Research Case Studies

Selected Current Projects

“Nudge, Nudge – Think Think”

How can governments persuade citizens to act in socially beneficial ways? Thaler and Sunstein’s book “Nudge” drew on work from behavioural economics to claim that citizens might be encouraged through 'light touch interventions' (i.e nudges) to take action. In their ground-breaking successor to “Nudge”, “Nudge, Nudge – Think Think” (Bloomsbury Press), Gerry Stoker and Peter John argue that an alternative approach also needs to be considered, based on what they call a ‘think’ strategy. Their core idea is that citizens should themselves deliberate and decide their own priorities as part of a process of civic and democratic renewal. The project team not only set out these divergent approaches in theory but they offer evidence from a series of experiments to show how using techniques from ‘nudge’ or ‘think’ repertoires work in practice and how that practice is made effective. The book is unique in exploring an expanding field of policy and social science interest - changing civic behaviour, using insights from another growing field of social science interest - the rise of experimental methods. Now that Gerry has joined IGPA, Peter, Gerry and Mark will be repeating similar experiments in the Australasian context.

“Not yet 50/50”: Barriers to the Progress of Senior Women in the Australian Public Service

This research project was funded by six Australian Commonwealth departments in 2013 as part of a broader project that was launched by ANZSIG in 2010 on ‘Celebrating the Contribution of Women to Public Sector Excellence’. Members of the Institute were concerned that data on the representation of women in the ‘most’ senior echelons of the public service in Australia showed a decline despite the election of Australia’s first woman prime minister. We therefore decided to investigate why.

In most countries around the world women remain in the minority when it comes to senior positions in both the public and private sectors. That there are barriers to their progression is not in doubt. What is not well understood is the nature of those barriers and the extent to which they are consciously or unconsciously constructed. Moreover, there has been a stark absence of empirical studies in the field of Australian public administration to investigate these issues and assess the implications. The purpose of this research was to help bridge the gap. It did this through a study of the perceptions of senior men and women of the cultural and systemic barriers affecting the recruitment, retention and promotion of senior women in six Australian Commonwealth departments.

The core policy insight from our research findings is unsurprising – the quest for gender equality in the workplace (indeed any form of equality) is an ongoing struggle which should not stop with the achievement of a performance target. Our four core empirical findings underscore this observation: (1) competing priorities/family responsibilities hinder women from taking up demanding leadership roles; (2) negative male perceptions of a woman’s ability to lead impede women’s progression into leadership roles; (3) workplace structures and cultures hamper women’s progress by distilling processes of unconscious bias that afford comparative advantage to men with the requisite attributes; and, (4) workplace cultures and practices undermine the self-confidence and self-belief of women in seeking career advancement. These findings lead us inexorably to the crucial question that if meritocracy is not a sufficient criterion for affecting the advancement of women what interventions are necessary to redress the imbalance? The research therefore proposes a range of mitigating strategies for navigating these barriers and achieving and maintaining a better gender balance at the Senior Executive Service level across the Australian Public Service. These strategies are integrated within a systems model of behavioural change which we hope will prove useful to public organizations embarking on diversity reform initiatives.

Building Sustainable Communities in the Murray Darling Basin

Fundamental to the survival and wellbeing of all communities is the idea of “sustainable development”. Sustainable development brings together the governance, economic, environmental and social aspects of a community in a way “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987 p. 43). Ongoing uncertainty in communities recovering from crises such as drought, floods or bushfires often lead to an imbalance between social and economic development. Effective governance provides a way of addressing that imbalance. Governance describes the institutional methods by which societies determine and deliver public goods and services. The study of governance involves looking at how power is exercised as well as “the use of institutions, structures of authority and collaboration to allocate resources and coordinate or control activity in society or the economy (Bell, 2002).”

This research project, which is funded through the Murray-Darling Basin Futures Collaborative Research Network (see and was co-designed with colleagues in the strategic engagement team of the Murray Darling Basin Authority, evaluates the ‘governance of recovery’ in the Murray Darling Basin – in particularly, the role of local institutions in helping communities recover from crisis and move towards sustainable development. The study draws on qualitative research conducted in six Murray-Darling Basin communities that exemplify a purpose-built typology of vulnerability. The community sample includes, Canberra (ACT), St George (QLD), Bourke (NSW), Renmark (SA), Horsham (VIC) and the Murrumbidgee Valley (NSW). Our findings demonstrate that better local governance and localism, such as inclusive local networks of formal and informal institutions, can help increase the capacity of Murray-Darling Basin communities to adapt, and innovate in response to changing circumstances.

How do Australians Imagine their democracy?

In a recent survey conducted in February 2013 we asked a representative sample of 1,377 Australians to consider various issues regarding Australian politics and their role in making democracy work. Some of our findings should give all democrats pause for thought. Our findings show that citizens are overwhelmingly observers rather than participants in formal politics and that 9 in 10 regard themselves as without influence over the federal level of government and 7 in 10 come to the same conclusion about other levels of government.  There is widespread evidence of negative attitudes towards politics and politicians comparable to those found in other contemporary democracies including Britain, the United States and Finland but these negative attitudes have emerged in a relatively benign economic context. Over a quarter of Australians combine a specific set of negative attitudes towards politics and politicians – irritation at politicians talking rather than acting, annoyed with the compromises of politics and supportive of a greater role for non-political actors in public decision-making including business people and experts.

Other findings give reason for hope about the future of Australian democracy. There are elements of malaise in Australian political culture but the core issue appears to be more with the type of politics currently on offer. We show that most Australians do not hold the ideals of the democratic political process in contempt. There is strong support for the processes of representative democracy such as consultation, compromise and democratic judgement and citizens display a considerable understanding of its complex processes. Our findings also indicate that citizens could be up for a more extended role if a different politics was on offer that was more participatory, open and perhaps local.

Reflecting on the results from our survey in the round; the fundamental cause of democratic entropy in contemporary Australian politics is increasingly attributed to the role of politicians. Our findings draw attention to two important dilemmas for Australia’s political class. Firstly, that citizens view politicians and democratic politics as one and the same – anti-politics equals anti-party politics. Secondly, the artificial separation of representative and participatory democracy has reinforced a culture of anti-politics at the heart of the Australian political system. It is evident from our findings that citizens have complex orientations towards democracy. The evidence presented here shows support for a new participatory politics but with the aim of shoring up representative democracy and developing a more integrated, inclusive and responsive democratic system.

The reform process would need to proceed on the basis of four fundamental principles – politicians as the key agents of change, non-partisanship, institutional strengthening and connecting-up the citizen with the Canberra-village. The first principle proceeds from the assumption that politicians should act as the bridge between representative and participatory democracy. The second principle follows the insight that anti-politics is about the health of Australian democracy and is a problem for all politicians regardless of party politics. The third principle is based on the idea that it makes sense to use existing institutions which already have public legitimacy and trust to build the new politics. This would also be prudent from a financial perspective in an austerity climate. The fourth principle is rooted in the popular perception that the Canberra village (the Commonwealth) is disconnected from the everyday lives of Australian citizens and reforms are needed to bring Canberra closer to the people.

Other Areas of Policy Impact

The following commissioned outputs are indicative of the impact of Mark’s research on policy development particularly in Australia, Afghanistan, the Middle-East and Brazil in three thematic areas – Democracy, Citizenship and Participation, Public Sector Design and Innovation, and Urban and Regional Governance and Policy.

In the area of Democracy, Citizenship and Participation in an internationally competitive process, Professor Evans was engaged from 2012-13 as Senior International Policy Advisor to the Office of the Presidency in Brazil and the European Union to develop a new federal policy on social participation (see: Evans, 2013). This included designing a range of co-design tools for identifying and sharing better practice, diagnosing what will work in different social settings, and matching different engagement methods to different engagement purposes:

This research has provided the foundation thinking to a new federal policy on social participation (Samuel Antunes-Antero, National Director, Social Participation Dialogue).

In 2014, was commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme to lead a comparative research project on the Opportunities and Challenges for the Reform of Public Administration Arising from the Arab Transitions – Defining the Challenge, Making the Change with colleagues in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. The purpose of the report was to provide an evidence base, some signposts to an effective change governance strategy and a series of critical questions to inform deliberation at a forthcoming intergovernmental conference sponsored by the UNDP. It does this through the completion of five core components of research: (1) a meta-analysis of existing public administration reviews in both developing areas and transition states; (2) the comparison of reform processes and instruments; (3) the identification of better practices; (4) the evaluation of reforms centred on using decentralization and local strategies for building social cohesion and better primary service delivery; and (5), using the evidence-base developed in the four components of research to identify the critical questions and issues that would need to inform a successful change governance strategy in transition states.

Mark was also engaged throughout 2012 to conduct an action learning evaluation of the ‘Home to Work’ project for DEEWR. The findings have been used to inform the development of new interventions using co-design methods with citizens in the ACT (see: Evans, 2012):

The evaluation contains important findings for ongoing policy work and service development. The significant social and economic outcomes achieved by Home to Work participants demonstrate the value of the citizen-centred approach (Geoffrey Rutledge, Director, Social Policy and Implementation, ACT government).

In 2013, he was once again engaged by the ACT government to conduct an action learning evaluation of the ‘Improving Services with Families’ project using co-design tools to facilitate project co-design with families and their lead workers. In 2014, Mark was asked to develop an action learning evaluation plan for the ACT’s Human Services Blueprint and conduct evaluation work during the establishment of the Blueprint.

In the area of Public Sector Design and Innovation, Mark was engaged in 2012 to conduct an integrity review of Austrade. This included the co-design of a new workplace integrity programme (see: Burmester, Evans and Whitton, 2011 and, Evans, 2012). He also co-authored the ACT Government’s Advisory Group’s (2012) Better Practice, Better Service Review whose recommendations were accepted by the incoming government. This report focuses squarely on issues relating to the development of a citizen-centric governance approach to service delivery in the ACT:

As a result of our collaborative efforts we have developed an important piece of work that provides the incoming Government with sound advice on how to make further improvements to the way the ACT Public Service works together (Andrew Cappie-Wood, Head of Service).

While in the area of Water Governance, Professors Botterill and Evans were engaged in 2011 to conduct an evaluation of the National Water Commission’s role in water governance in Australia as part of its Sunset Review (see: Botterill and Evans, 2011):

The evaluation you conducted was a very useful input to the review…particularly in articulating the distinct value that is brought to water governance by having an independent federal agency (James Cameron, CEO, NWC).

In the field of Urban and Regional Governance and Policy, Mark was commissioned in 2012 to conduct a research project on public value innovation at the local scale for the Department of Regional Australia and ACELG (see: Evans with R. Reid (2012), available on the ACELG website: The work focused on the role of co-design and co-production in facilitating innovation at the local scale. In addition, in the area of sustainable development, Mark and colleagues designed a new triple-bottom line assessment tool for submissions to the ACT Cabinet processes (see: Bontjer, Burmester and Evans, 2012a&b) and a quadruple-bottom line assessment tool for evaluating project submissions to Strathfield City Council (2013).