Hats off to reigniting participatory democracy

In today's post, Paul Smyth explores how events like last week's national reform summit reveal the lack of government-driven policy development and asks how do we successfully engage the community to create the economic and social policy we need.


Hats off to Cassandra Goldie for her inspirational address to the recent National Reform Summit. It is some time since we have had an ACOSS leadership take its place so effectively in a national forum of this type. The welfare sector has come in from the cold. Goldie’s was a compelling case for why good social policy has to be at the centre of a new economic reform agenda. But why were we having this summit in the first place? Was it just a talkfest? What does it tell us about the current state of Australian policy making?

Some of the critics say: ‘this wasn’t a real summit not like Bob Hawke’s’. It was just a day out for groups who already have plenty to say. It will be forgotten in no time. But the big question is: why wasn’t it like Bob’s? Where was government? Why had these major peaks of business, unions and welfare become so frustrated with their lack of influence that they had to organise their own show off Broadway?

Lack of influence? Some people may be surprised by this statement. But from my own experience of working with various policy staff from a range of these agencies over a considerable time I was often surprised by the depth of consensus about what needed to be done but also their shared frustration at not being able to engage effectively with government.

This may not have been such an issue if the reality had been a high quality political leadership and bureaucracy who were doing a great job anyway. But the reality was they were often ministers with little experience in their areas of portfolio and especially in the case of social policy, ‘generic manager’ type bureaucrats with little substantive policy expertise. Politician and bureaucrat desperately needed help from the wider policy community but they didn’t know it. I believe that it is the persistence of this sorry situation which has created the frustration which led to this summit.

Okay, so the summit has identified the problem but what is the answer? Sixty two years ago Gunnar Myrdal asked about the sources of rationality in social policy making at the British Sociological Association. He said not to expect too much of politicians. They have to live so intensely in the moment and stick so closely to public opinion that ‘we should not wonder that so many of them only render a thoughtless reflex of the ripples on the surface of the wide sea of public opinion’. The rationality of the bureaucrat also had its institutional limits. Keeping ‘the details of the policies in order’ had to be their bag. Indeed ‘they would destroy their usefulness by failing to hide intellectual originality, should they possess it’. Journalists too, according to Myrdal were limited in their contribution by their indebtedness to their publishers and to public opinion more broadly.

All of these constraints he said meant that democracy by itself was no ‘guarantee of a reasonable degree of rationality in the collective decisions of the state’. What did provide the guarantee was ‘the presence of general ideals and a desire for rationality among the people at large’. As Myrdal pointed out it is the general public which ‘fixes the limits’ to the freedom of journalists and awards conditional power to politicians who then create the policies which ‘set the frame for the craftsmanship of civil servants’. So as advocates we can talk to each of these ‘but we also have the opportunity to go over their heads and influence those who ultimately award all the power – the people’.

Herein lies the significance of the Summit. Australian governments today – after decades of economic rationalism, public choice theory, new public management and all the rest of it – simply don’t know how to engage with their own citizens. Successful or not these advocates felt compelled to go directly to the people. Of course some will whinge that these were powerful peaks in a typical corporatist style exercise suiting the big end of town and so on. But far better to see this as a first step and a signal to member groups of a new approach to policy making.

Thus Cassandra Goldie describes it as a step towards ‘reigniting participatory democracy’. This must surely be of central importance for Power to Persuade people nearing their upcoming Symposium. It often strikes me that PtP is very much focussed on the conversations with the journalist, bureaucrat and politician. Isn’t it time we also looked the other way and ask how we go over their heads to those who ultimately award all the power?