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Policy failure – The new black?

21 November 2019 at 8:48 am
David Crosbie
With a new report presenting an indictment of government policymaking in Australia, Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie says it is time we stopped rewarding failure and insisted on better government policymaking processes.

David Crosbie | 21 November 2019 at 8:48 am


Policy failure – The new black?
21 November 2019 at 8:48 am

With a new report presenting an indictment of government policymaking in Australia, Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie says it is time we stopped rewarding failure and insisted on better government policymaking processes.

Too many government policies are grounded in short termism informed by the two-dimensional political popularism that drives website click-throughs and social media likes. Australia cannot afford to have royal commissions into every area where government policy making is failing. 

Government policies that are not delivering public benefit need to be called out, especially by charities that have a critical role to play in ensuring our communities flourish.

An important report was released this week, without much fanfare and only limited media coverage.

It is unusual for the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), who describe themselves as a “free-market” think tank, and Per Capita who describes themselves as a “progressive” think tank to come together in a joint project to undertake research. They did for this report and both are to be commended.

The Evidence Based Policy Research Project was arranged and funded through the newDemocracy Foundation (nDF), a non-partisan organisation that seeks ways to “do democracy better”.

The key findings of this research present an indictment of government policymaking in Australia.

IPA director John Roskam said in quoting their report: 

“Australia’s governments, both state and federal, are failing to undertake best practice policymaking. This failure is undermining the quality of public policy and is having a detrimental impact on faith in public institutions. Public policy in Australia is often made on the run, built on shabby foundations, motivated by short-term political gain, and consequently having mediocre outcomes.”

Emma Dawson, executive director of Per Capita Australia suggested:

“While ideological values and principles must always guide the direction of government, this project shows that following a rigorous and consultative process is critical to the effective development and implementation of policies to serve the public interest.”

The findings will not surprise many people that work in the charities sector. Governments have long ignored or dismissed advice and suggestions from charities about how policies, programs and services could be better directed and leveraged for public benefit. 

What is particularly interesting about this research is how the government policies were tested. The report is based on two organisations scoring 20 government policies from state and federal government departments against a core group of 10 questions. 

These questions were derived from criteria developed by Professor Ken Wiltshire of the University of Queensland Business School. They seek to identify the processes used to arrive at policy decisions. 

Here are just five of the questions:

  1. Need: Is there a statement of why the policy was needed based on factual evidence and stakeholder input? 
  2. Goals: Is there a statement of the policy’s objectives couched in terms of the public interest? 
  3. Options: Is there a description of the alternative policy options considered before the preferred one was adopted? 
  4. Pathway: Is there evidence that a comprehensive project management plan was designed for the policy’s rollout? 
  5. Consultation: Was there further consultation with affected stakeholders after the preferred policy was announced? 

The 10 questions make a lot of sense, and not just for governments. Many charities might do well to consider these questions in their own policymaking decisions. They certainly go beyond the “what can we get funding for” approach that can sometimes inform policymaking within charities.

The findings in this report could not be clearer. Only four of the 20 government policies reviewed achieved a score of eight or above out of a possible score of 10. Eight of the 20 policies failed to apply appropriate processes. These included:

  • Fed Tax Relief So Working Australians Keep More Of Their Money Act 2019 (Average rating 4.5) 
  • Fed Assistance and Access Act 2018 /Encryption law (Average rating 4.0) 
  • Vic Fire Services Reform Act 2019 (Average rating 3.0) 
  • NSW Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment Act 2018 (Average rating 3.0) 
  • NSW Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amendment Act 2018 (Average rating 4.0) 
  • Qld Final Environmental Approval for Adani Mine (Average rating 3.0) 
  • Fed Promoting Sustainable Welfare Act 2018 (Average rating 2.5) 
  • Fed Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act 2019 (Average rating 2.0)

There are many lessons in this report for government policymakers, mostly about taking the time to get policy right through more strategic engagement and active consideration of alternatives.

A good place to start improving government policymaking in Australia might be to actively seek out a range of charities involved in the issue or communities that will be impacted by the policy, and provide support for considered input into how best to deliver the government’s goals while achieving greater public benefit. Unfortunately, this kind of engagement remains the exception. 

There is a challenge here for all charities. Australian communities deserve much better than ill-considered short-term policies that fail to deliver public benefit. Charities are in a position to not only call out government policies that are failing, but also make an invaluable contribution in formulating policies that will provide genuine public benefit.

Sam Mellett, director of Susan McKinnon Foundation that contributed funding to the research said:

“Our governments should make policy decisions with a clear process that starts with establishing the facts, weighs up the pros and cons of various options and involves a dialogue with communities and stakeholders before resolving. More often, policy development tends to be short-term, partisan and reactionary and often lacks a public mandate for implementation.”

Charities across Australia agree. It is time we stopped rewarding failure and insisted on better government policymaking processes. We cannot afford to let bad policymaking become the new normal.

About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.

David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.

David Crosbie  |  @DavidCrosbie2

David Crosbie is the CEO of the Community Council for Australia (CCA).

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  • Don McPherson says:

    Hmmm … but the scores given for each question will be a result of the scorers’ political opinions so does this trajectory take us any further than we are now?

  • Percy Allan says:

    Not so. Both think tanks applied Professor Kenneth Wiltshire’s ten point ‘business case’ criteria for good policy making which ask questions about the decision processes followed in each case study, not the political opinions of each think tank on the merits of the policy. For instance did a policy provide factual evidence of a problem?, Did it articulate the public purpose goal?, Did it consider alternative policy solutions and their respective pros and cons?, Were stakeholders consulted at the start and finish of the policy making process?, Was there an adequate explanation of the policy decision online?, Was the policy adequately debated in parliament before legislation was passed?
    The two think tanks though opposed to each other politically largely reached agreement on how many of the ten criteria were satisfied or not in each case study. Outcomes were not considered because it’s too early to know since it can take years before the true impact of a policy is felt. But Professor Wiltshire’s work over 36 years has demonstrated that policies that satisfy good policy making rules generally produce better outcomes than policies that are thought bubbles made on the run.

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