I watched Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake again recently. Again, I cried. A sick bloke with talent and decency ends up dead before he can argue his case to be treated not as a client, customer, service user or national insurance number but as a citizen, no more no less. Surely our citizens can expect more from governments and public servants than mindless process and indifference. In the age of automation ought not compassion be precious? In the age of big data, shouldn’t it be easier to tailor public services to the individuals who pay, or have paid, taxes? This essay explores the malaise in our polity (part one) and argues for doing things differently (part two).
Part two of this essay suggests governments can’t tackle today’s wicked problems alone.
Today’s complexities are forcing change to the public-private divide in how nation states tackle public policy challenges. Take the next front in warfare: cyberspace. Like so many other recent conflicts, this war is not being waged by soldiers trained about the Geneva Conventions, who then fight in designated battle grounds. It’s invisible and ubiquitous and insidious. Ordinary citizens can become unwitting vectors of cyber weapons. Click on a malicious URL and who knows what might be triggered. Governments need public servants, soldiers, business people and ordinary citizens as allies against cyber attackers.
Officials and private companies are thinking hard about this new security problem. We need them to come up with collaborative actions to keep the cyber peace. Such actions might in turn help redefine the partnership between the public sector, business and communities. But neither will happen without a lingua franca that avoids gobbledygook, bureaucratese and acronyms as well as mutual respect for the points of view, expertise and sheer nous each party brings to the table.
This is not about outsourcing the business of government. Shifting delivery to the private sector or bringing in consultants doesn’t always end up being about doing more with less. Regulation and oversight notwithstanding, mistakes still happen, sometimes on a grand scale as we’ve seen in the pink batts tragedy, the VET FEE Help rorts, census debacle, the offshore detention centres. The federal public service is struggling not only to shape good policy but to manage its implementation.
Who is to blame for the disasters that ensue: the ill-equipped contract manager, the sponsor of the policy (the government not the public servant) or the contractor? The Westminster system is clear: ministers are accountable; however, these days few fall on their swords. They have learned to wriggle out of things, blaming not their own policies but those of their predecessors, or the poor implementation of the policy by others. People’s lives are at stake here, whether it be insulation installers, students lured by an IPad or refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. We can’t keep passing the buck or setting up inquiries to re-articulate the problems and the remedies. We must do things, and do things differently.
In 2015, a former head of the public service, Peter Shergold, presented the government with a report on his review of government processes for implementing large programs and projects. He recommended some experimentation:
With wicked, complex and deep-seated public problems, it is uncertain exactly what policies will work, or how they should be delivered in the most effective way. There are benefits to experimentation: often it is more sensible to test out ideas on a small scale rather than across the whole nation. More attention should be given to using trial or demonstration sites to begin implementation expeditiously, trialling different delivery options and learning by doing. Success can be demonstrated early. Failure can be addressed fast.
Experiments demand trust. Without it any move away from the established rules is likely to founder. And while it’s certainly a good thing to encourage fresh thinking, it could turn sour if the ideas sink in the mire of an outdated bureaucracy.
One reason for having governments has been to do things the private sector can’t or won’t do because the returns cannot be counted in dollars or the risks are too great or the benefits have to be distributed beyond one set of ‘shareholders’. The complexity of contemporary life has implications for these traditional divisions of labour. Governments can’t go it alone.
It’s time for the creativity Horne thought was lacking in the Australian polity. This can come from cross-fertilisation between sectors. More job swaps between bureaucrats, businessmen, academics and journalists would deepen understanding about what it takes to govern. While this could also result in borrowing approaches from each other, it might also increase respect for differences.
More fundamentally, new ways of doing things will involve letting go of the rule-based structures of government that early 20th century reformers introduced to combat cronyism and wastefulness. Then, the rules created stability; now they are strangling the system and preventing us from imagining changes to how we regulate society. Better solutions are conceivable if we deploy open data and analytics in a deliberate and concerted effort to make people’s lives better.
Individual billionaires are intervening in spheres we’ve come to think of as the remit of publicly funded organisations. This could be dangerous if there are no checks and balances on rich people’s preferences and prejudices. But with effective scrutiny such philanthropic private-public partnerships might get closer to achieving the elusive goal of joined-up governance.
This has implications for the competencies public servants need, including the managerial skills Horne identified as lacking in the 1960s and which are still in deficit today. Officials also need to understand the power and pitfalls of having real-time, individualised information about their ‘clients’, the Australian population.
To optimise the use of big data will involve a mind shift both within the public service and in how governments talk to and work with their citizens and in rules governing the conduct of the social media giants. No more sound bites and harangues; instead real conversations which can lead to the realisation that governing Australia starts not with someone else but with each of us, drawing on our strengths and trusting in those of others.
As Horne wrote in 2001, ‘one of the great acts of citizenship can be to change the agenda – by enticing the media and the officials and politicians to open their minds and see new things.’ A first response to this call to action should be to reinstate meaning and truth to the words we use.
Francesca Beddie is a former diplomat and senior aid official. She is an historian by training and works as tertiary education policy analyst. She is co-director of Make Your Point, a consultancy that offers training and coaching in clear communication. She is working on a study of the links between pre-Soviet and post-Soviet history.