Academics and the policy context for the Abbott Government

The new government has yet to be sworn in, there’s no Leader of the Opposition, and Parliament won’t sit for a month or two, but already you can sense that people are gearing up to advise the Abbott Government on what it must do, and how it must do it. I was once like that myself, but a few years working to and directly advising a Minister rather changed my perspective on ‘knowledge’ and how governments employ it. The present lull in government action provides a useful moment in which to set out the problem.

Judith Curry’s estimable website led me to the substance of an article in the Political Quarterly by Richard French* that does rather a nice job on it all. Like me, French was first an academic who then became  a senior civil servant (and then an MP and Minister, which I didn’t do) and learned much about  the role of knowledge in public life. It’s a good article, a little over-written to my taste, but  a useful corrective to those (often academics) who think that ‘it’s all so obvious… why aren’t they doing … it’s all set out in … the honourable thing to do is…’

French puts up two broad positions that you can encounter every day. One is the notion that all good policy needs to be based on knowledge, and the implication of the knowledge is that policy should go in this (or that) direction. This is ‘evidence-based policy-making’, and I’ve had some fun with it in the past. ‘Global warming’ used to be a good example of this tradition. The science was said to be ‘in’ or ‘settled’, the science told us said that emissions had to be reduced or we would all be up a malodorous creek without a paddle, and governments were expected to salute and introduce the appropriate legislation. Then  the warming paused, and has not yet resumed.

The second is the position based on an ethical principle — that government should do what is best for humanity all things considered, or at least for our bit of humanity. Not to do so is to behave badly, and governments shouldn’t behave badly. Here the obvious example  is ‘boat people’ or ‘asylum seekers’ (it makes a difference what you call them): these people are desperate and we should help them, because that is the proper and decent thing to do. A government that did not do so would plainly be inhumane. But some of the boat people do seem to be ‘economic refugees’ rather than  people seeking political asylum. Are they entitled to the same treatment?

My examples suggest that there are missing variables in all of this. French calls them competition, publicity and uncertainty. I would add the problem of time, though I suppose you could fit it in under ‘uncertainty’. In political democracies any government is beset by opposing forces alert to every error and every possibility of things going wrong. Yes, the science may be settled, but there are good reasons not to move just now. An example familiar to me is in road safety. There is no doubt (the science is in on this one) that if we all drove at 40 kph instead of 80 kph fewer people would be killed and badly injured.

But Ministers will tell you that there would be a tremendous fuss if we did that: there would be a cost in terms of slowness, a cost in terms of regulating the new law, and a certain cost in people’s being angry and voting out the government at the first opportunity. Here there is a set of different kinds of competition, and each government has to make decisions about how far they are prepared to go, and what the opportunity cost would be in terms of other goals not being met. I’m in favour of the ‘Vision Zero’ aspiration in road safety (no deaths on the road), but I recognise that the cost of eliminating the last few deaths would be astronomical, and you could save many more lives with that money in other areas, like safety at work, or even serious illnesses.

It is actually quite rare, at least in my experience, for academic research to lead straightforwardly to good policy. One reason is that governments tend to deal with the whole nation, or the whole state, whereas most academic research that bears on policy is a snapshot of a small sample, or community, or set of people. Generalising from them to the nation is fraught. There is an excellent book on this whole issue, written by a former colleague of mine, Meredith Edwards, called  Social Policy, Public Policy: From Problem to Practice, and anyone who thinks all this is  obvious will gain great benefit from reading it.

People can get very upset about the failure of governments to do something that seems plain enough and for which there seems both good supporting evidence and an ethical imperative. Yet governments have a great variety of things to do, and a great variety of pressures to respond to. It sometimes amazes me that they get anything done at all.

All this is perhaps a preface to my saying, to those who think the election of the Abbott Government is done, now for the real changes in policy, that it’s all much more difficult than that. Yes, the new Government has  a mandate, and it has made promises, and Mr Abbott has made clear to his senior public servants what he wants done, and they will do their best to ensure that it happens. But it all takes time, and while it is taking time, other things happen and governments get distracted.

We saw it happen in the six years of the Labor Government. It will take great strength on the new Prime Minister’s part to make sure that it doesn’t happen at his turn at the wheel.

(* I have not read the article, which is behind a paywall, but Judith Curry has excerpted a large a section of it here.)


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