Tuesday, 7 July 2015

A Commentary on the Stage Management of Policy Consultation and Policy Development

Right now the Australian Federal Government is working towards a possible referendum on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples in the Australian constitution. As part of this process on Monday 6 July the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition and other government officials met with 40 Indigenous leaders in Sydney.  The purpose of the meeting, according to government officials, was to map the way forward for developing a referendum.

After the meeting, government spokespeople described it as a "great success', while Noel Pearson, a prominent Indigenous leader from North Queensland described it as "stage managed", with the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition having 'already decided on how the development of the referendum would proceed'.  The implication being, that the meeting was stage managed to give a predetermined process a cloak of respectability via the appearance, but not the substance, of meaningful Indigenous input.

Let me begin by saying that both 'sides' are right: the fact that 40 Indigenous leaders turned up and provided the Prime Minister plenty of photo ops, that the agenda was likely set by government officials, and that it afforded government the opportunity to ensure discussion was dominated by its preconceived process, ensured it was a "great success" from a governmental perspective. Given that stage managing consultation exercises is a key role for officials, means that Mr Pearson's description of the process is also accurate. 

Before I expand on the issue of stage management let me make one obvious point, which is that consultation exercises run on government officials are always stage managed, especially if the exercise involves senior government officials, such as the Chief Executive of an agency, a cabinet minister, or the Prime Minister. There is no way that officials in charge of organising an event such as the one that took place in Sydney would allow it to evolve so that Indigenous participants gained a significant measure of control over the agenda, dominated discussion, or to set the agenda for the process 'going forward'. The first principle that guides officials when organising such an event is to manage risk, in particular the risk that senior officials, Cabinet Ministers, and especially Prime Ministers will be embarrassed by dissension, or by exposing their prejudice and ignorance.  And you must at all costs manage the risk that the policies or processes preferred by the external participants wins out over the preconceived plans of government.

Case Study
I wasn't at the meeting held on 6 July, but I'm guessing that government officials put a lot of time and effort into managing the risk to government. However, I have been involved in a number of similar events through my ten years working in New Zealand's policy sector; events that can be offered as case studies in how officials go about stage managing such events. The event I've selected for this discussion was a consultation event organised by New Zealand's Ministry of Justice in 2009 to advance the development of the new Drivers of Crime work programme, an inter-agency policy project that took over from the defunct Effective Interventions programme..... the substantive difference between the two? None. Effective Interventions was driven by the former Labour-led government, while Drivers of Crime was essentially the then new National-led governments rebranding exercise.

So, on to the stage management of the exercise by policy officials:

The art of stage management of policy consultation exercises involves a number of key components, only a few of which I will discuss here.  One of the most important issues confronting officials tasked with organising such an event, is to control the list of invitees to ensure few, if any, critical commentators, or those considered by officials as 'risky', attend the event.  In this respect Ministry of Justice officials, and the then Minister of Justices' staff did their very best to meet this requirement.  In the weeks leading up to the event they repeatedly attempted to block a number of Maori activists, critical commentators and such like from participating; most of whom had been placed on the list of potential invitees by various Maori government ministers, and Te Puni Kokiri (Ministry of Maori Development).  I was one of those people the Ministry of Justice tried to block, as were current and former gang members, and in one case a man who, while not a gang member, had spent decades development and delivering social services (such as drug rehabilitation) to gang families. In this case the attempts by Ministry of Justice officials did not succeed because of the ethical position taken by Te Puni Kokiri officials, supported by the then Associate Minister of Maori Affairs Tariana Turia, and eventually the Minister of Maori Affairs office, to stand their ground and insist on a broad representation of Maori at the forum.  This they argued was essential given that the issue of Maori over-representation was one of the two broad issues up for consideration at the event.

Before I move on to other strategies of stage management, I want to say something about the attempts by officials to block current and former gang members from attending the event: In a previous blog I have exposed that an unwritten rule of government agencies in New Zealand is that they 'don't work with gangs', which also means that officials can not be seen to engage with gang members.  Of course this rule is unwritten, and its application is, as always, contingent upon specific events and the attitudes of individual government officials. For example, the late, former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was well known for his willingness to engage with gang leaders, and indeed supported the development and implementation of labour schemes for gangs. Similarly, the ex-Minister of Maori Affairs, Pita Sharples was not shy about engaging with gangs, or attending community forums where it was known they would be attending. And of course Te Puni Kokiri, as the lead government adviser on Maori issues, would also seek to engage with gangs to inform the development of social policy; although I wonder how long this enlightened approach to policy development will last at the Ministry now that Harry Tam no longer works there... my guess is, not long.  During my time at the Ministry it became increasingly obvious that most of its tertiary educated, middle class Maori analysts had much more in common with their white counterparts at Treasury than they did with working class Maori, and were no more willing to, or better at, engaging with 'hard to reach' communities like gangs or youth offenders. And so, as a general rule Ministers of the Crown and government officials avoid engaging with gang members at all costs, even when, in the case of Ministry of Social Development officials, they are actually tasked with developing and implementing a 'gang strategy'!

So, back to strategies of stage management: having failed in their attempt to keep all the 'bad' Maori away, Ministry of Justice officials turned to two other well-worn strategies, i) setting the topics for discussion, and thereby limiting the potential for criticism of government policy and discussion of responses that do not fit with the prevailing policy position, and ii) dominating reporting of the results of discussion at the event. On both counts government officials were much more successful than they were in trying to block the involvement of certain Maori.  

The stage management of the event was evident from the beginning.  For example, the keynote speaker was an expert in child/youth development, someone well known in the justice system for advocating for an individual, psycho-therapeutic approach for dealing with child behavioural and youth justice issues.  His presentation pretty much focused on his work and those who agree with him, while ignoring all other approaches, evidence, etc.  His conclusion for significantly reducing crime in New Zealand?  The application of risk assessment, starting at the prenatal level to identify 'problem families and children', followed by early and extensive intervention based on psycho-therapy.  Critical analysis and consideration of issues like structural bias, colonialism, decades of ineffective policy making by successive governments, and any engagement with critical literature and research was totally absent, which strangely enough was exactly the type of policy position taken by the Ministry of Justice, Corrections, Ministry of Social Development prior to and after the event. But worst of all was that the same speaker had also been asked by officials to give the presentation on Maori issues, which he began by stating that he 'knew little about this issue', which he preceded to prove by delivering probably the worst presentation on the issue I've ever experienced.  At no point did he deal with Maori scholarship on the issue.  But most embarrassing of all was the performance of Chief Executive of the Ministry of Justice who stated that his perspective on the issues and his solutions left no room for argument.

And so it proved a few weeks later when the Ministry released a document summarising the key issues arising from the event and the 'draft' policy framework to inform the strategy. The perspectives of the key criminal justice agencies and their hand picked keynote speaker dominated the entire document, while the critical, systemic issues raised by a number of Maori participants was missing. 

And the silencing of the critical Maori perspective started well before the event itself, with the decision to ask the keynote speaker to present on Maori issues.  After the event it became known that Te Puni Kokiri officials had requested that a Maori scholar/commentator give this presentation, namely Dr Robert Webb from AUT University.  This request was rejected by criminal justice officials, and instead we got a presentation that would have been embarrassing even for a 2nd year criminology student.

The silencing process was prevalent throughout the event, with a number of Maori participants informing me afterwards of their frustration at the tendency of the Ministry of Justice adjudicators for their discussion group either totally ignored key issues they raised (which were collated on paper and collected later for 'analysis'), or re-phrasing their concerns so that they lost critical meaning.  In my discussion group I and another Maori participant more than once had to direct the justice official to write the issues we raised as we had described them.

Lastly, when the overview document for the forum was released some weeks later, none of the critical issues raised by Maori, bar one related to funding of community groups, appeared in the document in any meaningful way: nothing about bias in the application of policing, bias in sentencing, structural racism within the key policy agencies; all issues raised by Maori participants across a number of the discussion groups.

As I was not at the consultation forum held by the Prime Minister of Australia and the leader of the opposition in Sydney on the 6 July 2015, I can't say for sure that similar strategies of stage management were used by government officials to ensure that the government perspective prevailed.  My guess is that at a minimum the participants would have been presented with pre-selected 'issues' to 'guide' discussion, followed by, surprise, surprise, a few 'suggestions' about the process 'going forward', or something similar; suggestions that no doubt will form the basis for any further work on the referendum on the recognition of Aboriginal peoples in Australia's constitution. I have no doubt that Noel Pearson's description of the event was right on the money.  

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