Power to Persuade is hosting a dialogue on the Productivity Commission and the forthcoming review of public services. The full report can be viewed here, downloaded here or you can contact PTP for a hard copy.


Overview of the Dialogue

2016 will see a Productivity Commission Inquiry into the marketization of social services. Power to Persuade believes that the outcome will be critical to the future of Australian society and is organising a dialogue to raise the level of public understanding and enable policy actors to engage more effectively. Two decades of Commission involvement with social policy issues has left a mixed record with some even questioning whether the agency is actually fit-for-purpose.

The Productivity Commission began its life in the 1970s as the Industry Commission. This merged with the Bureau of Industry Economics and the Economic Planning Advisory Commission in 1996 to be reconstituted as the Productivity Commission in 1998[1]. From that time it played a growing role in social as well as economic reform [1]. A unique body internationally, the Productivity Commission is said to provide independent advice and information to government(s), operating at arms length to other government agencies. Hence, Commission does not implement or design policy, as such, but “contributes by providing quality, independent advice and information to governments” (Productivity Commission 2015). In this sense, the PC is said to be an autonomous body that undertakes ‘inquiries’ (taking the form of detailed research reports and consultations) at the behest of government [1].

In recent years the Productivity Commission’s role in social policy, in particular, has grown substantially. Recent inquiries include key policy areas such as childcare, early learning and workplace relations and its report on ‘Government Services’ which spans all major social policy areas [2].

The Commission has also been used to look at questions of public service delivery and management. In 2009 a review was conducted on the Contributions of the Not-for-profit sector, with subsequent recommendations spanning changes to the funding, management and purview of the entire not-for-profit sector (which deliver the bulk of government-funded services). Many of these questions will be revisited in the upcoming review into the delivery of human services.

The expansions of the Commission’s activities into social policy should not go unscrutinised. Arguably, its anti-protectionist economics tradition (and roots) is likely to influence its norms (what is seen as typical or standard), values (judgement of what is important) and the type of advice it provides.

Moreover, while the Productivity Commission is regarded as central to contemporary Australian policy processes, its role in policy development is complex and often opaque. It is tasked with responding to terms of reference set by governments of differing political persuasions [3], and must consult with civil society during the formation of its recommendations. But the consultations carried out are not comprehensive (relying on an ‘opt in’ approach), and how recommendations are arrived at is unclear.

The Commission tends to be given significantly higher status than many other government and non-government bodies providing advice to government. This largely appears to based on the notion that its roots in economic analysis mean that it is objective and evidence-based. This is despite the fact that the Commission must respond to tightly constructed guidelines designed by government [4]. Arguably, as the remit of the PC expands further into areas of social policy and public sector management, we need to look closely at its processes, recommendations and consultations. The logic that the economic basis of the PC means it can provide ‘objective’ advice to governments does not hold when dealing with highly contested and often ideologically fraught social policy issues [4].

In the coming months, Power to Persuade will be hosting a series of pieces on the Productivity Commission and the forthcoming review of public services. We want to raise the level of public debate in key social policy areas such as:

  • The need for a more robust framework for assessing the suitability of market tools in social services than that provided in the past by the Commission’s ‘public interest test’ and ‘community service obligations’.

  • Clarification of the different roles or ‘logics’ of government, market and community sector in social services.

  • Positive promotion of principles and practice of collaborative governance beyond competition

  • Better integration of the insights of economics with the knowledge generated in the wider social research and practice communities.

We will welcome other pieces and comment from anyone wanting to contribute to our dialogue. We anticipate that these materials, which will be compiled into a Power to Persuade report, will enable organisations to more fully engage in the upcoming review.

The format is flexible. For example, you may summarise ideas you or others have written up elsewhere (provide references or links).  You may write a longer, original position piece especially for the Dialogue.  You might just want to comment on the public debate and Dialogue as it begins to unfold.  We are looking for a lively forum where researchers, activists, media, submission writers and so on can be sure of picking up the leading, important ideas.  All the pieces will provide the basis for a Power to Persuade Report that will enable organisations to more fully engage in the upcoming Inquiry. 

Please contact for inquiries.



1.         Banks G (2003) From Industry to Productivity: 30 years of “The Commission.” Productivity Commission, Canberra


3.         Bacchi C (2015) The Turn to Problematization: Political Implications of Contrasting Interpretive and Poststructural Adaptations. Open Journal of Political Science 05:1–12

4.         Carey G, Corr L Investigating the institutional norms and values of the Productivity Commission:  The 2011 and 2015 childcare inquiries. Australian Journal of Public Administration Forthcoming: Available here.