Good policy matters
29 July 2021 at 8:17 am
We are at a point in time where we need to reinvent the whole idea of good government policy and why it is so fundamental, writes David Crosbie.
I am old enough to remember a time when the development and implementation of good policy was seen as a crucial component of good government. Unfortunately, it seems the cut and thrust of hyper partisan politics promotes effective media messaging and political advantage ahead of developing policies that will deliver positive outcomes for Australians.
Whether we are talking about COVID-19 pandemic responses, climate change, our economy, education, health, employment, housing, social supports, justice, immigration, our creativity and innovation, or even our sporting success, the quality of government policy goes a long way in determining the kind of Australia we live in.
There are any number of elements that are imperative to good government policy including accurate and timely information, credible modelling of impact, clear and achievable goals, allocating the appropriate resources required to deliver the desired outcome.
At a community level, good policy is about engagement, understanding how the community operates, the linkages, the relationships. It is often the interplay between many variables that makes a policy work or fail, which is why knowledge of the community is so essential.
These statements about the nature of good policy are not surprising, unknown, or particularly insightful. And yet it seems we are at a point in time where we need to reinvent the whole idea of good government policy and why it is so fundamental.
If a government wanted to vaccinate a given community – say aged care workers – good policy making principles would suggest that engagement with aged care providers would be one of the most critical first steps.
Aged care providers have outlined proposals to ensure all their workers are vaccinated (as they do with the mandatory flu vaccinations). Their advice was largely ignored. Now only one in four aged care workers are fully vaccinated while at the same time the government is introducing a policy to enable mandated COVID vaccinations for all aged care staff.
If a government was concerned about those who are most vulnerable with limited income and limited English during a COVID-19 lockdown, good policy principles would indicate the need to engage directly with the organisations that offer support to that targeted community.
Community groups like Settlement Services International have researched and put forward proposals to ensure better support for some of the more marginalised communities in Western Sydney, but their proposals have again been generally ignored.
If a government wanted to offer emergency relief at a time of need including food assistance, good policy practices suggest minimising barriers to food access. It is not good policy to insist only organisations that have received federal government funding can work with food assistance agencies. In practice, these restrictions mean hundreds of smaller charities cannot partner with groups like OzHarvest to provide emergency food assistance to their communities.
Time and again we hear stories of policy failures when governments choose not to listen to those with content knowledge. We know, for instance, that the pharma industry in Australia was not taken seriously when it pushed for Australia to commence vaccination procurement months ahead of when the government even developed a vaccination procurement policy.
The reasons government dismisses advice from outsiders are many and varied. Often proponents of particular policies are considered by governments to be self-serving vested interests, only advocating policies so they can attract more government revenue for themselves. This is a charge often levelled at charities pushing for more resources to address issues in the communities they serve.
And yet when we look at government consultancies with self-serving money-making management consultancy firms, there appears to be a ready willingness to commit millions of dollars for policy advice.
In the case of Australia’s vaccine roll out for instance, we know the government paid PWC, Accenture, McKinsey and EY millions of dollars for advice. The McKinsey advice alone cost $3 million for two months work advising on vaccines and vaccine purchase – not a good spend considering the outcome.
Similarly, while pharmaceutical wholesalers offered their services combined with the community pharmacy network to government to assist with vaccine roll out (as used for the flu vaccine), the Health Department instead contracted private firms Aspen, Sonic Health, and International SOS for vaccine roll out services costing taxpayers in excess of $155 million. Only now is the government looking to provide vaccinations through community pharmacies.
Many of these private contracts are hidden and unaccountable with the government claiming “commercial in confidence” exemptions from Senate Inquiries and FOI requests. Many also involve known actors, people the government feel safe working with.
It seems the issue with governments not being prepared to take advice from community groups is not just about groups being self-serving or trying to obtain government funding, but rather that the advice is not coming from a trusted politically aligned group.
The theme remains the same – decisions about who to listen to and what policies to adopt are less about what is the best policy and more about political advantage and managing media messaging.
Another casualty of the short-term political and media advantage approach to policy development is the demise of well-informed continuing policy forums.
Ideally, a well-functioning government would actively encourage and support policy forums where the development of targeted and appropriate policy responses to various issues could be worked through and properly planned. If information gaps exist, research could be commissioned. Where emerging policy approaches offer new hope, trials could be initiated and evaluated. As information and situations changed, policies could be adapted. This form of sustained policy infrastructure is the hallmark of good government policy making.
Unfortunately, it seems the current government is not interested in supporting policy development infrastructure. Perhaps worse still, there is a reluctance from many ministers to even meet with people from the areas the minister is responsible for. This is not even good politics, let alone good policy making.
Good policy makers listen not just to charities, but to community groups, academics, other experts, and those with a good understanding of the issues. They listen both to people that agree with them and people that disagree. They extend their understanding of what is and what isn’t possible.
The pandemic has redefined many aspects of government in Australia and around the world. We can only hope governments are increasingly aware that the demise of good government policy making has a price that extends well beyond short-term political advantage.
In focusing more on short-term political expediency and media management of issues, governments push aside good policy practices making them less competent in their role. And sooner or later, government incompetence cannot be messaged away.