The Contemporary Policy Challenge

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Many policy practitioners, researchers, public intellectuals, business leaders, church leaders and political/community activists worry about the quality of current policy debate, which is said to hinder our capacity to reach robust decisions on pressing policy and political challenges. This workshop will assess the grounds for such concern and recommend measures for regenerating policy capacity and restoring trust in policy processes.

There is significant concern among policy practitioners, researchers, public intellectuals, business leaders, the churches and political/community activists about the low quality of current policy debate. This is said to hinder robust decisions on such challenges as globalisation, climate change, economic migration and rising community expectations. This workshop brings together policy practitioners and academic experts to assess the evidence for such arguments and, where merited, to consider potential means for regeneration of policy capacity. The expected outcomes will be recommendations about institutional change, policy practice and the agenda for future public policy research.

Politics is ideally a means of identifying and responding to community concerns and community interests, aggregating opinion and developing policy responses to address those concerns and interests.

There is general support for ‘evidence informed’ policy making, acknowledging the essential contribution of research expertise in this process, and the necessity of robust competition in the debate about policy options. Acceptance of such principles assumes an appreciation of (and responsiveness to) community perceptions, a constructive relationship between policy practitioners and research professionals, and the necessity of dialogue and debate.

At the same time, there is a plethora of opinions from senior policy practitioners, academics, business leaders, the churches, community activists and some politicians themselves about what is seen as the low quality of debate about public policy. The implied decline in policy capacity is thought to produce an inability to address significant challenges such as globalisation, international sources of anxiety (such as climate change), population movement and border control and rising community expectations. Influential commentators who championed the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s now question whether the system has broken down, perhaps irretrievably (see e.g. Paul Kelly, Triumph and Demise, 2014). Many striking examples could be cited concerning disquiet about the deterioration of policy capacity and debate, but it is well summed up by former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry’s recent observation that, “I can’t recall a poorer quality of public debate on almost any issues, than we have had in recent times in Australia’’ (9 May 2015 at http://johnmenadue.com/blog/?p=3716).

Among the factors that have been said to contribute to this situation are deficiencies in political leadership, short termism, complacency, the pressures of globalisation, the stalling of reform, party changes, diminution of the public sector, media preoccupation with celebrity and infotainment rather than informed analysis, and the elevation of public expectations. In concert, there is an insistence that we must do better in addressing the policy challenges of the present, and that we have something to learn from an earlier period when we handled these matters better: to quote Ken Henry again, ‘There is a lot of work we need to do if we are going to get back to that place, and I do mean back, because there was a time when we did have a better public understanding of the issues confronting Australia’ (The Australian, August 14, 2012).

The objective of this workshop, in the context of such confronting arguments, is to take stock of the quality of public policy processes and debates. We will do this not necessarily by a focus on particular policy domains, but instead by exploring the underlying questions provoked by these arguments in relation to deliberative processes themselves. In view of the disquiet expressed by highly experienced participants in policy research and policy practice, serious questions arise concerning the enduring relevance of the political and policy processes to which we are accustomed. If there are now, as claimed, several significant deficiencies in policy capacity and debate, what are their sources and what can be done to encourage a regeneration of robust and well-informed deliberation? Even if such arguments are overstated, they signify at least a diminution of trust in institutions and processes: how might such trust be restored? These are issues fundamental not only to good governance but also to sustainable democracy. We believe that it is important to pair the experience of experienced policy makers with that of leading researchers in addressing these questions.

The Academy has always been concerned with promoting constructive dialogue between the research community and the policy community. An earlier exercise intended to encourage such dialogue in 2005, through an annual symposium and an associated book, Ideas and Influence, focussed on identifying then pertinent policy debates and presenting cutting edge research related to those domains. That earlier symposium was primarily about exploring what the Academy could offer to the policy community. We now think it important ten years later to reconsider that emphasis, and to place the concerns and experience of highly experienced policy practitioners at the centre of our discussion of the quality of policy processes, complementing their insights with those of academic researchers. Fortunately, we have a senior cohort of former policy practitioners within the Academy Fellowship on whom we can draw.

The workshop will be organised around seven themes: clarifying the contemporary policy challenge; the drivers of contemporary policy practice and the catalysts of change; the institutional impact of those drivers; relations between key players in the policy domain; re-engaging the people; re-engaging research; and what should be done now.

As testament to the contemporary salience of this project, there has been significant ‘buy-in’ when this topic has been broached: everyone we have invited has agreed in principle to participate. Thus, we have gained the commitment of leading Australian figures in these debates, and broad agreement with the themes and questions we propose to explore. Rather than constraining individuals to defined topics within those themes so far in advance, we intend to work with identified groups to refine contributions within those topic areas over the next 12 months—with the aim of pairing practitioners with researchers in the papers eventually to be produced.

For more information, please contact:
Mr Murray Radcliffe
Deputy Director
murray.radcliffe [at] assa.edu.au
+61 .2 62491788

Event Schedule

Supporting Documents

Contact Information

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

    ABN: 59 957 839 703
  • Location: 26 Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601
  • Postal: GPO Box 1956, Canberra, ACT 2601
  • +61 .2 62491788
  • +61 .2 62474335
  • secretariat@assa.edu.au

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