Thursday, October 15, 2009

Evidence and ideology in Indigenous policy

To achieve good public policy outcomes we need more evidence and less ideology.

Do you agree with this statement?

Because its the constant refrain from politicians, academics and certain sections of the bureacracy and media.

Its been especially evident in Indigenous policy, where successive governments have claimed to be driven by "what works" rather than "the failed ideologies of the past"

In my opinion this approach is flawed in that it creates a false dichotomy between values and ideas ('ideology') and scientifically formulated knowledge ('evidence'). It also assumes that:
  • evidence replaces the need for a political process to decide what the policy goals and ethical constraints should be.
  • evidence (particularly quantitative data) will always provide a clear policy direction.
A classic case in point is the current debate about whether the Cape York Welfare Reform trials in North Queensland have been responsible for the dramatic increases in school attendance in Aurukun and Hope Vale.

The Australian certainly thinks so, having backed the Noel Pearson-inspired trials from the start. Others, meanwhile, are not so sure.

Its a tricky one because while there is a clear correlation between the commencement of the trials in mid 2008 and improved school attendance, there are plenty of other possible causes, such as improvements in school leadership.

There is also the problem of isolating cause and effect. If CYWR was responsible for the improved attendance, which part of the reforms made the most difference? Was it the 'tough love' income management measures imposed on parents (as The Australian suggests), or the support services provided?

At this point the "evidence" raises just as many questions as it answers.

Yet it seems that the politicians have already (rightly or wrongly) decided that income management works and should be expanded to other communities - Logan being the first cab off the rank.

A case of ideology trumping evidence perhaps?

Or just an indication that in public policy the two can never be completely separated?

Over to you.


brad mccoy said...

interesting thoughts.

and it resontates with me, as i've been a bit of a skeptic of the welfare trials and was a bit miffed when i read about their supposed success. so it's nice to read some arguments against that.

i think at the end of the day, the "evidence" is just used to support whichever ideological stand a particualr individual or group take. there's always evidence for both sides, and depending on which side you're on, you'll attend to the "evidence" selectively. (see my first paragraph for an example of this principle.)

if people (like noel) think that atsi people need to be controlled to get their act together, then they'll obviously look for any proof for that argument.

so the reforms have so far been "successful". does that then mean that long-term reliance on these strategies would be good for atsi communities? i doubt it. dependence on welfare is certainly disempowering. but surely so would long-term government intervention of this kind be.

(by the way. the whole "over to you" thing, isn't that a bit of a rip off of meganomics?)

Phil Richardson said...

Yes 'over to you' - like much of my blog - is probably is a blatant rip-off of meganomics, samantha maiden and most other blogs on The Australian website.

Maybe I should ditch it.

Thanks for your thoughts by the way. You've made me think that while evidence can be abused/misused to suit ideology, it can also challenge and shift entrenched ideological positions.

For example, I think the failure of past Indigenous policies (made apparent through evidence) has prompted people on the left - such as Jenny Macklin - to reconsider the appropriate balance between rights and responsibilities.

Kutz said...

Top post Phil. Absolutely 'evidence' and 'ideology' cannot be divorced. Values and ideals are the means by which everyone interprets evidence.

Anyone who tells you that they look at evidence 'objectively' is simply claiming that their value system for understanding the good and the bad is the only true and right one. Pretending that you're not guided by an ideology is far more scary than admitting your ideology and following it.

More specifically though, I guess the utilitarian school of thought has attempted to quantify 'the good' economically (John Stuart Mill, et al) which is what our society tends to think of as objectively good.

There are 3 big problems though:
How do you quantify utility? (especially in a liberal democracy based on freedom of the individual to choose for themselves what is good for them)

How do you define 'the good'?

Some other one I thought of but have forgotten since I started writing the other two.

Thanks again for writing, Phil. :)

Kutz said...

Oh yeah, remembered it now. Essentially, it's just what Brad said already. Predicting the consequences of a course of action, especially long-term, is far harder than it seems. Which does call into question somewhat the value of consequence as a decision-making instrument.

brad mccoy said...

it's partly a debate of means and ends i guess. if the end we want is for more kids in school (short-term), then teh CYWR trials (and whatever other programs, like school leadership) are a success. but if the goal is for dysfunctional aboriginal communities to build capacity for self-determination, self improvement, etc., then i don't think the means is right.

but who knows. maybe i'm the one being short-sighted. maybe that's the whole point of getting kids into schools.

speaking of which, we know that school attendance has increased. it would be interesting to see how the schools are coping with the influx of resistent students.

Kutz said...

Is that how the arguments are put forward? That more kids in schools will allow for greater long-term self-determination for the community?

Phil Richardson said...

thanks for the comments boyz.

Kutz, re your question about whether education is promoted in terms of its benefits for Indigenous communities, I think people like Noel Pearson want to shift the focus to individuals and families, with less focus on the communities.

Pearson sees the family as the primary unit for restoring social norms. Education is seen as the key to getting off the 'welfare pedestal' that provides a disincentive for many Indigenous people to participate in the real economy.

The tricky thing is that presumably higher levels of education and employment would lead to de-population of Indigenous communities - a negative outcome given the importance of community and land in Indigenous culture.

Pearson envisages a model where people would have some mobility to move away for work but maintain strong links back to the community.

brad mccoy said...

community and land is important to who? the people who would be leaving it? isn't there some inherent contradiction there?

at least, that was my initial thought. i guess i disagree with its simplicity. but i like to push a simple barrow.

Nathan said...

Can't good public policy outcomes arise from actions that are purely ideology without evidence.

The need for evidence prevents any sort of revolutionary or creative policy creation.

The characters from the West Wing, which is of course the seminal text when it comes to ideological policy making, would have had real trouble if they had needed to back up some of their ideology with anything empirical.

Kutz said...

Thanks for that clarification Phil, an interesting couple of issues to balance.

Re Brad's comment: I guess it depends to what degree does the government want to prioritise maintaining 'authentic' indigenous culture, a distinctive and strong element of which is ties to their tribe and land.

If we see this as worth saving, why so? What would be right if it became apparent that it was a straight choice between either maintaining such 'traditional ties' and perpetuating the cycle of welfare dependance? I'm not saying that it is in fact the case, but it raises questions about the basis for policy.

Weird. It's almost like ideology matters in all this...

Phil Richardson said...

Yea Kutz I think you and B-rad have touched on one of the central issues - balancing culture and development.

Older Aboriginal people say that in the 1950s and 60s places like Aurukun were relatively functional, with people participating in the economy. Presumably culture was also stronger then. The problem was that government policy was paternalistic and Aboriginal people didn't have the same basic rights as other Australians.

In the post 1960s era government policy moved to a rights-based approach. Paternalism was replaced with passive welfare. People had 'rights' but not the capabilities or incentives to exercise them fully. Negative norms were established.

The current reforms are about re-aligning norms, incentives and capabilities. Yes, the focus is on individual and families but I don't see any of this as being incompatible with maintaining the 'collective' elements of Indigenous culture.

But that's just me...

Kutz said...

Thanks for the info, Phil, ever my guiding light in such issues...

What did you think of Peter Adam's paper?

Australia: Whose Land?

Phil Richardson said...

thanks Kutz, I'd heard about Peter Adam's speech but never actually read it until now.

It's certainly a powerful statement and an important one for Christians to hear.

I suppose the questions that are left hanging for me is what 'recompense' looks like in practice and what ability/right the church have to drive this at a national level. I don't know the answer to either.

If I have one criticism it's Adam's assumption that 'recompense' is something contemporary Indigenous people really want.

I think the formal rights and symbolic aspects of reconciliation are now in place. I tend to think most Indigenous people these days (75% of whom living 'regular' lives in urban and regional areas) want the same things we all do: a sense of belonging and being loved + the freedom and capabilities to provide for your family. Perhaps you could add ability to express/practice culture for some.

I think as a nation the best recompense we can provide is the extra commitment and resources needed to facilitate this.

Of course the 'x' factor, as Adam alludes to, is that like all of us, Indigenous people need the gospel above all else, whether they recognise it or not.

What did you think of the speech with your more trained theological eye?