Roundtable | Gus O’Donnell: Good policy needs compelling storytellers



|||||(From right) Sir Gus O'Donnell (Frontier Economics Europe)

CPD was delighted to host Sir Gus O’Donnell, former British Cabinet Secretary, head of British civil service and, for four years, Press Secretary to PM John Major, on 13 November 2014 for a workshop at Cisco in Melbourne to discuss how polling intersects with long-term policy development. The workshop, held under the Chatham House Rule, drew together industry leaders, consultants, public sector representatives, policymakers and researchers. The workshop was made possible through sponsorship from Telstra, Deloitte and Cisco.

Good policy needs compelling storytellers
Prof Peter Shergold (foreground)

Beginning with insights from Gus O’Donnell based on his experience working for four British Prime Ministers, the workshop heard reactions from Professor Peter Shergold (Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2003-2008), Tony Douglas (Founder and Director of Essential Media Communications) and Clare O’Neil MP (Member for Hotham). All workshop participants then shared and debated insights in open dialogue.

(from right) Sir Gus O’Donnell and Travers McLeod

One of the consistent themes was the importance of storytelling in policymaking, both for public servants and politicians. Narratives must be logical and coherent. Polling, where used, should be used carefully. Questions should be constructed in a way that does not bias answers. Polling should inform policy design early, rather than necessitate dramatic late changes as part of a messaging strategy. There was a lively debate about differences between the current media and political cycles today as opposed to previous decades, and what effects or constraints this may have on leadership styles and, ultimately, policymaking. Views differed on the extent to which policymakers should be ahead of, or respond to, public opinion.

Tony Douglas (foreground)

Other issues discussed included:

  • The importance of data in preparing evidence-based policy
  • Understanding voter identification and how it impacts behaviour
  • Risk perception, and preparing the electorate for reform
  •  Public expectations, and the balance between promises and delivery
  • Trust in political leaders
Roundtable participants

Participants expressed optimism for how new polling methods and technologies might draw members of the public closer to the policy making process. Polling used for this purpose can help to unpack complex policy problems and explore ways of responding to them, rather than being used in a reactionary way to capture static perceptions of particular issues or language chosen to ‘sell’ policy. Polling will always be used to sample public opinion and voting intention. It can also be used more effectively to explain difficult policy problems and probe pathways for overcoming them. Leaders need not always follow the polls. Leaders must also, on occasion, use the opportunity polling presents to enhance awareness and advance an alternative, perhaps unpopular, view. This can be a dynamic and productive process, if done over a longer term period and appropriately insulated from short-term media cycles.

CPD thanks all participants for their attendance and contributions to an excellent discussion. Roundtables such as these are part of CPD’s drive to bring experts and diverse stakeholders together to advance key policy debates.