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Imagine if SA's politicians took policy risks

Opinion

In a complex and constantly changing world, “safe” policy answers won’t cut it for a state like South Australia, argue Brenton Caffin and David Pearson.

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The American journalist H.L. Mencken once wrote that “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible and wrong”.

We are living in a world characterised by increasing volatility, uncertainty and complexity. We need leadership that embraces this uncertainty, is responsive to change and willing to try new ideas.

Most political parties know this. And yet, every election cycle brings out another slew of simplistic policies that may have been focus group tested, but unlikely to transform the communities or industries they aim to help. Bold policy options are kept well away from election policies, for fear of gifting ammunition to the media and political opponents. At the same time, the media covers policy issues less and less. Reporting of substantive policy issues on the nightly news in US Presidential elections went from 220 minutes in 2008 to 140 in 2012, to just 32 minutes in 2016. The trend is similar all over the world – and certainly reflected in our recent state election.

What we are left with are voters who are fed a watered-down diet of ideas and retail spending commitments that are designed to not scare the horses. But this simplicity pact simply leaves the public in the dark about the real challenges of navigating the increasingly complex world we face and how their government might actually help improve their lives.

Does it have to be this way?

There are an increasing number of governments around the world that are embracing this uncertainty with a new spirit of experimentation and they are bringing the public along with them.

Upon winning government, the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, instructed his ministers to dedicate a fixed percentage of program funds to experiment with new approaches to existing problems and to measure the impact. The goal is to foster environments “conducive to experimentation, innovation and intelligent risk-taking” while not punishing ministers or public servants for well-managed risks that fail to produce improvements. They are, however, expected to share the results of their experiments – positive, negative or neutral – with a default position of releasing the results publicly. Would we – the community, the media, the public service and the political class – support or punish this kind of innovation in South Australia?

The Finnish Government has gone a step further and established an Office of Experimentation in their Prime Minister’s Department. It focuses on three areas of activity: to lead strategic government-wide experiments (such as their current Universal Basic Income initiative), to support departmental experimentation, and to fund and support experiments among civil society and community groups.

UK based innovation foundation Nesta established a European Innovation Growth Lab to better understand how policy interventions actually support innovation and entrepreneurship. Just as researchers do in medicine, it uses rigorous experimentation methods, such as randomised controlled trials, rather than guesswork and anecdote.

So what might this look like in our state?

South Australia has a long history of policy and social innovation. Experimentation in the Playford and Dunstan eras has helped the state to navigate major economic and social transitions. More recently, programs such as the Thinkers in Residence have given us the space to imagine what might be possible if we advanced the social and economic development of our state together, rather than separately as we so often do.

Meanwhile, the increasing use of citizens’ juries has opened up the process of discovery and deliberation to the broader public. The jury on the nuclear fuel cycle showed that the public, informed of all the evidence collected by a royal commission, were still not convinced on the merits of expanding our state’s role in that industry. Citizen’s juries have also enabled, through deliberation, sensible policy solutions to be found on road safety and liquor licencing.

We feel that these efforts, while positive, could go even further. We propose that the new South Australia Government’s proposed Productivity Commission be expanded to be a Productivity and Experimentation Commission. Reporting directly to the Parliament it would help South Australia experiment with ways of better meeting the challenges of the 21st century, from environmental sustainability to economic and social development. It could draw on our rich scientific and research community to design effective experiments to test and inform bold policy ideas. The work of the commission should be transparent and should involve the communities it would affect. It could be supported by a standing citizens jury to complement the work of parliamentary committees that are so often dominated by partisan rancour.

What might South Australia look like with a Universal Basic Income? A legalised cannabis industry? Better planning laws to allow tiny houses on over-sized inner city blocks? We don’t yet know the answer to these questions, but an Experimentation Commission might allow us to explore their complexity with greater rigour and transparency. For all of us to better deliberate over and test policy rather than just react to it on morning talkback radio and in the comments pages of our newspapers.

A century ago, Mencken also wrote, “the public demand certainties… But there are no certainties.”

Rather than continuing the charade of pretending to know all the answers, wouldn’t it be refreshing to see our political parties embrace a little more humility and adopt a process of exploration and discovery in which the people could have greater faith and involvement?

And wouldn’t it be great if we let them?

Brenton Caffin is Executive Director at the global innovation foundation Nesta and

David Pearson is Executive Director of the Don Dunstan Foundation. Views are their own.

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