Debating NBN policy : the influence of issue management

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Many writers have discussed the merits of evidence-based policy and the deliberative public sphere in which “rational critical debate” determines government policies and decisions. Citizens expect governments to deliver policies that lead to beneficial outcomes for society – not just special interests. However, media reporting about a proposal or issue and representations by special interests – often referred to as lobbying – can affect policy development and political decision-making; and this was demonstrated in interview data for this study. The practice of “issue management” (IM) involves PR and specialist public affairs practitioners employing practices to “manage” issues “behind the scenes” and/or in the media, for example, using agenda setting, priming and framing. Yet there has been limited study of these invisible forces and their influence on public debate and related policy outcomes. This study used in-depth interviews to examine the practice of IM in PR and public affairs, in the context of a case study – the National Broadband Network (NBN). It largely confirms existing IM theory, and its applicability in a public policy context, finding that IM is practised across roles and levels within organisations involved in the debate. IM was seen to directly influence policies, including the underlying NBN policy initiative, and the move to a “must-opt” position on battery backup. Policy practitioners were able to use IM to place policy ideas on the public agenda and to create the necessary conditions for policy change. The study expands on existing public sphere theory, by tracing the impact of IM on public debate, society and democracy – within the bounds of the NBN case study – finding that the influence of IM is likely to be more far-reaching than has hitherto been acknowledged. Data analysis revealed that making submissions, utilising research, providing information and conducting in-person meetings were common IM practices employed by issue managers in the NBN debate. Analysis revealed that providing one-to-one briefings and making submissions were both effective in influencing policy processes – and in the case of submissions, this also held true for organisations that were otherwise outliers on the data. This study assesses IM lifecycle and practice models in light of the findings, expands on existing theory of IM practice, and considers the application of these models in an Australian public policy context. The profile of the NBN, and the breadth of public policy issues it involves, also means the study has transferability to other cases in a similar context.
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