Women at a community meeting discuss the reconstruction of their village in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. PHOTO: World Bank on Flickr.

It’s good to talk

25 March 2015

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Professor Tom Kompas is Director of the Crawford School of Public Policy. He is also the Foundation Director of the Australian Centre for Biosecurity and Environmental Economics (AC BEE). He currently teaches the course Masters Microeconomics (IDEC8064).

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The best public policy solutions will come when we allow and encourage debate, discussion and an open exchange of ideas, writes Tom Kompas.

It is easy to become despondent when it comes to the creation and implementation of effective public policy.

Throughout the Asia and the Pacific region we see countless examples of sensible policy being created, debated, discussed and then drowned out by the noise of partisan politics or stakeholder self-interest before being dismissed, often for the wrong reasons.

The issues that the region’s policymakers have been unable to adequately tackle are numerous; from protecting the fisheries of our oceans to managing our changing climate; from creating liveable cities to having sustainable economies. Everywhere I go in Asia and the Pacific I hear different, but common, complaints about where good ideas have failed to turn into effective public policy.

This failure of public policy is not happening because of the quality of our public servants, researchers or stakeholders. The quality of thinking in tackling the challenges of our time is as high as I’ve ever seen it, and throughout Asia and the Pacific I see an appetite for addressing challenges in an inclusive, multi-lateral way. The graduates coming out of the universities of the region, and the researchers working within them, are high quality and driven by an appetite for quality change informed by evidence.

I’d also urge caution about blaming our politicians for this failure. Most every politician I know – whether I agree with their views or not – is doing what they think is right. They are making decisions in the best interest of their constituents, country or state. They are not evil schemers driven by cold self-interest like Frank Underwood in House of Cards, nor the well-meaning but bumbling politicians being outwitted by spin doctors, whip-smart bureaucrats and a re-election-obsessed party that we see in comedies like The Thick of It.

So where are things falling down? That’s not a question with any easy answer, particularly when viewed on a region-wide basis. After all, the process for tackling a public policy challenge in one country and the answers they come up with for doing so may be completely different from a neighbouring country.

But there is one area where I’d suggest there could be improvement – in every country of the region and by the region as a whole. That is the debate, discussion and sharing of ideas of people engaged in or by public policy ideas.

I strongly believe that the best answers for our regional public policy challenges won’t come from a single person, however eminent or well-informed their ideas. No, the best answers will come when we allow and encourage debate, discussion and an open exchange of ideas between those people on all sides of a debate who share only one thing in common – finding answers. That means offering the opportunity for input to everyone; from cabinet ministers to people delivering policy at the coalface.

This open exchange of ideas is one of the reasons why we created the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society – the free membership organisation open to all with an interest in public policy that I am President of. Through the Society the members are creating the region’s public policy community. The Society offers members many ways to analyse, discuss and debate policy ideas – from our website Policy Forum to the members-only LinkedIn group and an incredibly active Facebook page.

A glance at those platforms will highlight a couple of interesting things for those who would be despondent about the quality of public policy formulation and implementation in the region. Firstly, you’ll quickly see that there is an appetite for people throughout the region to have the chance to discuss the challenges facing the region. Secondly, it will be obvious that the challenges we face are more often than not common to multiple countries. The exact nature of the problem may be different, its impacts and stakeholders may not be the same across borders, but the underlying issues, the potential ways to address it, and the political and public reception issues facing implementation are remarkably similar across our region.

From Thimpu to Taiwan, from Canberra to Cambodia, the region’s public policy stakeholders have a lot to learn from one another. And if we give ourselves the opportunity to listen, share ideas, discuss and debate solutions, there’s no reason to feel despondent – the answers are within our grasp, we just need to keep talking to find them.

This article was originally published on Policyforum.net - the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society.

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