Ask an expert

How the caretaker conventions create opportunities to influence policy

Eliza Murray

Government and governance | Australia

13 June 2016

A prolonged election campaign offers the potential to influence Australian public policy, writes Eliza Murray.

The period before an election is campaign time for interest groups almost as much as for the politicians themselves. It’s time to mobilise your members and inform voters which party is doing what for your issue, to deploy attention-grabbing media strategies and to lobby politicians with election wish lists. However, there’s another often-overlooked opportunity: the public service may have a more open ear than at other times. It’s a chance for experts to get a hearing.

Once an election is called and the Governor General dissolves the Parliament, the government adopts ‘caretaker conventions’. It will avoid making decisions on major policy initiatives, major contracts or the appointment of public officials, and avoid involving departmental officers in election activities. Ordinary administrative functions continue as normal, but for many public servants life becomes a bit quieter.

With important parts of the public service having more time on their hands during caretaker mode, some of that time can be spent meeting with experts from the private sector. Unlike public campaigns, relationship building is a long game. Instant gratification is unlikely, but investing in a wide and diverse network can pay dividends in the long run.

That said, it’s not all coffee breaks and long lunches. During the caretaker period each department prepares incoming government briefs – the so-called blue and red books – for an incoming Coalition or Labor government respectively. These briefing packages bring a new minister up to speed on urgent matters and advise on the implementation of election commitments. Importantly, they also address significant issues that weren’t on the radar during the election campaign but perhaps should have been, or that pose risks to the government. What better time for those seeking to influence policy to engage with public servants?

Interest groups often complain that accessing public servants is too difficult, and it certainly is a different exercise to accessing elected officials. While politicians prioritise groups with larger membership bases (representing more voters), bureaucrats tend to favour those with knowledge and information. Public servants have expertise in policy development and implementation, but are typically generalists when it comes to the subject of their policymaking.

Outsiders can offer valuable information about stakeholder attitudes and the likely impacts of a policy on the ground. Outside of formal consultations, public servants rely on people they know and trust. It may take some effort, but establishing relationships with public servants is the best way to ensure you’re in the loop when decisions are made.

More on this: The lucky country? | John Hewson

It’s another common complaint that bureaucratic churn – with key people seeming to change departments on a whim – makes relationships hard to forge and harder to maintain. But relationships can and do persist across job changes: any good handover brief includes a list of important experts in the field from the research community, industry and NGOs. A wide and diverse network also helps secure access in the longer term.

Of course a name in a handover brief won’t always be enough. Policy development, particularly in the early stages before the Cabinet considers a proposal, is typically done in confidence. The requirement to treat information confidentially means trust is a big issue and while a reputation for expertise and discretion can transcend bureaucratic churn, there’s no substitute for a trusting personal relationship.

So how does one identify and approach the relevant public servants? The Australian Government Directory is a searchable database containing contact details for executive officers. The senior officials I spoke to suggested approaching someone at an equivalent level to your own, but don’t be offended if you are referred to someone else. Highlight your specialist knowledge, expertise and information in relation to election commitments and existing policies. Raise concerns or suggest improvements. If proposing a blue-sky idea, explain why it’s going to become important within the next term of government.

Extended contact between interest groups and public servants could expedite policy-making early in the new term of government. Incoming ministers would receive more complete briefs. The public service could provide thorough analysis of ideas from the private sector in advance of potentially lengthy consultation processes. In the longer term, we could all reap the fruits of improved relationships between the public service and interest groups: expert input makes for better policy.

The current caretaker period provides an opportunity for interest groups to build relationships at a time when many public servants are free from the deluge of daily demands from Ministers’ offices and at a point in the policy cycle when important agenda-setting briefs are being prepared. And it’s not just an opportunity for interest groups. It’s an opportunity for public servants to open their doors. After all, you never know when a quick turn-around briefing request might land in your inbox and a trusted expert outsider will come in handy.

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Citation

Murray, E. (2016). Ask an expert - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: http://www.policyforum.net/ask-an-expert/

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