Do we need a crisis for government to perform this well?

By Sean Innis and Bob McMullan
1 May 2020

There are valuable lessons about effective governance, expertise and co-operation that should serve us well as we emerge from the pandemic.​ As our parliaments return, every parliamentarian should reflect on the duty they have to the nation as a whole. Our clear expectation should be that the overtly partisan politics of the past be replaced by a more positive approach to collective decision-making.

For many Australians, the relative decisiveness and efficiency of government decision-making over the past few months has been a welcome change. Straight talking from experts and politicians has helped us understand the choices facing the nation and the intent, if not the detail, of decisions being taken. Collaboration across political and state boundaries has breathed fresh air into our perception of government.

In return, the public has responded with understanding to difficult government decisions in a way unimaginable a few short months ago. Yes, there has been a degree of confusion and disagreement. And it is clear also that our faith in government has limits and remains fragile. But for the moment at least, a distinctly different bargain exists between government and its people.

Change also extends to the media. Starved of its usual oxygen of base political contest, the media has refocussed. Infection and death rates, policy detail and the changing state of the nation have knocked political gossip from the front of media discussion. Policy, rather than politics, has our attention.

Perhaps the most obvious symbol of change has been the national cabinet. From the ashes of a disharmonious and often acrimonious Council of Australian Governments has risen an effective, cooperative decision-maker at the pinnacle of our federation.  The contrast with what is rapidly becoming the “Dis” United States of America could not be greater.

If it were possible to leave the context of a devastating pandemic aside, there is a bit to like about this new Australia. Diligent, honest governments working hard together to define and implement actions focussed on the interests of the people. If only we could have that all the time.

But the reality is that you cannot leave context aside. We are in a crisis. And in a crisis, different rules apply.

With crisis comes focus. The normal array of competing interests and claims governments must balance are put to one side. In their place a clear, common, and all-encompassing objective emerges. For Australia today the objective is simple: control the spread of the virus while minimising economic harm.

It is this focus that has changed government and, along with it, society. Timeliness and decisiveness have overtaken consultation and nuance as desirable government traits. An elite decision-making model has emerged, where experts in relatively narrow fields drive overall policy. Australia’s generally more reflective democracy, where governments respond to the unadorned opinions of constituents, has suddenly lost its attraction.

Suspension of the normal operations of parliament, party and ministerial office has reinforced this shift. Even ideology has, apparently, been put to one side. Only an externally generated crisis could bring such large changes in the operation of our democracy, so quickly and so quietly.

So, where does this leave us as a nation?

The first and most important observation is that we should not expect what we are seeing from governments through the crisis to continue once it is over. Many of the government behaviours we admire today will become far less attractive as life returns to normal. Few of us would accept the incursions we have seen into our basic freedoms in normal times, let alone without the opportunity for widespread debate and consultation.

The second observation is that, as messy and frustrating as our democracy can be, the underlying structures of our nation serve us reasonably well. National Cabinet could not exist without the infrastructure and traditions that supported COAG. And the critical role being played by chief medical officers would not exist without past decisions by parliaments and past planning by executive government.

The third observation is that how our democracy works is as much about behaviours and expectations as formal structures. No law required our parliamentarians to change the way they work. Instead, these behaviours came from the heightened sense of duty a crisis brings. This is one change we should seek to retain as the crisis recedes.

The contrast between Australia and our friends in the US could not be stronger.

The final observation is that now is the right time to start the transition back a more normal operation of our democracy. With the immediate health crisis receding, it is in all of all interests for greater consultation and debate to resume as we chart the difficult steps involved in reopening our society and economy. Even ideology has a place in the debate moving forward.

But a complete return to the past would miss an important opportunity. While our democracy is not bad, it could certainly be better. Now is an obvious time to think about positive change. There is no reason why some of the positive behaviours we have seen from government in the crisis should not continue as we return to normal.

Overtly partisan

Like our economy, our parliaments have been largely put into hibernation. The upside of this has been the space it has given executive government to manage the pandemic. The downside is that parliament is the cornerstone of Australian democracy.

A return to the normal functioning of parliament is critical as we move into the next phase of decision-making in response to COVID-19. Decisions to reopen our society and economy, and those which will define our new normal, are decisions of recovery, not crisis. Governments now should move quickly to re-establish normal parliamentary operations.

As our parliaments return, every parliamentarian and all political parties should reflect on the duty they have to the nation as a whole. Our clear expectation should be that the overtly partisan politics of the past be replaced by a more positive approach to collective decision-making. We need a return to a contest of ideas, not of base politics.

One positive approach would be for parliament to commission a series of inquiries around some of the longer-term issues that will define Australia once the crisis is over. Every crisis brings change to society. And now is the time to start thinking about the Australia we want to create post-pandemic.

There are many fruitful lines of inquiry parliaments could take. One would be to examine how best to ensure intergenerational fairness in managing the public debt created through the crisis. Another would be to examine how best to facilitate the movement of people across Australia’s border, while protecting against future pandemics.  A third might be to examine the impact greater working from home might have on Australia’s society, economy and environment.

But the main thing is to engage parliament actively in decisions that are to come.

Does messy federation have to return?

The performance of the national cabinet has been the administrative success story of the pandemic. Cooperative and decisive action at the top of our federation has been crucial to successful management of the virus. It is clear that national cabinet should continue until current restrictions have been removed.  But what then?

It would be naïve to expect that national cabinet could operate the same way after the crisis ends. As normality resumes our messy federation will return to the hard task of managing often overlapping responsibilities in a context of competing policy and financial priorities. The shared focus which has driven the success of national cabinet will disappear.

But, as with parliament, an opportunity exists to harness the lessons of the pandemic to chart a better course for our federation.

Given the success of national cabinet, there would be merit in Australian governments commissioning a review of its operations to identify lessons for the future. The temptation to undertake this review in-house should be resisted. Instead, governments should commission an expert group to conduct an independent public review.

One factor the review should reflect on, is the respect national cabinet has shown to the underlying responsibilities of each jurisdiction. On the surface at least, national cabinet decisions have sought to complement and inform jurisdictional responsibilities rather than usurp them. This has allowed for collaboration based on common commitment rather than politics or the size of the commonwealth cheque book. If nothing else, capturing this one lesson would stand us in good stead for the future.

The operation of executive government

As it looks today, most Australians seem to feel that the executive governments of Australia have performed well through the pandemic.

In one sense this is an amazing turnaround.  It was not so long ago where dis-satisfaction with government was the norm. But at times of crisis people look to government for succour; the pandemic has been no different.

It has not been perfect, of course. Differences of view reasonably exist on the path Australia has taken and should be taking. Mistakes have been made. And it is possible, even likely, that hindsight will raise questions about elements of the overall strategy. But satisfaction outweighs concern for the time being.

One feature of pandemic has been the prominent role played by public servant experts in influencing policy and communicating with the public. This is normal in crisis situations. Earlier this year emergency services commissioners were playing a similar role during the bushfires.

Underneath this, has been an increased reliance from ministers on the broader policy, administrative and delivery expertise of Australian public services.

People often labelled unflatteringly as bureaucrats have become an important source of ideas, advice and action.

And as the role of public servants has changed, so has another – that of the ministerial advisers.

Deeper still, are changes in the way ministers and departments have been working together to solve common problems that extend beyond the boundaries of individual portfolios.  Collaboration rather than patch protection and competition has characterised behaviour within executive government. While collaboration inside government occurs much more often than popularly assumed, this still feels like a novel experience.

It would be naïve to think that the behaviours of today will extend forcefully beyond the crisis. Government needs a healthy level of internal contest if it is to properly consider and balance the many competing priorities and views within our society. As normality returns, we can expect (and should welcome) more contest within government.

But a complete return to normal would miss some lessons the crisis has brought.

Expertise and collaboration

Four lessons, in particular, should guide the future structures and behaviours of executive government.

The first is ensuring that the critical role expertise plays in underpinning sound decision-making continues once the crisis is over.  Utilising the expertise provided by emergency services commissioners or chief medical officers has been clearly valuable in responding to the challenges we have faced through both the pandemic and the bushfires.

It is inevitable that the value of this narrow expertise will lessen as government returns to the much larger range of competing priorities it normally faces. But the value of the broader policy and delivery expertise provided by the public service (in particular) will not. Investing in the on-going capability of the public service to play an active positive role in supporting government decision making should be a priority moving forward. Government should also look at how best to ensure that the flexibility shown in redeploying public service staff during the crisis can continue after it ends.

The second relates to the improving clarity around the roles of, and support for, ministerial office staff.  This is a longstanding issue but has been highlighted again by the crisis. Ministerial staff play a key, but poorly defined, role in executive government. It is time to put a professionalised structure in place to bring appropriate certainty to the boundaries and responsibilities of the adviser role, and to provide proper professional support to the people playing these important roles.

The third relates to the balance between contest and collaboration within executive government. A return to more contest is desirable, but so is a capturing of the structures and behaviours that have underpinned the more focussed decision making we have seen during the crisis. A reflection on how the internal structures and processes of government best capture this balance would be a worthwhile investment.

The final lesson relates to building the trustworthiness of government. The clear but fragile trust Australians are showing government will be harder to retain as we move into the next phase of decision-making.

As we move forward, it will be important for government to focus on being worthy of our on-going trust. To do this, they need to learn some key lessons of the past and reflect on the reasons for the positive support they are getting today.

Four actions are particularly important.

The first is to minimise avoidable failures of delivery, including by reducing gaps between public expectations and governments ability to deliver.

Second is to adhere to high standards of governance and to explain clear why individual actions are in the nation’s interests rather than self-interest.

Third is to engage the community open, honest and meaningful dialogue about the nation’s future.

And fourth is to ensure that government builds the deep-thinking capacity and operational flexibility to needed to adapt to what is clearly a changing world.

Can we learn and respond?

The experience of the pandemic reminds us that we have a capable and potentially effective system of government in Australia. Until the pandemic though, that capability was well hidden. Rather than being a source of confidence for the nation, the behaviour and performance of government was one of serious concern.

An opportunity lies before us to use what we are learning in response to the pandemic to restart our democracy and build a better approach to government for the future.

The contest of ideas and accountability good democratic government brings should not be allowed to descend again into selfish short-termism and political opportunism. A different path is potentially in front of us. Let’s not squander it.

This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 1 May 2020 and was republished in The Mandarin on 4 May 2020, and republished as a three part series in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations blog on 7 May 2020.


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