Consultas antes de definir políticas: Inglaterra y Australia
Febrero 19, 2020

Captura de pantalla 2016-10-11 a las 3.51.51 p.m.How to Make Policy
February 12th 2020 – Alex Usher

Take a ride with me. First stop, London, England.

UK university funding is handled by an intermediate institution known as the Office for Students (OfS). The Government decides on the amount of money it wants to spend on higher education, and then the Office for Students decides how to distribute it. Recently, the government decided to reduce operating funding slightly while giving a boost to capital spending. How should the OfS respond?

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Intriguingly, it holds a public consultation. It lays out the considerations in a short paper. It asks for submissions. It publishes all the submissions, along with a summary and analysis of the submissions. And then it takes a decision.
If this were Canada, this process would go very differently. The government would make the decision behind closed doors. That’s partly because we got rid of all our intermediate bodies in the 1990s, so there is no one but government to do it. But it’s also because Canadian governments – or at the least the higher education bits of it – never, ever, ever do anything in public. We might not even know the government was considering a cut until budget day. Then, on budget day, we would learn not only how big the overall cut was, but also how it would be distributed across institutions. Maybe it would be a uniform cut – that’s the simplest and makes sense for a whole bunch of reasons. Maybe, as was the case in Alberta last fall, it would be distributed differentially across institutions for any number of possible reasons (protecting institutions in specific electoral constituencies, for instance). But the point is, the government decides. On its own. On the basis of whatever it feels like.

Next stop, Canberra, Australia. Like Canada, there is a growing interest in using performance-based funding to steer the higher education system. Again, the government, having come up with the basic policy thrust, asks the public for help. It publishes a consultation paper. It puts together an expert commission. It takes submissions from the public. The commission publishes a report. Then the government sets out the actual technical design.
You see, outside of Canada, governments are able to distinguish between “setting a general policy goal”, “choosing a set of policy tools to implement the policy goals”, and “precisely setting of the policy goals”. In Australia, the political side of government only cares about the first piece (the general goal) and allows both the public and experts to weigh in on the second and third pieces.

Let’s see how this same process played out in Ontario. The provincial government decided on the policy goals, which is fine. But they also decided on the ten specific indicators they were going to use and refused to change them even when it is pointed out that several of the indicators are stupider than sheep (or at least, that’s what I hear – ten months after announcing the scheme, the Government has yet to formally announce what the indicators are). As for the precise settings of the policy – I understand that there will be or has been consultation with affected institutions. But public consultations? Something voters or an interested public can discuss? Fuhgeddaboutit. Doesn’t happen.

Now, to be clear: the fact that Canadian governments don’t consult with the public doesn’t mean that they don’t consult outside the government: they do, to some extent. They find some insiders – in this case, the Council of Ontario Universities and Colleges Ontario – and discuss changes with them, and in some cases with affected institutions as well. Just not with the public. The insiders are by and large OK with this: you will never, ever see Canadian universities or their associations complain about a lack of public consultation because public consultation would undermine their position as being the only ones who can filter information into a largely closed system. A quiet word in the right ear. A discreet memo here and there. This is why our peak industry associations are far more likely than their counterparts elsewhere to hire ex-civil servants or political insiders as leaders rather than people who come from within the system itself – we value backroom influence over public opinion or expert input.

Universities and colleges are complicit in all of this. Because this is the way power works in Canada. Secrecy rules. Once a government decision is made, it is made, and even when it is apparent that the decision is so dense that light has difficulty escaping it, no reversal in policy can occur because, I don’t know, it shows a lack of resolve, or masculinity, or whatever.

From the perspective of the rest of the world, our system is deeply warped. Our governments – literally none of whom (with the possible exception of Quebec) have chosen to invest in their public services in ways that allow them to develop expertise and mastery in higher education – make more and more decisions about systems they understand less and less. Our institutions collude in this because they fear an “interested public” and independent expertise almost as much as government does; they’d prefer to take their chances trying to secretly deal with government. The result is policy stasis in most provinces and policy chaos in the ones that occasionally do take a naïve interest in policy but don’t have a policy process that allows sensible ideas to emerge.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The UK and Australia both show ways that governments can develop policy directions while still involving the public and experts in the process so as to develop sensible policy details. All it would take would be for us to kick our ingrained habits of secrecy and deference and the value of “a quiet word”.

Are we up for it?


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