Peter Shergold’s foreword to my submission to the Thodey Review

At a time like this, with two sleeps to go before Santa’s elves hack Alexa and get it to let Santa and his reindeer shapeshift their way through your aircon duct and into your living rooms, our minds turn to the simple things that matter. Like my proposal for an Evaluator General. Below, for your pre-Christmas delectation, is the foreword to my submission to the Thodey review. 1


I am presently on an extended tour of Australian cities as the National President of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA). It’s an opportunity, in part, to discuss with officials from all jurisdictions how they imagine public service reform.

In a sense, the future is already with us. I am using the chance to highlight the many new and exciting approaches already being trialled – the utilisation of big data analytics, the embrace of behavioural psychology, the piloting of place-and community-based initiatives, enhanced cross-sectoral collaboration, the adoption of human-centred design, the collective creation of public impact, the introduction of digital democracy and the application of robotic process automation and cognitive technologies to complex but routine administrative tasks.

Change is afoot. Contrary to public perception, there is a great deal of innovation occurring at all levels and in many areas of public administration. Always, however, the audience at my talks end up debating why it is that so many of these creative improvements to our structures of democratic governance remain confined to its periphery. Too many demonstration projects, even when successful, fail to get scaled up. Pilot programs remain pilots. At the centre of public service, traditional approaches to policy implementation are rarely transformed. The existing state of affairs continues.

Perhaps, suggest some of the participants, that it reflects the inability of public servants to gain a positive authorising political environment. Perhaps, posit others, it is evidence of bureaucratic risk aversion. Perhaps there are vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo. Whatever the combination of factors, it is disheartening.

That is why this provocative discussion paper by Nicholas Gruen is so important. At the heart of the problem, he argues persuasively, is the lowly status accorded to the task of evaluation and to the perspectives and knowledge of those in the field and those they serve. That has detrimental consequences. We need to know where governments can invest public funds in order to best achieve the outcomes they seek.

That assessment needs to integrate systematic with contextual knowledge. In my own words, commitment to evidence-based advice needs to be informed by the pragmatic, real-world experience of front-line staff and by the citizens who access the services provided.

Gruen argues that the single best way to enhance the monitoring, appraisal and reporting of the delivery of government policy is to raise its profile, influence, authority and independence. To that end, he contends that there would be significant advantage in establishing in Australian public services the role of an independent Evaluator-General alongside the existing Auditor-General. I think he’s right.

Gruen emphasises that his proposals would raise the status of evaluators and their work (and, I believe, would also enhance the professional standing of the Project and Risk managers upon whom effective execution of government policy depends). Yet, to be successful, officers of the Evaluator-General embedded within agencies would also need to be ‘critical and expert friends’ of those delivering services, especially those in the field. They would not be top-down enforcers and regulators.

A critical aspect of Gruen’s proposal is that the Evaluator General would be in a position to independently compare the efficiency and effectiveness of different programs and approaches, whether undertaken by public servants or by contracted outside providers. This would help move public debate from its present preoccupation with government expenditure to a greater emphasis on measuring the financial and social returns on government investment.

Finally, Gruen proposes – in line with his long-standing advocacy for making publicly collected data available to the public – that, by making its independent monitoring and evaluation transparent to the public, an Evaluator-General could create a ‘knowledge commons’ of assessment methodologies and outcomes. Better practice would be shared across government agencies and service providers. Public understanding of performance-based outcomes (and the metrics necessary to measure them appropriately) would be enhanced. Critically, new programs and approaches can be assessed on a ‘level playing field’ with the incumbent ones that have proven so difficult to dislodge. The transparency of evaluation results would help build public support for difficult decisions where they are necessary.

I commend this paper by Nicholas Gruen. Its line of reasoning is convincing. Understanding that the quality of government policy can only be assessed by the manner in which it is delivered, it makes a bold but practical proposal on how to improve that process over time. I hope that his arguments are widely read, discussed … and implemented.

Professor Peter Shergold
Secretary to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2003 to 2008
5th August 2018

  1. It’s virtually impossible to find my submission on Thodey Review’s ‘Submissions’ page. There are over 500 of them and the only way I’ve found to get to each one is to scroll through them twenty at a time. The search function doesn’t turn up anything when I put ‘Gruen’ or ‘Lateral Economics’ into it. So the link above is to my submission in its original Google Docs form
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PATRICIA EDGAR. Kids Technology and the Future: The Case for Regulation of Australian Children’s content (Part 3)

In the dynamic media environment we have in Australia, broadcasting regulation has become an exceptionally tricky exercise. If regulations are to work, they require creative application and on-going monitoring as commercial players will always seek to outmanoeuvre them, especially when they affect programming decisions. Bureaucracies move slowly. It takes time to define, then to pass legislation and once regulations are in place, too often assumptions are made that the job is done. That may be the case in legislating for seat belts or banning smoking in public spaces, but when the desired outcome is a cultural, educational purpose, where judgments must be made about appropriate program content, it is a very different matter. For culturally-based children’s programming to succeed today, a simpler regulatory approach than quotas and program approval should be taken. 

When the Children’s Television Standards (CTS) were first enacted to ensure quality Australian content for children, a diversity of excellent programming resulted for a few years, during which time an international Australian children’s production industry was established. But this was not achieved without struggle and conflict between the regulator and the networks. It has been forgotten how strongly the broadcasters fought against the regulation of children’s content, even taking the ABT (Australian Broadcasting Tribunal) to the Federal Court and winning their case. That decision forced the Government’s hand and they amended the Broadcasting Act to ensure the ABT had the power to require networks to meet the regulations or be in breach of their licence.

When implemented, the Australian system of regulation of children’s programs was the envy of many children’s producers around the world and seen as a model for other countries. It was a good model, but it took only a few years before both the networks and certain producers found ways to exploit the system. Networks complied with the law, with the least possible expenditure of funds, often burying programs in their schedule with no promotion, and certain independent producers made hay. Cheaper, unimaginative animation, created for the international market, became accepted as equivalent to original Australian drama. Long-running series, with no obvious cultural context, that could have been made anywhere in the world, were devised by Australian producers who ran successful businesses in partnership with overseas broadcasters, supplying them with a regular source of programs generously subsidized by the Australian tax-payer. In some cases Australian ‘producers’ fronted programs that were scripted and creatively controlled overseas but using Australian funding.  Continue reading

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PATRICIA EDGAR. Kids Technology and the Future: The programs and projects children want to see (Part 2).

Children are now on the move. Their phone is their companion for reaching out to friends, texting, referencing, looking up what they want and need to know, viewing YouTube, playing games, taking photos and videos. They can click through what’s on offer: a cornucopia from which they are learning and having fun. They have led the way in showing tech companies how versatile a smartphone can be. They go online for a myriad of purposes and attracting their attention for any length of time is a challenge. Yes they enjoy stories but they are looking for diversity and innovation.

That is why SKAM the NRK (Norwegian public television) teen-drama took their fancy. The program was screened into a fragmented, multi-platform, on-demand, time-shifting environment – the very characteristics that, the Australian producers argue, put our traditional children’s drama at risk. The program is about teenage life in a high school with the heartbreaks, rivalries, friendships and rejections involved in this difficult life stage. There is nothing unusual about the story itself, except it is an experiment with modern media formats.

The project began with a six-minute clip appearing on Facebook Watch, the social network’s entertainment portal, with no advertising or pre-publicity. It aroused curiosity and word of mouth led the PR campaign. The characters had social media accounts with photos, video-clips and comments to give them depth. There were many hidden layers which made the program like a multilayered detective show where all the seemingly disparate activities and digital platforms formed into a single narrative which took initiative to unravel. The production was able to respond to fan feedback and change plot details, with the result that the fictional social media of SKAM generated real social media. The series ran for four seasons. France, Germany, Italy and the US, have now produced their own versions.

Alongside innovation in drama series formats, we need to see experiments with narrative gaming. Educational opportunities here are unlimited. Games, if purposely and creatively designed to meet each stage of child development, are a massive resource for teaching at pre-school and beyond. Many child advocates condemn gaming generally as anti-social and addictive. What they have missed is the attraction games hold, through social interaction and the analytical skills, dexterity, flexibility and adaptability required to play. There is a science to game-playing. Players have to seek information and piece together data from many places to make sense of a game; they must make decisions quickly that have clear consequences. In doing so, they become experts at multi-tasking and parallel processing, learning to collaborate with others and compete in real time with players who can be their school friends or from across the globe. Continue reading

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PATRICIA EDGAR. Kids Technology and the Future: Technology is not the enemy. The Need for Positive Media Literacy (Part 1).

Cross posted from Pearls and Irritations

The Information-technology Revolution is challenging the assumptions on which the education of children and the provision of their entertainment are based. The doomsayers argue the big companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, et al. – despite their rhetoric of preventing evil and promoting global togetherness – are in fact exacerbating inequality, poverty, unemployment, invasion of privacy, breakdown in social cohesion, supporting political disruption and Donald Trump. 

On the other hand it is argued this revolution has the potential to transform lives for billions of people by solving the problems threatening the viability and sustainability of our planet including climate change, waste disposal, water- shortage, clean energy production, food supply, achieving social cohesion and economic sustainability on our planet. Most of us can’t take to the bush and create a life off the grid so we must adapt. Balance is a key concept for a successful transition into this technological era. In this process we will need visionary leadership and a first-class education for children which should begin at pre-school, with 3–6-year olds. 

Small children, not capable of putting words together, can now skillfully access digital content on phones and tablets. By five or six kids can use social-media to learn and stay in touch with parents and others. By seven to ten they are creating content by commenting on friends’ posts and by eleven they are sharing personal photos, videos, stories and memes. Today the calls by some paediatricians and concerned parents for children to spend no more than two hours per day across all electronic devices – to counter health problems, including brain damage, obesity, eye damage, postural problems, sleep deprivation, along with a host of psychological problems – are fanciful. Children’s total daily media use (including multi-tasking with up to three devices at once) has been close to double figures for over a decade. So if we want to mediate the problems predicted from ‘excessive’ media usage, a creative solution, rather than a censorious approach, is what should be sought.  Continue reading

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Some moral seriousness from the kids

Putting the grown-ups to shame without the moral vanity the grown-ups tried so hard to teach her.

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By PATRICIA EDGAR. Kids Technology and the Future: Radical revamp needed for Children’s TV content quotas.

Today’s kids are way ahead of our broadcasting regulators and television producers in the way they use both television and digital media. It’s time for a radical rethink of content regulations, quotas, and subsidy for children’s media education and entertainment in their best interest.

The Government continues to hold back from releasing any response to the Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review that reported many months ago. Clearly, in the lead up to an election, they do not want to ‘take on’ the production industry or the networks and the inevitable dispute that will follow if they reduce quotas or recommend the kind of changes sorely needed for relevant children’s television and media regulation. The producers are demanding ‘more of the same’ – that is increased quotas – across all media platforms, an unworkable proposition based on their self-interest. The networks are demanding relief from quotas which they say are not working in the digital media environment; a view also based on their self-interest. The Government is wedged between the two interests knowing a change in the system is necessary to provide content relevant to children’s needs and interests today. 

The aim of children’s media content regulation and subsidy must be to achieve the best from the myriad of media choices available to children in this new era, to further their education, social development and cultural understanding. That will require creative solutions from new leadership. 

Today’s producers need to acknowledge quotas were not devised to provide business support for them to crank out formulaic, banal series, akin to soaps, that have minuscule cultural and educational value, as many quota programs have become. It is their job to attract children with projects of substance otherwise they have no right to subsidy and regulatory support for their projects. Continue reading

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The Future of Politics: by John Burnheim

Politics is about constructing those public goods that are necessary for communities, are a minimum to deal with problems that threaten life itself.

In our present situation, the most serious problems are all posed on a global scale, as a result of the scale of our management of nature, the growth of populations, threats of nuclear war, the international monetary system and so on.

Our efforts to deal with these problems within the frame of nationalist politics are often counterproductive. If each is bound to put its national interests before all others, reasonable compromise is impossible.

Democracy is not helping, as long it pits the people of a nation-state against another, pits nation against nation. But the prospect of a global sovereign authority; like a magnified state threatens a horrific concentration of power.

The solution is a range of very specific independent authorities that each define the changes needed to solve their specific problem and demand that states accept and implement them. Many such authorities already exist, especially in such fields as communications. They work because there is little to be gained from defying them and dangers of retaliation.

They lack close democratic control. They are responsible mainly to expert opinion, which is inadequate to ensure general trust. Public opinion needs to be assured that the authority is needed and that is constitution is appropriate. As it operates it must be subject to a competent independent audit that assesses its work. My suggestion is that in each case this audit should be carried out or at least supervised by a small committee statistically representative of the most affected by decisions in the relevant domain.

In my view it is highly desirable that we start experimenting with such auditing.

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