Policy Development: Cherry-Pickers vs Peddlers of Opinion

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Not infrequently I talk to academics who tell me that they work in the area of public policy.  It awakens my interest. Often I am rudely disappointed. They may be researching in areas that are at the forefront of policy debate — health, welfare, early childhood development, education, employment — but they appear uncomfortable when asked directly what policy changes they would implement. This is seen, I discern, as a matter for others — less talented others — to ascertain from a proper consideration of their research findings. Practical policy which affects people’s lives seems to be regarded as a trade skill, sullied by the dirt and grime of political compromise.

Other academics have very clear policy prescriptions, often argued forcefully and sometimes propounded with a level of polemical certainty. While I am engaged by many of their ideas, and somewhat disquieted by the single-mindedness of their underlying philosophical conviction, I discover that my questions about possible compromise positions are met with a strong gaze into the mid-distance. A second-best outcome, I realise, is not good enough.

The art that I find so beguiling — developing policy iteratively, moulded by an environment of political contest and organisational advocacy, responsive to unexpected opportunity, stymied by unforeseen barriers and shaped by financial exigency — is an uncomfortable discipline for the purist.

Let me start again.

Not infrequently I talk to academics and tell them that I practise public policy. I awaken their interest. Often I rudely disappoint them. I appear too little aware of the most recent research. I am too eager to get to their conclusions. I sense they believe that I provide policy advice on the basis of political responsiveness, ill-founded pragmatism or ideological predilection. I seem an archetypal grey-suited, fixed-minded disciple of economic rationalism. 

This, as I have learned from Saunders and Walter’s new book, Ideas and Influence: Social Science and Public Policy in Australia, is not good. Indeed neo-liberalism takes the rap in different chapters of this book for undermining welfare provision, civil rights, gender equity, educational opportunity and social planning; promoting unsustainable consumption and market-oriented individualism; and even (is this the most damning charge of all?) constraining the potential of the social sciences.

Which leads me, by circumlocution (appropriate, Charles Dickens would have thought, for a creature of officialdom) to consider these essays on social science and public policy in Australia.  Of course writing on public policy, just as much as practising its implementation, should focus on problems and how they might be overcome. Nevertheless in a 240-page book on contemporary Australian socio-economic policy it is curious, that there is remarkably little reference to sustained economic prosperity, rising real wages and pensions, strong employment growth, high levels of share ownership, sharply increased family assistance and — in part because of these achievements — income gains distributed across the Australian population. Such indicators, born of public policy, may not be the only measures by which to assess human well-being, but surely they should be a significant part of it? To have an efficient economy better able to withstand regional financial crisis or international recession is not a bad outcome of the public policies of successive governments. Then again, it is possible that such sentiments simply represent a neo-liberal apologia?

Saunders and Walter understand well why my academic colleagues and I so often talk past each other and why, in their words, we have such ‘an uneasy fit’, ‘often characterised by mistrust and suspicion’. They discern and analyse the distance that sits between expert knowledge and policy response. I understand, far more than I did before, why the academic researcher finds the public servant insufficiently attentive to subtlety and qualification and too prone to ‘cherry-picking’ ideas. I agree that the policy practitioner sees many social scientists ‘as pursuing their own political agendas under the guise of scholarship’ or ‘peddling opinions in some personal capacity’.

Saunders and Walter bring a welcome sense of history to this uncomfortable tension.  They argue that it has not always been so. Nor need it continue to be so, if both sides can more clearly understand the perspectives of the other. Evidence-based social research has the capacity to influence public policy, directly and indirectly.

If this book can help improve the workability of the ‘scholarship policy interface’ it will have made a major contribution. We need to build bridges based on empathy not agreement. Funding, appropriately delivered, may be part of the solution. The danger, and I am sympathetic to this dilemma, is that those funded can feel co-opted by the process. They may find their academic freedoms constrained, unable to publish their work in the form or timeframe which they would like, and gaining insufficient credit for their achievements from their academic peers. 

Yet the alternative is worse. Do universities want to see public policy handed over to academic entrepreneurs, management consultants, think tanks and advocacy organisations? Public servants will continue to try and discern the national interest within the plethora of well-argued, and frequently disguised, particular interests. That is their job. To the extent that they feel unable to derive sustenance from academic expertise their own technical competence and professional training will be reduced.

The relationships between social science and public policy, and between academic and public servant, are ones of utmost importance. They are not, I think, in particularly good shape. To the extent that this book can draw attention to the fragility of the present relationships, and offer cautious advice on strengthening their vitality, it will have made a valuable contribution to public life. It is a matter of hope that the Academy of the Social Sciences recognises the importance of this dilemma and has championed its discussion.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the launch of Ideas and Influence: Social Science and Public Policy in Australia edited by Peter Saunders and James Walters and published by UNSW Press.

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