The rhetoric of bureaucracy

Everyone’s talking about evidence-based policy. And since gathering evidence is their job, you might think this would give academic researchers a more important role in the policy process. But as Peter Shergold writes in the Australian Literary Review, academics have little influence on policy:

Universities … are doing the research. Governments, and their public services, want the evidence. Why is it so difficult to get these two worlds to meet at an intersection of knowledge that can influence in significant ways the making of public policy? Why does Australia’s large public investment in research and development contribute so little to addressing the political response to the nation’s economic and social challenges?

Maybe the Australian’s resident philosopher Tim Soutphommasane can help. In his latest column he complains about the poor state of political rhetoric in Australia arguing that modern politics is conducted according to a Machiavellian ethic. What if he’s right?

Machiavelli understood that actions can speak louder than words. A key element of the Machiavellian approach to politics is the use of policy making as rhetoric. As American scholar Kenneth Burke explains:

… nonverbal acts and material instruments themselves have a symbolic ingredient. The point is particularly necessary when we turn to the rhetoric of bureaucracy, as when a political party bids for favor by passing measures popular with large blocs of voters. In such a case, administrative acts themselves are not merely "scientific" or "operational," but are designed also with an eye for their appeal.

Policies send a message about how politicians think the world works and how they want it to change. They are a signal about who they want to reward and who they want to punish. Because talk is cheap and policy expensive, the financial sacrifice involved in policy announcements is a signal of commitment.

In areas of policy where nobody expects results before the next election or where most of the public won’t actually notice if the policy works or not, the rhetorical function is likely to trump evidence about impact.

Academics selling policy ideas on the basis of their effectiveness will end up frustrated if politicians really want policies that send a message. Of course sometimes it’s possible to do both — to create policies that work on the ground and in the electorate. But that’s a much more difficult job.

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conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“Academics selling policy ideas on the basis of their effectiveness will end up frustrated if politicians really want policies that send a message.”

I agree. I think there are a few other issues involved (this comment also pertains to your previous article). One is that most academics are simply too busy to go and fight a fight where the outcome is likely to be zilch. Do we add “fighting with the government” to teaching, research, marketing, administration, and the other jobs I’ve forgotten that we have to do but we do? Where would we get time to do it anyway? — it’s not like any university is going to stick this on people’s workloads, and even if they did, it would be a crazy career move for most people (Conrad’s New Resume:”I wrote 6 nasty letters to the government unannounced and 3 nasty letters to their policy submissions, all of which had zero impact on anything”).

A second reason is that most academics work by themselves or in small groups, and I think it’s very hard to get any traction with groups of this size. For example, let’s say I have something important to say that no-one wants to hear but is well within my area of expertise. An obvious thing that comes to my mind is that I think that the NAPLAN is a piece of junk with no validity (at least the grade 3 one), and I could probably convince any of my friends that know about stuff in this area in 10-15 seconds of this (and probably most members of the public in 10-15 minutes given the chance). I imagine many people can probably think of issues they know about that fall into the same boat, especially those in not so politically hot areas where there really are good and bad ways and these can be evaluted relatively easily. Now, the only way this could gain traction would be for me to write something, find a hundred or so collaborators, and then go and do something about it (this is how some people in my area got traction in the phonics debate here). This is a huge investment for most people with very little direct reward. Now, perhaps some people are motivated and have more time than me, but I’m sure many people don’t.

It’s also the case that I think this is a failure of the government and not academics — if the government can’t employ people that actually have some idea about reasonable policies in areas where the evidence is clear cut and has been for decades (like the phonics debate or how to design a reading test with high validity — or indeed, how to simply copy one from someone else that has already done it), then I’m not really sure what to say anyway. It seems to me the most appropriate response to some of the stuff is “you guys are morons that should learn to use Scopus”, but this is hardly productive.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

I agree that symbolism is of importance but we economists as yet lack the language to talk sensibly about it. It doesnt fit with the rational economic man story. Even amongst behavioural economists you will be hard pressed to find a model in which symbolism makes sense.

mick
10 years ago

I think I’m kinda with Conrad on this.

The only addition to his comment is that if the government wants academic advice it needs to give them the freedom to make comment without political and financial consequences. That certainly isn’t the situation at the moment.

In fact I’m not so sure that this is really much of a mystery. The Howard governement eviscerated academic freedom and job security. It also spent years undermining the credibility of “elite” opinion for cheap political points. Is it any wonder then that the politically minded policy developers are distrustful of academics and, in turn, academics don’t want to offer their heads up on a plate lest they find themselves being attacked by Andrew Bolt or Janet Albrechtsen?

Andrew Norton
10 years ago

No federal government has every really touched academic freedom – there is legislation in the parliament now that will give them the power to do so, but not previously.

Academics do tend to be a rather timid bunch, but the main issue is the one Conrad raises – though academic time use surveys suggest that academics do spend a fair amount of time on various external engagement activities, the incentives don’t really support it.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“No federal government has every really touched academic freedom”

Funnily enough, speaking of what governments don’t want to hear this is sitting on the front of the electronic version of The Age this morning.

Andrew Norton
10 years ago

Though I would not generally see contractual argy bargy to be a threat to academic freedom, though contract research is always problematic for universities from the perspective of academic integrity. That’s one reason think-tanks usually refuse to do it.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
10 years ago

“No federal government has every really touched academic freedom”

This is, to be blunt, disingenuous. To my certain knowledge, governments in general, not just federal government, DO put pressure on Vice-Chancellors, both explicit and implicit, to attempt to muzzle outspoken academics who may be embarrassing the government. Sometimes it takes place in the context of contract research but sometimes just when academics make public utterances in their area of academic expertise that government doesn’t like (BTW I’m mostly NOT talking about myself here). There is no need for explicit legislative powers to do so. Ministers can have a quiet word to V-Cs who either speak with the academic concerned or pass the concern down the line for a Dean or Head of School to “counsel” the errant academic. As in any workplace, the inherent threat to promotional and other preferment need not be made explicit.

Perhaps part of the reason why American academics exhibit greater community engagement with public political discourse (assuming that is true in a proportionate sense, which I’m not sure is the case) is that more American universities are generously privately endowed and therefore much less than fully dependent on government funding for their survival.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
10 years ago

I do however agree with Andrew about the dangers of contract research for universities. Governments are generally looking not just to convey particular messages by policy announcements, but to bolster those policies with “research” that supposedly provides an expert evidentiary base for the policy the government (has already decided it) wants to implement. Thus the research is often likely to be just as skewed and tendentious as anything the tobacco industry produces to justify its continued sale of carcinogenic products..

I’m not suggesting universities should never engage in contract research, indeed funding imperatives make it essential. However I think one needs to be deeply suspicious of Shergold’s gambit. He is after all the principal Howard government bureaucratic architect of the ongoing process of politicisation of the public sector through SES arrangements, extreme managerialist processes, outsourcing, privatisation etc.* Subjecting the higher education sector to an analogous process isn’t necessarily a great idea.

Shergold acknowledges the factors I just outlined but then either denies their truth or simply fudges them while continuing to urge much greater academic engagement with contract research/policy development. He would be making a more useful contribution if he was proposing the development of some appropriate checks and balances (e.g. genuinely independent oversight and review mechanisms) which could provide plausible reassurance that academics would be able to preserve their integrity and fearlessly independent reputation if they engage more deeply with the “dirty world” where a researcher must “arrive at a negotiated, second-best, politically determined outcome” and where “the rational processes meant to underpin evidence-based policy are characterised by bargaining, entrenched commitments and the complex interplay of diverse stakeholder interests.”

What Shergold seems to be saying is that this is just the price you have to pay, just as gutting the old fearlessly professional Public Service was the price we all had to pay for greater “ëfficiency” and public sector responsiveness to partisan political imperatives. Rupert Murdoch may not be the devil incarnate but Shergold certainly is.

*To avoid an unnecessary debate, I’m not suggesting that these things are uniformly bad (or bad at all), just that they’ve gone too far and been applied indiscriminately to areas where they should not have been (e.g. privatisation of natural monopolies like Telstra; attempting to apply managerialist techniques in areas where many of the “deliverables” can’t sensibly be measured and where measuring those you can will unavoidably distort the quality of service delivery e.g. teaching to the test in NAPLAN).

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

Actually, I think contract research is less difficult for academics to do than simply lobbying in some ways for the following reasons:
1) You always get money, so someone will always be happy no matter what since the university will scoop off infrastructure costs.
2) There is apriori evidence that the question at hand was supposed to be undecided when you got the contract, even if they really wanted a particular answer. As in today’s example, this gives you much better bargaining power especially for what I assume are questions that can be reasonably well answered.

If you compare this with policy advice. It is often the case that:
1) There is no money involved, so no-one will care if you do it apart from you
2) You may be trying to argue against something that the government is already doing, and no-one wants to admit they are wrong. I assume this is even harder than arguing against something the government simply wants.

James Rice
10 years ago

I don’t have any strong views on the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative, but Bruce Chapman, Peter McDonald, and Percy Allan argue that the ERA, with its emphasis on publication in internationally prestigious journals rather than journals that actively engage with Australian policy issues, will lead Australian academics to focus even less on Australian policy issues.

Concerning American academics, I’d expect an emphasis on internationally prestigious journals to have less of an effect on academic research in the United States than in Australia, since many of the most internationally prestigious journals are actually American. Academics who focus on policy issues would, I expect, find it easier to get their work published in internationally prestigious American journals if this work focuses on issues of parochial relevance to American policy, rather than issues of parochial relevance to Australian policy.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

James, the reason American academics can publish more on policy has little to do with the prestige of journals. The reason is because they’re generally not evaluated using a one-size-fits-all system (one of the dwindling countries). Indeed, when going for promotion, they’re generally evaluated by people who might actually look and even read what they’ve published (or for that matter, look at what else they’ve done), and not simply count the numbers.

It’s worthwhile noting too that whilst many of the ERA gripes have been to do with these sorts of issues, any system where people simply use numbers to evaluate people doing qualitatively different stuff is going to unfairly favour some groups over others, and policy people have simply fallen into this category, like many others. There are in fact entire areas which have basically been destroyed because the measurable outputs in those areas are far less than other areas (and not just in this round of the ERA and not just in Australia), and these are equally important as policy and are also often the most important studies for policy making. For example, many long-term longitudinal studies, which are important in clinical and educational areas, are out because they take too long to do and often produce only a single measurable output. If you want to play the game, you’re far better off thinking of something useless but trendy and essentially scientifically worthless (e.g., “A different pattern of brain activation was found in group X vs. Y and so this must mean group X is Z!”) as this is quick to do, the media might love it, and the outcome is measured in the same way as something serious that took years to do and think of.

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

I have actually seen a Cabinet submission that begins the “Supporting Evidence” part with the words “Research will find that …”. And research was indeed duly commissioned to find it effective after the measure was implemented. There is an awful lot of policy-based evidence about, and academics are fooling themselves if they think they are never the providers.

Soutphomassane is right – absent unequivocal contrary evidence governments will always be able to impose their view of the outcomes to support their own rhetoric. And unfortunately evidence is rarely as unequivocal as, say, the non-appearance of Iraqi WMDs.

If a policy approach is the subject of partisan disagreement, then presenting evidence of its harm or ineffectiveness is often just seen as a marker of which party you support. Where a policy approach has bipartisan support (compulsory superannuation, national schools testing, welfare-to-work, etc) it can be much worse – acceptance of that policy approach then becomes the marker as to whether you are a Serious Person. For all the political heat Australian elites are remarkably prone to grouptthink on some issues.

mick
10 years ago

conrad – Having worked a fair bit with American academics, I’m not so sure that the situation with regard to a bibliometrics-based approach to research evaluation is really all that different to what is seen in Australia. Sure, there is no equivalent of the ERA but certainly in some fields bibiliometrics dominate many committees hiring and promotion decisions.

My understanding is that in Australia the ARC is trying to push academics away from evaluating research standards in terms of the quantity of papers and more towards quality. Publishing in international journals of high repute is a part of that.

On the other hand when recently applying for an ARC fellowship I was warned that certain fields in Australia are totally obsessed with the h-index and other “performance” indicators.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
10 years ago

Ken, I personally know of a number of cases where federal pollies have complained about academics, but none where any negative action has been taken. I would be interested to see some evidence on this. Academics like to imagine they are brave dissidents, but in reality they are highly protected people who have less to fear than just about anyone.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Don,

yes, one can pretend symbolism signals something, but what? You see, the reality is that the symbolic expense rarely materialises into a substantially different outcome (climate change expenses are a beautiful example of this: the carbon tax is completely useless and purely symbolic). Hence its a signal whereby no-one bothers to check the outcome (who in the general public actually realises how useless the carbon tax will be? Insiders know this, but few others). That doesnt fit with rational signalling theory. You need a theory in which people essentially are interested in the signal for its own sake. A sacrifice that makes people feel good because of the sacrifice that has been made. Weird stuff.