Seven random thoughts on improving government, or Free Advice (that's always the best kind)
To be clear, I haven’t worked in Government or on the inside of politics. So these are necessarily concentrated on the view from outside.
I want government to be better. I want the primacy of politics over policy to change. I want government to be responsive to the community’s need rather than the media cycle. The media can do and does exceptional work but like everyone it has bad habits, and both media and government changes have reinforced the bad habits.
Governing is hard. Doing it well is really hard work. For too long governments haven’t done that hard work. They’ve been too reactive, too quick to dump ideas because of an initial bad reaction, too reluctant to do the time consuming, boring work of explaining, explaining, explaining.
So here are some random thoughts on how things could be better. (Feel free to add, disagree, criticise.).
There have been two significant changes over the last decade or so that have not helped good government.
Amongst the biggest media changes of the increase in 24-hour news and the advent of social media, one more is often overlooked. The decision by newspapers that they need to all the time have something really new - or that looks really new -, something no other paper has, on the front page sped up the pace of news before social media supercharged it.
Another change, which a a function of the rise of 24-hour TV News/Talk, is the relaxation of the strictures on ministers sticking to talking only about their portfolio.
The political TV interview on a Sunday morning used to be the big one of the week because it was the only time a minister would speak widely, outside their portfolio, and give a broader view of what they thought.
It’s not special anymore. Ministers who couldn’t possibly know all the details of another portfolio because they’re busy with their own will pass judgement on the work of their colleagues. They’ll happily discuss the politics (apart from when they decide they “don’t want to be a commentator”) and give stories that are actually bad for government plenty of oxygen. Also, if everyone is reading from the same talking points that you need to pretend to be across everything, you end up sounding scripted and insincere.
People think politics is a team game. It’s not. It’s the equivalent of being in a franchise. You’ve got to abide by the rules and all make the same bread. If you want to make something different you have to convince the franchise. If not, put the idea in your drawer or open your own business. You can’t get the benefits of being in the franchise but ignore the rules. Soz.
That’s the long way of explaining why the rule that ministers didn’t talk outside their portfolio tended to work and why backbenchers talk about what they know about and speak out only when it’s serious.
There’s not that much new about the policy reform process. The thing is, it doesn’t work if you don’t do it.
Explain the problem you want to solve. Why is it a problem? Is there anything good you can keep or do you need to change it all?
When everyone knows there’s a problem, start discussing solutions. If you have a preferred solution, this is the time when you can knock out the competing ideas.
Decide on the solution. Once this happens, go out and explain it. Why this one? Why will it work best? How do you implement it? How do you know when it works?
Legislate and implement. Two more points where you can explain again what it is and why it’s good.
Make the implementation work. the job isn’t done when it’s announced or when it’s legislated. the job is done when it’s implemented and it’s working.
Explain all the time. Talk to people all the time about this. If it’s big, don’t talk about anything else (unless it is a crisis or something you can’t control ..). Talk to all your audiences. Take calls, answer questions. Use all the tools in the box - papers, radio, tv, social media … Politicians have an unparalleled opportunity to talk directly to the people where they live. Use it.
Don’t surprise people. it doesn’t end well.
You can’t solve everything and to pretend you can is to let down the electorate and make them give up on you. You can solve some things. You can help people help themselves sometimes. Pretending you can solve something to make people like you is dumb.
Dealing with the media is much harder than it used to be. There are more places to get into trouble and more places which will criticise you. But seriously, you’re the government. A bad opinion poll tells you that you need to do better, to explain more and occasionally it means that the thing you’re doing is actually rubbish. Figure out which it is. A bad opinion poll doesn’t tell you that you will lose the election (unless it’s the Friday before polling day in which case you’re stuffed. Whoops). So use it for what it actually means. Good policy helps with the politics. Good policy is the start of solving your political problems.
The Prime Minister doesn’t need to be in the media/seen in public every day. Nobody will think they’re not doing their job if they’re not doing it in public. PMs have more impact if used more sparingly. Talk when you have something to say. Ministers are for the daily stuff. But you don’t need to have 15 out in public a day. Media coverage is nice. Doing your job properly and being in public only when you need to be is nicer.
Don’t be arrogant. So you won an election. Nice job. It makes you good at winning that particular campaign. It doesn’t make you good at governing. You have to work at that and being arrogant hurts you. You don’t govern on your own. You need people to help. They’ll help you more and understand you more if you’re not insufferably smug.
Apologies to those frontbenchers who like to crow when there’s a cabinet decision they like but absolve themselves of responsibility when something goes pear shaped, but Cabinet government is collective responsibility. It’s not just the Prime Minister’s fault, even when the PM is stuffing up all by themselves. If the policy isn’t working, you all signed off on it so you can all work to fix it. If it’s the PM then sorry again, but you’re all grown up and at least once a week you’re all sitting in the same room as them. Be frank. Be fearless. Even if you lose your job, at least you did what you were supposed to do which is serving the people of Australia well and faithfully and trying to make the country a better place.