Nostalgia, nirvana and ‘unknown knowns’ in public policy

The twin impulses affecting policy debates

Helen Sullivan

Government and governance | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

19 February 2018

From ‘policy labs’ to ‘post-normal science’, policy-making today is littered with models and approaches. But before chasing after the latest buzzword, policymakers need to recognise two simple truths, Helen Sullivan writes.

The prevailing narrative that describes the ‘new normal’ of public policy-making references, among other things, global and domestic political turbulence, loss of faith in institutions, economic instability, and policy challenges that resist our best efforts to address them.

Old policy challenges such as inequality persist, while new ones such as migration take centre stage. And the public policy system is itself in thrall to the hegemonic potential of ‘security’ to fold all manner of policy dilemmas including, food, natural resources, environment, and humanity into its embrace.

‘Complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity’ are words that once offered a shot of adrenaline to the policy wonk’s resting brain. They now seem banal, inducing only the barest of shrugs at their regular repetition.

Elected politicians experience these words differently, as their role is in part to offer simplicity, certainty and clarity to concerned publics. In systems subject to electoral cycles, the urge for simplicity in public rhetoric and an assumed ‘mastery’ of the context wins out over considerations of big issues over the long term.

More on this: Researchers are from Mars, policymakers are from Venus

In either case, both policy wonks and elected politicians reside in a twilight zone – from opposite positions they end up in a shared stance of urging continued ‘innovation’ and having an ‘outcomes’ focus.

Advice on how to achieve this pours in from every quarter, from ‘thought leaders’ to celebrities. And of course, there is a special place in public policy hell for the media, which now comprises almost anyone with access to a mobile phone and an opinion.

The ‘publics’ look on or away, at once connected yet disconnected from the fray.

Into this context arrives the world of ‘digital’ with its machine-learning and algorithmic certainty. We are experiencing the 4th industrial revolution, or at best ‘digital disruption’. Either way, this raises existential questions, and for some, existential threats. Policy wonks are excited again, while politicians (elected or not) are aglow or aghast at the potential for disruption to upend established governance arrangements.

We are all in the world of the ‘unknown, unknowns’. Truth, trust and expertise, to quote Humpty Dumpty, can mean ‘whatever we choose them to mean’.

The public policy landscape is littered with approaches, models, and instruments that purport to help us deal with the contemporary condition. The smorgasbord of options includes evidence-based policy (or evidence-informed policy), post-normal science, wicked problems, theory-based evaluation, realist analysis, and deliberative institutions, recently joined by design thinking, co-production, behavioural economics, a focus on ‘big data’, and experimentation. These last have become increasingly popular, and they are also associated with the emergence of ‘policy labs’ and the renewed popularity of things called ‘policy toolkits’.

More on this: Bridging the gap between science and policy

Their advocates argue variously for, greater or lesser permeability of the knowledge-policy interface, more or less ‘contestability’ of policy advice, and a widening or narrowing of the conception of ‘the public’ in public policy-making.

I’ve previously argued that the emergence of the evidence-based policy movement reflected the privileging of new forms of policy evaluation as a source of ‘truth’ by policymakers. Their goal was to deal with society’s increasing doubts about the capacity of governments and public policy to effect meaningful change, at a time of a loss of confidence and increase of humility amongst policymakers.

However, I also suggested that these ambitions were undercut by the very mechanisms used to generate evidence, specifically those designed to engage a broader set of ‘publics’ in the process of policy evaluation. This was because they produced (somewhat unsurprisingly) competing manifestations of ‘truth’ reflecting their values, experiences and how they defined evidence.

But there was no process for attempting to resolve these competing manifestations of ‘truth’, as the evidence-based policy movement disconnected the generation of ‘evidence’ from the practice of ‘argument’ essential to public policy-making.

More on this: Professor, no one is using your ideas

In the years since, much has changed. There are now many more policy tools in play, suggesting a broader range of options for policymakers of all kinds. However, a closer look at these various tools, including those linked to the ‘digital revolution’, reveals a narrowing of the scope of the tools in use to what Hood and Jackson (1991) call ‘concrete factual realism’.

Concrete factual realism represents the pursuit of a particular kind of evidence about how the policy world works. It is rooted in a movement to establish public administration as a science and it is notable that the language of the moment favours ‘toolkits’ and ‘policy labs’, both evoking technical expertise and the production of replicable experiments.

What’s going on here? And does it matter?

My proposal is that determining the utility of any or all of these available policy approaches, models or tools requires that we acknowledge two key impulses in public policy debates; the longing for the certainty of the past (nostalgia), and the desire for the techno-political perfection of the future (nirvana).

In Australia, these impulses are readily identifiable in public policy debates.

The nostalgia impulse is evident in almost every ‘what’s wrong with public policy’ conversation. It is impossible to participate in such a debate without someone referencing the ‘golden era’ of public policy-making in Australia, otherwise known as the ‘Hawke-Keating’ years.

Those who were inside the policy-making machine at the time and those who merely lived through that ‘golden era’ are prone to wax lyrical about how public policy was in the minds and hands of very clever, committed and ambitious experts, public servants and politicians. There are differing accounts of why this was a ‘golden era’, but reference is regularly made to the co-existence of sound evidence and robust argument, both within Cabinet and in public.

There is also almost universal agreement that the conditions that pertained at the time are unlikely to come again.

The nirvana impulse is most closely associated with the climate change debate in Australia, where there is a significant body of academics who are focused on developing technologies that will (depending on the level of crisis we are facing), mitigate, adapt, or transform our relationship to this particularly ‘wicked issue’.

More on this: Escaping the ivory tower

Advocates of this position tend to assume that technical innovation will either stimulate the necessary political sophistication to enable these innovations to be applied (evidence will raise the level of argument) or will override the need for any such political engagement.

Of course, these two vignettes are oversimplifications, offered in order to more easily illustrate the point. Nonetheless, they do tell us something about the changes to the knowledge-policy interface over the last 20 or so years.

Specifically, I would suggest that the multiplicity of ‘truths’ afforded by an evidence-based policy movement was allied to an expansion of the involvement of ‘publics’ in public policy-making. Together, they presented a very considerable challenge to the traditional exercise of public policy expertise – one that could not be tolerated if, as it appeared, the desired outcomes were not being achieved.

Looking ahead, the impulses of nostalgia and nirvana may have increasing salience as populism feeds off the certainty of nostalgia, and the digital revolution brings the techno-political nirvana into reach.

But there is another feature of the knowledge-policy interface that is inherent in both the ‘nostalgia’ and ‘nirvana’ impulses, and impacts on how well we understand the potential of different policy models, approaches and instruments – the ‘unknown knowns’.

More on this: Are our universities failing us?

‘Unknown knowns’ are defined by Slavoj Žižek as those things we are unaware of knowing, or choose not to know, but nevertheless form the background to our public values and so inform how we practice public policy.

One example of ‘unknown knowns’ in public policy is the gendered nature of expertise. In the Hawke-Keating golden era, the vast majority of key ministers, advisors and public servants at the time were men. We know that diversity enables better decision-making and yet we fail to acknowledge in any meaningful way the consequences of having a homogenous group making policy.

Another example is that of the dominance of a particular body of thought on mainstream public policy education. This is a largely Anglo-Western corpus that gets reproduced for public policy students whose countries may well have longer standing bodies of thought that shape what public policy is and can be, but which are substituted by an apparently ‘neutral’ tradition.

A final example is the dominance of economics in public policy practice. Public policy has not always been made by starting from economic principles and using an economic lens; yet we appear to have forgotten that we know that, and that there may be an alternative.

Delineating these ‘unknown knowns’ provides insight into the potential and limits of ‘our’ public policy knowledge and raises vital questions about truth, trust and expertise claims that need answering.

This piece is based on a paper for the ‘Crisis of Expertise’ conference at Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne, 15-16 February 2018

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