Vote ‘Yes’ for effective policy design

How do you create policy which achieves lasting positive outcomes? You include the voices of those with lived experience. STA President-elect Professor Sharath Sriram writes that this is why he’ll be voting ‘Yes’ in Saturday’s Referendum.

'Yes23' purple and red text on white background inside coloured lines that represent Australia and the Torres Strait Islands. Main background is light blue in colour.

It’s a common cry from researchers: why isn’t policy based on the very best evidence? How does policy so often end up uninformed by the lived experiences and expertise of the people most affected by it?

It’s the kind of thing that makes evidence-based researchers frustrated and disillusioned.

You don’t have to be a fan of Utopia to have seen it happen. We all know how disastrously wrong things can go when the complex task of designing policy isn’t based on evidence, or on the expertise of people whose lives are most affected.

Researchers who dedicate their lives to gathering and testing evidence convey quality evidence to government policymakers as expert advice. And their expert insights shape policy that is a lot more effective and successful.

That’s why I’ll be voting ‘Yes’ in the October 14 referendum.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was the culmination of years of work from Indigenous communities all around Australia.

In 2015, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten established the Referendum Council. The Council ran 13 regional dialogues to listen to Indigenous voices and discuss options for constitutional reform. That process led to a National First Nations Constitutional Convention at Uluru in 2017, where the Uluru Statement from the Heart was drafted and overwhelmingly endorsed.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart – a clear, short, concise, generous, and heartfelt statement to Australians – makes the call for a constitutional Voice to Parliament. The idea is for an advisory committee to offer expert advice to inform laws and policies that shape the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

That process is so logical. Gather robust evidence, informed by leading experts with lived experience, and establish an advisory committee to feed that hugely valuable expert advice into policy.

So what other evidence is there that the Voice to Parliament is a proposal from those with lived experience of the issue it seeks to address?

How about not one, but two opinion polls of Indigenous people that showed overwhelming support for the proposal?

In January this year an Ipsos poll of 300 Indigenous people found 80% supported a ‘Yes’ vote. Then in April, a poll of 738 Indigenous people conducted by YouGov found an even stronger response – 83% supporting a ‘Yes’ vote.

I’m not telling you how to vote – that’s your democratic choice, and you can base that on whatever reasoning you choose.

But for researchers, part of our job is focused on feeding clear strong evidence into public policy discussions. That element of our role is about equipping public servants and the policy architecture with the information it needs to make decisions in the national interest that have the greatest likelihood of success. Of changing the status quo for the better.

We’re rightly disappointed when the strong evidence we have for a particular policy intervention doesn’t find its way into policy. When the hard yards that we have put in to build a robust evidence base to inform policy, to listen to the expertise of those most affected, and to craft a solution that addresses and tackles an issue, gets lost along the way.

In medical research, Australia has strong rules to ensure researchers take into account the lived experiences and expertise of patients. Ethics committees expressly require it. We call it ‘consumer engagement’, but you could also call it a ‘voice’. Projects that draw on these lived experiences are better for these insights and expertise.

For decades, Indigenous leaders have called for constitutional recognition to ensure the expertise and evidence from communities is heard when policies and laws are made about Indigenous people. Because the current policies just are not working. Not only is Australia not closing the gap – but on many measures we are going backwards without that expertise at the table. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have assembled powerful evidence for change.

The October 14 Referendum is our opportunity to honour that deep expertise – and make better public policy. Let’s not miss this moment.

Professor Sharath Sriram is President-elect of Science & Technology Australia.

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