Saturday, 11 October 2014

Is New Zealand's Policy Sector 'Evidence Based'? Part 2

One of my favourite movies is Usual Suspects, released in 1995.  The film contains some memorable dialogue, but the one line that has stuck in my mind is probably the most often quoted: “the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist”.  This quote refers to the deceptive practices employed by the ‘Evil One’ to divert attention away from the role he/she plays in the madness and pain of everyday life.  A similar deceit frames the New Zealand’s Policy Industry’s on-going attempts to convince both the public and its political masters that it is politically neutral.  In my experience the Policy Industry in New Zealand is much more successful in this endeavour with the public, while most politicians are well aware of the politicised nature of the public service.

These comments are qualified, however, by acknowledging that many members of the public service, in particular those doing the technical work (let’s call them the ‘policy proletariat’) try hard to adhere to the public service code of conduct and the theoretical and practice bases of this thing we call evidence-based policy (EBP).  However, apart from the odd exception, in my experience policy-making is a fraught process which often requires its practitioners to compromise these core values on a regular basis.  Why?  Because in reality, contemporary policy making in New Zealand is not much different from the supposed bad old days of opinion-based policy that existed before the rise of EBP.  In fact I argue that the ‘Industry’ is no less ideological than it ever was, and it certainly is far from the objective, politically neutral beast its exponents claim it to be.

There are a number of ways we can evidence the argument that the Policy Industry is political: firstly, it is a given that a number of the public service are members of registered political parties.  Some keep their political affiliations to themselves; while others openly declare them as is encouraged under the Public Service Code of Conduct (PSCC) (State Services Commission, 2007).  The PCSS stipulates that while it is the right of all policy workers to affiliate politically they must be circumspect when carrying out duties on behalf of any political entity.  More significantly it is possible to also argue that the public service is wedded to the political system through the fact that officials and institutions are compelled to support the implementation of the policies of the Government of the day.  The myth of the political neutrality of the public service is built in part on the fact that the PSCC directs officials to give full and frank advice to government ministers.  What this should mean in practice is that if existing evidence does not support the policy directives from Cabinet and indeed may cause harm to the public, then it is the duty of public servants to advise Ministers’ of this fact.  However, in reality this rarely happens, especially in the crime control sector, and when it does it is often more about protecting the reputation and resources of the agency and their Ministers’, and less about protecting the public from ‘bad’ policy. 

The political nature of the Policy Industry is, however, much more insidious and far reaching than these benign examples demonstrate.  The Industry can be charged with being political and partisan (as opposed to neutral) via the fact that while directed by Cabinet and beholden to it, it holds extensive power over the development and implementation of policy itself.  If you live in Wellington, New Zealand and work in the Industry long enough, you will hear politicians and media (and sometimes, but rarely, policy workers) state that policy is not made or dictated by Cabinet, but is controlled by the policy mandarins in the small geographical triangle that takes in the parliamentary precinct, the Terrace and much of Lambton Quay.  This point is often made tongue-in-cheek, but my ten years of experience working in the Industry leads me to argue that it holds true in many cases. 

The myth of political neutrality masks a two of sub-surface truisms that are not easily observed by external audiences.  These are that i) part of the ‘art of politics’ and therefore of policy-making (which is the textual articulation of political theory/ideology) is a theoretical or conceptual framework for explaining the world and how it works; ii) while individual members of agencies will have their own ‘theory of the world’, agencies utilise specific theoretical paradigms that match their institutional view of how the world works, and form the ideological bases for policy development.  For example, neo-liberal economics has been the dominant political and economic theory/philosophy for the development of economic policy by New Zealand’s Treasury agency since the mid-1980s; the Psychology of Criminal Conduct is the dominant theoretical paradigm in the development of prison policy by the Department of Corrections from the mid-1990s (Department of Corrections, 2013); and a form of neo-tribal orthodoxy underpins policy making in the Ministry of Maori Development (2013); and iii) agencies employ various rituals and associated activities that either mask the theoretical underpinnings of their processes or validate them over others.

Case Study: the Organised Crime Strategy
To demonstrate the political nature of policy making and the myth of the primacy of evidence, we need look no further than the highly inflammatory issue of gangs and crime.  On 7 May 2007, a two year old girl was murdered in Wanganui, the victim of a gang-related drive-by-shooting.  Understandably the incident caused outrage amongst the wider public and politicians.  Through the media, public figures, such as the Mayor of Wanganui, Michael Laws, called for ‘something to be done’ about the perceived violence and general lawlessness of ethnic gangs in the region (Wanganui District Council, 2007).  The Government’s response was swift: just a few days after the incident, public service officials were called upon by Ministers to brief them on the issues and potentially effective policy options.  Up to that point the only meaningful, albeit largely ineffective policy initiatives in place were the Ministry of Social Development-led inter-agency project called the Plan of Action: Improving Outcomes for Young People in Counties Manukau (Ministry of Social Development, 2006) and a joint Ministry of Maori Development/New Zealand Police project which utilised established (adult gang) leaders to mediate directly with so-called youth gangs in an attempt to dampen down tensions and reduce the potential for further violent confrontation between these groups.  The reality was that over the preceding decade or more the crime control and social policy sectors had an unwritten rule of not working with gangs, meaning no funding for gang members to develop social programmes or support for activities that involved gang members or their associates (although there are exceptions to this rule, such as the Ministry of Maori Development/whanau ora funding for gang-focused social programmes, but these are very exceptions to the unwritten rule of non-engagement which must surely be in violation of the 'rules' of EBP). 

Officials’ response to requests from Ministers about how best to respond to the Wanganui incident, was to revive the then grossly overdue Organised Crime Strategy (OCS) (Ministry of Justice, 2002) that was initially part of the larger Crime Reduction Strategy signed off by the Labour government in May 2001.  The Strategy identified seven priority areas for the wider criminal justice sector, of which organised crime was designated Priority Area 5 (family violence and community violence and sexual violence were priority areas one and two).  By the time of the Wanganui gang shooting, priority area five was the least developed, and certainly any formal strategy was by then almost six years overdue.

Work began in earnest on resurrecting the OCS in mid-2007.  It involved some of the usual strategies, tactics and rituals officials utilise in order to be seen to be busy when potentially nasty coordination problems arise in the public sector: firstly, lead agencies were empowered (in this case, Ministry of Justice, followed closely by the New Zealand Police); other important players were identified (for example, DPMC, Ministry of Social Development, and to a lesser extent the Ministries of Maori Development and Pacific Island Affairs); an inter-agency group established; a schedule of meetings agreed, along with priority work items (background papers, briefings to Ministers, Cabinet papers, etc) and tasks identified and allocated.  Given the political capital inherent in the gang-related incident in Wanganui, work on developing the OCS was given priority by Government, and therefore by participating agencies.  The fact that the lead agencies had failed to deliver on the promised organised crime strategy for some two to three years was never discussed at formal meetings and overlooked in official documentation.  Regardless, this overdue strategic item provided agencies with a ready vehicle to be seen to respond meaningfully to what Cabinet clearly considered to be a politically-charged, perhaps even electorally damaging issue.

All of the above strategies and activities can be viewed, individually or collectively, as rituals of (in)activity.  In the event of a highly charged, political issue arising, agencies (individually or collectively) swing into ‘action’, utilising the well-established rituals of activity outlined above to serve as markers of responsiveness, concern for public safety and expertise.  The long overdue OCS became a vehicle through which officials and agencies could demonstrate their ability to respond quickly and efficiently.  Having no doubt briefed Minister(s) on the situation, including claiming that the Strategy was an appropriate and effective mechanism for responding to the Wanganui incident, officials then moved to deploy another set of rituals, referred to here as the rituals of deception.  This set of rituals is commonly used by criminal justice officials who need to retrofit policy to a social issue for which it is unsuited.

Retrofitting in the case of the OCS, refers to the fact that other policy mechanisms and strategies already existed through which to create meaningful policy; the original intent and focus of the proposed OCS did not correlate to the type of social issue that developed in Wanganui, and the lack of evidence that an OCS-style approach would demonstrably alter the social conditions which led to the Wanganui incident.  Rituals of deception are common in situations of policy retrofitting: they enable officials and agencies to mask the fact that their activities are more about managing potential coordination problems than about constructing meaningful ‘real world’ solutions.  The coordination problems that were the target of the OCS-related rituals of deception were masking a long-overdue piece of supposedly important strategic work, the historical lack of meaningful policy response to gang-related violence and gangs per se and the complete failure of the preferred suppression and surveillance policies since the mid-1980s to solve the so-called gang problem.  All of these coordination problems carry the potential to negatively impact institutional credibility with Cabinet and the public and inter-agency relationships. 

Why the deceit?
There are a number ways to explain and understand why supposedly neutral policy mandarins become involved in the politics of policy and utilise rituals of (in)activity and deception.  At base level it has to do with affinity and access: the higher up the managerial decision-making structure one gets, the closer you are to the political decision-making process and the politicians who ultimately make those decisions.  Accordingly, the more one has ready access to political authority the more one pays attention to the political consequences of policy design and implementation.  In other words, the higher up the management food chain you move, the less concerned with the technical development of policy you become, and the more you focus on what is referred to in Wellington as the ‘front page of the Dominion-Post test’: namely, how will a particular policy or policy issue look in the news media when it is released?  A further issue for consideration is what is the risk of negative media publicity to Cabinet and the policy sector?  In other words, senior managers can be viewed as political commissars who carry out the dual roles of educating the technocrats on the political expectations of Cabinet and the Ministry, and providing political risk assessment and protection services for Chief Executives, their agencies and Cabinet Ministers. 

Of course it can be countered that the argument I present here robs policy workers of their ‘agency’.  However this position presupposes that policy workers are empowered to carry out independent articulation of ‘free thought’ in the politically charged environment of a policy shop to begin with.  The authors experience was that this was rare and most definitely discouraged.  The reality of the policy environment and the position of the policy proletariat is effectively summarised by legal theorist Stanley Fish (1989: 141) who describes professional analysts not as free agents, but as "embedded practitioners" whose values, canons of evidence, normative measures and theoretical schema are proscribed by his or her professional community.  As a result, the potential for professional objectivity or political neutrality are, by definition, curtailed significantly by their personal, and their agencies proximity to, political power. 

The policy commissars and their direct line managers, who may be referred to collectively as the Policy Elite, also have the unenviable task of adhering to and implementing the policy platforms of incoming (newly elected) governments, along with new policy initiatives dreamt up by the current government.  This can be a nightmare at times, especially if the government’s policy goes against the majority or all of the available research evidence, as often occurs in the criminal justice sector (see below).  The case study of the OCS and policy response to the Wanganui incident highlights the myth of the political neutrality of the public service.  This example also underlines the role of ritual in masking the way(s) in which officials and agencies will bow to political and media pressure and construct policy responses ill-suited to the specific social issue that is dominating front page news at a particular time. 

Department of Corrections (2013) Annual Report 2012/13. Wellington: Department of Corrections.
Fish S (1989) Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Ministry of Justice (2002) Crime Reduction Strategy. Wellington: Ministry of Justice
Ministry of Maori Development (2013) Measuring Performance and Effectiveness for Maori: Key Themes from the Literature. Wellington: Ministry of Maori Development.
Ministry of Social Development (2006) Plan of Action: Improving Outcomes for Young People in Counties Manukau.  Wellington: Ministry of Social Development. 
State Services Commission (2007) Public Service Code of Conduct.  Wellington: State Services Commission.
Wanganui District Council (2007) Toddler Death: A Sad, Appalling Tragedy.  Wanganui: Wanganui District Council. 

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