Policy Implementation: Get It Right


For the past 10 years I have helped implement policies in corporations, universities, NGOs and the public service. I have worked primarily in employer engagement and media.

It has been a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows with the devil sitting next to me, grinning.

Many organisations spend considerable time and money on policy planning and writing – the fun part – then ignore how the policy will be communicated and implemented.

My first spectacular introduction to an implementation disaster was the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s failed IT system of the early 2000s. RMIT installed a $47 million academic administration system that, overnight, scrambled the university’s entire student and financial records.

International enrolments plunged by 15 per cent. It led to the resignation of the Vice Chancellor and the termination of 500 staff over the next four years.

RMIT failed to answer the two fundamental implementation questions: what were they trying to achieve and who were the stakeholders? There was little consultation between the technicians, management and those who were going to use the system.

In 2011, DEEWR hired me to deliver the national employer engagement initiatives aimed at helping employers hire, train and retain older workers and combat age prejudice.

It was a $70 million cluster of programs. I packed up my family and moved to Canberra.

I was told to write a communications plan – a document much beloved by bureaucrats – and to scope out a possible ‘national tour’ with media targets.

What was actually needed was an implementation plan to identify stakeholders and then write a communications plan to reach them. There had been previously no promotion of the mature age job seeker initiatives.

Older workers who leave the workforce and then try to return face on average more than 70 weeks on the dole before they find a job. Many never do.

That’s age prejudice at work or the applicant doesn’t have the right attitude or training.

Around 111,000 mature age workers say they want, and are available for, more hours than they have. This equates to an under-employment rate of 5.8 per cent (compared to 12.1 per cent for 15-24 year olds and 6.2 per cent for 25-54 year olds).

In March 2014, the average number of weeks a 15-19 year old was unemployed for was 31 weeks, compared with 66 weeks for someone aged 55 years and over. In SA it is about 80 weeks. About 41 per cent of those aged 55 and over are deemed to be long term unemployed.

I wrote 22 news stories promoting employers who had demonstrated good mature age recruitment and retention strategies across the Priority Employment Areas.

These were ‘spiked’ – discarded. No explanation was given.

I was told not to approach employer groups or to make direct contact with employers. No reason was given. This was particularly difficult as I worked in the area of ‘employment engagement’.

I wrote six ‘success stories’ on people who had accessed the Experience+ suite of initiatives. Only one was approved for publication. The rest were spiked.

I wrote three opinion pieces (ignored), three feature articles (spiked) and four profiles for the pilot $15.6 million ‘Corporate Champions’ program, which never saw the light of day.

I rewrote the ‘Employer Engagement Communication Strategy’ four times. Every time I submitted a version, it was returned requiring a minor qualification.

In the end, the strategy was so over-finessed it was useless. How will employers ever know about Australian Government policies if DEEWR (now the Department of Employment) is so ‘action adverse’?

This was not a small policy. It was part of suite of initiatives to try and reduce the projected two percent fiscal gap due to the ageing of the Australian population.

I left to work in Career Advice and to carry on my study of generational change in Australia.

I had spent about $5000 getting to Canberra but it was money well spent as it taught me to never do it again.

Back in 1997, Peter Drucker wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “The dominant factor for business in the next two decades – absent war, pestilence, or collision with a comet – is not going to be economics of technology. It will be demographics”.

The Abbott Government has capitalized on the failure of the Experience+ program and has demonized older Australians, and their healthcare needs, as being part of the problem.

The Government has introduced a raft of regressive social welfare measures that punishes everyone, rather than finding a targeted solution.

The challenge for the APS is to turn the government’s plans and promises into action. The life of a government depends on the public service’s ability to implement its legislative agenda.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.