Better decision making for the future

Opinion by Professor John Dewar

As a nation we pay too much attention to the sensational and the short-term. Whether it’s a social media spat, a gaffe in question time, or a political interview that runs off the rails – our national discussion is increasingly derailed by a sideshow of daily crises and spin.

Sideshow clowns by Rae AllenThe price of being too-easily distracted by this ephemera is the neglect of big policy issues facing Australia. Challenges such as structural change in Australia’s economy, climate change and education reform are well documented. As are issues such as the ageing population, rising health care costs, declining productivity, crumbling infrastructure and degraded landscapes.

Meanwhile global forces such as geopolitical re-balancing and natural resource scarcity are remaking our world. In Australia these challenges will increasingly test our ability to innovate and adapt.

For many, this daunting scenario is a source of frustration and deep angst. The list of challenges remains unchanged and we’re just not making enough progress. The key blocker, and perhaps Australia’s most serious problem, is that we lack agreement on the right process to build consenus and implement policy solutions. That’s before we even start to debate the substantive questions of what to do to address these long-term issues.

This problem of process is more fundamental than any single topic. It is an issue of overarching lack of capacity within our decision making system, one that seems to be worsening as the new century progresses.

As often as we might hope for our leaders to just “fix it”, in this case they can’t. The problem is bigger than any one government alone. Responsibility for the decisions shaping Australia’s future lies not only with our political leaders, but also in the actions and interactions of business, media, civil society, academia and all citizens.

There is no escaping it. Powerful trends are converging to create a playing field that will require quicker responses on long-term decisions, policy dexterity and a united front in the face of uncertainty. Even the decisions we fail to make will shape Australia for years to come.

This is why as vice chancellor of La Trobe University I’m supporting the Australian Futures Project. The project is a genuine attempt to build our national capacity to make decisions that will enable us to flourish in the 2020s and 30s.

It recognises that the solution lies neither in a singular grand vision nor in silver bullet solutions, but in enhancing Australia’s underlying decision-making system as a whole. This will require learning from the past, from policy case studies, and from decision-making processes overseas.

It will also require greater engagement with senior bureaucrats to identify the capabilities we need to strengthen, and how the public service can contribute to building these capabilities. We need to involve representatives of Australia’s top companies to identify how corporate Australia can build its capacity to make decisions for a flourishing future. And we need to engage experts and academics, thought leaders and change agents, to identify and test ideas for improvements.

We need to engage the wider community. And we need to bring young Australians into the conversation. They will be our next generation of leaders, and the decisions we make (or sidestep) today will be the legacy they must deal with in the decades ahead.

The Australian Futures Project has already begun convening these discussions. In speaking with nearly 300 established and emerging leaders, there was almost unanimous agreement that our decision-making system has a capacity problem. Finding the solution is not about creating a new blueprint for Australia’s future. The goal is to generate a commitment to improve the way we make and implement decisions – regardless of what the chosen blueprint might be.

By bringing together actors from across the system, the project is creating the space to identify the transformations our decision-making system needs, the blockages we don’t need, and the actions that will take us to a better future.

Academia, of course, needs to play a bigger and better role in Australia’s decision making system. Too often relegated to commentators at half-time, it is up to academics to not only change the way we communicate, but also who we communicate with and when. We have to be willing to step on to the playing field while the ball is still in play.

In many ways, the project is an experiment in itself, and an opportunity to do things differently. Not all the outcomes are certain, but the need is clear. There will be uncomfortable conversations, and it won’t be easy, but if no one tries, it’s unlikely anything will change. While the project will bring together some of Australia’s most eminent experts and influencers, we also want to make sure that all sectors of our community play their role.

I encourage you to consider how you and those organisations you work with can be involved. Because Australia’s future is everyone’s responsibility.

First published on The Conversation on 2 August 2013.

Professor John Dewar is Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University.

Image credit: Rae Allen

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