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QUARTERLY ESSAY 60 Political Amnesia

 

Correspondence

Tarah Barzanji

At heart, the problem is one of accountability. Accountability for policy development no longer lies with the public service. Instead, it is often within the purview of the ministerial staffer or the party’s election policy committee. Without doubt, we want our governments and staffers to provide a touchstone or framework for policy development, and to outline the values that policies should advance. And it is entirely appropriate for a new government to bring urgency for change and an appetite for reform. But detailed policy design by ministerial staffers is probably not healthy. 

While I was working in Prime Minister Rudd’s office, I thought it was to the credit of our policy advisers that briefs did not obsessively focus on political sensitivities. Instead, sensitivities comprised a short section and were often de-emphasised amid complex policy discussion. Now I wonder if our large and very capable staff should have been less instrumental in policy design.

Ideally, we want our public service to be an engine room for ideas, which are then modified according to the values of the current government. But until the public service gets a clear message that it should be “open for policy business,” it will struggle to attract and retain the talent required to develop both good ideas and institutional memory. 

Centralised decision-making concentrates power in an ever-smaller group, within a very large public service. By many accounts, Prime Minister Turnbull appears to be returning government to a more decentralised status quo. A friend in his office confirms that he has strong intentions to run a cabinet government. When considering a brief from his office, Turnbull quips, “I’ll need to ask the opinion of my health adviser,” referring to the Minister for Health. 

Less centralised decision-making should help with another of Tingle’s laments: that all ministers and parliamentary secretaries are viewed (by the government and the media) as mouthpieces on any topic, rather than experts in their policy area. Indeed, the talking points that we distributed each morning from Prime Minister Rudd’s office were called “Round-the-worlds,” in recognition that any member of government could get a question on any topic. 

Finally, we should be alert for “institutional memory” masking an underlying resistance to change. Occasionally in my time at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, I noticed that we would brief against a policy because we had a vague institutional memory of a similar policy being debated and rejected in the past. As a recent graduate, I took this as received wisdom. But looking back, it may just have been institutional inertia. 

So while memory is useful, we should be careful that it is not used merely to maintain the status quo. Indeed, in some areas it may be helpful to start afresh. Some of the most interesting social policy ideas around the world at the moment are emerging from radical breaks with traditional ways of thinking and operating. Rather than a plaything of the rich or the supergeeks, technology is being reconceived as a way to drive inclusion, prevention and opportunity. 

Institutional memory may help to drive policy strength in the public service, but it might not serve governments equally well in embracing the new. 

 

Tarah Barzanji was an adviser to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and a commonwealth public servant. She is now a manager at the economics consultancy AlphaBeta.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 60, Political Amnesia. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 61, Balancing Act.


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