Endless inquiries taking us for a ride

Posted on 17 Oct 2023

By David Crosbie, CEO, Community Council for Australia


It’s time to stop the inaction merry-go-round of government consultations, inquiries and reports and get to work, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie.

One of the strategies used extensively by Australian governments to avoid making any serious commitment to a particular issue is to establish an inquiry, a consultation, a panel, or an advisory group to prepare a report and make recommendations.

The federal Parliament alone currently lists over 100 inquiries.

Australia is excellent at conducting inquiries.

Australia also excels at developing all kinds of plans.

A good example is the most recently developed National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–2032.

By most standards, it is an excellent plan – a comprehensive 10-year vision across multiple domains informed by extensive research, collaboration and consultation.

But a first-rate plan doesn’t necessarily change things.

We have similar plans for many aspects of our lives and our communities, including industry-specific plans, health system plans, education plans, poverty plans, environmental plans, disease-specific plans, plans for population groups, including Indigenous peoples.

In fact, having a plan for everything has become so popular for governments that it has become an end in itself.

It is an accepted way for governments to be seen to be doing something about an area or an issue, even if all they are really doing is agreeing to put a set of words onto paper.

All this work conducting inquiries and reviews, framing recommendations and developing plans takes a lot of time and effort. And every now and then these processes are useful – they work to get more resources into an area or to have the resources better used to achieve better outcomes.

Unfortunately, outcome-focused plans driving new investment and change are not the norm.

More often than not, the consultation and planning to address an issue of concern is almost like a parallel process to the real-world experiences of the issue, a parallel process that can serve to block rather than facilitate action.

While we are busy having input into consultations and inquiries, reviewing the proposed recommendations and outcomes, then contributing to the development of some kind of plan, we are probably not engaged as much in our core business of addressing the issue.

Perhaps just as importantly, it becomes difficult to advocate for more investment and action because we are already part of government processes having input into future policies and plans.

Engaging charities and not-for-profits in an endless process of consultation and planning provides government with cover. But it can be difficult to say no because we all want to work with government to address the areas of concern.

Refusing to participate can also mean organisations might miss out on opportunities for funding or other government support and engagement.

So, how do we decide whether we should play or not play in these processes?

What kinds of factors determine whether the process is going to be useful and deliver outcomes, or a waste of your time and expertise?

"Maybe if a few more of us said no to pointless processes, the inaction merry-go-round of consultations, inquiries and reports might slow down enough to review the work already done?"

I tend to focus on four key factors.

Of course, there are others that may be just as important or relevant, depending on the kind of work or issue you are engaged in.

You may also have specific reasons to participate or engage. But if you are going to offer your input, usually with no compensation to you or your organisation, it needs to be a good use of your valuable resources.

First, I want to know if those involved in the policy development have any commitment to real change, and real investment. Producing a beautiful document is fine, but not if it leads to no change.

Second, I need to know whether there has been any review of what has already been tried in this area, plans and recommendations that may have already been developed, and whether we really need to revisit those plans rather than embark on a new process.

My third area of focus is authenticity, which to me means genuine engagement, partly measured by prolonged engagement and positive supportive relationships.

There are many policy bandwagons that people readily jump on and off. I prefer to know that people have been actively engaged in an area for some time, and are committed to working as partners and taking as long as it needs.

Finally, I need to know there is a commitment to ruling some activities out.

Having a plan that encompasses every possible activity in a certain area is not a plan, it’s just a set of words everyone can agree to. A good plan is strategic, supporting only a limited number of effective actions.

Unfortunately, the most common form of a national strategic plan is framed to validate everything that is currently occurring, to ensure everyone agrees, and that everything can go on as normal despite there being a new national plan.

Across the charities and NFP sector there is a high level of engagement in government consultation and planning.

In many instances, this contribution isn’t valued beyond a government official being able to tick a box. Even if we are listened to, even if we already know what needs to be done to make a real difference, there is often no commitment to increased investment or change.

We have had comprehensive reviews of our sector involving thousands of submissions, extensive consultations, and countless hours of input and deliberations, generating millions of words in government reports.

As emeritus professor Myles McGregor-Lowndes points out in his revealing analysis of six government reports into the sector:

“In these reports alone, I counted over 160 recommendations, with 21 implemented, 113 unimplemented, and 33 partial or no longer applicable implementations.

“There is even one notable recommendation about recommendations from the 2010 Productivity Commission that ‘over the last 14 years, there have been five major reviews of the NFP sector, yet many worthwhile recommendations remain unimplemented.’”

I note that the leader of the Opposition, in his first address to Australia following the referendum outcome, talked about his commitment to the safety of Indigenous children.

He said he would hold a Royal Commission into Child Abuse in Indigenous Communities.

I doubt he has read the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–2032, let alone the specific section on developing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander action plan grounded in the Closing the Gap Target 13:

“By 2031, the rate of all forms of family violence and abuse against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children is reduced at least by 50%, as progress towards zero.”

Herein lies the heart of the problem.

Even when thousands of hours of consultation, research and considered work have been provided by informed and knowledgeable people, including those with extensive lived experience, we often ignore this work and reinvent another process to develop another set of words for us to ignore all over again.

It is, in many ways, an ignorant approach to policy development, and we seem to have perfected it in Australia.

Maybe if a few more of us said no to pointless processes, the inaction merry-go-round of consultations, inquiries and reports might slow down enough to review the work already done?

Why do we keep playing these games with governments?

David Crosbie has been CEO of the Community Council for Australia for the past decade and has spent more than a quarter of a century leading significant not-for-profit organisations, including the Mental Health Council of Australia, the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and Odyssey House Victoria.

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