01 August 2010

Spin undermines government resilience

In today’s edition of The Sunday Age commentator Waleed Aly writes that volatility in a party’s or leader’s poll data demonstrates that whatever support they might have is very soft indeed. He goes on:

People might prefer you, or say they approve of your performance, but they don’t particularly like you and aren’t convinced.

That, it seems to me, is Labor’s biggest problem. It has failed to give the electorate a compelling reason to believe. Its approach to politics has been thoroughly timid and defensive. That’s why it has so quickly submitted to the Coalition’s rhetoric on immigration, asylum seekers and debt, and sacked a prime minister with unattractive polling. A government that has lived by the polls is now dying by them. Reactive politics eventually consumes itself. Yesterday we learnt that 60 per cent of the electorate want an ETS. How different this election might have been.

I agree completely with the above analysis, and would offer a development of it by reference to the well established science of “resilience” – a bit of a public policy and managerial buzzword these days, but one that, used correctly, has a lot of science behind it.

“Resilience” correctly defined refers to the capacity of a complex self-organising system (in this case the government of the day, Commonwealth or State) to withstand an external shock and continue to perform its normal functions. It does not necessarily remain exactly the same, but it adapts and continues to perform its full range of functions – in technical terms it retains its identity.

When something goes wrong, or an issue emerges that a substantial section of the public thinks requires attention, the government of the day has basically two choices – deal with the issue, or avoid action and respond with spin.

The core of my argument is that when the government makes a habit of responding to issues with spin, it loses the capability to deal with problems and hence loses control over its own destiny.

Mark Latham described the avoidance/spin reaction very clearly in his column in The Australian Financial Review last Thursday 29 July:

[The Gillard campaign’s] key personnel – her chief-of-staff, Amanda Lampe, her campaign manager, Karl Bitar, and Labor’s senior strategists, Mark Arbib and Bruce Hawker, all learnt their trade sitting at the feet of the long-serving NSW Premier, Bob Carr.

The Carr brand is stamped all over this campaign. It lives by the motto: never let a difficult policy challenge cost you votes, not when clever politics can do the trick. Carr was a master of papering over serious policy problems with astute media management. He may have left behind a dysfunctional state but, in his eyes, this was offset by an unbroken streak of election victories.

The Carr brand is based on five strategic ploys...

The first is the Time Buyer, a way of postponing a difficult decision until after the election...

The second is the Diversion, a way of shifting the attention off a vote-losing issue onto a related but different subject...

The third is The Illusion (of taking action)...

The fourth is the Sacrificial Lamb ... Cutting someone’s throat can be an effective way of soaking up the electorate’s anger...

The fifth is the Micro-Announcement ... a series of small, nugget-sized policies (inexpensive and ultimately ineffective) announced in serious forums.

The problem with this suite of approaches is that, while they immeasurably enhance the power and influence of the spin doctors, they reduce the public service, upon which governments depend more than they realise, to a state of learned helplessness.  Inherent in the spin approach is a massive concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s or Premier’s Office because the government stands or falls on micro-managing the government’s relationships with the media and ensuring that everyone stays “on message”.  Hand in hand with this is the contraction of the government’s repertoire of available responses to a single response: media management.

Fundamental attributes of resilient capability are decentralisation and diversity. An important component of the resilience of a forest is the diversity of species it contains. When it experiences a shock, different species will respond differently. The balance of species might change in changing circumstances, but the forest goes on. And in fire-prone forests such as Australian eucalypt forests, species have evolved that require a bush-fire in order to propagate. Attempt to manage the forest so that it never has a fire and the forest loses resilience – the fire resistant species decline and the fire susceptible species flourish. When a fire does come, the effect is catastrophic.

A good example of the resilience of the Australian economy was the way it responded to the Asian economic meltdown of 1997.  As the downturn proceeded the pundits kept observing that, although the Australian economy had done well so far, it was just about to fall into a hole. It never did. The reason was that it had such a diversity of responses available to it.  The exchange rate had been floated, the labour market had been liberalised, and the fact that it was an open market economy meant that each individual company could respond in its own way. Some companies suffered, others prospered. For a time the economy took a massive hit on the exchange rate (the main adjustment mechanism in this case) and the economy sailed merrily on.

Translate this thinking into the public policy/public administration sphere and the proposition is that governments will enhance their resilience (read time in office) by acknowledging problems forthrightly (“yes that needs attention” or “yes we stuffed up”) and getting on with dealing with them.

The process of constructing the solution will enhance the skills, experience and standing of the public servants who are called upon to advise on the issue, the government will have access to the full range of responses that might be relevant to the resolution of a complex issue, and the handling of the issues can be delegated to people who have the skills, knowledge and experience to handle them. That is what the Senior Executive Service of the Public Service is for. The Government has thousands of Assistant Secretaries and up who are all dying to help, and there is nothing like putting them to the task of solving difficult issues to enhance their skills.

Furthermore, the self-acknowledged stuff-ups will be a nine-day wonder if the government is manifestly dealing with them.

So let’s have less spin and more resilience. Throw the spin doctors overboard and get back to dealing with the substance.

For an outline of the science of resilience, see Resilience: what is it? on the Australia 21 blog.  

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