Policy Without Politics Is Pointless

John McTernan is Julia Gillard’s director of communications, a Scottish import, and, by all accounts, the man who convinced our Prime Minister to go hard on Tony Abbott’s woman problem.

In a profile in the Monthly, Nick Bryant wrote that McTernan is “renowned for his ruthlessness, and for being a hater”. He has an “all-out attack” political style. He’s usually compared to Malcolm Tucker, the iconic Scottish bruiser in The Thick of It.

But he came to Australia in a very different guise – as an “Adelaide Thinker-in-Residence”, the intellectual patronage program of former premier Mike Rann.

McTernan’s final report was belatedly released after Christmas: Are You Being Served? Toward More Responsive Public Services.

This report has to be read to be believed. It is superficial and scattershot and padded out with anecdotes. Poor old South Australians apparently paid handsomely for this collection of folksy wisdom masquerading as serious thinking about public service reform. In some parts it is actually quite funny. McTernan uses the word “synergies” not once, but twice.

Yet the report has one virtue: it exposes how barren thinking about public service delivery can be.

McTernan’s “challenge” was to revolutionise the relationship between public services and public service users.

To this he proposes the government “state and celebrate the purpose of public service overall”, seek to “foster a culture that empowers citizens and government to jointly own the problems that need to be solved”, and “establish a comprehensive state-wide approach to the development of 21st Century public service leadership”.

Those are the first three recommendations, word for word.

Only slightly more concrete is his call for “e-government”. Sure, e-government is a tantalising idea. In theory, it could link public services together, reduce administrative costs, increase government responsiveness and transparency, and make dealing with bureaucracies simple – even convenient.

In practice… well, you only need to see what the Australian Taxation Office’s eTax software looks like to see why massive government departments don’t do well in the online space.

E-government initiatives are, at their best, plodding and ineffective. At their worst they can be dangerous: government-run databases already have notorious privacy problems, and such problems multiply when those databases are linked together.

If e-government lends itself to fantastical thinking, even more indulgent is the claims made for the “open data” movement, where government releases wads of raw data for citizens to analyse and repurpose. For McTernan, open data could “increase transparency, accountability and collaboration”.

That all sounds great, but in reality, the most momentous open data success in Australia has been the National Public Toilet Map. Cute, modestly helpful, but hardly a revitalisation of democracy.

The limits of open data are obvious. The only data that is going to be released under an open data scheme is bland; anything which is controversial, potentially embarrassing, or even mildly off-message is going to be cleansed or suppressed.

Indeed, controlling the release of embarrassingly information is exactly the sort of thing that a communications director to a prime minister might be expected to do.

Public sector utopianism is always dashed upon the rocks of political expediency. That’s a worldly truth which makes most thinking about public service reform hopelessly naïve.

But in John McTernan’s report, this truth is elevated into a great irony. This supremely political person (the Monthly profile says McTernan can’t resist involving himself in internal ALP factional fights) appears not to have factored politics into his thinking.

For instance, McTernan proposes a checklist of sound policy development and implementation. (“Ask what is the problem?”, “What are the facts and do we have them all?”, “What are the solutions and do we have them all?” and so on.) That’s nice, and reminiscent of the “policy cycle” described in first year public policy textbooks.

But the policy cycle is an ideal model. It is deliberately simplified to the point of ridiculousness.

McTernan of all people knows that public policy is not developed by a steady, step-by-step process.

No, in a democracy, public policy is a compromise between interest groups brokered by politicians whose major interest is re-election. It is constrained by a lack of information and confounded by real-world complexity. It is implemented by bureaucracies driven by self-interest and it is evaluated by those who have a stake in its success.

All the problems McTernan implicitly identifies in the public service – excessive internal red tape, a lack of leadership, poor policy development – are not isolated problems to be surmounted but are innate features of the public sector. They are the natural result of the political incentives faced by all whose job it is to develop, choose, and implement policy.

Until thinking on public sector reform comes to terms with the political constraints of government action, it will always be pointlessly utopian.