Book Review: Social policy, public policy – From problem to practice

By Meredith Edwards (with Cosmos Howard and Robin Miller), Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2001.

Professor Meredith Edwards’ latest book written with two colleagues makes an important contribution to understanding the process of making social policy at the Federal Government level in Australia. It will find a place on the shelves of any serious student of Australian Government decision making, teachers of social policy processes, lobbyists and others interested in affecting the outcomes of social policy debates.

It is a remarkably readable book despite its propensity to slip into acronyms at every opportunity. In the book’s defense it does supply a “List of Abbreviations” immediately prior to the start of Chapter 1, as well as a useful “Glossary” of frequently used technical terms which beginning students in social policy will find particularly helpful.

Edwards, a one time Senior Public Servant and now an academic, has been producing thoughtful work on income support, household composition and the linkage between these issues since the early 1980s. This book is written in a much more accessible style than some of her earlier work. The authors describe four important changes in social policy undertaken during the Hawke/Keating period in office. It is an insider’s account of the policy debates.

The issues chosen “all started with a fairly simple idea: a single youth allowance, a child support levy, a graduate tax and a job compact”(p.10). “In these four cases,simple ideas were advanced that appear to have had a certain power of attraction and may have helped in the motivation to find a path through the problem of reform…. In each case, not surprisingly, the policy solution was not as originally proposed” (p.178).

The four policy areas which the book canvasses were extremely important developments at the time of their introduction and will continue to be of central concern for the next Australian Government interested in addressing equity. The issues Edwards and her colleagues chose to discuss in detail were: unifying income support schemes for young people, the introduction of the Child Support Agency, the imposition of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) and ‘solving’ unemployment via Working Nation. Edwards was intimately involved in developing each of these policies.

The book has an introductory and a concluding chapter on the policy process in which the authors argue that good policy process involves identifying the issues, policy analysis, consultation, arriving at a decision, implementation and evaluation. In the final chapter she argues that the organisational structure and the character/skills of the players has considerable influence. Edwards et al. stress that in all these policy processes the values of the main decision makers and their advisors was a central ingredient. The authors note another determining feature of the policy process when they write; “A common overriding constraint on ministers was the budget ‘bottom line’” (p.181).

The major strength of the book is that it provides a clear rendition of what the Canberra policy insiders considered they were doing at the time of implementation. It stays remarkably true to the prevailing perceptions of the issues as they were interpreted at the time. The right wing Labor bureaucratic/political context in which these policy process occurred is the ideological construct which is imposed on this history of the process. Edwards is determined to present herself and many of the other inside players as concerned by equity /efficiency issues rather than trade-offs. In this sense it is a sympathetic history of Labor ministers, their policy advisors, their consultants and the senior ranks of the public service.

The major weakness of the book is that it largely ignores the way ‘equity’ debates concerning such things as: what constitutes a suitable amount of income and the imposition of ‘reciprocal obligation’ initiated by Hawke/Keating Labor paved the way for the Howard Government to compel: ‘Dole Diaries’, literacy training, ‘Work for the Dole’ and other ‘mutual obligations’. By adopting such an approach it avoids the criticism that the analysis is overly influenced by hindsight.

The text is interspersed with extracts from a diary, of activities, Edwards kept at the time. At its best this technique gives a sense of real life to the process of policy formulation but sometimes reads like “Dear Diary today DV was not nice to me” which is fine for those of us who were not fond of DV. But many, trying to remember who the inside players were, may find this technique is a bit of a drag.” I presume that the extracts from the Diary with the initials rather than the name is provided to give a sense of authenticity.  I found it annoying.

Given the likelihood of a Beazley Labor Government before the end of 2001, it seems certain that the political agenda will include: searching for an adequate income support system for all and particularly young people, finding a way to pay for post school education on the way to creating a Knowledge Nation, improving the system of child maintenance and creating full employment.  As the policy process proceeds in these areas analysts will be better informed if they have read Edwards, Howard and Miller’s history of the debates under the previous Labor administration.