The Enigma code breaking machine. Photo by Erik Pitti.

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05 March 2014

Evidence-based policymaking needs to be counter-balanced with intelligence-based policymaking, the Executive Director of the HC Coombs Policy Forum told an audience of senior public servants today.

Dr Mark Matthews used an address to the inaugural Policy Reflections Forum at the Department of Communications to suggest that the public service consider the concept of intelligence-based policymaking as a means of crafting quicker policy responses when information is partial or incomplete. Intelligence-based policymaking involves tests of competing hypotheses and is used widely by the intelligence community to inform decision-making when a shortage of time means that the accumulation of robust evidence is a challenge.

Matthews stressed that governments frequently had to make fast decisions on issues with considerable uncertainty over cause and effect, so in some circumstances the steady accumulation of information associated with evidence-based policymaking needs to be complemented with a faster approach. He added that there are a many public policy challenges that stand to benefit from the use of intelligence-based policymaking.

“Intelligence-based policymaking has been explicitly designed to handle decision-making under conditions of substantive uncertainty, ambiguity and risk – situations in which there may be no option to wait before more evidence is available before deciding what to do about a possible threat.

“I think there’s a compelling argument [to use intelligence-based policymaking] because it may be a faster, cheaper and a more ‘fit for purpose’ approach to formulating policy.

“A transition to intelligence-based policymaking may be the step change in public sector productivity that we are searching for – simply because it involves much lower levels of wasted person-hours…and lower risks of wasted spending on intervention designs and the monitoring and evaluation of this spending that does not align with the reality that governments are the uncertainty and risk managers of last resort,” he said.

He added that another advantage of intelligence-based policymaking is that it is better positioned to handle the possible unhelpful reactions of those groups a piece of policy is aimed at.

“If I release an evidence-based assessment of a policy challenge – such as social policy or business regulation – it is likely that the behavior of the actors and entities whose behaviors constitute the policy challenge may change in response to their improved understanding of what government plans to do in the future. There are many examples of this.”

Matthews leads the HC Coombs Policy Forum at Crawford School. The Forum is a collaboration between the Australian Government and The Australian National University with a mission to support innovative and experimental work at the interface between the public service and academia. His speech builds on an earlier keynote address calling for policymakers and academics to move beyond evidence-based policymaking:

Matthews’ speech to the Department of Communications, Innovation and the productivity challenge in the public sector is available for download on his website:

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