It’s time for the charity sector to invest in its capacity to shape the public policy agenda

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Article by Joe Zabar, as published in Pro Bono News

The not-for-profit sector must extend a hand to the Australian Public Service as it undertakes its journey of reform. Our first task is to invest in our capacity to undertake policy advocacy, writes Joe Zabar, deputy CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

The Morrison government’s reform of the Australian Public Service (APS) will require a herculean effort if it is to succeed. The Thodey report runs for more than 380 pages and – remarkably – is the 18th report undertaken into the APS in just the last decade.

There are several themes running through the report, none more important than the APS learning to better foster partnerships and collaboration across government, civil society, business and academia. The report flags a perception problem with the APS, highlighting concerns that its engagement with stakeholders is often tokenistic, too late in the process and simply seeks endorsement of decisions already made.

To address this, the report proposes the development of a Charter of Partnerships to set clear expectations – for government, the APS and the community – on how the APS will work with its external partners. The charter recognises the value of partnerships and joint decision making, but for it have any effect, sitting governments will need to demand the APS embraces this as the new way of working with its partners.

The Charter of Partnership has at its heart a more open and accountable information sharing and decision-making agenda that will deliver better policy and services for Australians. In an ironic twist, however, the report calls for materials prepared by the APS that inform the deliberative processes of government to remain confidential, and be exempt from release under freedom of information legislation. 

Justification for this is that the exemption will allow for frank and fearless advice to government. With trust in our political institutions at a real low, improved transparency should be the order of the day, even if it makes the art of politics a little harder.

While the review sets a positive direction for the APS, it ignores the reality of government decision making. Thodey seeks an APS that has improved agility and capacity to respond to ever-changing policy priorities. However, in doing so, Thodey fails to properly assign responsibility to our political representatives to change their ways. 

Saddling the APS with the expectation of delivering improved public policy and services in a climate of political expediency is both unfair and unrealistic.

For the APS to deliver the outcomes from this report it needs help from government and civil society, especially from charities and not for profits that are on the front line of service delivery. Success can be achieved by the APS through “enabling others to find solutions and harness opportunities, rather than trying to solve every problem itself”. 

While Thodey’s criticism of the APS rings true, one cannot help but ponder what more could the charity and not-for-profit sector have done to secure the changes needed to address disadvantage and poverty in Australia.

The answer to that question is complicated, but central to it is an acknowledgement that our sector must extend a hand to the APS as they undertake their journey of reform. The metaphoric hand is one based on improving public policy advocacy so that the APS and government is willing to surrender some of their authority and preconceptions to pursue a common purpose that ultimately delivers better outcomes for the community.

Our first task as a sector is to invest in our capacity to undertake policy advocacy. At a recent forum of Catholic social service providers, former Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane told participants that “at the end of the day, the job of the politician is to make public decisions about the use of scarce resources – so evidence really counts”.

Loughnane’s message was clear: governments have to make hard decisions about their funding priorities; these decisions are public, with political consequences; and policy/funding priority changes need persuasive evidence to see them implemented.  Our best chance to cut through the policy white noise and assist government to develop better public policy is for the sector to build its capacity to participate in public policy debates. 

As a sector, we need to invest in a better understanding of how federal, state and territory government policy decisions are made. We need to better understand the policy-making context. We must also invest in training our leaders and practitioners in how to develop practical and workable public policy alternatives that are persuasive and framed in the context of the competing policy priorities.

Over recent years, the charity and not-for-profit sector has begun to invest in traditional managerial and governance skills development. These are important skills for our sector, as we strive to improve our operational delivery, efficiency and effectiveness. 

This important investment has been a long-time coming but it is not enough. These managerial and governance skills sets go to improving how we do our business. However, we do not exist to be a business. Rather we exist to fulfil a mission and that will often draw us to the reality that to realise our mission, we must advocate for changes to public policy. In a world of competing priorities, we cannot continue to allow the status quo in public policy development to continue. Nor can we sit idle, waiting for the government and the APS to come to us to identify new and improved public policy. 

If we are truly committed to a better deal for the poor and disadvantaged, for the environment or any other important policy, then we – the charity and not-for-profit sector – need to get on the front foot and invest in our capacity to shape Australia’s public policy agenda.

Joe Zabar
Joe Zabar is the former Deputy CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia

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