Feb 10, 2011

Whatever happened to evidence-based policy making?

The federal government is adding another serious question to its social and financial policy competence by informing the public that it is proceeding with the promised evaluation of the New Income Management Program.

Prime Minister Gillard in parliament yesterday:
Because I believe in tackling the big challenges in the national interest... I see Closing the Gap as a way of understanding the problems.
It is evidence-based, accountable and transparent. It tells us what needs to be done first and fastest and builds a methodical approach. It allows us to build consensus in support of specific progress, instead of debating abstract ideas. To do what we can, with what we have, where we are. Because I believe Australians judge Governments on delivery ... I see Closing the Gap as a way of working on the solutions. It is a way of making specific, measurable progress. It is practical and cumulative. It gives us new information which means we can invest where investment will make the greatest difference. Information which means we can be sure that the Government is meeting its responsibilities.
Worthy sentiments. If only they stacked up. Take the New Income Management program. The federal government is adding another serious question to its social and financial policy competence by informing the public that it is proceeding with the promised evaluation of NIM. The initial form of income management (IM) was a Howard initiative which was  justified as part of an "emergency" measure presumed to protect Aboriginal children. The ALP government extended the IM program as a core part of the NT Intervention, thereby quarantining 50% of the benefit and pension incomes of all residents in 73 designated Aboriginal communities. However, when the UN was highly critical of the program’s suspension of Racial Discrimination Act as it breached Australia’s obligations under it, the government changed tack. To be able to withdraw the suspension, Macklin decided to de-racialise the program by passing legislation in June 2010 that allowed the Australian government to expand the program. Now they can compulsorily quarantine the incomes of anyone on benefits in certain time or age based categories (but not more respectable pensions) in any declared area. This change was pursued despite much solid evidence and presentations to a Senate Community Affairs Committee that the program had not proved its value in its previous three year existence. The government’s case was that this expansion was part of an evidence based broader welfare strategy to address social exclusion. Despite government claimed "evidence" being refuted by a wide range of academic and welfare groups and the government’s proposal for extension being supported by only three of nearly a hundred submissions, the government majority (and the Abbott Opposition in Parliament) backed the legislation. The Majority Report did suggest that the lack of evidence needed to be addressed before any further extension of IM to other areas and groups. Ergo the evaluation of the proposed NT extension that has finally emerged. The participation categories that remain eligible totalled 11,564 in June 2010, and another 9510 were on pension type payments not covered by compulsory payments under the new Act. Unfortunately for the disadvantaged population in the rest of Australia this expansive and expensive evaluation is unlikely to protect their current payments systems from changes, as evidence from the three-year evaluation is unlikely to seriously affect or inform this government’s policy actions. While the media release may imply otherwise, the intentions of the government are clear in its terms of reference on p3 of the executive summary. The terms of reference for developing the evaluation framework are that the evaluation:
  • be completed by December 2014
  • provide information on the implementation of the NIM in the Northern Territory by the end of 2011 in order to inform decisions about an expansion of the model beyond the Northern Territory
  • result in data being collected that can be used to evaluate short, medium and, where possible, longer-term impacts/outcomes of new income management,
  • include a set of ethics guidelines and an ethical clearance strategy relevant to this evaluation project.
The above terms of reference clearly suggest that the government will decide early in 2012 to extend the scope of the involuntary program to beneficiaries outside the NT. The timeline means this will happen despite little or no evidence by then of whether there are actual benefits from program for recipients. This change fits with the PM’s already stated intention of clamping down on welfare and pressuring people into the paid work and a shift from welfare rights to massively conditional welfare payments. The change will happen despite serious questions on whether it worked during the Intervention and a reluctance to wait and see whether evidence from this evaluation will find indications of effectiveness and cost benefits, in particular whether the substantial extra admin costs of around $100M per annum could be better spent on other services for this group. The evaluation document does illustrate both the difficulties of finding evidence from any other examples of such programs and of evaluating this particular program. These problems arise from the program’s diverse origins and add-ons by government over the last three years. Given that the initial form of income management was justified as part of an "emergency" measure presumed to protect Aboriginal children, it was not opposed by the then Rudd Opposition and most of the welfare sector, just some Aboriginal groups. All of which means no evidence of its value in this area has ever been offered, in fact a recent report to the NT government on showed child protection had deteriorated over the last three years, and failed to mention the intervention. This is now nearly nine months after the government declaring certain benefit recipients in the whole NT as subject to the New Income Management, as well as transferring most  existing recipients to the ‘new’ scheme. This version includes a few new bribes for those who voluntarily sign onto income management and a complex, quite difficult exit system for those who may consider they do not need to be managed. This includes compulsory budgeting workshops and financial literacy tests. There is also evidence that Centrelink is trying really hard to retain those no longer covered as voluntary clients as outlined by Paddy Gibson last year. There had been no sign of the proposed evaluation till last week when the Minister and FaHCSIA media release emerged and stated:

The Australian Government is today releasing the framework for the independent evaluation of the new model of non-discriminatory income management. The Government has now rolled out the new model of non-discriminatory income management across the Northern Territory, including child protection income management. A voluntary income management and child protection income management pilot operates in Western Australia.

Future roll-out of the new model of income management beyond the Northern Territory will be informed by evidence gained from the independent evaluation...

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5 thoughts on “Whatever happened to evidence-based policy making?

  1. SBH

    Evidence-based died alongside Jenny Macklin’s reputation as a progressive left MP

  2. MLF

    The other problem is that these days you can buy evidence to suit your ideological leaning.

  3. Tom Jones

    The problem with evidence is that it relies on a public service which is based in Canberra and tells the state officers what evidence is required to support the policy positions preferred by the out of touch mandarins in Canberra. Spending money in a program area is all that is required. That is the KPI that has to be met.

    Once State operatives were expected to get value for money, to engage with the people who are being helped and to come up with solutions that suit the situation. Now we have a situation where all of the public servants who could help are being forced out because they show everyone else up and question the stupid decisions made in Canberra.

    This is unlikely to change as tight control is what is actually wanted rather than good results. The gap is not being closed but continuing to open because of remote and dictatorial decision making and a failure to support those on the ground who really want to close the gap but leave in despair.

  4. Tamo

    Give up!
    Too hard!
    Don’t understand the problem we are trying to fix.
    Is it the same problem they are trying to fix?

  5. Huey Benjamin

    The problem is that by saying your policy is “Evidence Based”, in this scrutiny free society, it immediately gives an impervious sheen to your claim. Ad a bit of jargon..”triangulation” should do the trick, & you get a free kick!! Eva, you continue to earn your stamp!!

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