Illustration by Iain Phillips

Australian governments have a problem with short-termism in policy-making. This isn’t entirely their fault. If the past year has shown us anything, it is that it’s very hard to explain the consequence of something happening to a person who has never experienced it.

When you’re at home, sweating through a 35-degree day, it’s hard to imagine the experience of sitting in the same room, feeling freezing cold. But that experience is coming in three months. You’ve felt it every year of your life, yet it’s still hard to imagine the tangible experience of being cold.

We know effective communication about complex systems is a difficult problem: look at the last four decades of increasingly frantic climate advocacy and the political establishment’s stubborn refusal to do much of anything. We live in the moment, and unfortunately, so do politicians.

Recently, we saw this manifest in some work we did to understand a system of service provision and policy-making, including the points in the system where a government makes decisions about funding allocation.

Inevitably, funding decisions are influenced by discrete interests trying to bend the system to a particular purpose, and this purpose includes the interests of those making the decisions. People in government aim to get re-elected, and they can use the power available to them to enact policies that are likely to get them re-elected. 

Politicians in power want to do things that generate impact (or the appearance of impact) during their term in government, because this helps their re-election prospects. So, the focus narrows and the intended system of long-term policy planning suddenly has a horizon for results of about three years.

This might seem like a cynical way to look at policy-making. But, as Reuben so frequently reminds us, the purpose of a system is what it does. If the system for making decisions about our survival over the next hundred years has myopia, how do we get glasses onto the faces of people with the power to change the system?

These are the questions we’ve been asking policy-makers: 

  • How might we build consideration of whole-of-systems-outcomes into the process for proposing (and securing funding for) new policies?
  • Which parts of government have developed new ways of targeting policy design that consider the whole of the system? How do we learn from them?
  • How can we better support policy-makers with tools to understand systems, generate their own evidence, and push back against short-termism?

Policy-making is, itself, an extremely complex and fundamentally interconnected system. What other conversations do you think are needed to unpick it? I’d love to know, drop me a line via email or on LinkedIn.

– Dan Woods and the PG Team.

Read the rest of issue #76 here