OPINION LEADERS Knowledge Wave Wash-up

This year’s Knowledge Wave leadership forum highlighted many good ideas, and stimulated debate on the economic and social development of New Zealand.

But there has been some debate about the worth of the forum to the business of public policy making and politics in this country. So, has the Knowledge Wave really just been an exercise in which business and academic elites talk to themselves?

The answer is no.

It is the same question that was levelled at the Porter Project decade ago – high-profile analysis of our economic options within the competitive success framework of Harvard professor Michael Porter. Critics dismissed its significance, mainly because they failed to grasp that Porter’s team could not set government policy. Rather, its work was all about publicly raising critical issues and broadening the landscape in which new policy could be developed.

Much of the thinking has long since found its way into policies that have lifted New Zealand’s productive capabilities. Government support of business clusters (from wood processing in Northland to biotechnology research and development in Otago) is good example.

Don’t underestimate the importance of knowledge dissemination and discussion (or argument), and the feeding of fresh ideas into government policy and private sector decision making.

Knowledge Wave initiatives can make important contributions to New Zealand’s future. As with the Porter Project of the early 1990s, the Leadership Forum and its extensive website are more than just an exercise in elites talking to themselves.

Four key points
From policy development perspective, four key points stand out.

* The Knowledge Wave concept is useful vehicle for bringing fresh international thinking into New Zealand. Most of the ideas highlighted recently are not new. (New ideas emerge first in specialist forums and publications and then need refining and simplifying for wider dissemination.) More importantly, they should be good ideas – and the organisers made sterling effort to find the best available – and be amenable to local analysis and debate. This is pro-cess of drawing on international thinking for solutions that fit the distinctive issues and aspirations of people in this country.

* One forum is never likely to be sufficient to mobilise broad political support for any set of ideas or policy prescriptions. In diverse society there will always be range of competing interests and aspirations. It takes time and effort for consensus to build around ideas which are modified along the way.

* Knowledge Wave leaders and commentators tend to be persuasive advocates of the ideas they advance – and yet their advocacy can mask the complexities of the consensus building just mentioned. People want quick and simple solutions to social and economic issues. The hot- house setting of Knowledge Wave forum can fuel just such expectations, with corresponding potential for frustration and cynicism when the realities of policy development take hold.

* In 2003 there is very real need for new thinking and debate about policies that can deliver on the Government’s broad agenda for combining economic prosperity with an inclusive society. The Knowledge Wave concept is well timed.

Few would quarrel with the Government’s high level aspirations or the goal of taking New Zealand back into the top half of the OECD. But how can the tensions between its multiple goals be best managed and what tradeoffs should be made between business-led economic growth and social equity? New Zealand has only just begun addressing the huge implications of holding taxation rates where they are now in order to finance “social investment”.

When New Zealand underwent major shift in social and economic policies in the mid-1980s, this was supported by broad, and rarely seen, level of political consensus. No such backing exists for the fundamental changes in prospect today – all the more need for well-informed public debate towards developing policies that do indeed reflect broad consensus.

Policy development needs fresh ideas like those, for instance, of American social theorist and Knowledge Wave speaker Robert Putnam.

For the recent forum, the real test of worth is not unanimity, or lack of it, among political and business leaders today, but the way in which its ideas are picked up and used from now on.

We can say that, at the very least, it is likely to strengthen the interrelationship of social and economic policy making.

It will also help to expand our appreciation of the importance of “knowledge” in securing and transforming our living standards. Knowledge means research and new technologies, but it also means adopting more effective ways to manage resources so that society secures maximum advantage from good ideas.

Perhaps the worth of the Knowledge Wave lies first and foremost in fostering greater appreciation of policy-making processes and how they contribute to healthy democratic government in New Zealand.

Gary Hawke is Professor of Economic History and Head of the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington.

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