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The perfect public policy storm

22 July 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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Increasingly complex ideas and a rapidly fragmenting media are creating a “perfect storm” that’s dampening good public policy’s chances of navigating the choppy waters of voter acceptance, say experts.

Their warning comes in the wake of a special HC Coombs Policy Forum and John Button Foundation event How government communicates in a complex world, which took place at Crawford School on Monday.

The panel brought together leading experts from the media, public service and academia to look at how the public service communicates about its work and the role that the media plays in this.

Panelists included Professor Michael Wesley of the National Security College, James Button of the John Button Foundation, Andrew Hockley of The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and The Guardian Australia’s Deputy Political Editor Katharine Murphy. The event was moderated by HC Coombs Policy Forum Director Dr Mark Matthews.

Katharine Murphy said that communicating policy to the public is an increasingly difficult challenge for government and public servants.

“It’s a perfect storm,” she said.

“Governments are trying to communicate complex ideas when a massive structural adjustment is underway in the mainstream media. It’s a very complex set of circumstances.”

James Button is a former writer and editor at The Age, a former speechwriter for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and now Manager of Communication at the Grattan Institute in addition to his role with the John Button Foundation. In 2012 he published Speechless: A Year in My Father’s Business, about his time working in Canberra.

He said the reason why the public is often unconvinced by big policy ideas may be more complex than just the decline of traditional mass media.

“I’m interested in whether the medium is diluting or distorting the message, or whether the message itself is not sufficiently large and gripping, perhaps because of too much policy complexity,” he said.

“I have always believed that if a government has a good story to tell, it will get told.

ANU Professor of National Security Michael Wesley said that the role of social media needed to be factored in when discussing why policy ideas succeed or fail. He identified two high-profile political campaigns as examples of a new style of campaign.

“New media has led to a return to the mass revivalist campaign in politics, best exemplified by ‘Kevin 07’ and ‘Obama 08’,” he said.

“The problem is that the mass campaign doesn’t end with an election – making it difficult for high campaign hopes to be fulfilled.”

How government communicates in a complex world was a joint production between the HC Coombs Policy Forum and the John Button Foundation, an organisation set up to support writing and communication about public policy issues.

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