Data informed policy and evidence-based decision making are not new concepts or ways of working in Australia.

But noticeably, recent events have accelerated the pace at which all levels of society are embracing or at least accepting digital and often data driven transformations.

But is this what the public want? Are we using data ethically and sustainably? What role does and should data and evidence play in our political processes and policy making?


Rhetta Chappell (host): Hi, and welcome to Show me the data a podcast where we discuss evidence-based decision making and the ways in which our lives interact with and create data. I’m Rhetta, your host for today, and I’m a data scientist at Griffith University. Show me the data acknowledges the Jagera peoples who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we are recording today. And we pay respect to the elders past, present and emerging. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with two guests, political analyst, author, expert and Professor of politics at Griffith University Anne Tiernan, and Dr. Tom Verhelst, Director of RIDL. Today we will be talking about the role of data in politics and public policy. And I hope you enjoy our conversation. Hello, Anne, and, Tom, thank you both for being here. Let’s get started. Anne, I’m interested to hear what you have to say, as we move forward, in our move to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re starting to see in different sources of data that existing inequalities have really been exacerbated. And I’m particularly interested in the impact on women, many of us were the ones that would reduce our working hours, we also are more likely to stay home and care for children, from a policy perspective, are we doing everything that we can to really lift the economic circumstances of women in Australia.

Adjunct Professor Annie Tiernan: Well Rhetta, it took a long time for policymakers to wake up to the very significant impact on women from COVID-19. You’ll remember last budget, last federal budget, many women complained about the lack of measures for women in the budget, given those impacts. And you might remember the hashtag credible women because you know, no credible woman had come out and commented about it. But of course, indeed, many had. And interestingly, the the Commonwealth brought down a women’s budget this year, in a manner that they haven’t for a number, so you know, must have been credible musn’t it? But some of the I mean, obviously, the impacts on women are significant for all the reasons that you mentioned. But also, because of the disproportionate representation in part time work, and in the industry is most impacted by the pandemic. And of course, as small business owners as well, is a very significant proportion of women entrepreneurs in that kind of area. So, you know, there’s a number of things that the government’s talking about, you know, one of the biggest issues likely between now and the federal election is the whole debate over stage three of the tax cuts, which mainly apply to people at the higher income end, sorry, men at the high, the higher income level. So it will be really interesting to see what, what if any measures Federal Labor tries to bring forward around that, and probably, you know, its been emphasising, I think, essential workers, there has to become some kind of settlement around that, it seems to me, given wage stagnation over such a long period of time. So I think you’ll see the union’s really arguing about the rates of pay in aged care and childcare and some of these other sectors that we’ve seen sort of so impacted. I live in hope. We all do. I have for a long time.

Dr Tom Verhelst: Griffith and RIDL have been acting like a trusted advisor for data and foreign policy in the last couple of years, but especially with COVID-19, the government has really sort of woken up to the idea that they have to look beyond the government for data to inform their policies. And, you know, there’s been some interesting, okay, this means in cases where they’ve contracted financial data and mobility data to really inform how they make decisions. And the idea sort of is COVID-19 is difficult. But so is intergenerational poverty. So is child education. So is family and domestic violence and so is climate change. And in the past, those problems weren’t really addressed in that, in that fashion. Do you think universities and specifically entities, like RIDL, could play a bigger role in the space become like the go to place for data and insight?

Anne: I think that a number of policymakers would blanch at the idea that this didn’t happen in the past, because I think there was, you know, a lot of modelling work and a lot of forecasting and a lot of, you know, scenario development. But I think what’s been difficult for policymakers, which is where your work has been, so, you know, impactful is getting to sources that are more contemporary, and we’ve always got a lag. I mean, this is a big challenge for policy is lag indicators, can we find lead indicators where you guys have started to do that through the different sources that you’ve been able to bring to bear and getting people to collaborate with you as well. And you said something really important, Tom about, you know, trusted, neutral platform. universities can play that role. And of course, at Griffith we were making that argument for a very long time, what an important, you know, intermediary and anchor institution. It can be, and but of course, it’s incumbent on universities to demonstrate what they’re bringing to the table in terms of that too, right. We need to do a much better job in communicating That, you know, the strength of the work, I think that you’ve done and the partners that you’ve been able to attract is in the reciprocity, that you’ve been able to demonstrate with them, but also helping people to lift the, the literacy in working with these kinds of techniques, right, because it is a specialist expertise and policy is generalist in its in its training very much. So, I think that’s, you know, something that I think that, you know, that skill building, and that sharing of, of insight, and methodology is one, I think, has brought people to you, you know, they’ve been some real leaders around that stuff in policy terms. I mean, the Queensland police service that had a very long-standing relationship with, with the university around their, their data, their crime data and other things, you know, corrections, the same. So, you know, in in health and those domains and transport, I would, you know, I’d probably take issue with this has never been, I take issue with it on their behalf. And they know, I’m a tough, I’m a tough critic often. But I do think in the social policy domains where this has been much harder than the and the tradition less established. I think the combination of those different sources has been so helpful.

Tom: You’re right, I wasn’t implying that government employees didn’t use data coming forward decisions. They wouldn’t be honest, it was more in the social, social, difficult, wicked problems. Yeah, I think so you describe that should sort of this maturity is happening more or learning is happening in the government? Do you think universities should do something similar? Because you are, you’re writing where universities are very specialised, or people are very specialised, and they’ll very often come with a very narrow lens? That’s right. And a policymaker doesn’t want to narrow it.

Anne: No, that’s right. It’s not, it’s not useful. Yes. That, while fascinating, your narrow study is not useful to me. And of course, policymakers don’t have the luxury of only working with specialised cohorts, they need to do that too. But they need to do both. And, yeah, I think that has been the whole engagement agenda, universities trying to get academics to understand how to do that and where their work can be useful. And I think the other thing is, the kind of harnessing the very different things that people are doing, like aggregating that on your platform is, I think, what’s incredibly valuable, because you know, you know, academics come and go, right. So how do you keep those data sets for other purposes that can be applied? And I think, you know, I think certainly in the work that you’re doing with the community services, industry Alliance, and an info exchange, and others, there’s a great potential to do that, you know, even if there are student projects that are being done, incredibly valuable stuff that can be built on,

Rhetta: On that, but picking up off of a different part, if universities are a good place to be in this like informing public policy, but we also do some policy evaluation, does that give rise to certain conflicts of interest? Should we be concerned? Or is it, if different parts are doing different aspects of that policy piece? Is that, I guess okay?

Anne: Well, I mean, universities are big and diverse places.

Rhetta: Yes, of course.

Anne: And the research that we would do contract research that we would do would be governed by ethics frameworks and other commercial arrangements. So, I don’t think in principle, you know, it gives rise to, to that risk. But I do think it’s a good one for researchers to be thinking about, because, you know, it is, you do form a view, from your evidence about the way things work, and, you know, your theory of change, or whatever. And so I think, you know, multidisciplinary teams are always useful, and thinking about advisory groups to govern, projects that you have, when you’re asking those kinds of evaluative questions is very helpful. But I’m not too concerned, you know, in principle, because, you know, how hard it is to coordinate across a five-campus institution full of highly individualised, self-maximising researchers. But I think it’s, I think it’s an important question for people to ask themselves. And, you know, we’re quite keen on interdisciplinary work from that point of view, so that you don’t get too much, you know, so that you can always see another point of view. And I’m a great believer in in advisory panels and groups, and particularly of user groups, in those projects, because otherwise, you know, and I mean, I see this in policy work all the time. But you know, how people imagine citizens are how people imagine people are experiencing a service rather than how they’re actually experiencing, I think that’s really important in sort of problem-oriented research is to involve the user.

Rhetta: Anne as you would know, we have a federal election coming up. And I’ve heard some murmurings that Tom and my generation, which is millennials, we might actually be the election flippers this time. And according to the Australian census we are about 26% of the population, and I was reading a survey from Deloitte that was focused on millennials for 2020. And there was these two kinds of interesting findings. Almost half of us are stressed all of the time, we’re saying we’re stressed about like kind of existential larger issues and finances, but then we’re also really quite content with the government and how they’ve handled COVID-19 and other things like that. So how do you think this is going to play out in regards to the timing and the outcome of the next election?

Anne: Well, that’s a hard one. And I’m trying to suppress my generation X kind of view… You people…. Stressed, I think, a couple of things, something that we know about younger Australians, and it’s been borne out in Lowy Institute research. And I think it was Lowy Institute that’s put out that study that, you know, a lot of younger people, I don’t particularly think. And I make no allegations of authoritarianism, but I kind of less concerned with democratic participation, and not that worried about, you know, what, what people of my generation, speaking myself would think, a kind of moral authoritarian kind of impulses in governance. And so, you know, incumbent governments everywhere have been rewarded for strong measures in the context of, you know, keeping people safe. And I think, you know, reconciling a long-term economic interest, you know, the last few elections have really come down to big contests over economic interests, big scare campaigns around whether it was, you know, meeting scare, you know, that labour tried to run or having a quite complex policy agenda that was around tax and negative gearing and whatever, I think it’s always really hard to generalise. But for many, this is my own analysis of what it is for many young Australians who have seen a lot of, of political instability, right, until between 1945 and 2007, Australian Governments changed five times. You people have had more prime ministers in your political lifetime, then, you know, then then was my experience. So I think partly, the focus on incumbency, and the rewarding incumbency is partly about looking for stability is partly about the kind of the assertion of the state and its capabilities for doing things that people regard as important. So, you know, I think, I think people will wear that and they will wear lockdowns, although you can see some of that fraying in Victoria. More recently. I think they’ll wear that. But then reconciling that with the fact and we saw the data out this week, that house prices in region, you know, in metropolitan cities are growing by, you know, 10%, in a quarter or more, I think it was 12%, in Brisbane, and that was mean as much more in kind of other places. So for me, I find it really hard to think about how young people must be contemplating that Australia’s public policy tradition was that you that you could expect to do better than your parents, if you worked hard, and you did the kind of stuff that you’d be out. And homeownership was such an important part of that. And then we had the social protections of, you know, Medicare, and whatever. So I think, you know, I’m going to be really interested to see what young people younger people make of that. The existential concerns about climate change, and, you know, future work, the future of work, which is, I think, kind of also should be on people’s minds, it’s just going to be really interesting to see how that plays out in different electorates. And, you know, with the run up to kind of cop 26, you can see how the climate issue is, is moving on transition, it’s becoming less about, you know, is this, is this a thing after all this time? Or actually have the capital markets moved? Is it going to be outcome impossible for you insure your property? Is it gonna are all these other things kind of happening, but I never know whether people can take in the full breadth of all of that and evaluated because what politic political parties want you to do, what the permanent campaign wants you to be doing is thinking about, oh, that bust on into organised crime. They want you to be thinking about whatever it is that they want you to be thinking about. And so what’s people’s capacity to sit back and think about their own interests? Now, you might some of the policy measures like you know, Labour’s bit hard to understand reconstruction bank of reconstruction and all the post war stuff that’s happening into there might that resonate, I don’t know there’s just a lot. There’s just a lot of, of contest over the framing and the scaring stuff will become very intense over the next period of time.

Tom: It’s It is very interesting. And as one of the oldest millennials,

Anne: I must say, Tom, you are pushing that mention,

Rhetta: I thought it would be rude not to include him.

Tom: Saving 70 grand a quarter would be quite impressive, even for very successful, it’s a lot of money.

Anne: That’s a lot of money. And you know, like, I really worry about that. I’m worried about that for my kids. You know, what does that mean? And that’s what I mean about that there is an intergenerational dimension to her to write, lots of us are really worried. I mean, you know, the expectation of the Bank of mum and dad is kind of that’s just not very congruent with how it was supposed to work in this country, but is anybody going to have a policy around that? Or is it really about the aspiration, right? I knew just in case I become a need subtest. One day, I need negative gearing to be there, I saw the data that the highest occupational group involved in negative gearing as it needs, it was like out here on that waving my arm out there kind of the graph. But negative gearing has been a really important way of wealth building in a way that I don’t think labour understood to get that that backlash last year, but it’s more kind of aspirational, I think, then, then then tangible or possible.

Tom: Now, I think to close. And this is a very, we ask this question to all the guests. What is the one data set, if you could get access to setting aside ethical, political or even practical concerns that you would you would want to

Anne: This is easy, I want access to the members of parliament, staff data, ministerial staff, who are political staff employed by ministers, obviously, an elected office and senate staff. So I’ve read in some data last week, in a report last week that it’s now 2020 staff employed in those roles, publicly funded, I always get emails about this scanner, who pays for those who, so it’s publicly funded, but they’re the people who work in the offices of elected representatives, office holders, ministers and so on, you know, they’re an important part of, of our system of government, they’ve become an important part of it. But the data about them has never really been made publicly available. We did succeed in getting an annual report published, of members of parliament staff data for about six or seven years. And then the Abbott government abolished it in the in the 2014. budget. So there’s a lot of interest in this at the moment, of course, in the wake of the at least five inquiries into the Brittany Higgins matter and surrounding all of that, that involved staff, and, you know, raise this whole question of, you know, how do they fit in, in our system of government and accountability frameworks, and so on. That was my PhD, it’s been my research for a really long period of time. I know it’s in there. And I’d love to be able to extract it. And that’s the data set I’d like to be able to get.

Rhetta: It’s a fascinating answer, and very different from our other guests. So points for originality.

Anne: What were others?

Rhetta: Definitely a lot around access to consumer behaviour patterns and spending. They’d love to understand that to get a better understanding of what’s going on in Australia and where people are spending their money. Thanks so much. And as always, it’s been fascinating talking with you Anne thank you, Tom, for being here today. That’s it, And thanks so much.

To listen to more episodes of show me the data, head to your favourite podcast provider or visit our website, RIDL.com.au and look for the podcast. We hope that by sharing these conversations about data and evidence-based decision making, we can help to inform a more inclusive, ethical and forward-thinking future. Making data matter is what we’re all about. And we’d love to hear why data matters to you. To get in touch, you can tweet us @G_RIDL, send us an email or if you prefer, just send us a letter by carrier pigeon. Thank you for listening, and that’s it til next time, take care and stay safe.