169 – If I were a government minister …

I was recently invited to write an article for the Farm Policy Journal on the topic, ‘If I were minister for agriculture …”. Here is a brief extract from the article that relates to any portfolio, not just agriculture.

The first things I would change, if I had the power, is an aspect of the public service culture in Canberra. I would attempt to foster a reduction in the speed with which people move between jobs. I am told that, currently, if you are an up-and-coming employee in an Australian Government department, and you stay in the same position for as long as two years, your colleagues start to think there must be something wrong with you. Generally people move on into new positions and even new departments very quickly. Few people have enough longevity working in a specific area to develop strong expertise and knowledge of the issues, the relevant research, the people, the myths, the history, the past policies, who the best-informed experts are, and who the snake-oil salesmen are for that area. Two years is not nearly enough, let alone three to six months, which is not uncommon. Of course, a minister cannot stop people from changing jobs if they want to, but it would be possible to create incentives for people with important and relevant expertise to stay put, and this could contribute to cultural change over time.

This culture of rapid job movement leads to a range of problems. It makes it more difficult for departments to be good at recognising flaws in policy proposals, to distinguish the really good proposals from the rest, to avoid capture by persuasive but ill-informed people, or to avoid repeating the same mistakes. It contributes to the problem that, when policies are being designed, consensus within the agency matters too much, and the quality of logic and evidence is not influential enough. It makes it harder to make good but tough decisions.

Secondly, I would attempt to move away from short-termism, to increase the chances of achieving real outcomes in the long term. For understandable political reasons, ministers tend to put a lot of pressure on their departments to spend program resources on things that will deliver benefits as quickly as possible – in particular, before the next election. Often this means that the resources achieve much less than they could do if more time was allowed. Natural Resource Management programs are particularly vulnerable to this problem. Turning around a serious resource degradation problem probably requires at least 15-20 years in most cases, but political pressures mean that the funds tend to be spent on actions that might deliver some sort of outcomes within three years. Usually, these short-term outcomes are not very significant, and they may be lost anyway once the program ends, as there is rarely any process to ensure continuity of funding to maintain benefits that have been achieved.

The over-riding issue is that I would focus on the achievement of real outcomes – real changes in things that really matter. This necessarily implies nurturing strong expertise within the Department, as well as allowing for long slow changes if necessary. It also means taking time to examine and evaluate the options using the best-available information. It means avoiding the tendency to rush into apparently obvious actions without assessing whether they will really work.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2010). If I were minister for agriculture …, Farm Policy Journal 7(2): 15-19.

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