August 3, 2023

If contestability is crucial to development, how do we build the muscle?

Contestability: a professional skill needed, a departmental capability required, and a Ministerial directive wanted – at least according to past Intel contributors including Philippa Venning, Anna Gibert, Melissa Conley Tyler, and Terence Wood (to name a few). This was also one of the key findings from the Lab's examination of four decades of aid reviews.

But building back a capability that relies on people, systems, and environments is easier said than done. With the new development policy set for launch next week, minds will be turning from the what to the how and this has left us wondering: if contestability is crucial, how do we build the muscle?  

Here’s what the experts think.

Professor Michael Wesley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global, Culture & Engagement), University of Melbourne

This year will mark the 10th anniversary of arguably the biggest change to our foreign affairs machinery: the merger of DFAT and AusAID. It is time to consider whether it has been a good reform.

My answer is that it has been a major mistake, leading to a major loss of policy capacity.

In one stroke, Australia lost major capacity in the area of development assistance at a time when the development agenda was evolving rapidly. In the first year after the merger the integrated department had lost 13% of its staff, 60% of whom were former AusAID staff. Sixty per cent of those were at senior levels. We have never recovered that deep development expertise.

This is important because we face new challenges and contestation in the development space. New global conversations about how to do development assistance effectively are now without experienced Australians at the table.

Then there is the question of contestability. In the Pacific and Southeast Asia it is useful to have experienced policy heads who look at problems differently. Quite often diplomatic and development objectives diverge, and from the resulting tension comes more nuanced policy. This opportunity no longer exists, with the development agenda well and truly subordinated to the diplomatic.

Perhaps the greatest loss is that of the inability now for the government to think more broadly about the possibilities of a creative development agenda. Development assistance is reduced to a (shrinking) budget line that chops and changes with shifts in diplomatic tactics. Never has so little development money been spent for such minor impact.

The government should seriously consider reversing this machinery of government disaster.

Longtime friend of the Lab, Michael Wesley is one of Australia’s finest experts on foreign policy and strategic affairs. He not only co-chairs the Advisory Group for the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue, but has also led the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, the Lowy Institute for International Policy, the Griffith Asia Institute, and served as an Assistant Director-General at the Office of National Assessments. Never one to shy away from a tricky conversation, we seriously value Michael’s contribution to an ambitious Australian foreign policy.

Dayle Stanley & Ryan Young
Directors, Futures Hub, National Security College, Australian National University

Good development policy impacts the real world – a world where we need better tools for multitasking as we face an age of polycrisis. Technology, environment, laws, societies, (geo)politics, and economics are all intertwined, as are the futures we want (or don’t want) to see emerge from their combination. We cannot reliably make good policy without contestable, inter-disciplinary work that systematically explores, imagines and anticipates the future. Too often a brilliant idea from one perspective is a guaranteed future failure from another. And, in our complex world, ‘just in time’ mindsets create significant risk of being caught out by surprises and unexpected consequences.

The field of strategic foresight enables us to do just this – it cuts across traditional boundaries of policy areas to build contestability and long-term policy muscle. Importantly, taking a systematic view of the future – including considering the intergenerational impact of our policies – provides an approach that frees us up from today’s constraints, taboos and sensitivities. Government is taking strong steps in the right direction, but can further boost contestability, with the added benefit of anticipating risks, through:

One: Collaborating with Indo-Pacific partners through a long-term lens: Futures thinking can be adapted to an organisation or a country’s political and cultural characteristics allowing decision makers to anticipate trends, identify desirable futures and respond and plan appropriately.

Two: Leading with future generations in mind: Display a futures mindset at the most senior levels, including Ministerial-level discussions, as modelled in Finland and Singapore, in which development issues can be discussed and contested; and, consider creating a Future Generations Commissioner, as in Wales, as an advocate regarding the long-term impact of domestic and foreign policies.

Three: Fostering a ‘long-view’: Nurture a public sector culture that incorporates futures analysis in policy training and development. Structured thinking about trends, directions of change and likely implications helps to minimise surprise for organisations, including development partners.

Dayle has almost two decades of experience in both state and federal Government, across law enforcement, defence strategic intelligence, environment, energy and agriculture international policy and behavioural insights. Prior to joining the Futures Hub, Dayle held multilateral roles representing Australia at the International Energy Agency, UN Environment Programme, APEC, OECD and G20.

Ryan leads work integrating analysis of long-term trends and potential futures into everyday policymaking. Before the Futures Hub, he worked in strategic policy in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet where he worked across all areas of public policy, including cyber security, counter terrorism policy, infrastructure, innovation, school funding and early childhood education.

Arguably running the most good-fun gig in Canberra, we think Dayle and Ryan epitomise the sort of interdisciplinary and contestable public policy professionals who will shape the future trajectory of Australia and the world.

Anna Van Vliet
Project Officer, Development Intelligence Lab

Here’s the thing about muscles. If you don’t train them properly, guess what happens? They atrophy.

Muscles require a unique blend of dedication, effort, and the right fuel to flourish. Without knowing how you create a strong foundation, it’s unlikely that any amount of training will be successful, and atrophy is inevitable.

At this point, you may be wondering ‘But Anna, what do your weird muscle facts have to do with contestability in development?’ Well, as a young professional starting out in development, here are the three lessons I’ve learnt on just how you can build that muscle for contestability.

One: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Contestability is only possible if people are open to pushing the boundaries of their knowledge, challenging their implicit biases, and questioning their ways of doing. The development that we ‘did’ 50 years ago is not fit-for-purpose today. Frankly, the idea that you ‘do’ development is archaic and could benefit from a makeover. But, for ideas like this to change, people must first be open to changing them.

Two: Actively seek out voices that you disagree with. If I’ve learnt anything from being a part of the team that runs the Intel for the past 18 months, it’s that surfacing disagreement is a much harder task than it seems. But, it’s critical to prevent echo chambers that suffer from confirmation bias.

Three: Respect. Discomfort and disagreement are not always the recipe for a happy environment. Like training any muscle, there will be micro-tears, growing pains, and a need for recovery. But the way this leads to a strong foundation is by taking a page from Aretha Franklin. Without respect, we can say goodbye from the potentially exponential gains reaped from contestability in development.

These three ingredients are just the starting point for greater contestability, stay tuned for whether the development community embraces them.

Anna has been an invaluable asset to the Lab since its early days. A writer extraordinaire, Anna has long been one of the brilliant minds behind the Intel and is familiar to so many friends of the Lab. In addition to a career in international development, Anna is a recent graduate of a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics and a Bachelor of Development Studies specialising in Indigenous Studies and Anthropology at Australian National University. The team at the Lab love Anna’s research skills, flair for writing and knack for seeing the big picture. As she steps into her next adventure, the Lab is her biggest cheerleader.

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