. It is only by recognising this that we can ever hope to deliver on the promise of public service, as we feel that we ought, and as we know that we must.

My most heartfelt and humble thanks go to Samantha Coker-Godson, Pradeep Philip, James Saretta, Millicent Blackman, Lachlan Tan, Stephen Duckett, Jenny Lewis, Anne Tiernan and Julianne Schultz for their comments on earlier drafts of this piece – comments that improved the final product beyond all imagination. An earlier version of this argument was delivered to seminars at the Grattan Institute in Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne School of Government. I am most grateful for the discussion in those forums, which helped to refine the argument. All errors remain – of course – my own.


[i] See for example Furphy, Samuel. 'The Seven Dwarfs and the Age of the Mandarins: Australian Government Administration in the Post-War Reconstruction Era.' (2015): 246.

[ii] Macintyre, Stuart. Australia's Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s. NewSouth, 2015.

[iii] Ibid, 6.

[iv] Lavoie, Marc. 'The Global Financial Crisis: Methodological Reflections from a Heterodox Perspective.' Studies in Political Economy 88 (2012); Turner, Adair. Economics after the crisis: objectives and means. MIT Press, 2012.

[v] The extensive literature and emerging practice concerning the ‘social determinants of health’ is a particularly well-developed example of this.

[vi] The recent national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse and Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence stand witness to these scourges. See: https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/ and http://www.rcfv.com.au/ respectively.

[vii] In language more familiar to the philosophy of science – most policy work involves refinement of an existing paradigm, rather than translation to a new one. It is the policy equivalent of Kuhnian ‘normal science’ (see Kuhn, Thomas S. The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press, 2012). However, as is the fate of all paradigms, the edges have started to become frayed, and the explanatory force of our existing policy paradigm is unravelling. A new one is required.

[viii] See also Jennifer Westacott, 'A Servant to Short-Termism' in the Australian (21 September 2012).

[ix] A lovely example of just this trend – and its pitfalls – in the context of social impact bonds is set out in a piece by Helen Dickinson, 'Social Impact Bonds: The best of all worlds?' (27 August 2015): http://powertopersuade.org.au/2015/08/27/social-impact-bonds-the-best-of-all-worlds/. For a similar treatment of ‘public value’, see Alford, John, and Janine O'Flynn. 'Making sense of public value: Concepts, critiques and emergent meanings.' Intl Journal of Public Administration 32.3-4 (2009): 171-191.

[x] Macintyre, above note 2, 76.

[xi] Macintyre, above note 2, 126.

[xii] As to this ‘missing ingredient’ of imagination, and the surrender to simplicity, see Russell, Don. 'Reflections on my time in Canberra.' Crawford Reflections Lecture (31 March 2014): https://crawford.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/news/files/2014-04/don_russell_anu_lecture_31_march.pdf.

[xiii] As to the size of the challenge and the need for new – and perhaps riskier – thinking in public policy, see also a piece by Mike Baird, Premier of New South Wales, entitled 'Passion, people, risk and opportunity: The case for public service leadership in reforming the Federation' (forthcoming) 74(4) Australian Journal of Public Administration.

[xiv] For another example of timidity turned smug in a different context (though still political philosophical context), see Boyer, J Patrick. Direct democracy in Canada: The history and future of referendums. Dundurn, 1996.

[xv] The furores that surrounded comments made by Ken Henry concerning government economic policy directions in 2007, 2008 and 2009 are illustrative of this point. While reasonable minds may differ about the ‘political’ motivation of some of those comments, Henry’s very trespass into the domain of policy opinion was not uncontroversial. See further: Martin, Peter. 'Some people want to keep Ken Henry Silent' (5 June 2008): http://www.petermartin.com.au/2008/06/some-people-want-to-keep-ken-henry.html; Milne, Glenn. 'Mandarin’s Partiality' in the Australian (12 October 2009): http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/mandarins-partiality/story-e6frg75x-1225785544998.

[xvi] See for example the approaches set out in a joint publication of the Melbourne School of Government and the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet – 'The 21st century public servant: A discussion paper' (June 2013): http://www.dpc.vic.gov.au/images/documents/featured_dpc/21st_Century_Public_Servant_Discussion_Paper_-_June_2013.pdf.

[xvii] For example: Barber, Michael. Instruction to deliver. Politico's Publ., 2007; Barber, Michael, Andy Moffit, and Paul Kihn. Deliverology 101: A field guide for educational leaders. Corwin Press, 2010, Barber, Michael. How to Run A Government: So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy. Penguin UK, 2015.

[xviii] John Seddon’s Systems thinking in the public sector: The failure of the reform regime...and a manifesto for a better way. Triarchy Press Limited, 2008, is an interesting review of the approach.

[xix] See http://www0.health.nsw.gov.au/resources/Initiatives/healthreform/pdf/NHHN_report3_RedBook.pdf.

[xx] For the distortion of economic concepts as they make their way into political and policy debate, note the sixty-three leading economists who last year penned a statement rejecting dominant public slogans that Australia is facing a ‘budget emergency’, when that particular slogan was de rigeur: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/18/budget-emergency-denied-by-63-leading-australian-economists.

[xxi] See also Denniss, Richard. 'Of Clowns and Treasurers: Joe Hockey and the myth of Coalition economic management': https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2015/july/1435672800/richard-denniss/clowns-and-treasurers: 'While economics provides a bunch of simple tools to help break down complicated problems, the language of economics is more frequently used to confound and confuse…The primary purpose of the econospeak that fills our airwaves, most of which is complete nonsense, is to keep ordinary Australians out of the big debates about tax, fairness, climate change and the provision of essential services.'

[xxii] This is a line of argument developed more fully in Kishore, Vishaal. Ricardo's Gauntlet: Economic Fiction and the Flawed Case for Free Trade. Anthem Press, 2014.

[xxiii] See in a similar vein Sandel, Michael J. Public philosophy: essays on morality in politics. Harvard University Press, 2005.

[xxiv] Of the Business Council of Australia. See Westacott, above note 8.

[xxv] Former Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet. See Moran, Terry. ‘Political staffers an accountability black hole’ in The Australian Financial Review, 26 September 2012. See also Tiernan, Anne. ‘We won’t save the public service by looking backwards’ in The Conversation, 22 October 2012: https://theconversation.com/we-wont-save-the-public-service-by-looking-backwards-10194.

[xxvi] See also Russell, above note 12.

[xxvii] See also Russell, above note 12. On the role of political staffers and offices in Australia, see: Tiernan, Anne. Power without Responsibility: ministerial staffers in Australian governments from Whitlam to Howard. UNSW Press, 2007.

[xxviii] Maister, David H., Charles H Green, and Robert M Galford. The trusted advisor. Simon and Schuster, 2000.

[xxix] Of course, there are any number of experienced, reflective and experienced consultants who have recognised the troubles in their own backyard. See for example: Saretta, James. 'Consulting…it needs to change…for the better' (10 December 2013): http://www.jamessaretta.com/musings-montauk/2013/12/10/consulting-it-needs-to-change-for-the-better. See also Christensen, Clayton M., Dina Wang, and Derek van Bever. 'Consulting on the Cusp of Disruption.' Harvard Business Review 91.10 (2013): 106-14.

[xxx] See Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. The left alternative. Verso, 2009. See also Calmfors, Lars. 'The role of research and researchers in economic policy-making: some reflections based on personal experiences.' Kansantaloudellinen aikakauskirja (Finnish Economic Journal) 1 (2009). In a slightly different but related and interesting vein see: Geuss, Raymond. Philosophy and real politics. Princeton University Press, 2008.

[xxxi] Unger, ibid, 16.

[xxxii] This is not just the case in respect of policy-making. Extracting insights from university research troubles other areas, including in respect of debates in this country concerning the commercialisation of university-generated innovation. See for example: Mazzarol, Tim. 'Is there any alternative to developing and innovation-driven economy?' in The Conversation, 21 April 2014: https://theconversation.com/is-there-any-alternative-to-developing-an-innovation-driven-economy-25796 and Mazzarol, Tim. 'Is commercialising Australia’s research an insurmountable challenge?' in The Conversation, 4 May 2014: https://theconversation.com/is-commercialising-australias-research-an-insurmountable-challenge-26276.

[xxxiii] Nudge, Thaler R. Sunstein C. 'Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness.' 2008.

[xxxiv] See also Finighan, Reuben. 'Beyond Nudge: The Potential of Behavioural Policy', Melbourne Institute Policy Briefs Series (July 2015): Policy Brief No. 4/15: https://www.melbourneinstitute.com/downloads/policy_briefs_series/pb2015n04.pdf.

[xxxv] NSW is an example of where Nudge thinking has had its most obvious traction: see Easton, Stephen. 'When push comes to shove: inside the NSW nudge unit' in The Mandarin (22 July 2014): http://www.themandarin.com.au/874-nudge-unit/; http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2014/s4017226.htm.

[xxxvi] Unger, above note 30, chapter 1.

[xxxvii] Macintyre, above note 2, 6.

[xxxviii] Macintyre, above note 2, 111, 145, 63.

[xxxix] Ibid, 8, 88.

[xl] Ibid, 76.

[xli] See for example Fletcher, Gordon A. The Keynesian revolution and its critics: Issues of theory and policy for the monetary production economy. Macmillan, 1987.

[xlii] Nice outlines of that period of US history, some of its key actors and influences include Hiltzik, Michael. The new deal: A modern history. Simon and Schuster, 2011; Katznelson, Ira. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. WW Norton & Company, 2013; Horwitz, Morton J. The transformation of American law, 1870-1960: The crisis of legal orthodoxy. Oxford University Press, 1992.

[xliii] Cardoso, Fernando Henrique, and Enzo Faletto. Dependency and Development in Latin America (Dependencia Y Desarrollo en América Latina, Engl.). Univ of California Press, 1979.

[xliv] , Gérard, and Dominique Lévy. 'Capital resurgent.' Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution (2004); Duménil, Gérard, and Dominique Lévy. The crisis of neoliberalism. Harvard University Press, 2011; Harvey, David. A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, 2005.

[xlv] The use of the gender specific term is not accidental: many of the obviously biggest names in theory remain masculine. This is a stain on our intellectual history that demands to be expunged.

[xlvi] It is not Australia alone that suffers from some of these difficulties. For US examples, see Sandel, above note 23.

[xlvii] See Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, socialism and democracy. Routledge, 2013.

[xlviii] For a nice charting of the ideas here, see Niosi, Jorge, et al. 'National systems of innovation: in search of a workable concept.' Technology in society 15.2 (1993): 207-227.

[xlix] See also Pradeep Philip and Vishaal Kishore, 'Rethinking a contemporary social justice in government' in The Mandarin, 4 August 2015: http://www.themandarin.com.au/46586-pradeep-philip-improving-wellbeing-frame-social-justice/.


From Griffith Review Edition 51: Fixing the System © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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