Putting the public good in public policy

Posted on 01 Aug 2023

By David Crosbie

Policy documents

When groups of highly paid people from the public service and major consultancy firms sit in expensive offices sharing PowerPoint presentations and agreeing with each other, it doesn’t mean something is changing for the better.

The cosy relationship between senior public servants and consultants is not just about money, although no one can doubt that money is a primary motivation within the big four consultancy firms.

The amount of taxpayer money given to the big four firms for management advisory services has increased by more than 1,270% in a decade, according to new analysis from the Centre for Public Integrity.

“In 2012 the federal government spent $44 million on these services, which include audits, project management and strategic advice. In the past financial year, the bureaucracy spent $605 million, with the largest share of that money going to KPMG,” reported the Guardian’s Australian edition.

A lot of this government expenditure is related to audits, and the Department of Defence is one of the biggest spenders, but we also know that part of the increasing expenditure is about government drawing on major consultancy firms to support policy development and implementation.

Whatever the actual figures are, governments are clearly more comfortable spending money on expensive big four consultancies in the development of policy input than they are in seeking expert input and advice from charities, community organisations and academics.

This is reflected in the marketing of consultancy firms’ services to government. For example, this is a blurb from one of the major firms:

“Good policy development requires sound processes, evidence and insights. Our consultants help you develop policy by analysing evidence, engaging with stakeholders to understand their issues, to generate, develop and test new policy solutions, and to support implementation. .... Our consultants work with you to consider key decisions, including identifying the most effective way to implement policy to achieve the desired outcomes and identifying the right organisations and people to be involved.”

We rarely see charity and community group expertise marketed in this way.

Part of the success of consultancy firms in this area is that together with the public service, they have developed a shared perspective on what makes good policy.

It is difficult to accurately characterise or generalise about this shared consultancy and public servant perspective, but it is often more about ticking the boxes and meeting perception requirements than about delivering public benefit.

Senior government policy makers tend to define good policy as a set of words we can all agree to. While keeping everyone onside can be a political goal, the problem with policy where everything is still possible, where the words rule nothing out, is that it is useless policy.

Safe, all-encompassing, everyone-agrees policy requires no change, no improvement, no shift in anyone’s behaviour.

In most areas of public policy, the problem is not about knowing what needs to be done, but about the lack of action consistent with what is known to be required.

A spin-off from the safe-set-of-words approach to government policy is the window-dressing approach.

The goal of window-dressing policies is to be able to say the government is actively addressing an issue of concern without actually doing anything to address the issue of concern.

Whether the government is considering options for the future, planning to become involved in an area, keen to address problems moving forward, looking to prepare a report, or aware of the issues and seeking solutions, all these statements mean nothing if nothing is actually being done.

In most areas of public policy, the problem is not about knowing what needs to be done, but about the lack of action consistent with what is known to be required.

In a public forum this week I was asked a question about how I defined good government policy, especially given government policy failures like Robodebt.

My response was to talk about authenticity, and there is one critical element that tells me whether policy development and implementation is authentic: prolonged engagement.

Good policy needs to be informed by experience, and that can be facilitated in many ways. Ideally there is engagement from those whom the policy will apply to, but that rarely happens.

Involvement of those affected by policy often occurs long after policy goals and parameters have been set. If consultations do occur, they tend to be rushed and shallow.

Most good government policy is about delivering some form of public benefit.

David Crosbie
Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie

This can be economic, social, health, well-being, productivity or environmental, but whatever the benefit of the policy is intended to be, without ongoing monitoring, measurement, and evaluation it is difficult to argue the policy is authentic.

Just as engagement is important in the initial policy development, it is ongoing engagement over time that is the key to effective policy implementation and evaluation.

Prolonged engagement is also critical to continual improvement. Being prepared to engage with communities, using expertise to monitor and measure outcomes and impact, and modifying activities as required to better achieve policy goals should all be fundamental aspects of any good government policy.

Serious and prolonged consultation with communities, particularly disadvantaged communities, should generally be outsourced from the public service and big consultancy firms, and allocated to those who know and are engaged with their communities.

In most cases this will be charities and community organisations.

The story of government expenditure on consultancy firms is partly a story about the acceptance of superficial policy. It is also a story about government failure to recognise the immense value charities and community organisations can offer in developing authentic policies that result in real and sustainable public benefits.

That part of the consultancy story is not being told.

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.

He has served on numerous national advisory groups and boards including the first advisory board for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission, the Not-for-Profit Sector Reform Council, and the National Compact Expert Advisory Group, which he chaired.

His diverse career outside the sector includes stints as a teacher in prison, a probation officer, a university lecturer, a farm hand, a truck driver, a bank teller, a public servant, and a musician in a successful rock band.

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