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The summit is no 'big block of cheese' day

3 Apr 2008

BEING a keen observer, researcher and teacher of public policy is the best job in the world when there is a new prime minister with a clear intention to change public policy. And when the PM calls a summit to bring together a range of Australians to contribute new ideas, what better obsession is there to have, than how new ideas make it onto the policy agenda? Now that the list of the chosen 1000 participants has been released and the complaining by those who missed out has begun, it’s time for a closer scrutiny of who the 2020 summit will engage.

The 2020 summit can be seen as an attempt at innovation - the getting of fresh ideas that can cause us to see the world differently and provide impetus to change what we focus on and how we do things. Whenever we think about innovation we tend to think of it as the “next big idea.” But where do these new ideas come from? How are they to be rounded up and how are they to be heard?

In setting up the summit, which appears to be about hearing from a broader range of people than is usual, the PM and the summit’s co-chair, Professor Glyn Davis, are then faced with a real dilemma. How do they choose the 1000 people? What criteria can be used that will ensure that they get useful input? These are important questions for the organisers to answer those critics who will be delighted to see it is a talkfest with little point and fewer outcomes. No doubt, much scrutiny will be applied to what becomes of the discussions. But before that, the choosing of participants is crucial, since this determines who is at the table and what will be heard.

The policy agenda is set by those who hold particular positions of power, those with specific expertise, and those who are known either because of their power or their expertise. It is interesting to reflect on how people become known in policy sectors. While it is important to be an expert, it is also important that you have been around long enough that others recognise you, and that you have met many of the important players. So it is not so much: “It’s now what you know, it’s who you know,” but rather: “It’s not only what you know, it’s who knows you.” Herein is the rub for reaching out to capture new voices with different ideas. If you are not known, you won’t make it to this or any other table.

People interested in social networks have a range of useful ways of describing this. One is the idea of preferential attachment - that once you have been recognised as important by some people, there is a snowball effect where more and more people then also see you as important, so you accumulate more and more links. Another is the notion that we all spend most of our lives with others who are like us (homophily is the technical term) in educational and other background characteristics. A third is that those who are most central to networks are those who are talking about the things that are already on the policy agenda. Those with a different set of ideas tend to be peripheral to these networks.

These three principles mean that, if a government tries to go beyond its usual boundaries, the most likely outcome is that it will pick up people who are not only expert but are also well known, similar to those already engaged in the process, and likely to be already talking about the same ideas. Perhaps the summit is about broadening input but not about getting different input. This is something to be applauded in itself, but it is not the same as throwing open the doors to new ideas.

Aficionados of The West Wing will no doubt remember the White House Chief of Staff’s “big block of cheese” days. Leo is memorably seen delivering a speech to his unimpressed senior staff about the reason for this day, which allows all kinds of people turn up and pitch their wacky ideas to them. Who could forget the cartographers for social equality wanting the White House to change from the Mercator projection to the Peters projection, to reflect actual land mass more accurately and make developing countries look larger and hence, more important? This idea really would lead to the world being seen differently! But there is a serious point to be made in relation to the strange people who show up and want to talk about superhighways for wolves and tracking extra terrestrial activity. If, in searching for new input, you don’t go through a process of calling for nominations and then selecting from the applications on the basis of who seems to have the most to offer, then what criteria can you use?

A search for new voices should include a search for difference, even though a lot of energy will likely be spent on ideas that will go nowhere. So, here is a suggestion for the 2020 summit, to ensure that there is both a broadening of those involved, but also a search for difference. Perhaps the 1000 participants of the summit could try to have a “big block of cheese” moment before they meet later this month in Canberra? Anyone attending could try to have a conversation with someone young in age or junior in career terms, or from a different ethnic group, or who is less wealthy, or who belongs to an organisation like the cartographers for social equality. Sure, a lot of it might be strange, but at least it will be out there. 

Jenny Lewis is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Melbourne.

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