Professor Stephen Dovers. Photo by Belinda Pratten.

The Canberra Experiment

14 August 2012

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The Public Policy Fellows Program recognises the substantial public policy expertise at ANU, as well as outstanding public servants and others with stellar public sector records as Fellows under this program. The Fellows have been selected for their already very significant contributions to public policy and public understanding in areas as diverse as environment, health, finance and economics, defence, Indigenous affairs, population and international law.

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Public Policy Fellow Professor Stephen Dovers is on a mission to show that Canberra has something unusual to offer and that public policy isn’t as dull as it sounds. By MARTYN PEARCE.

Contrary to what you may believe or have heard, Canberra is ordinary. It’s unexceptional. It’s just like everywhere else.

The grand vision of Walter Burley Griffin is a hazy speck in the distant past and it’s hard to see any echoes of the big ideas of nationhood the city was built on in the territory’s ever-expanding suburban waistline.

But for Professor Stephen Dovers, Director of the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, and ANU Public Policy Fellow, Canberra has a golden opportunity to shake off its ordinary status by doing something exceptional. Dovers would like to see Canberra become the country’s full-scale science laboratory. He calls it ‘The Canberra Experiment’.

“Canberra is sometimes seen as a weird place,” he says. “It’s a new city; it was designed, and run, by the Commonwealth. It’s viewed as not being like the rest of Australia.

“But in recent times, the diversity of employment, housing and urban form in Canberra hasn’t been extraordinary. Its new suburbs are not that different from new suburbs in other Australian cities.”

But where it is different, he says, is in its unique concentration of institutions and knowledge.

“It’s hard to think of any other city state that has the research capacity of four universities and CSIRO. And because the ACT Government  has both state and local functions, Canberra is as good a laboratory as one could find to learn how to run a sustainable and pleasant city.”

Indeed, the laboratory is already open for business. The Fenner School, in partnership with CSIRO and the ACT Government, has created the Mulligans Flat Experiment. This unique undertaking  has seen a small corner of the ACT fenced off from predators and freed of invasive weeds. Inside, scientists from all ACT institutions  are exploring, in situ, what works, and what doesn’t, in land management. The team recently re-introduced Bettongs into the sanctuary – the first time that the tiny marsupial has made an appearance on mainland Australia in more than 80 years.

Dovers says the partnership model has potential application throughout the ACT. Under The Canberra Experiment, the potential would be much wider than simply the natural environment.

“The first application should be urban management,” he says.

“Managing our urban settlements is about many things – society, environment, economics and infrastructure. But it’s not at all clear that current policy debates appreciate Australian urban research or strong empirical evidence. We’re attempting to use simplistic notions about what cities might be like. It’s unfortunate that major public issues are debated with little apparent regard to Australian urban research and the evidence that provides,” he says.

The experiment that Dovers proposes – to turn the ACT into a laboratory for empirical research – is a big idea in a city that was conceived by a big idea. But it doesn’t take research to know that unless there is cross-community, and bi-partisan political agreements, it’s likely to founder on the steps of short-term politics.

Dovers acknowledges this is a significant hurdle for what is a long-term project, one exacerbated by systems of research funding and policy making that are geared towards the short term. The reception the idea has received makes him quietly confident.

“The reception is almost universally positive. People think it would be a good thing to do, for different reasons, and with different visions of what it might look like.

“But while everyone thinks it’s a good idea, it’s not quite their mandate. It’s everyone’s business, but nobody’s responsibility.

“So at the moment I’m putting the idea out, seeing how much support there is. Anything like this starts with a vague notion somewhere, so here’s that vague notion.”

Dovers argues that it is essential that any research outcomes generated by the experiment feed into public policy. The researcher already has a long record of applying his academic expertise to some tricky areas of public policy. Even now, while running one of the University’s bigger schools, he juggles a fierce policy workload as the co-convenor of the National Institute for Rural and Regional Australia, co-convenor of the State of Australian Cities Research Network, a board member of the Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network, an associate editor of two journals and an adviser to government on the establishment of national wildlife corridors.

This breadth of experience was recently acknowledged when he was made one of the University’s first Public Policy Fellows. The Public Policy Fellowship program recognises those whose work has a significant impact on policy. Dovers is one of a group of academics selected by the ANU Institute of Public Policy, headed by Dr Ken Henry.

Dovers says he hopes the new program will go some way to encouraging other academics to engage with policy.

“Spending a long time engaged in the policy process is something  that many academics would see as a diversion from their core role. So the creation of the Institute of Public Policy and Public Policy Fellows is enormously positive in showing that it is part of the role of the University,” he says.

He also hopes that the program can get over the stigma attached to policy work; that it is – and whisper this in a public service town – boring.

“Policy, to most people, is utterly boring,” he says. “It’s made by boring people, it’s written about in a boring way. The documents are boring.

“But policy is what creates changes in a society.

It is the mechanism by which we seek to achieve change for the better. We can argue that we don’t agree with one or the other policy, but it’s only through policy processes that we achieve common goals, reconcile differences and take advantage of opportunities.”

Of course, not all policy is successful. But as Dovers explains, even policy which is regarded as a failure potentially offers valuable lessons.

“The home insulation program is generally seen as a disaster,” he says.

“But there’s no such thing as complete  policy success or failure. Even policy which is world class usually has some problems with it.

“With the home insulation program tens of thousands of houses – many of which were old housing stock – were insulated. We do not yet know the impact of that on energy use, human comfort and heat-induced mortality – that relies on long-term data, with rigorous research.”

And long-term data is exactly what Dovers hopes his Canberra Experiment idea might eventually yield. That, and changing the way the city is thought of around Australia.

“Canberra used to be seen as an experiment in careful design and balancing different imperatives in creating a city. It was also seen as an expression of nationhood.

“It’s apparent by the way Canberra is discussed around the country that it’s no longer seen as that shared symbol of nationhood. That has run aground on the use of Canberra as a word of insult, or a conflation of the city and the parliament.

“The future of Canberra as a shared expression may be, in part, as an acknowledged location of interesting experiments on how to live well in the Australian environment.”

It’s a big idea for a small city, but a small city built on a big idea. It’s also anything but ordinary, and that’s surely something the city’s original architects would appreciate.

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