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Breaking the fourth wall: evidence communication inside policy organisations

Author: Christiane Gerblinger

This post was originally published by the Evidence & Policy blog on March 16, 2022.

We have re-issued the article that has already been published by the Evidence & Policy blog. We would like to express gratitude for the kind offer of the editorial board of the Evidence & Policy blog.

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This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article, ‘Peep show: a framework for watching how evidence is communicated inside policy organisations’.

Seeing how governments formulate decisions 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 Yet much of the advice provided to governments is being increasingly withdrawn from public accessibility.

With governments likely to benefit from a status quo that normalises 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.

One way could be to research organisations ethnographically, particularly by way of interviews. But even in cases where interviews and other access are granted, organisational environments can be restrictive and their main characters often highly practiced at withholding politically uncomfortable details. So what can those interested in understanding the formation and communication of policy evidence do when access and transparency are not available?

Using my own research (which asks whether the language of Australian civil servants’ policy advice contributes to muddying political accountability), 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.

My case study for testing this framework comes from an Australian example of official policy advice about income tax deductions facilitated by property investing (also called negative gearing). Provided to the government in 2016, this advice followed an early election announcement by the opposition to restrict such deductions. The government called this the most ‘destructive policy ever proposed‘, which would lead to ‘mum and dad investors‘ being forced out of the housing investment market, and projected that the opposition’s policy change would reap a mere $600m over four years. Two years later, in 2018, an FOI request seeking the original 2016 advice found the official policy agency effectively confirmed the opposition’s claims that its proposed reforms would ‘increase revenue in the long run between $3.4 and $3.9 billion a year‘ and that ‘the limit on negative gearing for established property would not differentiate between more or less wealthy investors‘.

Media made much of the appearance of official advice being ignored by the government. But my framework reveals something quite different. By closely analysing text, one finds excessive detail dominating context, which not only invited multiple interpretations and doubts, it also enabled government ministers to undermine or resurrect the policy department’s credibility as needed. Organisation uncovered the institutional effects on advisers’ language. An insular culture potentially over-reliant on its reputation, the policy department 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 demonstrated an ostensibly authority-imparting use of objectivity and evidence that ultimately simply propped up the fantasy that policy advice exists separately from politics. Ironically, this separation did not immunise policy experts against 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.

Taking all this into account, policy advisers effectively avoided the political context even while being almost entirely propelled by it; struggled to reconcile comprehensive expertise with responsiveness; and provided expert validation for the government’s preferred worldview. Viewed separately, each grouping in my framework identified some key, largely hidden dimensions of official advice. Viewed as a whole, it uncovered the entrenched ways in which official policy advisers stand in the way of facilitating public accountability.


Christiane Gerblinger is currently a Visiting Fellow and co-convenor of ‘Science, Technology and Public Policy’ at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at The Australian National University.


You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:


Image credit: Photo by Norbert Kowalczyk on Unsplash


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