Thursday, June 07, 2007

ICAC and the NSW HSC - the Legalisation of Australian Life

In my last post I spoke of the investigation carried out by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) into NSW Higher School Certificate (HSC) marking. There I said in part:
Am I wrong in finding it strange that the State's peak anti-corruption body should carry as the lead story on its house paper a matter that involves no official corruption at all - there is no suggestion that there were bribes to officials - and is is any event a matter first for the education system to correct?
In talking to people later, I found to my surprise that I was very much in a minority in that the first reaction of many when I talked about the issue was simply so-what. They could not see a problem. Many did when I talked about the issues involved, but the first reaction suggests that this is another area where my own views are out of kilter with the prevailing mood.

In responding to this, I want to focus on three points: risk, legalisation and policy failure.

I mentioned in my earlier post that the ICAC house paper mentioned the word risk 18 times in eight pages. This is a sign of a broader problem, the way in which we as a society have become obsessed with the identification, avoidance and management of risk.

From my viewpoint I really do mean obsessed, in that thinking about risk has become all pervasive, affecting every aspect of life.

We can see it in the rise of the number of permission slips from schools that parents must sign, slips whose primary purpose is to protect the school from legal risk. We can see it in the proliferation of security guards, security cameras and now gated communications intended to protect us from the risk of crime and violence. We can see it in the progressive removal of things such as playground equipment to avoid the risk of injury. We can see it in official language, policy development and procedures where risk identification, avoidance and management has become a if not the central issue.

There is nothing wrong with taking risk into account. The problem is that the cumulative affect of all this is to affect the way we that we worry, act, think and interact with each other. The world has become a darker, more complex place.

This links to a second problem, the legalisation of life, the way in which society and its political leaders look to law to deal with problems.

Somebody said, I have no idea whether or not this is true, that each of us now faces over 32,000 pages of legislation intended to control our personal behaviour. I don't know about you, but I am now long past the point that I can know, let alone understand, every single legal obligation placed upon me. Add to this all the quasi-legal and procedural requirements coming from Australia's various levels of Government and we have a mess.

Our desire to avoid risk, our use of laws and legal mechanisms of one type or another, brings me to my third point, the way that these things in combination are helping create what I see as a growing failure in public policy.

Good public policy starts with proper definition of the problem to be addressed. Then we have to define the right responses, the right way to address the problem. This includes a decision as to whether we should attempt to address the problem at all. Then we have to implement the policy approach in an effective way. Policy failure can occur at any point along this process.

Our focus on risk and on legal responses complicates and distorts the whole policy process from beginning to end, from the way we define the problem to be addressed through the definition of solutions to the application of the selected solutions.

I see no easy solution to this because it requires a change in the way that society thinks, a change to our embedded reactions.

Returning to my opening example, if people cannot easily see the problem in the involvement of NSW's peak anti-corruption body in the question of HSC English assessments then I think that we have an enormous problem.

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