Green means go for the Asian Century
11 Dec 2012|

Shanghai lights up

The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper was released only six weeks ago but since then, in the accelerated world of current politics, there’s been a flurry of launches: an Energy White Paper, a Royal Commission examining cases of suspected child sexual abuse, and an independent taskforce to follow the DLA Piper review of Defence abuses. The Prime Minister even found time to launch, of all things, a Defence pin. And while launches come and go, the implementation of policy falls to the Public Service. I don’t know how the grand but cashless Asian Century White Paper will be implemented, but I can offer some thoughts on how progress will be reported to government.

A media release from Dr Craig Emerson, now Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asian Century Policy, says an ‘implementation plan and team have been established.’ This will be based at PM&C, ‘staffed by officials from agencies across the Commonwealth.’ Departments will certainly have been told to wear the cost of sending staff to head office. A ‘Strategic Advisory Board’ of Ken Henry and heavy hitters from the White Paper will advise a new implementation committee of Cabinet chaired by the PM with no less than eight ministers.

Spare a thought for the earnest officials focused on this task. How will they do their job? They’ll start by identifying specific objectives—and on that score will have plenty of choice for cost-constrained creativity. The White Paper sets 25 ‘national objectives’ and 133 ‘policy pathways’ for goals to be achieved by 2025. There are 27 further goals linked to the national objectives, which the Prime Minister calls ‘targets’ (PDF), such as: by 2025 ‘Australia’s school system will be in the top five schooling systems in the world.’

In total there are 185 objectives, targets and pathways just pleading to be itemised and reported against, and that is almost certainly what our team will do. In time-honoured Public Service fashion—and in exactly the way that election commitments and review recommendations are tracked and reported—a large table will be constructed, the recommendations numbered and a department made responsible to report progress. Here I must introduce you to a much favoured policy tool: the traffic light. Our white paper team will realise that it’s a big ask of eight ministers (and one prime minister) to read 185 prose statements. So, with each paragraph will appear a traffic light symbol: green for good progress, red for poor progress, amber when the officials aren’t sure. Government happiness comes from seeing lots of green and therefore Public Service happiness comes from delivering lots of green.

With the Cabinet agenda packed as it always is at the end of a year, the first full-blown report is unlikely to reach the Cabinet committee before the end of the first quarter in 2013. Given the size of this report, Cabinet will probably ask to see it twice a year. So there might be two reports before the next election. What are these likely to say about progress in implementing the White Paper? Consider the pathways allocated to Defence, the first of which reads:

Promote cooperative arrangements among major powers in the region – China, Japan, Indonesia, India and the United States – as the economic and strategic landscape shifts.

Defence will say that it has been assiduously doing this very thing. It will provide some well-crafted prose, listing the many bilateral and multilateral meetings the minister has attended. It’ll point to the communiqués issued, the exercises held, the intelligence exchanged, the senior level visits and so on. No doubt, the traffic light will be green.

A number of the 185 recommendations set precise targets like the one mentioned earlier on schools. How will progress be assessed on that objective in the first quarter of 2013? Quite possibly that report will point to the introduction of the Australian Education Bill 2012 into Parliament at the end of November—as the Prime Minister put it, the next step towards ‘the ambitious target of being in the top five schooling nations in the world.’ Have no doubt that the traffic light will be green as well.

Thus will progress in the Asian Century White Paper be reported to Government in 2013. It will be a sea of pea-green traffic lights, lighting our pathway to 2025. Seldom do these mechanisms survive more than two or three years before policy or personality changes force a redesign of what is being reported to Cabinet. By 2025 only historians and obsessives will worry about whether we met our targets, but at least for the next twelve months, green will be the colour of our Asian future.

Ken Henry would probably be disappointed to see his White Paper given such complacent treatment. He intended his 25 national objectives to be serious stretch targets that can’t be achieved within current policy settings. Reaching these goals will take more effort than can be captured easily by a traffic light report. The government should ask the original drafters to independently report progress annually to Parliament. They shouldn’t flinch from hard judgements about how difficult it will be to make real progress. A tough-minded report card in 2013 will add longevity and credibility to the White Paper, which is surely what the Prime Minister would want.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user alokemon.