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The ‘interconnected but parallel universes’ of public policy

Well, in case you missed it we have a new federal government. Should you have thoughts of influencing the new government’s health policy development, you may wish to consider this overview of the recent Power to Persuade Symposium, provided by symposium developer Gemma Carey.

Gemma Carey writes:

More than a hundred policymakers, community sector workers and academics came together in Melbourne recently to answer these questions at the Power to Persuade Symposium.

Now in its second year, this event was set up to break down the barriers between sectors, creating a dialogue to help the community sector and academics better understand and influence public policy.

Prof John Wiseman, from the University of Melbourne, summed up the current problem in his opening address: ‘Public servants, academics and the community sector live in interconnected but parallel universes.’

However, creating policies that reflect the realities of people’s everyday lives depends on these groups working effectively together.

If we don’t build interconnections between these three ‘parallel universes’, policies will be made ‘on the run’, research will be disconnected from the needs of government, and the community sector will struggle to advocate for the needs of citizens.

Several high-level speakers reflected on the machinations of government, including:

Prof Peter Shergold, Former Head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney

Dr John Chesterman, Office of the Public Advocate

Prof John Wiseman, University of Melbourne

Cath Smith, Future Eye and former head of ACOSS

Former Age editor Michael Gawenda and Claire O’Rourke (Essential Media) also tackled the role of evidence in policy, culminating in a panel discussion on new media as a tool for advocacy;

Opening the black box of government

The symposium saw senior public servants overturn the assumption that policy decisions stem from clear evidence.

While they all agreed evidence is important, former public servant John Wiseman said that anecdotes ‘trump’ data when it comes to convincing politicians.

Former Head of Prime Minister of Cabinet Peter Shergold said that making policy is a complex and messy business. Vocal opposition is constant, and the chain of public servants, advisors and ministers involved means that translating evidence into policy is like a game of Chinese whispers.

John Chesterman, from the Office of the Public Advocate, agreed, saying that policies are more likely to be ‘evidence informed’ than ‘evidence based’.

In public policy we hear from a growing number of voices and ‘actors’ – NGOs, public institutions, lobby groups and so on.

However, speakers at The Power to Persuade also highlighted the growing complexity and increasing number of actors within government – something that is largely due to additional administrative review requirements (including the Auditor General and Ombudsmen).

Peter Shergold shared the striking revelation that, even as Head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, he struggled to influence policy in the ways he wanted to.

Shaping policy is becoming more difficult for groups outside government. Not only do they find themselves drowned out by competing voices, it is also becoming less clear where to intervene within the policy process.

“You’ve got to open all doors at once” (Peter Shergold)

By opening up the ‘black box’ of government and the public service, the symposium gave attendees the chance to reflect upon their own advocacy strategies and their place in the policy process.

One of the most important messages from the day was that organisations need to be more analytical and strategic. They must evaluate the type of policy process they are engaging in (e.g. formal reviews, consultations or issues driven debate) and ask themselves whether they are equipped to contribute.

For example, some organisations have the infrastructure to respond to large reviews, but lack the flexibility to react quickly when a new ‘policy window’ opens.

To compensate for these constraints and build a wider support base for change, organisations were encouraged to partner more strategically and more daringly.

Former VCOSS Director Cath Smith urged those who want to influence policy to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ – unlikely allies can be a powerful and persuasive tool.

The Power to Persuade Symposium provides an opportunity for frank and open dialogue between public servants, academics and the community sector. The Symposium began in 2012 and is developed and led by Gemma Carey (Centre for Excellence in Intervention & Prevention Science) and Kathy Landvogt (Good Shepherd Youth and Family Service).

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