Uncategorised 24th July 2017

Federal government agencies failing to recognise value of public engagement

by Peter Timmins

The Department of Industry Innovation and Science the lead agency on Commitment 5.2 has published a Working draft on the first phase of its implementation of the commitment titled ‘How might the APS better use public participation to improve policy development and service delivery?’

The draft report, a work in progress, asserts that Commonwealth agencies lag local and state governments in recognising the value of engagement and public participation.


“If greater engagement and participation with the community have been shown to improve both government decision making and the level of confidence in those decisions, why haven’t we adopted it more at the Commonwealth level?

Our initial research suggest (sic) that the problem that the framework is to address can be stated as follows:

The Australian Public Service is missing opportunities to develop more innovative and valued solutions to complex public policy problems due to a lack of effective engagement with the expertise available in the business, academic and the general community. By not engaging more effectively the APS is potentially missing the chance to improve both government decision making and the level of confidence in those decisions.  

Australia has a strong international reputation for engagement and participation based in large part on the activities undertaken at the state and local levels. Why is the APS less likely to utilise the broader spectrum of engagement activities? What are the barriers to the Commonwealth utilising a broader range of engagement activities and what would be the conditions that would see the Commonwealth better utilise the full range of approaches?

Our hypothesis is that:

The APS is less active in respect of engagement and participation with the community due to a lack of:

  • confidence in the potential benefits to decision making from such activities relative to the time and cost involved;

This has been exacerbated by failures in attempts to do more innovative public participation in the past, examples of this include the 2010 Climate Change Citizen’s Assembly (see sidebar).

  • a lack of awareness of the practices that are available;

Public participation has been around a long time. Consultation and information sharing tools have been regularly used since the 1970s. While collaboration and deliberation might be relatively less common, they haven’t emerged recently either. Systematic approaches to public participation go back at least to 1969,[1] and deliberation has been a mainstream idea in political science and policy studies since the 1980s.[2] Engagement is becoming increasingly professionalised. For example, there is a public participation association – IAP2 Australasia, which, among other things, advocates on behalf of its members; includes a register of engagement consultancies; and offers training certificate in engagement and participation.

Yet our initial interviews suggests that most public servants have never heard of public participation; and tend to think of engagement as the more formal consultation mechanisms such as traditional green and white paper processes. Where tools such as the IAP2 spectrum are used it tends to be in specific communications and stakeholder engagement teams with little penetration into agencies.

  • capability to execute such activities in an effective way.

Like any innovation, culture and capability change will be necessary for enduring change. Our initial stakeholder interviews suggest that some public servants do not see any value in further engagement with the public and have little confidence in the expertise of citizens. Others are more willing but don’t know how. We are investigating examples of how others have built capability and instigated cultural change. Good examples include the Danish Board of Technology Foundation and Involve in the UK.

[1] Sally Hussey “International public participation models 1969-2016’, Bang the table, 2017. http://www.bangthetable.com/international-public-participation-models-1969-2016

[2] Wendy Russell, Lucy Parry “Deliberative democracy theory and practice: Crossing the divide”, University of Canberra, [insert year].