Peep show: a framework for watching how evidence is communicated inside policy organisations

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  • 1 Australian National University, , Australia
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Background:

Seeing how governments formulate decisions on our behalf is a crucial component of their ability to claim democratic legitimacy. This includes being seen to draw on the knowledge and evidence produced by their civil service policy advisers. Yet much of the advice provided to governments is being increasingly withdrawn from public accessibility.

Aims and objectives:

To counter this diminishing transparency, I propose a framework for observing how evidence is made and used in the political decision-making process. Although my framework is constructed within the Australian context, I hope to encourage its use in other government and policy settings.

Methods:

Using an example from my own research into the language of rejected policy advice, I construct a framework for locating how policy actors formulate and communicate their evidence. With primary material drawn from Freedom of Information releases, my framework qualitatively examines three impact factors with which to situate policy advice: text, organisational influences and the interplay between the front and back regions of politics and policy. To counter releases’ limitations, they are contextualised with publicly available, contemporaneous statements.

Findings:

Text displayed excessive detail, inviting multiple interpretations. Organisational influences suggested an insular culture over-reliant on its reputation. Interplay linked to evidence as ostensibly authority-imparting but ultimately adding to the lack of transparency around how political decisions were made.

Discussion and conclusions:

Even when processes are hidden from public view, they can be found. By connecting an array of impact factors, my framework here illuminated a complex choreography of civil servants communicating with their government about a contentious policy issue and revealed the political affordances they enabled in the process.

Abstract

Background:

Seeing how governments formulate decisions on our behalf is a crucial component of their ability to claim democratic legitimacy. This includes being seen to draw on the knowledge and evidence produced by their civil service policy advisers. Yet much of the advice provided to governments is being increasingly withdrawn from public accessibility.

Aims and objectives:

To counter this diminishing transparency, I propose a framework for observing how evidence is made and used in the political decision-making process. Although my framework is constructed within the Australian context, I hope to encourage its use in other government and policy settings.

Methods:

Using an example from my own research into the language of rejected policy advice, I construct a framework for locating how policy actors formulate and communicate their evidence. With primary material drawn from Freedom of Information releases, my framework qualitatively examines three impact factors with which to situate policy advice: text, organisational influences and the interplay between the front and back regions of politics and policy. To counter releases’ limitations, they are contextualised with publicly available, contemporaneous statements.

Findings:

Text displayed excessive detail, inviting multiple interpretations. Organisational influences suggested an insular culture over-reliant on its reputation. Interplay linked to evidence as ostensibly authority-imparting but ultimately adding to the lack of transparency around how political decisions were made.

Discussion and conclusions:

Even when processes are hidden from public view, they can be found. By connecting an array of impact factors, my framework here illuminated a complex choreography of civil servants communicating with their government about a contentious policy issue and revealed the political affordances they enabled in the process.

Key messages

  • It is difficult to observe how policy knowledge is constructed and if or how it informs political decision making.

  • Interviews and ethnographic research have been recommended as ways to understand the inner workings of policy organisations – but these are not always possible (or reliable), especially for researchers who want to qualitatively examine politically uncomfortable policy issues.

  • To counter diminishing transparency, I propose a framework for getting closer to watching how evidence is made and used, which includes analyses of texts, organisational culture, and the interplay between policy and politics.

Gaining a detailed understanding of the daily workings of organisations, particularly how their employees communicate their knowledge to each other and their superiors, can be a ‘problematic enterprise’ (Alvesson, 2003: 13). This is perhaps especially the case in relation to policy advisers inside civil services, who, as Rhodes has observed, ‘have been studied rarely’ (Rhodes, 2005: 5). To be sure, research has examined the communications of policy advisers, yet this broadly occurs at a theoretical level (Schmidt, 2008), where policy and political communication are grouped and not viewed as separate entities (Hajer, 1993), or to demonstrate how policy analysts should argue when making their case (Fischer, 2003). Although some studies do provide insights into how civil servants operate in some of their day-to-day dealings (Heclo and Wildavsky, 1974; Stevens, 2011; Mackie, 2015), or how their policy advice is used by governments (Wynne, 1989; Boswell, 2009; Moore, 2017), on the whole, we know little about the communication of policy knowledge within the organisational confines of the civil servant/minister relationship (Hoppe and Jeliazkova, 2006; de Vries et al, 2010; Eriksson, 2016).

This scarcity of insight is due partly to the difficulty of accessing government policy advisers (Williams, 2010). But it also stems from the fact that most of their advice to governments is being increasingly withdrawn from public accessibility, with Goldfarb arguing that ‘the government has claimed more privacy for its actions but has provided the citizenry with less’ (Goldfarb, 2009). While Goldfarb writes in the context of the US, a similar situation can be observed in Australia, where requests for government information are on the rise and compliance with those requests by government departments are down (Australian Government, 2019: 14). One possible response to this absence of insight could be to research organisations ethnographically (Rhodes, 2005: 5), particularly by way of ‘[f]ace-to-face, elite interviews’ (Rhodes, 2005: 20). Interviews, it is argued, provide ‘an authenticity that can only come from the main characters involved in the story’ (Rhodes, 2005: 20). But even then, these main characters are often highly practiced at withholding politically uncomfortable details. Although they do occasionally provide candid accounts (Padula, 2017; Grube, 2019), having myself worked in civil service departments for nearly 20 years, I know that none of these adequately shows how evidence is made and communicated inside policy organisations.

So what can those interested in understanding the formation and communication of policy evidence do when access and transparency are not available? A case in point is my own research, which asks whether the ambiguous language of Australian civil servants’ policy advice has muddied political accountability because it prevents citizens from understanding why they are governed in particular ways and not others, thus contributing to what is being widely perceived as a ‘crisis of democracy’ (Ercan and Gagnon, 2014; Lindberg and Steenekamp, 2017; Rich, 2017; Wike and Fetterolf, 2018; Rahman, 2018). How can I adequately respond to my line of enquiry? I have to understand what shapes officials’ policy knowledge and its communication. Interviews have not been possible due to the discomfiting nature of my research, and I am bound by a code of conduct not to ‘disclose details’ (APSC, 2020) related to my employment. Even if that was an option, I want to be able to demonstrate that it is entirely possible to formulate ‘situated accounts’ about civil servants’ ‘social reality’ (Alvesson, 2003: 17) from publicly available material. In other words, even when processes are hidden, they can be found – as long as some key factors are observed.

Although we on the outside looking in may never know what was spoken inside administrations so as to contextualise their communication, we do sometimes see fragments of written advice, such as Freedom of Information (FoI) releases. As Rappert notes, there are limitations to this type of material: ‘FoI responses are characterized by limitations and vagaries that mark a highly managed form of disclosure’ (Rappert, 2012: 44). As such, ‘trying to extract a stable reading is… problematic” (Rappert, 2012: 47). The material to be considered here is similarly marked: requested during the heat of a federal election battle, withheld for almost two years, taken by the requesting media outlet to the independent Australian Information Commissioner for appeal (McKinnon and Conifer, 2018), and then released as a loose assemblage of heavily redacted briefing material and emails, this FoI was anything but easily interpretable, despite the media’s focus on ignored policy officials. To facilitate social analysis against this backdrop, Rappert proposes interpreting the ‘back region’ (for example, FoI-released material) by placing ‘more analytical investment in statements made in front regions’ (Rappert, 2012: 47), such as official public statements. As I go on to demonstrate, it is possible to establish – even despite the barriers often associated with FoI releases elaborated upon below – what shapes officials’ policy knowledge and communication, by exploring each of these regions with the use of qualitative textual analysis, and by interrogating various impact factors. Insight into those factors can be acquired from organisational and parliamentary reviews and inquiries, mission statements and other administrative guidance, national and international comparisons with similar institutions and policies, speeches and other statements by relevant actors in the front regions.

The presence of public and private materials in government work hints at a realm where the production and communication of policy knowledge play out as similarly bifurcated performances: one largely hidden from view, where policy knowledge is produced, the other out front, where public figures give expression to policy. This, of course, is not surprising: civil services tend, on the whole, to work behind the scenes, while political actors operate with an eye to their public audiences. Following Goffman, we could say that public government statements are made in the ‘“front region”… the place where the performance is given… to give the appearance that… activity in the region maintains and embodies certain standards’ (Goffman, 1956: 66–67). In this region, where ‘one’s activity occurs in the presence of other persons, some aspects of the activity are expressively accentuated and other aspects, which might discredit the fostered impression, are suppressed’ (Goffman, 1956: 67). If Goffman’s front region is a public space where ‘accentuated facts make their appearance’ (Goffman, 1956: 67), his ‘back region’ is where ‘the suppressed facts make an appearance’ (Goffman, 1956: 67).

In what follows, I illustrate how to assemble a more comprehensive picture of how policy is constructed and communicated, using Rappert’s statement and document-led approach, and examine how ‘accentuated’ and ‘suppressed’ facts interact in the context of policy knowledge construction, particularly in relation to the requirement for civil services to offer objective evidence, political actors’ positioning of it, and the performative aspects of objective evidence in each region. To guide this examination, I construct a framework, utilising a short Australian case study, with which observers in this and other contexts might interpret government work from afar. This framework is loosely informed by Walby and Larsen’s work on emphasising the significance of FoI material as a way to produce ‘data about government agencies and their activities’ so as to ‘conceptualize how government agencies work in action’ (Walby and Larsen, 2011: 32 and 39). They propose three levels of analysis: ‘text, work and organizations’ (Walby and Larsen, 2011: 33). Text, which includes documentation like correspondence, briefing notes and internal memos, ‘illuminate[s] governmental agency activities better than reliance on official discourse or the carefully managed stories that government agencies themselves release’ (Walby and Larsen, 2011: 34). I adapt this layer to my framework as an examination of the language of FoI material, the circumstances under which it came to be produced, who it was for, when it was made and how long it took. Work reveals how texts are produced and how they

encode certain messages about what government agencies are doing or what they should be doing – and how they should be doing it. These texts can be directives for shaping the work that government agencies do or the way that they govern. (Walby and Larsen, 2011: 34)

I adapt this layer in a similar way to Walby and Larsen, by examining the administrative, legislative, organisational and cultural effects and burdens on organisations producing policy texts.

Organisation refers to the inter-agency dynamics under which texts are constructed. In Walby and Larsen’s work, this refers to networked organisations in instances where more than one government agency has produced texts (Walby and Larsen, 2011: 34). This is not the case in my Australian example, where only one agency engaged in text production. However, as alluded to above, there is another dynamic that shapes the construction of texts: the interplay between Goffman’s front and back regions, where some facts are accentuated and others suppressed. This final level of analysis will unpeel how notions of objectivity and evidence are expressed in each region to ultimately impart authority. Here, evidence or objectivity is performative and enables actors both in the front and back regions, each in their own ways, to engage in what Edelman has called ‘a dramaturgy of objective description’ (Edelman, 1988: 115). What comes to light in the short case study, and by using this framework, is that the back regions – civil service policy actors – appear to willingly suppress their knowledge by communicating in ways that enable the front regions – political actors – to readily accentuate facts that may be at odds with the policy facts produced in the back regions.

A short case study: Australia’s negative gearing policy

In the months leading up to Australia’s 2016 federal election, the Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) then leader, Bill Shorten, outlined his party’s intention to reform negative gearing. An income tax deduction for property investors, negative gearing has been cherished by sympathetic governments and the property sector as ‘propping up the Australian economy’ (Pawson, 2018: 132), and as an ‘almost inviolable taxation right’ (Blunden, 2016: 342) whose benefits are generally rationalised as ‘increases in the supply of housing [that] will place downward pressure on rental prices’, which then ‘trickle down to low-income groups’ (Pawson, 2018: 135). However, its impact has also been linked to disproportionately accruing to ‘higher income earners’, with ‘50 per cent of the benefit going to the top 20 per cent of households by income’ (Blunden, 2016: 342). Shorten proposed to ‘level the playing field for first home buyers competing with investors’, ‘put the Australian dream of home ownership back within the reach of middle and working class families’, and ‘improve the budget bottom line by $32.1 billion over ten years’ (Australian Labor Party, 2016).

The following day, Scott Morrison, the incumbent government’s then Treasurer, responded that Labor’s proposal would not only raise very little revenue, it ‘could also have some very nasty consequences for everyday mum and dad investors just trying to get ahead’. Specifically, he charged that Labor’s change would raise just $600 million over four years and that ‘Labor’s proposal… runs the risk that… modest mums and dads will be forced out’ (Morrison, 2016) of the housing investment market. The then Prime Minister went further by calling the ALP’s proposal ‘the most ill-conceived, potentially destructive policy ever proposed by any opposition’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 2016). These are tough, definitive words. By which route did they come to be articulated with such certainty?

To find out, one must fast-forward to January 2018, when the Australian Treasury’s appeal to withhold advice raised under an FoI request was rejected. Following a two-year battle, Treasury had been ordered to release the documents, which pertained to briefings to the Treasurer about Labor’s proposed changes to negative gearing in 2016. The story was big because the Treasurer had not only ignored his department’s advice but had apparently contradicted it. With this in mind, let us line up two important passages in Treasury’s advice in the back regions with the Treasurer’s comments in the front regions:

On Labor’s negative gearing policy, [s47G redaction] found that removing negative gearing will increase revenue in the long run between $3.4 and $3.9 billion a year, depending on the increase in new housing construction flowing from the new housing exemption. (Australian Government, 2018)

In what appears to be a response to a request to fact-check an opinion piece for the Treasurer ahead of publication, Treasury noted that

[w]e presume ‘Labor’s proposal therefore runs the risk that more wealthy investors will continue to enjoy the same tax incentive they get now, while more modest mums and dads will have to look elsewhere’ refers to structuring opportunities, as the limit on negative gearing for established property would not differentiate between more or less wealthy investors? (Australian Government, 2018)

In the first passage cited here, it seems that Treasury’s amount for revenue raised aligns more closely with Labor’s figure of $32.1 billion over ten years – Treasury put it potentially even higher than that at $3.4 to $3.9 billion a year ‘in the long run’. By contrast, the Treasurer’s figure was substantially less than that. The Treasurer’s opinion piece seemed to ignore Treasury’s question about structuring opportunities in the second passage entirely and went on to bolster his original words: ‘Labor’s proposal therefore runs the risk that more wealthy investors will continue to enjoy the same tax incentive benefits they get now, while more modest mums and dads will be forced out’ (Morrison, 2016). So why did Treasury attempt to stop the release of its advice? According to one news outlet,

[s]enior bureaucrats threatened to stop giving honest advice to the Federal Treasurer if negative gearing documents were not kept secret… They argued that disclosure of the information would prejudice Treasury’s ‘ability to provide candid and confidential advice to ministers in the future’. (McKinnon and Conifer, 2018)

While Treasury’s advice attempted to explain the implications of Labor’s policy, this would have occurred in response to a request by Morrison’s office following Shorten’s speech. Although Treasury’s explanation was probably not what he was hoping to hear, he had likely entertained the possibility that Labor’s costings were not necessarily wrong. It is stretching reality to claim that by simply responding to a request to model Labor’s proposed changes the advice was therefore candid. If anything, Treasury’s advice entrenched the Treasurer’s existing position further.

One month after the release of the documents, it was reported that, in ‘dismissing Treasury’s expert advice on negative gearing’, the Treasurer had drawn ‘upon his “own experience and understanding”’. Moreover, ‘“I didn’t agree with them”, Mr Morrison said on Tuesday. “I take advice from my officials but I’ll make my own decisions based on my experience and based on consulting widely”’ (Conifer, 2018).

Morrison’s statement suggests that his official policy advisers not only completely failed to establish themselves, their advice also led to the Treasurer digging in. Even in an election environment, where appetite for change can be magnified, policy evidence contributed to the status quo becoming further entrenched. My three-layered framework will help explain how this might have happened.

Text

The framework’s first layer examines the text’s words, structure and style so as to become aware of the social, cultural and political conditions that surround the performance of policy knowledge construction. As Gottweis proposes, to grasp the dimensions of policymaking, one should try to better understand ‘the intersecting of argumentation, feelings, and status of speakers. What thus comes into view is the complex scenography of policymaking, its argumentative performativity and location in time and space’ (Gottweis, 2006: 477). There is, then, much to be gained from noticing some of the elements that intersect across the advice: the circumstances under which it came to be produced, who it was for, when it was made, and how long it took. Looking at the text in this way raises several points of enquiry.

One of these is timing. Shorten’s speech appears to have been provided to media on 12 February, one day ahead of delivery. Upon reading it, the Treasurer’s office may have requested Treasury advice early on 12 February with the aim of assisting with his opinion piece to counter Shorten’s claims. This means Treasury may have had less than 24 hours to prepare their briefing. This may not be ideal but it is not unusual. While it is difficult to provide a comprehensive briefing that includes modelling in such a short timeframe, the policy-advising environment is largely reactive, with advice often formulated in response to urgent requests, with little room for reflection. This is a known and unsurprising reality for contemporary policymakers (APSC, 2021). Moreover, calls for reform to negative gearing are not new in the Australian context (Commonwealth of Australia, 2009; Australian Council of Social Services, 2015; Daley et al, 2016), meaning that a government department like Treasury should be sufficiently prepared to provide such a briefing even within a short turnaround. So, while urgency and reactiveness are not necessarily conducive to ideal policy advice, neither are they unexpected. Further, illuminating how changes to well-established components of Australia’s tax system like negative gearing might work in practice should not take an economic policy agency like Treasury by surprise. One might therefore examine whether policy evidence is contingent on particular temporal circumstances, and how that influences its communication.

Does Treasury’s advice reflect an awareness of the context in which it is being constructed? This is related to timing in the sense that advice has been requested in response to the opposition’s proposal during an election year. But it also connects to awareness of the government’s traditional position on this policy, and of the Treasurer’s own point of view. Further, what context surrounds negative gearing itself? Negative gearing in Australia carries some political baggage, most notably perhaps then Treasurer Paul Keating’s attempt to abolish it in 1985 only to reinstate it in 1987 after pressure from lobby groups (Jericho, 2014; Blunden, 2016). Treasury policy advisers might themselves recall their findings on negative gearing in their 2009 publication, ‘Australia’s Future Tax System’. Perhaps most pronounced within this context is strong support among the property industry to retain it. Indeed, as a Treasury official quoted in Jacobs put it:

[t]he Treasury has, to some extent, internalised the arguments put forward by the housing industry against meddling with negative gearing. The memory of what is known as the ‘Keating experience’ – the sustained campaign following Treasurer Paul Keating [sic] decision to amend negative gearing – is still fresh in their minds. (Jacobs, 2015: 701)

Although it has been noted that policy elites are often eager to embrace tax reform (Eccleston, 2007), Treasury may well have been hesitant in this instance. Whatever the case may be, negative gearing in Australia has a politically implicated past, which was still being brought into play in 2016 by an opposition keen to portray the government as beholden to the property sector and its wealthy electorates. Context, therefore, has important insights for us in terms of how the environment in which evidence is constructed bears on how policy advisers communicate their expertise.

Another important point of enquiry relates to audience. For example, does Treasury’s advice indicate awareness of its audience? Does it put forward a point of view or does it hide behind a frame of innocuous information? Although the audience of written policy advice is usually implied, can one discern its presence in this case? It can be tricky to locate the audience in written text, but it is possible. As Leach notes,

[w]e can see in texts ways of positioning readers, or ‘creating’ audiences. Take, for example, the scientific paper that might appear in the journal Nature. The text and its context position readers in very particular ways as an ‘audience’. The specialised language, the conventions of citation, the structure of the text with ordered sections, and the relationship between diagrams and the text, all select a certain audience of readers, as well as position them in certain ways…. So, while the audience does not always reside in the text in any obvious fashion, the text rhetorically positions its audience in ways that can be discerned through analysis. (Leach, 2000: 8)

Treasury’s text, with its clipped structure and semi-technical terminology, suggests an assumption that its audience shares Treasury’s vernacular. It is dispassionate, which implies a studied neutrality, but it also poses its response about structuring opportunities as a question (‘we presume [you are referring] to structuring opportunities, as the limit on negative gearing for established property would not differentiate between more or less wealthy investors?’) (Australian Government, 2018). This may simply be a way of confirming whether its guess is right. Yet there is an oxymoronic tension here: on the one hand, the question mark indicates that Treasury needs reassurance in terms of what the Treasurer wants; on the other, pointing out what is probably obvious to Treasury – that a limit on negative gearing cannot discern the relative wealth of investors – in the form of a rhetorical, perhaps patronising question, could suggest arrogance. With this tension, the text positions Treasury’s audience as both powerful and potentially ignorant. This says more about the writers than their audience and suggests that they are uncertain about their own status in relation to this audience. In other words, although they may feel that they possess epistemic authority among themselves, this authority becomes more tentative when faced with its primary audience.

What can the front region reveal about how the Treasurer consumed and publicly construed this advice? More specifically, based on how it was used and publicly recast, can one make a judgment about how it might have been heard? For instance, Treasury’s advice questioned the statement that ‘mums and dads’ would be disadvantaged by Labor’s policy, by highlighting that wealthy investors can structure their taxes and assets in ways ordinary ‘mums and dads’ usually cannot. With this, Treasury may have influenced the Treasurer’s decision to replace ‘more modest mums and dads will have to look elsewhere’ with ‘more modest mums and dads will be forced out’. The Treasurer and his office may have realised that, based on this advice, they could not logically make the point that mums and dads would be both disadvantaged and able to invest elsewhere. This detail clearly prompted him to aim for maximum impact by altogether forcing them ‘out’ – a much more destitute image. Here, one can observe something deeper than media reports about ignored experts. That is, Treasury offered details that caused the Treasurer to execute the point he seemed intent on making all along.

Treasury’s expert advice effectively provided an affordance; that is, it provided the medium through which the Treasurer boosted his already-held position. Even though Treasury’s evidence neither persuaded nor nudged Morrison towards change or even a neutral (re-)appraisal of the issue, it strengthened his already held beliefs and prompted an emphatic denunciation of any change. However, while it may have been deemed insufficiently authoritative, Treasury’s evidence was nonetheless influential in a complex, even surreptitious way, in that it helped Morrison amplify the status quo. Indeed, it enabled one of Morrison’s colleagues to later assert that it ‘confirms what we have been saying all along’ (Karp, 2018). It achieved this not in spite of but because of its weakness.

Organisation

Communicating policy evidence also connects to a layer in which organisational constraints and expectations play a major, even inhibiting, role. In Australia, the language and framing of policy advice, such as Treasury’s, link to the obligations stipulated by the Public Service Act, as well as to Freedom of Information legislation. The Public Service Act requires that the Australian Public Service (APS) be ‘apolitical and provides the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence’, as well as ‘objective’ (Australian Government, 1999) and ‘responsive to Ministers’ (Australian Government, 2022). Before investigating how those requirements have played out upon policy communication, I will briefly consider how the Australian context has dealt with ideas around objectivity and evidence in terms of policy advice to governments.

Expectations of objectivity became explicit following the 1976 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, which examined how to reshape government administration in Australia and codified objective advice as ‘one of the most important functions of a departmental head’ (Commonwealth of Australia, 1976). By 2007, Australian public servants had been assigned the role of objective evidence providers with the prime ministerial election of Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s emphasis on the use of evidence in policymaking was as much a statement of publicising his reforming credentials and articulating difference to the conservative government he had replaced, as an instruction to his administration to help him be seen as governing with ‘facts, not fads’ (Rudd, 2008). From thereon in, evidence and objectivity seem to have become an unchallenged part of APS identity. Two years after Rudd’s election, then Productivity Commission Chairman Gary Banks published an essay, by then already thrice-delivered as a speech, entitled ‘Evidence-based policy-making: What is it? How do we get it?’. Proclaiming that “I don’t think I have to convince anyone here of the value of an evidence-based approach to public policy” (Banks, 2009: 3), precisely what was involved in being objective and evidence-based must have been deemed so self-evident that it was never explicated.

By March 2010, Rudd’s Secretary at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, delivered another review of the APS, ‘Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration’, which argued that its role was to ‘provide advice that considers all evidence and provides impartial considerations free from vested interests’. It also noted that ‘[p]olicy issues are increasingly complex and interrelated, which heightens the need to provide forward and outward-looking, objective advice’ (Moran, 2010: 12). In 2015, former Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet Peter Shergold delivered a further review, ‘Learning from Failure’, which concluded that good policy advice ‘needs to be analytically rigorous, carefully balanced and unbiased in its assessment of evidence’, seeking to be ‘as objective as possible’ (Shergold, 2015: 16 and 18). Neither detailed exactly what such objective evidence might include and how it might be done – mentioning it seemed powerful enough. Indeed, the appeal of the concept is underscored by the enthusiasm with which Australian administrators demonstrate their observance of it.

The second factor that appears to play an influencing role on policy communication in Australia is Freedom of Information legislation, which exists in tension with what is required under the Public Service Act. Recall Treasury’s retort, as it was reported, that ‘disclosure of the information would prejudice Treasury’s “ability to provide candid and confidential advice to ministers in the future”’. This seems to imply that the requirement for transparency exerts an inhibiting influence on how forthright communication can be. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which administers the FoI Act, rejects this reasoning as misplaced in most circumstances, noting that:

[p]ublic servants are expected to operate within a framework that encourages open access to information and recognises Government information as a national resource to be managed for public purposes…. In this setting, transparency of the work of public servants should be the accepted operating environment and fears about a lessening of frank and candid advice correspondingly diminished…. (Australian Government, 2016)

In other words, democracy is supported when public servants make clarity and candour the rule rather than the exception. Yet Treasury seemed to argue that it can only communicate candidly when it is not possible for the public to see its advice.

This argument represents one of two schools of thought on how much impact such requirements and expectations have on communicating evidence. The first, typified by Treasury, views FoI laws as an impediment to providing candid advice. Here, one might cite Shergold’s Learning from Failure, which concluded that the FoI Act should be amended to support greater confidentiality around ‘advice and opinion provided to support the deliberative processes of government policy formulation’ (Shergold, 2015: 15). At the time of their release, Shergold’s comments were welcomed by a swathe of very high-ranking APS officials, such the Australian Public Service Commissioner and others (Belot, 2016). The most recent review into the APS echoed these sentiments, noting that: ‘members of the review’s reference group, including former ministers and senior public servants, highlighted their own experiences of FOI legislation inhibiting the provision of frank and fearless advice to government on deliberative matters, especially in writing’ (Thodey, 2019: 121).

It concluded that:

[e]nsuring that APS advice and opinion provided to support the deliberative processes of government policy formulation remain confidential will give public servants the confidence to provide frank and fearless advice, and ministers and the Cabinet the best advice to make fully informed decisions. (Thodey, 2019: 121)

It seems there is no room for the public in this tight relationship. The second school of thought views candid advice as a touchstone for democratic integrity, such as former senior public servant Bill Blick, who, in 2016, noted that calls for greater confidentiality were ‘self-serving comments from the usual suspects’ that ‘might have more credibility if supported by some frank and fearless evidence’ (Towell, 2016). Looking at the language offerings of Australia’s public servants while working as a prime ministerial speechwriter, Button routinely saw advice that had ‘no confidence in its own truth’ and expressed ‘a kind of powerlessness’ (Button, 2013: 168). This suggests that, far from practising candour in most situations, policy communication is performed as a kind of self-inhibiting form of expression that belies a lack of confidence in what it should actually be and do. Treasury fighting the FoI release therefore also gives us an important insight into how it viewed its own identity, its role and responsibilities. When considered in tandem with its actual advice, what does Treasury’s claim that disclosure would prejudice its ‘ability to provide candid and confidential advice’ say about how it regards its abilities? Moreover, what does it say about its understanding of candour?

Finally, a discussion about organisation should be supplemented by consideration of the reputation and organisational identity of the institution under consideration. In Treasury’s case, its reputation has rested on ‘a strong track record of delivering to government’ and ‘successive governments…. request[ing] it to take a lead role on a broad range of issues, some of which are arguably beyond the traditional remit of a national treasury’ (APSC, 2013). However, while its ‘reputation is a cornerstone on which its ongoing influence is founded’, it has also been found to be: ‘closed to external experience [with] practical implications… not always given sufficient consideration in forming policy advice. This widely held perception has the potential to undermine Treasury’s reputation and so will be important to address further to protect the department’s reputation and influence’ (APSC, 2013).

The front regions with which to augment our consideration of policy workers’ knowledge communication should thus include publicly available material on capabilities and performance of the type cited above, as well as annual reports and other statements. For example, after ‘missing its budget revenue forecasts for most of the decade’, Treasury came under fire from Australian academic Bob Gregory, who said that forecasting should be taken away from the department given that it had: ‘continued to apply the same approach of reversion to a 30 year trend…. despite the fact that the experience of the last ten years doesn’t fit that model, and despite the fact that we can’t explain what is going on’ (Potter, 2017). Similarly, think tank the Grattan Institute accused Treasury of ‘using the same assumption for the last 40 years as if the world hasn’t changed…. We have been doing this for quite a long time and the answers have been the same, the projections are not matching reality. Why hasn’t Treasury changed its approach yet?’ (FINSIA, 2017). Statements of this kind help us assemble a broad impression of organisational identity and culture – in this case, a culture susceptible to insularity and rigidity.

Interplay

I have panned out from examining the text itself to observing the organisation and culture within which it is constructed. I will now unpack the interplay of objectivity and evidence in each region and how civil service policy actors suppress their knowledge by communicating in ways that make it possible for political actors to accentuate different facts in the front region. To situate interplay in the Australian setting, a brief comparative overview of how similar policy issues have been expressed elsewhere is useful, and four countries’ attempts to enact various reforms in a contested taxation space are considered: Ireland’s, New Zealand’s, Norway’s and Japan’s.

In his comparison of tax reform in Ireland and New Zealand, Christensen argues that the policy advice approach of tax policy bureaucrats – advisers just like those in my Treasury example – ‘had a major impact on tax policymaking’ (Christensen, 2013: 563). In New Zealand, whose neoliberal tax reforms under Labor in the 1980s were world-leading, Christensen found a civil service that:

produced tax policy bureaucrats that identified as economists, had extensive economic expertise, were highly receptive to the neoliberal ideas from the economics discipline, and took an activist approach to policy advice. Through the formulation and advocacy of reform ideas, officials influenced the policy preferences of politicians and led tax policy change. (Christensen, 2013: 566)

During the same time in Ireland:

[t]he persistence of a generalist civil service with closed recruitment policies created a tax policy bureaucracy that identified as civil servants, had little economic expertise, was oblivious to micro-economic ideas about taxation, and took a passive approach to policy advice. These features allowed tax policymaking to be completely dominated by the ideas and concerns of politicians. (Christensen, 2013: 566)

Here, one could speculate that the front and back regions in New Zealand were aligned to an extent where facts were accentuated in both regions, potentially with very little suppression, while this Irish example shows a back region almost oblivious to the presence of a front region. My short Australian case study showed a back region similarly closed off to outside influence and assuming a reticent approach to policy communication, yet it could not be argued that policy advisers were unaware of the interplay with the front region – indeed, their keen awareness of the front region was a key contributing factor to the easily ignorable manner in which they communicated their policy knowledge.

In Norway, Ervik and Lindén consider government reforms to pensions and find a Ministry of Finance that ‘held a dominant position over the politicians… regarding both the description of the problem and possible policy solutions’ (Ervik and Lindén, 2015: 394). This leads the authors to conclude that ‘Norwegian policy actors have had great success in conducting comprehensive… reform without long-lasting protests’ (Ervik and Lindén, 2015: 406). Eccleston’s observations of Japan’s attempts to introduce and then increase a value-added tax (VAT) in the 1970s, 80s and 90s chart the dominance and later decline of the Ministry of Finance (MoF) in setting the economic policy agenda. Yet, despite its earlier ‘bureaucratic independence and expertise’ (Eccleston, 2007: 117), initial attempts to introduce a VAT in 1979 failed. Ten years later, due to a number of factors that included ‘MoF’s central role in agenda setting and commitment to the introduction of a national consumption tax’, Japan introduced a 3% VAT. By the time it was raised to 5 % in 1997, however, the ‘reputation of the MoF was tarnished and its bureaucratic influence limited still further by the widely held perception that the agency had mismanaged the recession economy and fiscal reform’ (Eccleston, 2007: 130).

These brief comparisons suggest two types of interplay: one where facts moved relatively seamlessly between the front and back regions with little apparent suppression, the other where the back region either withdrew from its connection to the front region or where its production of facts was far removed from a front region that ultimately profited from the back region’s perceived failure. My Australian Treasury example seems more closely to fit into the latter category, with an important exception: it seems to have produced and communicated facts in such a way as to be easily ignorable in and by the front region.

I have previously noted that there seems to be an uncritical acceptance of communicating in ways that sound like evidence without necessarily being evidence in the Australian context. As Adams observes:

when I ask people… what are the types of knowledge that are relevant to policy considerations in your program/department and how is such knowledge constructed… [it] tends to generate more blank looks or perhaps vague statements about the importance of ‘evidenced-based [sic] policy making’. (Adams, 2004: 29)

Even when evidence is not actually used in policy advice, its presence is assumed and hovers around the culture and its language, standing in for argument or knowledge. As Adams continues:

Now it could well be that the eclectic nature of the responses are [sic] not simply because of my esoteric line of inquiry but because we don’t have a knowledge orientation to our work in public administration and public policy – despite the rhetoric. Even more seriously it could be that we don’t know what knowledge looks like because it has become self-referential – that is, the way we work and the tools we use largely define what is good and proper in policy work. (Adams, 2004: 29)

With the construction of policy knowledge unchallenged as somehow based on ‘evidence’, and methods and tools standing in for the type of critical thinking and judgement required to acknowledge the political context of policy work, it is easy to see the performative appeal of sounding objective. As Porter suggests, ‘[o]bjectivity lends authority to officials who have very little of their own’ (Porter, 1995: 8). Sounding ‘objective’ is therefore connected both to immunising oneself against criticism and publicly projecting professional authority. Harding calls this conception of objectivity the ‘neutrality ideal’, which: ‘certifies as value-neutral, normal, natural, and therefore not political at all the existing scientific policies and practices through which powerful groups can gain the information and explanations that they need to advance their priorities’ (Harding, 1992: 568–9).

While references to objectivity in the legislation, rules and guidelines that encase Australian policy advice promise truth or at least truthfulness, Harding calls this out as depoliticising and substantiating the already-held intentions of those in power, with scientists – or policy advisers in our case – playing the role of enabling ‘company men’ (Harding, 1992: 569). Far from maintaining a hard border between policy and politics, therefore, when advice is guided uncritically by the ‘neutrality ideal’, it becomes almost entirely political because it facilitates politically favoured outcomes.

Examining situations where the interplay between front and back regions operates more fluidly, Palmer et al discuss the relationship between advice givers and governments in terms of ‘boundary bridging’ and ‘co-production’ (Palmer et al, 2019: 244), where invoking ‘the intrinsic substance of supposedly objective facts – whether to support or oppose particular policy proposal – is unhelpful’ (Palmer et al, 2019: 249). It is imprudent, in other words, to reinforce ‘the perception of science and politics as mutually exclusive spheres’ (Palmer et al, 2019: 246), and better to acknowledge that ‘expert advisory processes’ are ‘influenced by more transient and situated factors, including the prevailing political climate within which advisory interactions take place, the specific characteristics of the policy problem(s) discussed, and the balance of interests amongst relevant stakeholders and publics’ (Palmer et al, 2019: 249). To cite one of the chief scientific advisers interviewed by the authors, such work ‘consists of… actually explaining the scientific position, understanding it, but working with the grain’ (Palmer et al, 2019: 249; authors’ emphasis). Working with the grain in this way could be said to ‘constitute the purposeful hybridisation of science and politics’, where ‘good advice’ is produced through ‘a collaborative, iterative approach to the process of formulating advice’, and engaging ‘closely with decision makers on a sustained, face-to-face basis – in both cases building processes of mediation and translation into the substance of their advisory work’ (Palmer et al, 2019: 250) – a sort of harmonious transition from back to front region.

On the surface, maintaining a public posture of both objectivity and political responsiveness may well appear to suggest that Australian policy advisers embrace such hybridisation. Yet, rather than ‘working with the grain’, I argue that the two are kept far apart when advisers communicate in ways that sound like evidence while shrinking from (political) complexity. Indeed, maintaining this separation does not immunise policy experts from being politically implicated – it helps conceal the process by which political decisions are made.

In my example, Treasury appears to have abstained from seizing the opportunity to ‘work with the grain’, at least in this instance. The advice ultimately destined for the Treasurer seems to illustrate advisers’ reluctance to convey a view in the face of complex political circumstances. Further, when viewed alongside our handful of international examples, Treasury argued weakly when anticipating a poor reaction from its government audience, effectively ‘playing the role of enabling “company men”’ (Harding, 1992: 569). When the back region thus shrinks from its connection to the front region, it does not preserve the integrity of its policy knowledge, but rather suppresses it so that the front region can accentuate whatever is most convenient at the time.

Conclusion

With governments likely to benefit from a status quo that is seeing an increasing withdrawal of policy processes and rationales from public view, it is important to find alternative ways to illuminate how policy officials communicate their evidence and how that evidence is used in political contexts by governments to make decisions on our behalf. I constructed a three-tiered framework comprising text, organisation and interplay, each of them revealing an aspect of how civil servants communicated with their government about a complex and politically fraught issue. Viewed separately, each layer of my framework revealed some hidden dimensions of official advice. Viewed as a whole, it uncovered the political affordances policy advisers enable when they communicate in ways that are almost infinitely interpretable.

By closely analysing the text of Treasury’s advice, one saw how it connected to timing, context, framing and even self-perception. Allowing detail to dominate context, the text not only invited multiple interpretations and doubts, it also enabled government ministers to undermine or resurrect Treasury’s credibility as needed. Organisation focused on the institutional effects on advisers’ language. Here, one could observe an insular culture potentially over-reliant on its reputation. Treasury argued against making public its briefings on negative gearing for two years, claiming disclosure would prejudice its ability ‘to provide candid and confidential advice to ministers’. When made public, the briefing revealed very little of its legislated requirement to be frank, nor did it display any degree of the forthrightness many claim will be foregone with uncompromising FoI laws: interplay linked to objectivity and evidence as ostensibly authority-imparting but ultimately used in a way that propped up the fantasy that policy advice exists separately from politics. Ironically, this separation did not immunise policy experts from being politically implicated – indeed, doing their utmost to stop it from becoming publicly available, their language added to the lack of transparency around how political decisions were made.

Having the opportunity to see how governments formulate those decisions on our behalf is a crucial component of their ability to claim democratic legitimacy, which includes being seen to draw on the knowledge and evidence produced by their civil service policy advisers. We can make sense of how policy and politics reason in our interest by connecting a multi-faceted array of impact factors, as I have shown with my contextual framework. It should be added that this framework is flexible and should guide one’s enquiry rather than control it. As such, the works cited here and the examination of negative gearing itself represent an indication of what could be done by others similarly engaged in scrutinising the inner workings of organisations.

Funding

Not applicable.

Research ethics statement

The author of this paper has declared that research ethics approval was not required since the paper does not present or draw directly on data/findings from empirical research.

Contributor statement

CG is the sole author.

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Joan Leach, Sujatha Raman and John Uhr for their advice, as well as the two anonymous reviewers, whose comments were welcome and contributed to the overall cohesiveness of this work.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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