Enhancing the Policy Laboratory Effect: Insights from Education Policy in Australia

Dr. Bronwyn Hinz

This paper explores the extent to which a policy laboratory effect is present in Australian schooling policy, discusses shifts over the last 25 years and offers insights on how this effect could be enhanced.

The research consisted of qualitative case studies of school funding reform at state and federal levels in Australia in the 1990s and 2010s, with data drawn from semi-structured interviews with policy actors and documentary analysis of material from personal and institutional websites and archives of parliament, media, government and other sources. In doing so, it uses and critiques other key conceptual models of federalism and of policy making, including Bridgman and Davis' Australian Policy Cycle, to trace policy innovations and reforms from their genesis, through to implementation, assessing whether key policy actors and entrepreneurs acted unilaterally, and key influences on their decisions.

The findings supports a reconceptualisation of Australian federalism as concurrent federalism, which recognizes that policy actors act unilaterally and pragmatically in pursuit of their own policy goals within a shared policy sphere, but are still shaped by the contours and institutions of Australia’s federal system. This term also allows for the fact that intergovernmental relations took a variety of forms simultaneously – combative relations on one issue did not prevent constructive work on other issues. This was much more dynamic than previously conceived.

Likewise, instances of policy innovation and differentiation coincided with instances of policy convergence and national approaches on other issues. Notably, where policy convergence or national approaches and programs were present, they were most successful when initiated and led by the states, or when based upon models that were developed at state level. Furthermore, the thesis finds that models of policy making, such as the Australian Policy Cycle are useful analytical tools in a federal system, even where their descriptive value varies.

Findings from this study indicate that state governments are more effective at developing and implementing schooling reforms. Concurrency, tied grants, intergovernmental comparisons and movement of policy actors and ideas can enhance policy making processes and the policy laboratory effect to maximize policy responsiveness and effectiveness. But these benefits are undermined when tied grants become prescriptive and punitive, especially if the conditions are determined unilaterally by the Commonwealth.