A randomised route to better government

That’s why a Shorten Labor government will establish an evaluator-general in the Treasury, tasked with carrying out high-quality evaluations across government. From taxation to social policy, good evaluation allows us to scale up the most effective programs and close down those that don’t work. The evaluator-general would receive funding of $5 million a year, allowing it to significantly boost the volume of randomised trials in the federal government.

Labor’s evaluator-general complements our evidence institute for schools, modelled on the successful examples of the US’s What Works Clearinghouse and Britain’s Education Endowment Foundation. As Tanya Plibersek puts it, the evidence institute will “put an end to decades of ideological battles about school education” and “take politics out of the classroom”.

In the early-20th century, Australia was known as ‘the social laboratory of the world’.

In other areas, experts have called for more rigorous evaluations. When the Productivity Commission convened a roundtable discussion on the evaluation of Indigenous programs, one expert pointed to the problem of “a litany of poor policies being recycled”. In respectful collaboration, better evaluation has the potential to improve Indigenous Australians’ lives. In its Shifting the Dial report, the Productivity Commission made quality evaluation (and more randomised trials) one of its top governance reforms.

The randomised approach is already spreading rapidly in business. Netflix, Coles, United Airlines, Amazon and Google have built randomised trials into their corporate model. Intuit founder Scott Cook aims to create a company that’s “buzzing with experiments”. Whatever happens, Cook tells his staff “you’re doing right because you’ve created evidence, which is better than anyone’s intuition”. If you used the internet today, it’s likely you were part of a randomised trial.

Randomised trials flourish where modesty meets numeracy. Unlike in the movies, most positive change happens steadily, not through miracles and magic bullets. From social reforms to economic change, our best systems have evolved gradually. What matters is that we encourage them to get smarter over time. Nicholas Gruen, a longtime champion of the idea of an evaluator-general, argues that rigorous testing of new ideas lets us “grow the intelligence for the system to successfully innovate”.

In the early-20th century, Australia was known as “the social laboratory of the world”. We were among the first nations to extend the franchise to women, to set a minimum wage, and to provide support to the sick, elderly and unemployed. Since that era, we can point to only a few world-leading policies, such as HECS and the national disability insurance scheme.

To claim the mantle of the world’s most progressive reformers, Australian public policy must be driven by a rigorous evidence base. An evaluator-general will play a key role in ensuring this. By institutionalising evidence-based policymaking, we can spend less time in ideological battles and more time finding practical solutions that work. We can be just as passionate about raising living standards, but a little more scientific and critical about particular programs. Good policymaking isn’t just abstract philosophy – we can learn from medical researchers, too.

Andrew Leigh is the shadow assistant treasurer.


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