Most public sector agencies are designed as centres of expertise on policy and service delivery.
By gathering, or training, experts in a given topical area and marshalling and directing this expertise to resolve specific issues and goals, agencies have been designed to design and deliver effective and sound policy and service delivery solutions to governments for communities.
Sure these powerhouses of expertise consult a little on the fringes. They access academia and business to provide ‘fringe’ expertise that they cannot attract into their agencies and engage with NGOs, community groups and individual citizens to check that service delivery solutions meet the ‘on-the-ground’ needs of specific communities.
This is necessary for fine-tuning any policy or service solutions to meet specific needs, where cost-effective to do so.
However the main game, the real policy powerhouse, are the government agencies themselves, who take on the roles of researcher, think tank, gatekeeper, designer and deliverer through their central pool of expertise.
This is a longstanding – even ‘traditional’ approach to governance. It was designed and adopted in an era where geography, communication and education limited the extent and access to expertise in a nation or community. Where, often, many people were disempowered politically and economically through limited access to information and knowledge.
Consider Australia at Federation in 1901.
The new Commonwealth Government, in addressing national issues, had to serve a population of 3.7 million people (smaller than Victoria’s population today), with an average age of 22 years old, dispersed over 7.7 million square kilometres.
There was no telephone, radio, television or internet, however the overland telegraph, which gave Australia high-speed communication with the world, was 30 years old, having been completed in 1872 and extended to Perth in 1877. While most communication travelled at the speed of a fast horse, train or ship, it was possible to share information across Australia the speed of light, though at the rate of only a few messages at once. This telegraphic networked served as Australia’s communication backbone for almost another fifty years, until telephones became popular after World War II from 1945.
In 1901 Australia had one of the highest literacy rates in the world (80%) with school compulsory to 13 years old, though attendance was not enforced, many remote communities didn’t have access to schools and Indigenous Australians were excluded. Literacy meant basic reading and writing, with the ability to add and subtract – the books issued to 13yr olds today would have been far beyond the ability of the majority of students in 1901.
The majority of Australia’s 22,000 teachers hadn’t attended a teacher’s college, generally serving an apprenticeship as ‘pupil teachers’ and few ‘technical colleges’ existed to teach advanced students.
In 1901 there were only 2,600 students at Australia’s four universities (0.1% of our population) and CSIRO wasn’t even an idea (formed 1926). There wasn’t a record of how many Australians had received a university education until the 1911 Commonwealth census, which reported 2,400 students at university and 21,000 ‘scholars’ (with their level of education undefined).
In this environment, expertise was rare and treasured. Governments employed the cream of Australia’s graduates and were almost the sole source of expertise and thinking on policy issues that the new nation had to address.
The ‘government as centre of expertise’ model made sense, in fact it was the only viable way to develop a system capable of administering the world’s smallest continent and one of the largest, and most sparsely populated, nations.
Jump forward a hundred and ten years, and Australia is one of the most connected nations on the planet, with 98% of our 22 million citizens having instant access to the world through the internet and virtually every Australian having access to telephones, radio and television.
Education is compulsory to 15 or 17, with the majority of teachers tertiary educated and school attendance strictly enforced – including for Indigenous Austalians. We have about 41 universities, ten times as many as in 1901, as well as over 150 other tertiary institutions, with over 21% of Australians having received tertiary education.
As a result, the ‘government agency as expert’ model is failing.
Across our population there’s far more expertise outside of government than within. Governments struggle to attract and retain talent in a global market, hamstringing themselves by restricting employment to Australian citizens, while the commercial sector internationally will happily take Australia’s best trained minds and put them to use elsewhere in the world.
Despite this, government’s basic model has barely changed. Agencies are structured and act as ‘centres of expertise’ on policy and service delivery topics.
True, there’s a little more interaction with academia, with business and even with citizens. However agencies remain structured as ‘centres of expertise’ for policy design and service delivery, designed to serve communities with limited communication or education – limited capability to do for themselves.
This model may remain effective in certain parts of the world, in nations where literacy is low, geography remains a barrier and communication infrastructure is weak – like Papua New Guinea, regions in the Amazon and some other remote areas and developing nations.
However in developed nations, with high literacy, substantial tertiary education, where geography is no limit to communication and access to media and internet are almost universal, does the approach retain the same merit?
A ‘centre of expertise’ approach also has many downside risks which are necessary features of the system, providing the separation and public trust required by governments to operate in this way.
For example, when government agencies structure themselves as the experts, they need to maintain a level of mystique and authority to justify public trust that they are providing the best advice and solutions.
Just like a religion has special rituals, and restaurants rarely let you see how their kitchens operate in order to preserve the trust of their worshippers and customers, government agencies conceal their day-to-day operations from scrutiny to maintain a mystique of expertise and create a clear separation between the ‘agency business’ of government and the external workings of society.
This often involves keeping policy development processes hidden behind a wall of secrecy, bureaucratic language and bizarre semi-ritualistic procedures.
This is also why, despite FOI and other approaches, governments largely remain secretive about their processes for designing policy. They can be messy, which may reduce trust and call into question the expertise of the agency or government.
As a result, if you’re not a policy expert, in most countries it is unlikely that ordinary citizens have much knowledge of how an agency has developed a given policy, who was involved (formally or informally) or why certain decisions were reached. These activities are done behind closed doors – in the confessional, behind the kitchen wall, backstage – with all their inherent messiness, testing of ‘dangerous’ ideas and economic modelling of who wins and who loses with any specific decision treated as confidential and secret knowledge.
This leads to a second issue and a rationalisation. As the public isn’t aware of how a specific policy or service was developed, generally seeing only the final ‘packaged’ solution, agencies can reasonably and logically argue that the majority of the public have little to add to the policy process.
‘Expert’ policy officers can argue that; the public doesn’t have sufficient context, doesn’t have all the facts, doesn’t understand the consequences of decisions or the trade-offs that had to be made.
And of course this is true. Because the public were not part of the process, they did not go on the same journey that the public sector ‘experts’ went on to reach a particular policy conclusion.
The public is told ‘trust us, we’re the experts’, and again this is indeed true. Only the policy insiders had the opportunity to become the experts, all others were kept outside the process and therefore can never fully understand the outcome.
Success in implementing policies and services relies on the public trusting agencies and governments to be the experts. To trust them to do their jobs as the ‘experts’ who ‘know better’ than the community. However the ‘secret agency business’ of policy and service design can feed on itself. Government may attempt to keep more and more from their citizens as, from their perspective, the more they reveal the less the public trust agencies.
This is a tenuous approach to trust in modern society, where scrutiny is intense and every individual has a public voice.
If the agency policy experts, in their rush to meet a government timetable, overlooked one factor, or misunderstood community needs, a policy can quickly unravel and, like an emperor with no clothes, the public can rapidly lose faith and trust in government to deliver appropriate solutions.
In this situation it is rare that an expertise-based agency or government will be willing to publicly admit that they misunderstood the issue, convenes the people affected and expertise in the community and discusses it until they have a workable solution. It does happen, but it is the exception not the rule.
Instead, the first reaction to external scrutiny is often to protect their position and justify why the public should trust them. They may draw the wagons round, either seeking to bluff their way through (‘you don’t understand why we made these decisions, but trust us’), ‘hide’ the failure under a barrel (it was a draft, here’s the real policy), or to tell the public that the agency will fix the issue (‘trust us this second time’).
In some extreme examples, governments may even cross lines to protect their perceived trust and reputation – concealing information or discrediting external expertise in order to justify the expertise inside their walls and try to regain public trust.
There are other risks as well to the government as expert model. Policy experts, who have worked in the field a long time, may not accept the expertise of ‘outsiders’ who appear to be interloping on their territory ‘ who are they to tell us what we should do’. Agency experts may become out-of-date due to not working in a field practically for a long time, they may hire the wrong experts, or simply not hire experts at all and attempt to create them.
In all these cases, agencies have a strong structural need to preserve public trust and their integrity – which may often exhibit itself as ‘protecting’ their internal experts from external scrutiny, or otherwise attempting to prevent any loss of reputation through being exposed as providing less than good advice.
These risks mean that the government as expert model is under increasing pressure.
A more educated and informed citizenry, with high levels of access to publication tools means that every public agency mistake and misstep can be identified, scrutinised, analysed and shared widely.
Each policy failure and example of a government agency protecting itself at the expense of the community. Each allegation of corruption, fraud or negligent practice – whether at local, state or national level – contributes to a reduction in trust and respect that affects most, if not all, of government.
Of course this government as expert model hasn’t completely failed. There are areas that the community isn’t interested in, where the government is indeed the expert or where it would be dangerous to release information into the public eye – where we do have to trust the governments we elect to act in our best interests without the ability to scrutinise their decisions. These areas are shrinking, but some are likely to always remain.
However the model started fraying around the edges some time ago and we see it represented today in the increasing lack of respect or trust in government.
Citizens don’t compartmentalise these failures in ways that governments hope they will, often seeing them as systemic failures rather than individual issues.
As a result citizens trust governments less, have less faith that governments can develop appropriate policies and services and turn even more scrutiny onto agencies – even when unwarranted.
The failures of the government as expert model are only likely to grow and extend, with greater scrutiny and greater pressure on agencies to perform. This, unfortunately, is likely to lead to more errors, not less, as governments seek to make faster decisions with fewer internal resources, less experts, less time.
So how does this failing model get resolved? What are the alternatives approach that governments can adopt to remain effective, relevant and functional in a society with high literacy, education, access to information and almost universal capability to publicly analyse government performance?
In my view the main solution is for governments, except in specific secure topics, to turn themselves inside out – changing their approach from being policy and service deliver ‘centres of expertise’ to being policy and service delivery ‘convenors and implementors’.
Rather than seeking to hire experts and design policy and services internally, agencies need to hire people who can convene expertise within communities and from stakeholders, marshalling it to design policy and codesign service and focus on supporting this process with their expertise in structuring these approaches to fit the realities of government and implementing the necessary solutions.
This approach involves an entirely transparent design process (for both policies and services), making it possible to inform and engage the community at every step.
Within this approach, government agencies gain the trust of the community through managing the process and outcomes, not through being the expert holding the wisdom. The community doesn’t need to trust a black box process, it comes on the journey alongside the agency, developing a deeper and richer trust and support for the outcomes. As a result, the energy of the community is aligned to support the agency in making the policy succeed, rather than being disengaged, or actively opposing the policy and leading to failure.
Government becomes an active participant and enabler of the community, reducing the cost of communicating information and influencing citizen ideas as citizens are influenced through their participation or observation of the proces.
This approach does require substantial education – both within government and within the community – to ensure that all participants are aware and actively engaged in their new roles. It can’t, and shouldn’t, be introduced into all agencies overnight and there are some policy requirements where security should take precedence and processes cannot be as fully revealed.
However the approach could be introduced relatively easily (and some governments around the world have done this already). For instance, a government could select three to five issues and put together taskforces responsible for taking a collaborative approach to deliver specific policy or service solutions.
These taskforces provide a ‘public secretariat’ for managing community and stakeholder involvement, acting as facilitators, not operators, to marshal community engagement in the design process.
This could even be done at arms length from a government, with taskforces drawing on expertise from outside public sector culture to avoid accidental imposition of elements of a central command and control model, provided they include core skills from the public sector necessary to ensure the policies or services developed can be effectively and practically implemented by government.
This process would test the public policy design model, capturing learnings and experiences – not from a single process run once, but from an parallel process, with multiple taskforces running at the same time to test the real-world impact in a reduced timeframe. Learnings from the taskforces would be aggregated and used to build a more complete understanding of how to adopt the approach more widely within agencies.
Provided governments committed to the outcomes of these processes, and selected issues of interest to the community, this approach would provide solid evidence for the effectiveness (or otherwise) of a facilitation/implementation, rather than an internal expertise, approach to governance.
Alongside this moderated approach to public policy development, a complementary citizen-led policy engagement approach could be introduced using an ePetition or ePolicy methodology.
Mirroring the approach taken in other jurisdictions, where the community is given a method to propose, develop and have debated in parliament, citizen policy and legislation, this would provide another route for citizens to engage with and understand the complexity of policy development and build an alternative route for high-attention issues for which governments are not prepared to take immediate action.
This approach has been adopted in several forms overseas, such as the ePetition approaches in the US and UK, where any petition with sufficient votes receives the attention of the government and, in the case of the UK, is debated in Parliament.
A more rigorous model is used in Latvia, where citizens are supported to design actual legislation online and, if they can marshall sufficient support, their bills go to parliament, they get to speak on them and the parliament votes them up or down.
This last model is beginning to be introduced in Scandinavian countries and Switzerland has long had a similar process, pre-dating the internet, which allows greater participation by citizens in decisions.
So, in summary, the ‘internal expert’ model designed for use in nations with limited literacy and education and poor communication, is failing to serve the needs of highly educated and connected nations, such as Australia, leading to increasing citizen concern and plummeting trust in governments.
To address this, governments need to adapt their approaches to suit the new realities – environments where there are more experts outside of government than inside and where citizens can universally scrutinise governments and publish facts, analysis and opinions which serve to increasingly force governments into difficult and untenable positions.
The key changes governments need to make is to turn themselves ‘inside out’ – exposing their policy and service delivery design and development processes to public scrutiny and engagement and becoming facilitators and implementors of public policy, rather than the expert creators of it.
While some areas of governance need to remain ‘black boxes’, many can be opened up to public participation, building trust with communities by bringing citizens on the journey with agencies to reach the most practical and appropriate solutions.
This will rebuild trust in governance and allow governments to improve their productivity and performance by tapping a greater range of expertise and building an easier path to implementation, where citizens support agencies, rather than oppose them.