|Eidos In The Media - February 2008|
NATIONAL politics is about to experience its first blushes of a revolution in public policy.
The 2020 summit called by Kevin Rudd this week for April is, at first glance, a typical political exercise by a new leader seeking to build on the momentum for change and consensus that was apparent in the Labor victory of last year. But it will also be a first stage of an emerging experiment in public policy that until now has been limited to the health sector and some state services.
Evidence-based policy is the new buzz-word in organising how the state intervenes in people's lives and Rudd, as Prime Minister, and his team are mightily interested in it.
Even before the election the phrase peppered Labor statements as the leader stressed he believed in "evidence-based policy, not just sort of grand statements".
In 2006 Julia Gillard, then health spokeswoman and now Deputy Prime Minister, praised it as a way that researchers, healthcare professionals and politicians could work together more closely and more effectively.
All policymakers will say "look at the evidence" when reaching their conclusions. Policy is a mix of ideology and practicality - although politicians so often deny the extent of the first part and stress the primacy of thesecond.
Evidence-based policy seeks to go a step further.
"Evidence-based policymaking is more than just going and reading the studies. It's about governments actually creating an evidence-based (environment), running one of their policy areas against another in a horse race and seeing which one comes out best," says Australian National University's Andrew Leigh. "We do this all the time with drugs for cancer or AIDS and there we say, 'This is a difficult disease to combat so we are going to perform a number of small-bore trials and see what happens.' We expect some of them to fail." Leigh argues that "We have been caught in a trap in those areas where often the debate is over how much we spend rather than how we spend it.
"I think, instead, there is a strong progressive agenda in spending the money in those areas more smartly."
There is, therefore, great scope for more randomised trials of policies.
Unlike a pure scientific study, a social science experiment would not necessarily assign all the money or new management techniques to one group and nothing to a control group. As in the medical world, policymakers must guard against doing harm.
But underlying the approach is an admission of ignorance. "I think randomised trials are readily accepted in the medical arena but largely shunned in the social policy arena and it's strange to me because the alternative to randomised trials is folk wisdom," Leigh says.
So the criticism that the forum of 1000 people proposed for April will be unwieldy and throw up scores of ideas is, to this way of thinking, a moot point. The whole aim of the conference is to hypothesise. It will be in the second part of the process, putting ideas into effect, that any revolution will emerge.
"It's a big change, it's much less ideological. Howard's approach got much more ideological as it went along. That's a positive for him (Rudd) if it brings fresh ideas," says Michael Cooney, policy director with progressive think-tank Per Capita. "Rudd is saying if he gets 10 or 12 good ideas out of it then he is a winner, which is true. So he is casting his net widely and taking his chance.
"The easiest critique is to say it is unfocused, but actually that is its greatest strength. If you have 1000 people in the room there is no point getting them to discuss (just) the three things you want to talk about. The advantage is precisely that you come up with the three things you never would have thought of, or did not have the opportunity to think of."
Griffith University's Institute for Social Science Research director Brian Head cautions that much of what might be called evidence-based policy is in fact evidence-informed.
It remains more expansive and more consultative than traditional forms of policymaking - where information is controlled by a cadre of technocrats - but still requires the mix of overall political strategy from the elected representatives and then the solid, evidence-rich research from the advisers.
The evidence-based approach was embraced by the Blair government in Britain in 1997, but modified as it became more apparent that the public servants had created closed methods of information analysis and advice.
The difficulty can be that the consultative approach takes time, a lot longer than traditional approaches usually take.
But Head believes it is worth the effort. "My view is that the knowledge base that comes from health professionals or social workers or people dealing with the service is just as helpful as the technical, resource-based team in a university or those manipulating large databases of information," he says.
Experts admit that there are ethical, practical and political sensitivities to deal with, but say that they are not insurmountable. The core of the process is data collection - measuring what people do and how often they deal with government in a month or across their whole lives. This raises privacy issues.
"If it works it does actually generate better policy and over the long term that does generate better political outcomes. Having good policy and having good community support converge over time," Cooney says.
"The economy has to keep growing or he is in strife," he says. "These other things have to work too. Education has to work or you are in strife, maybe not in a year but in five years. So investing now in a strong evidence-based approach and thinking about policy also turns out to be the best way of bringing people along in the long term."
The approach is described as a liberal rationalist way of talking about change, which grew out of state human services policy, such as drug law reform, but is now used more widely.
Kevin Rudd's director of policy, Pradeep Philip, was a keen debater of the ideas when working for the Queensland government and on the interim board of Eidos, a forum for public policy that promotes the trial approach.
Indigenous affairs is cited as one pressing area where the need to cut through policy failings of the past makes it ripe for new thinking. "For health standards of indigenous Australians I think we should take the same approach," Leigh says.
"I think this an incredibly important policy. Most of what we have been trying over the past decade hasn't worked, the life expectancy gap has not been closing, so let's try a dozen randomised trials, see which ones work, and then we can reject some of our policies, put them aside and put our money in more effective things."
Until now, evidence-based approaches have had less application in the national debate where macroeconomic issues and national security were more important.
The Howard government arguably experimented, with demand-driven vouchers for a TAFE education pilot program. But with the Rudd Government's focus on the next round of productivity reform - investing in human capital - the scope for evidence-based techniques will expand.
"That kind of approach, then, requires more evidence because it requires a different kind of approach to market design. Interventions is a related word. But it requires policy actions that are more detailed and require more evidence to make it work," Cooney says.
"If all you are doing is floating dollars or liberalising trade, then you don't need much evidence, but if you are trying to invest in human capital, if you are trying to design water markets, if you are trying to move people from welfare to work through place management rather than just building on individual capabilities, then those things are more complicated and you need more trial and error to see what works."
Ultimately the approach will be heralded as an improvement over the reign of the public policy professionals, the technocrats. Whether it will also be seen negatively as a new age of technocratic social control will test the political skills of the new Government.