Tackling the questions of politics, policy and democracy

By Hamish Ravi Taylor

Governments around the world are facing a range of troubling policy challenges. It’s an opportunity for universities to help find solutions, according to Professor John Howe, the new Director of the University of Melbourne School of Government.

Former Melbourne Law School Deputy Dean Professor John Howe has always had a keen interest in how government, business and the law interact.

Now, having assumed the role of Director of the Melbourne School of Government, he will have the opportunity to lead the study of policy, public administration, regulation and governance and help nurture future political leaders.

Established by the University of Melbourne in 2013, the Melbourne School of Government is an inter-disciplinary school jointly managed by Melbourne Law School, the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Business and Economics. It draws on strengths from around the University to deliver its research programs and Master of Public Administration.

“One of the great things about the School is that there are all sorts of interesting and different disciplines and perspectives that people within each of the different faculties can bring,” Professor Howe says.

“There are a whole lot of challenges that governments and societies are facing, what we are calling ‘troubling policy’, where we think the School of Government can make a difference.”

Professor Howe’s own academic interests are in the field of labour market policy and regulation, regulatory theory and corporate accountability.

Prior to starting at the School of Government at the end of 2017, he was Co-Director of the Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law at Melbourne Law School for nine years. He has also worked in private legal practice and as a researcher for public policy and advocacy organisations in Washington DC.

Professor Howe traces his interest in government and politics back to the influence of his parents.

“Both Mum and Dad were positive about what governments can do to effect positive social change, but also encouraged us to be critical, something that was instilled in us from an early age,” he says.

Around the dinner table when I was younger there was always a discussion about current politics and policy debates, who was doing bad things and who was doing good things and why.

When Professor Howe was in his last few years of high school, his father, former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe, became a Minister in the Hawke Labor Government.

“It was exciting to have a family member who was right in the thick of it,” Professor Howe says.

“We would go up to Canberra every year for the Budget and meet all the different people in the Government at that time.

“We would have a lot of discussion at home and would hold Dad to account for what the Government was doing.”

Professor Howe’s ambitions for the Melbourne School of Government centre on research with impact, quality teaching programs and engagement with the public, private and non-government sectors.

He says modern government is a very broad church, with the public sector often working with the private and non-government sectors to implement policy and for public service delivery.

The increasingly decentralised and diverse nature of public policy and governance means that there are a broader set of stakeholders who are facing some of the same issues as our political leaders, public service and policy makers.

“There are opportunities for us to work with a range of organisations, such as regulatory agencies, accreditation bodies, and businesses and NGOs engaged with public policy delivery, to identify critical policy challenges and explore how these challenges can be addressed.”

One such challenge is ‘big data’ and the enormous amount of information about people’s habits and behaviour that governments have access to.

“This access to data could be really useful for policymaking, such as in health, and for determining where policy resources should be directed,” Professor Howe says.

“But there are a number of concerns about people’s privacy and that data not being misused and hacked.

“I think a school of government can play a research and advisory role in helping to navigate those different issues.”

Another focal point Professor Howe nominates is political leadership.

One of the School’s most successful initiatives to date has been its Pathways to Politics for Women program. Modelled on the Harvard Kennedy School program ‘From Harvard Square to the Oval Office’ and funded by the Trawalla Foundation, the program seeks to address the under-representation of women in politics by equipping them with skills and networks.

“I really like the premise of the program, it is a really laudable goal and the number of leading politicians and political commentators who teach into it make it really high quality,” Professor Howe says.

Katie Robertson (BA, LLB(Hons) 2008) was part of the 2016 Pathways cohort and says it gave her invaluable connections.

“What I loved about Pathways was the relationships and connections I made with people from across the political spectrum,” Robertson says.

“We would come in on a Thursday night and everyone would leave their political biases at the door.

“It was hugely supportive and we continue to support each other.”

It’s forward-thinking initiatives like this one, as well as the opportunities to influence future policy and research, that make Professor Howe excited about what lies ahead for the School.

“To have the respect of government and other institutions, you have to have a really interesting and innovative intellectual agenda,” he says.

“There are a lot of things happening in the world, but a lot of opportunities for the School of Government to solve some of those issues.”

He acknowledges that there is work to be done, but is confident in the School’s ability to have a real impact.

“I want the Melbourne School of Government to become the premier school of government in Australia and in the region.”

Banner image: Professor John Howe is the new Director of the Melbourne School of Government. Credit: Jorge de Araujo, Artificial Studios.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 19, May 2018.