The case for letting the shadow cabinet talk to a few public servants during the policy development phase – and not just for costings before the election – is pretty simple. I can sum it up like this:
“Protective Services Officers on every station!1!!!” [see here]
That’s the sort of policy that only gets dreamed up in opposition, when you’ve got no real capacity to figure out the cost of things, or advice on prioritisation.
When you don’t have a Finance Department to run ideas by. When you are incapable of weighing costs against benefits. When the “policy advisors” you employ to kick ideas around are actually most comfortable playing footsies with focus groups.
If governments are changing often – as they seem to be in Victoria – most policy being implemented is an election commitment dreamed up by an opposition.
Some of the ideas oppositions have come up must be the result of eating a great deal of cheese before bed.
How about this: a paid parental scheme that funds people to have kids by matching their incomes for six months, up to $150,000 a year … and wait for it, it’s funded by a levy on a really small number of businesses! That’s a policy maker’s nightmare.
Providing access to the public servants might actually help keep shadow cabinets tethered to earth, and that would be good for all of us.
PROBLEMS AND (some) SOLUTIONS
1. It could cause information flow from one party to another.
If the Premier or Prime Minister wants to know what policies the other side are weighing up, they can just ask the head of the department. Since they decide that person’s tenure, the head of department might be reluctant to keep the opposition’s secrets.
Equally, a government lagging in the polls could see their plans quietly leaked to the opposition, if they are expected to be government soon.
The obvious solution to this is to create autonomous mini units inside each department that work for the opposition. The problem with that is …
2. It could politicise public servants.
If a public servant’s job involves working for one side, they may become parochial and perhaps consider politics first and policy second.
Impartiality is lost and with it the distinction between ministers’ private offices and the public service. Furthermore if a great policy idea is offered only to one side of politics, the other side could cry foul.
The whole experiment would rest on the perceived integrity of the public servants, but if there is too much high-mindedness the risk is that …
3. Oppositions wouldn’t use it.
Why would a busy opposition want to spend important campaign time dealing with a shiny-suited public servant who will just tell them no? Listening to boffins won’t win votes!
When did the last great idea come out of the public service? Think tanks, newspapers, universities, websites and even blogs are full of policy ideas. The public service doesn’t have a monopoly on advice any more – they mainly renovate and repair bad ideas sourced from elsewhere to save them from destroying the budget (see protective services officers).
Any other problems or any other upsides that should be mentioned? Please use the comments section below to elaborate!