The Chairman of the Productivity Commission, gave a Public Lecture in Canberra last night on “evidence-based policy”.

This was timely, as a few kilometers away, Parliament was debating spending billions of dollars, to address the Global Financial Crisis, with minimal analysis and little evidence to support either side of the debate.

On the surface “evidence based policy” seems a tautology: how could you propose policy not based on any evidence? However, Mr Banks took us through some of the not-so-obvious issues with the process. At question time, I asked about the use of online systems and cross agency resources to make the process quicker and more efficient. I used the example of the Environment Department, who on Tuesday hosted a meeting of industry on how to reduce energy use.

One way I suggested to reduce energy use was to conduct such consultation online, so the participants did not need to fly to Canberra. Given that the Productivity Commission has a mandate to, and considerable expertise in, analysis of government policy, perhaps they could commission an online system for this purpose. Such a system could be initially used by the Commission and then made available for other agencies and state governments.

The system could function in a similar way to AusTender, the Australian Government’s online tender system. It could use similar free open source software to GovDex, the Government’s online collaboration tool. Agencies could upload draft policies for consultation. The system would automatically alert those who had registered interest in the topic. People could download the draft and upload comments. The system would collate the results automatically. The Australian Bureau of Statistics National Data Network could be used to support analytical analysis of policies across agencies.

Providing an online system for policy analysis could considerably cut government costs. I get the impression that much of the resources in policy agencies are not devoted to analysis of policy, but to arranging meetings to discuss the policy. Eliminating most of these meetings would greatly reduce costs. This would also reduce accidental or deliberate bias in the process, where only a small select group is consulted due to time or cost pressures (or because no criticism of the policy is welcome).

In the case of something like the response to the Global Financial Crisis, a consultation and analysis could be carried out in a few days.

Peter Fray

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