Dr Mark Matthews

Building better partnerships

20 June 2013

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Dr Mark Matthews is Executive Director - Strategy, Australian National Institute of Public Policy and Executive Director of the HC Coombs Policy Forum.

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Academics need to think beyond just building an evidence base if they want to inform policy and have better collaboration with government, according to the Executive Director of the HC Coombs Policy Forum.

In a speech given at a workshop at Crawford School organised by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Mark Matthews said that, for governments, having a strong evidence base was only part of the policy picture.

“The notion of evidence-based policymaking, while useful, should be treated with caution because it’s not a panacea,” said Matthews.

“[In government] decisions must frequently be made without adequate evidence, and there is no option to defer a decision until more evidence becomes available. That is a luxury for academics that policymakers do not have.”

Matthews said that governments not only have to think about evidence, but also ethics, morality and political risk in crafting policy responses. But this complexity was not generally recognised by the evidence-driven approach of academia.

“The accumulation of more evidence alone won’t necessarily lead to effective policymaking because we don’t simply induce policy from evidence. The reality is a more complex process.

“The resulting risk is that too great an emphasis is put on the value of evidence-based policymaking at the expense of a broader and more realistic perspective,” he said.

The HC Coombs Policy Forum is a partnership between the Australian Public Service and The Australian National University. It was established to enhance government and academic collaboration through experimental and exploratory work. Dr Matthews said the HC Coombs Policy Forum approach has highlighted a number of possible steps government and academia could take to increase cooperation and work towards better policy.

“Firstly, I think we should take a look at how the White House Fellows and Presidential Management Fellows schemes operate in the USA and whether we could adopt something similar that fits our different political system. These are great mechanisms for bringing skilled and experienced people into government for a while.

“Secondly we should articulate a framework that maps how the political, policy and research processes are coupled. That framework should go beyond the limiting assumption of evidence-based policymaking.

“Thirdly, we should highlight the ways in which there are mutual benefits to bringing experienced researchers into policy research partnerships. The academics get access to data they would not otherwise get, and governments get access to specialized and sophisticated analytical skills,” he said.

Dr Matthews also suggested that government and academia should consider how in partnership the two sectors could contribute to ‘experimental governance’.

“For example, we should think about establishing an entity at arms length from government – an independence lesson from the Reserve Bank of Australia – via which joint experimental activities could take place as a collaboration between academia, business and civil society,” he said.

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