Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Australian Prime Minister and Evidence Based Public Policy

This post continues my series on the application of evidence based approaches in professional practice.

The new Australian Prime Minister has been placing great emphasis on the role of evidence in policy development. This is not just a matter of rhetoric.

At a Commonwealth-State officials meeting a week back, Commonwealth officials stated that with the new Government they were in a position to consider new things. However, they also commented on the PM's demand for evidence to support new policy proposals.

This type of demand is not, of course, new. A wide range of approaches have in fact been developed by Governments and researchers to try to improve decision making within the public sector.

Cost-benefit analysis is an early example, becoming popular during the fifties and sixties. This approach attempts to measure the costs and benefits expected from a project expressed in present value terms, allowing judgements to be made as to value.

Program evaluation is a second example. This discipline evolved in the US during the sixties because of the need to assess outcomes from major social programs introduced by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Program budgeting emerged during the same period, coming out of the US Defence Department. This approach attempted to express Government activities in terms of programs with sets of defined, measurable outcomes. Widely accepted, it forms the core of the input-output-outcome approaches so common now in public administration.

While evidence based approaches are common in public administration and in the professions surrounding public administration, it is not clear to me as a sometimes practitioner in the area that they actually work very well. In fact, I would argue that they are now having adverse effects on the efficiency and effectiveness of Government policy and programs.

There are a number of reasons for this.

To begin with, public policy involves more than simply measurable outcomes. Most policies and supporting programs involve a mix of objectives, some of which are not capable of easy quantification.

Then, too, the range of variables involved is wide, the interactions between variables uncertain.

But there is also, I think, insufficient focus on the effectiveness of various professional practices and their supporting tools. Put simply, we do try to measure outcomes from programs, but we do not assess the relative effectiveness of different ways of developing policies and programs. In this sense, public administration is a little like medicine before the development of evidence based medicine.

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