Latest Findings on how well our Governments make Policy

Nov 27, 2020

For the third year running, independent research undertaken by two philosophically opposed Right and Left think tanks finds that basic standards of evidence and consultation-based policy making are only loosely followed by Australian federal and state governments. Nevertheless, there was an improvement on last year’s results.  

Credit – Unsplash

The thinks tanks agreed the two highest scoring policies were the Queensland Personalised Transport Ombudsman and the Federal My Health Record which received average total scores of 9.5 and 9.0 respectively out of an ideal 10.0.  The Federal Client Rights to Bank Data Bill also scored highly at 8.5.

The lowest scored case studies were the Federal Repeal of Medevac Bill and the Victorian Free TAFE provisions which respectively averaged total scores of 3.0 and 3.5 out of 10.0.

Acceptable scores of 7.0 or slightly over were achieved by the Federal JobKeeper and COVIDSafe measures, the Victorian Gender Equality Bill, the NSW Abortion Law Reform Bill, the Victorian Wage Theft Bill and the Queensland Child Death Review Bill.

An important variation on previous research is that this year eight of the case studies involved how well governments made decisions in response to a national emergency (Covid-19). This required modifying the standard Wiltshire ‘business case” criteria for assessing the quality of government policymaking in ‘normal’ times to dealing with a ‘crisis’ demanding urgent decisions.

The Project’s research was undertaken by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a self-described ‘free-market’ think tank and Per Capita Australia, a self-labelled ‘progressive’ think tank. The two think tanks jointly selected the 20 case studies to examine with each organisation preparing its own report before comparing results and reconciling any differences over public information (e.g. Were alternative policy options considered? Were stakeholders consulted?).  In 16 of the case studies, the two think tanks gave the same or similar score. In four case studies the scoring difference between the think tanks was 2 points.

Research Project’s Focus

The research was commissioned by the newDemocracy Foundation (nDF), a non-partisan organisation that seeks ways “we can do democracy better”. This year it was fully funded by the Susan McKinnon Foundation, which underwrites better policy governance projects.

The research project’s Steering Committee – which includes people experienced in business, public and social affairs – such as Glenn Barnes, Peter Shergold, Verity Firth, Martin Stewart-Weeks and Carol Mills  – said the research again demonstrated the need for all major political parties to publicly commit to evidence-based and inclusive engagement processes for making major policy decisions of government.

Each think tank separately benchmarked the same 20 federal and state government policies against ten attributes of good decision making identified by Professor Kenneth Wiltshire AO, the J. D. Story Professor of Public Administration at the University of Queensland Business School. Four of these criteria were modified for those case studies involving urgent emergency policy responses.

The Wiltshire criteria focus on good process, not results, because the net fiscal, social, economic and environmental impact of a policy may not be known for a long time. The think tank reports’ findings involve judgements only about the way a legislated policy was made, not whether it was good or bad policy per se.

However, Professor Wiltshire reiterated what he has said previously:

“My research over nearly four decades suggests that good policy processes result in better outcomes than decisions made without a strong evidence base and close consultation with stakeholders.”

An exception to this might be where a policy needs to be made on the run such as in bushfire, flood, earthquake or pandemic crises where less time is available to design the policy carefully.

The think tanks relied on publicly available information for each case study’s assessment criteria since a government’s final policy decision should have transparent underpinnings.

Averaging the two think tanks total scores for each case study from 2020 shows that nine cases received solid scores (between 7.0 and 9.5) while 2 got unacceptable scores (below 5.0). The remaining 9 received mediocre scores (between 5.0 and 6.5).

Sam Mellett, Director of Susan McKinnon Foundation which funded the project said:

“The events of 2020 have demonstrated the critical importance of good public policy.  Some nations around the world will come out of 2020 in a far better position than others due to the decision making of their governments. Rigorous policy development processes help build trust in times of crisis and also ultimately deliver better outcomes. “ 

Iain Walker, CEO of newDemocracy that commissioned the work said:

“It’s important that we keep looking at process innovations which will help Australia make genuinely long-term public decisions, and for the public to trust that their money is spent based on process, not political whim. After three years, seeing two thinktanks with quite different viewpoints repeatedly reaching closely aligned assessments regarding the quality of process being followed highlights the non-partisan applicability of the Wiltshire Criteria.”

Research Project’s New Findings, 2020 

The research project’s Steering Committee ranked the main findings of the two think tanks as follows, after averaging their total scores for each case study.

Excellent Process (2)

  • Qld Personalised Transport Ombudsman 9.5
  • Fed My Health Record 9.0

Sound Process (1)

  • Fed Client Rights to Bank Data 8.5

Acceptable Process (6)

  • Fed JobKeeper 7.5
  • Fed COVIDSafe 7.5
  • Vic Gender Equality Bill 7.5
  • NSW Abortion Law Reform 7.0
  • Vic Wage Theft Bill 7.0
  • Qld Child Death Review Bill 7.0

Mediocre Process (9)

  • Victorian Invoking of Emergency Powers* 6.5
  • Fed Funding Childcare 6.0
  • NSW Invoking of Emergency Powers* 6.0
  • NSW Music Festivals Bill 6.0
  • NSW Right to Farm Bill 6.0
  • Qld Invoking of Emergency Powers* 6.0
  • Qld Police Discipline Reform Bill 5.5
  • Fed Early Release of Superannuation 5.5
  • Fed HomeBuilder Grant 5.0

Unacceptable Process (2)

  • Vic Free TAFE Provisions 3.5
  • Fed Repeal of Medevac Bill 3.0

*Note that the invoking of state emergency powers did not include the execution of such powers (see first question in Appendix 1, Frequently Asked Questions – FAQs),

Case studies where the individual total scores by each think tank differed by two points were the Federal HomeBuilder Grant, Queensland’s Use of Emergency Powers, Victoria’s Wage Theft Bill and the NSW Music Festivals Bill. In all other cases the total scores for each case study were either the same or differed by just one point,

Of the 200 criteria marked in the 20 case studies the think tanks had identical scores on 178 criteria and differed in judgement on only 22. As with previous year’s research it was reassuring that experts from both a Right and Left think tank could broadly agree on which legislated policies had been well formulated and which had not even though they did not necessarily agree on the policy prescriptions.

This suggests that standardising public policy making to accord more closely to recognised best practice (such as meeting the Wiltshire ‘business case’ criteria) could remove much of the distrust and discord in Australian politics.  Indeed, those policy case studies that largely followed good process seemed to fare better politically than those that only partially adhered to it.

The two reports showed that Australian political processes overall provide transparency so that the public is aware of differing political views on a policy.  For example, with JobKeeper, there was parliamentary consideration of the Labor opposition’s view that a wider group should be eligible, although this was not agreed by the Parliament.  This strengthens the public’s trust in decision-making because the alternative was aired and considered.

As with previous years’ case studies the research found that most scope for improvement in ‘normal’ policy-making was comparing the costs and benefits of alternative policy options, explaining how a policy decision would be rolled out and issuing a Green Paper to invite public feedback before announcing a policy decision in a White paper.

For ‘emergency’ policymaking the research suggests that governments should give more attention to weighing up alternative options and methods, disclosing key data and consulting recognised experts in the subject matter before deciding a particular course of action.

Research Project’s Consolidated Findings, 2018-2020

The results of the sixty case studies undertaken so far over the last three years suggest a solid process was followed in 21 of them by the governments involved. In 14 cases the ratings were well below par. In the balance of cases the process quality was mediocre. See table below.

 

Policy Decision-Making Process Think Tanks’ Average Score out of 10 Test Criteria 2018 Case Studies

Number

2019 Case Studies

Number

2020 Case Studies

Number

2018-20 Total Case Studies Number 2018-20 Percentage Share

%

Acceptable, Sound or Excellent

 

7 – 10 criteria satisfied 6 6 9 21 35.0%
Mediocre

 

5 – 6.5 criteria satisfied

 

10 6 9 25 41.7%
Unacceptable

 

Under 5 criteria satisfied

 

4 8 2 14 23.3%
Total 20 20 20 60 100%

 

It is disappointing that only 35 percent of major federal and state policies un the last three years passed muster on the Wiltshire criteria for good public policy-making by scoring at least 7.0 out of 10.0.

The think tanks’ total scores on the ten Wiltshire criteria for the 60 case studies to date were remarkably similar in 48 cases (either identical or only one-point difference). In the remaining 12 cases the difference was two-points. See table below.

Total Score Differences

 

2018                          Case                     Studies

Number

2019                          Case                    Studies

Number

2020                          Case                    Studies

Number

2018-20                          Total Case Studies

Number

2018-20 Percentage Share

%

None 7 8 7 22 36.7%
1 point 10 7 9 26 43.3%
2 points 3 5 4 12 20.0%
3 points 0 0 0 0 0%
Total 20 20 20 60 100%

 

Meeting of Minds on Research Project Findings, 2020

John Roskam, Director of The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) noted:

“Good policy process which is based on sound evidence and consultation with all affected stakeholders in the community is fundamental to Australia’s liberal democratic form of governance.

 

“Too often policy in Australia is based on short-term interests, decided on the run, and lacks a credible evidence base which leads to poorly designed, ineffective, and costly implementation.”

 

Emma Dawson, Executive Director of Per Capita Australia remarked:

 

“Per Capita was pleased to contribute again to the Evidence-based Policy Project in an extraordinary year. Despite the need for urgent policy decisions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains important that changes to Australia’s legislative and regulatory system, at both state and federal government levels, are based on sound evidence and, as far as possible, adhere to established processes.

 

“These principles will be even more important as we grapple with the task of rebuilding our society in the months and years ahead, which will require significant and far-reaching policy decisions to reset our economy. We look forward to continuing this valuable research in collaboration with the project secretariat and the Institute of Public Affairs.”

 

Carol Mills, Director, Institute for Public Policy and Governance, University of Technology Sydney said:

“The sheer range of case studies reviewed for this year’s report is a salient reminder of the breadth of impact government policy decisions have on our businesses and communities. They also illustrate why a robust and transparent policy making process is so important.  It not only leads to better decisions, but also improves community confidence in those decisions.  This annual project is particularly effective as both a means of assessing process improvements and of demonstrating why that matters.”

Professor Peter Shergold, AC FRSN, Chancellor of Western Sydney University, said:

“At a time when democratic governance is becoming increasingly tribalistic, it’s heartening to see two respected Australian think tanks, with very different agendas, reaching across the political divide in their shared commitment to good public policy processes.”

Glenn Barnes, former Chair of Ansell Ltd and co-chair of Citizens for Democratic Renewal remarked:

“Australians are blessed to live in a country rated as one of the best liberal democracies. That said, our governance processes are falling short when it comes to consistently and transparently developing the ‘common good policy that the majority can live with’ – and public trust in the system is in long term decline.

“If our governments, state and federal, were to discipline themselves to ‘evidence-based policy development’ using transparent and disciplined processes we would be one step closer to re-building trust in our democracy.”

Verity Firth, Executive Director Social Justice at UTS and former NSW Minister for Education said:

“This project is particularly relevant in a year when Australians are watching the American government’s response to the COVID crisis and the hyper-partisanship of the US election.  Our project shows evidence-based decision making in government is something that can, and should, be above politics. In addition, the pandemic response in Australia proves the effectiveness of a well organised and well-funded public sector and the public trust that flows from that.’

NSW Parliament endorses Statement of Public Interest

In 2020 our Evidence-Based Research Project made progress in New South Wales. The Parliament’s Upper House Procedures Committee examined our proposal for a Green and White Paper process to precede all contentious bills.

It concluded it did not have the power to do that so instead suggested to the state government our fallback option that a Statement of Public Interest accompany every bill tabled in parliament. This would answer six basic public interest questions before any legislation was debated and passed in Parliament. These questions encapsulate the essence of the Wiltshire criteria:

  1. Need

Why is the policy needed based on factual evidence and stakeholder input?

 

  1. Objectives

What is the policy’s objective couched in terms of the public interest?

 

  1. Options

What alternative policies and mechanisms were considered in advance of the decision?

 

  1. Analysis

What were the pros/cons and benefits/costs of each option considered?

 

  1. Pathway

What are the timetable and steps for the policy’s rollout and who will administer it?

 

  1. Consultation

Were the views of affected stakeholders sought and considered in making the policy?

 

Such a statement would comprise only a few pages so should not be onerous for a government to produce. We hope the NSW Government responds positively to this suggestion and other governments take it up too.

 

Conclusion

 

If every major Bill introduced into a parliament satisfied the six questions of a Statement of Public Interest, it would fare a better chance of passing an Upper House. The checklist would also lift the quality of policymaking in state and federal public services.

Governments repeatedly get into in trouble because of a faulty decision-making process.  To avoid that trap they should adopt good policy making steps as proposed by the Wiltshire criteria. That would ensure real evidence and consultation-based policies to win the public’s trust.

Good process leads to good policy which in turn makes for good politics. That’s clear from the 60 case studies we have now completed over the last three years. Politicians should heed the lessons from our case studies if they want to restore credibility with an increasingly jaded electorate.

To access the Per Capita and IPA reports as well as the statement summarising the results visit www.newdemocracy.com.au/EBP2020/

 

*Professor Percy Allan AM is chair of the Evidence-based Policy Research Project facilitated by the newDemocracy Foundation and funded by the Susan McKinnon Foundation. He is a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Public Policy and Governance, University of technology Sydney, a public policy, management and finance adviser and a former Secretary, NSW Treasury.

 

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