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Are we outsourcing social policy to royal commissions?


25 February 2020 at 8:13 am
Neil Pharaoh
For the social purpose sector, available opportunities to influence and guide the process of a royal commission are much narrower than in broader public advocacy. But fear not. Neil Pharaoh, shares a social purpose organisation royal commission checklist, in a new fortnightly column for 2020 focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. 


Neil Pharaoh | 25 February 2020 at 8:13 am


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Are we outsourcing social policy to royal commissions?
25 February 2020 at 8:13 am

For the social purpose sector, available opportunities to influence and guide the process of a royal commission are much narrower than in broader public advocacy. But fear not. Neil Pharaoh, shares a social purpose organisation royal commission checklist, in a new fortnightly column for 2020 focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. 

We elect our politicians to lead, but it seems now that some of the big, fundamental social and political issues of our time are increasingly being handballed over the fence into “royal commission land”. Is this the new normal? And how should social purpose organisations who seek policy change handle this structural change to the advocacy landscape?

As the endless “efficiency dividends” (coupled with increased politicisation of the public sector) start to bite into our public service, we are almost seeing the end of Westminster style public servants and their “frank and fearless advice”. With the public service increasingly becoming contract managers, is the rise of the royal commission going to destroy the last of the public policy functions the public service has maintained until now? 

Australia has had 137 federal royal commissions since Federation, of which 54 were between 1910 and 1929. While some have marked high tides of justice (the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2013-2017), others have been remarkedly narrow in focus (the Royal Commission into the Chamberlain convictions 1986-1987). Far too many have focused on the areas of Northern Territory, Papua New Guinea and Norfolk Island – we have had royal commissions into British New Guinea, NT Railways and Ports, administration of the NT (multiple times), German New Guinea and Norfolk Island (multiple times). And a number have been governments effectively weaponising their forces against the opposition (home insulation, trade union governance and historically, commissions against specific unions). 

State governments have continued the trend, so we are now seeing more social and public policy shifting into the realm of royal commissions. The impact of this on the social purpose sector should not be underestimated, as the lobbying, advocacy and networking techniques used in the past to seek legislative or regulatory change will not be as effective in royal commission land. 

Royal commissions are highly effective at exposing wrongdoing. The outcomes of the Haynes Royal Commission and its list of recommendations have resulted in substantial policy impact and change. Yet, in Victoria, government adopting all recommendations of such a commission sets up social purpose expectations of funding but limits the ability of the sector to influence outcomes. 

The inherent problem of policy-by-royal-commission is that while best practice for policy development includes wide consultation, options assessment, and analysis of cost benefit and unintended consequences, none of these are standard in a royal commission.

For the social purpose sector, available opportunities to influence and guide the process of a royal commission are much narrower than in broader public advocacy. Maximising the opportunity to present, make submissions, and comment on both draft, interim and milestone reports will be critical to shaping policy agendas. 

So, here is your social purpose organisation royal commission checklist:

  1. Play a role in setting the terms of royal commissions. Government always sets the terms in collaboration with the commissioners – is your relationship with relevant MPs and ministers strong enough for you to assist with calibrating terms?
  2. While the commission is underway, do you have media alerts set up? Have you made both written, and potential verbal submissions? Do you have case studies for support, or  people who have been impacted and can speak to the issue?
  3. When the draft report is released, how do you respond? Do you have both media and direct channels available?
  4. Are you engaging with the relevant implementation department throughout the commission, to ascertain if they will respond to the recommendations?
  5. Do you use existing relationships, social and traditional media to ensure you are front and centre regarding commentary on the commission? That presence often leads to roles on boards and can facilitate implementation post commission.

Royal commissions may currently seem like a once in a lifetime opportunity for government to outsource policy responsibility – with the added bells and whistles of media coverage and creating the perception of doing something. So the response by the social purpose sector is critical. 

I am already seeing departmental and political commentary deferring to royal commissions. “We are only funding recommendations,” they say, or “We don’t have money for anything outside the royal commission”. 

Royal commissions tend to go in cycles, so be sure that your advocacy and government engagement strategy incorporates a response to royal commissions – how you advocate for one (if you need it) and how you campaign around one (if underway). Finally, every one of your responses to a commission is critical and should be a board and executive agenda item.

About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. He regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems. @neilpharaoh on Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Happenings on the hill is a new fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.

If you have any ideas, suggestions, tips or questions, please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at neil@neilpharaoh.com.au or reach out to him via social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @neilpharaoh.


Neil Pharaoh  |  @ProBonoNews

Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy.

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