We need a new word for “reform”

Hardly anyone bothered to pay attention to the “National Reform Summit” put on by the Oz and the Fin the other day. The word “reform” tells us everything we need to know about this event: yet more invocations of the exhausted policy agenda of the 1980s, all with the implicit message that we need to work harder. Both Jeff Sparrow at Overland and Ben Eltham at New Matilda have pieces today making this point.

“Reform”, meaning “change for the better” was always a problematic concept, but it was a useful word, and we don’t have a good alternative. I don’t think a single replacement is feasible, but I’d like to try out some alternatives, and call for other suggestions

“Redesign” and “restructuring” are reasonably neutral and can be used to indicate a wide range of policy changes, without assuming anything specific. For example, “retirement income policy redesign”.

“Liberalisation” describes a wide range of things for which “reform” is commonly used, for example “drug law liberalisation” or “financial market liberalisation”. This gives a pretty clear indication of the general line of policy change, without the approval implicit in “reform” (except to the extent that support for liberalization in general is assumed).

What is lacking is a good single word term for what was the primary connotation of “reform” until the 1980s, namely, policy changes along social democratic lines. Any suggestions?

44 thoughts on “We need a new word for “reform”

  1. restructuring strikes terror in the heart of anyone who works in a large organisation:it means tumultuous change and job loses…

  2. You’ve provided the answer in the post:

    “Reform”, meaning “change for the better”…

    As long as I can remember, “reform” has been for the better of the 1% and for the worse of the rest of the world.

    So, rather than call a “spade” a “manually operated excavation enabling device”, just call it what it is: “change”.

    -Health Policy Change
    -Employment Law Change
    -Education Change

    The whole reason why the weasel-word “reform” was used in the first place was to obscure the fact that the “change” would be detrimental to the interests of the people to whom the idea had to be sold.

  3. My personal preference would be the brutally honest “fu<k-up".

    As in:

    The Minister held a Press Conference today to announce a new package of $30 million to fu<k-up the health payroll system…

  4. An apposite old jibe: “asking a consultant whether your organisation needs reform is like asking a barber whether you need a haircut”.

    There is a huge vested interest in changing things, even if they work OK. When did you last read a report saying “we find our [schools, universities, taxes …] work more or less OK and we can’t think of a policy change that we are confident will improve them?” But such situations must in fact be quite common.

  5. ‘Reform’ did always mean ‘change for the better’, and the implicit converse was that what we had previously was somehow broken, ineffective, deficient, or perhaps non-existent (i.e., ‘Clayton’s’ policy, when no policy is the preferred policy option).
    Now, ‘reform’ seems to mean ‘roll back the social-democratic gains of the last few decades, such as they are’, and we can see examples of policy meddling which provoke the question: ‘If it ain’t broke, why try to fix it?’
    The Abbott regime has in fact abandoned certain areas of government action, just as Newman did in Queensland, by cutting funding, dispensing with policy work, walking away from programs, and dispersing those public servants who had relevant knowledge and skills. Here we need not just ‘change’ but an approach to government that recognises where action is needed, and can define an appropriate role for the state.
    My favorite example is that amid all the talk about ‘housing bubbles’ and social and economic problems associated with housing affordability, at a federal level we do not have a Housing Minister, nor any effective program to deal with housing issues. Nor do we have a Minister for Urban and Regional Development with some authority to address broader issues of how we develop and manage cities and regions. After more than a decade of neglect in these areas under Howard, Labor governments had started to look into these areas, and had a few working policies and programs on which more could have been built… now this policy area has largely been vacated, with no sign of ‘change’ or ‘reform’ on anyone’s horizon.

  6. A quick look over at the Qld government “media release” page indicates that they have already tried to replace “reform” with “change” (although old habits die hard….):

    …“We are at a point where change is necessary to ensure greater rigour and simplicity in both the senior assessment and tertiary entrance systems in Queensland.”

    “We’re now looking at how these changes will be implemented, and in what form.

    The Palaszczuk Government will establish a ministerial taskforce to oversee the changes to the senior assessment and tertiary entrance systems.

    Minister Jones said she would chair the Senior Secondary Assessment Taskforce to lead what could be the biggest change to senior education assessment in more than 20 years.

    “The Labor Party is the party of education and we are proud to deliver on this major reform to senior education. …

    I still prefer “fu<k-up" as the generally more truthful term.

  7. Progress might be a word indicating some sort of either continuous or discontinuous change in the direction of greater inclusion, equity, social justice etc … The right on the whole seems to hate the concept so that may means its usage can’t be co-opted, at least in the short run.

  8. With unanimity on what constitutes something better, “reform” seems to me to be the best word. But unanimity is lacking.

    It seems to me, too much time and mental energy is spent in various policy related forums (including focus groups but excluding the present blog – except for too much weight being given to Keynesian economics by its owner IMHO) on focusing on matters other than what really matters.

    Not long ago, the owner of this blogsite, Prof Q, put the important matters in relation to socio-economic policies very clearly:
    1. Income inequality
    2. The environment
    3. The financial system

    I concur (except I am not convinced that income inequality has to precede wealth inequality under all historically recorded and all conceivable circumstances). In an intertemporal GE context, these three important matters are interrelated.

    All policy discussions and policies should focus on these three elements – from the general down to the specifics.

    In relation to the state of affairs now and during the past 25 years, adopting the above suggestion would require refocusing on what is important now and in the foreseeable future for individuals living in a natural and institutional environment.

    My suggestion for a new word is ‘refocuse’.

  9. Pr Q said:

    What is lacking is a good single word term for what was the primary connotation of “reform” until the 1980s, namely, policy changes along social democratic lines. Any suggestions?

    It may be time to dust off the old term “progressive”. The Progressive movement, beginning with the Trust-Busters in the 1890s and ending with the Great Society programs of the 1960s, led the most successful push for the implementation of the social democratic agenda. The Fabians were Progressives. And the Australian federation settlement was considered a text-book case in Progressive nation building.

    The key characteristic of Progressives was a push for egalitarian socio-economic changes that were suggested and regulated by (natural or social) scientific knowledge. “Progressive” is also technically correct in the welfare economics sense as it is the term for egalitarian policy changes that reduce the Gini co-efficient. So Progressive would seem an apt term for a movement combatting the economic regressives and epistemic obscurantists of the New Right.

    There are special contemporary economic and ecologic bonuses in reviving the term Progressive, They were sympathetic to Georgist land tax, which is definitely the way to go in an era of un-restricted property speculation. Moreover, the emergence of AI driving The End of Economics (TM) means its likely that land will be the only factor capable of actually paying a tax. They were particularly keen on conserving the natural environment eg Teddy Roosevelt. which is relevant to combatting AGW. 

    Finally the Progressives were strong supporters of democratic nationalism, realists about human nature and sympathetic to civilizational conservatism. They thus fell out of favour amongst the degenerate chattering classes since the seventies, which has led to the slow motion train-wreck of multiculturalism etc. But there are strong signs that the Overton window is shifting with post-modernist political correctness being consigned to the Dustbin of History, at least amongst competent social scientists and the general public.

    In general the older you get the more your realise that most of the good work in social science and social policy was done by people who were born or lived between the US Civil War and the Great War. So bring back the Dead White Males of the glorious Progressive yesteryear.

  10. I think Megan’s post gives us the answer. They are almost done with the word “reform” the way a child gets tired of a toy. Pretty soon they will toss “reform” in the corner. We can pick it up dust it off and use it correctly again.

  11. @Jack Strocchi

    Poe’s Law strikes again. Either that Jack or you are showing signs of chronic whiskey poisoning.

    “So bring back the Dead White Males of the glorious Progressive yesteryear.” – J.S.

    “They were particularly keen on conserving the natural environment eg Teddy Roosevelt.” – J.S.

    On one trip to Africa; “Roosevelt and his companions killed or trapped approximately 11,400 animals, from insects and moles to hippopotamuses and elephants. The 1,000 large animals included 512 big game animals, including six rare White rhinos. Tons of salted animals and their skins were shipped to Washington; it took years to mount them all, and the Smithsonian shared many duplicate specimens with other museums. ” – Wikipedia.

  12. How about “reno”? Everyone in this country loves a reno. Or “upgrade”, like it’s a plane ticket. Ooh, how about “anabasis”? Come on, we could get #AbbottLovesAnabasis trending in no time. (Yes, I used a thesaurus.)

    But seriously, progress is the word as Fran says. The right may hate it, but it’s a useful framing device to alert the public to what is at stake. Are the right going to be for regression?

  13. What is the point of worrying I wonder. Any word that get kudos these days will very quickly be weaseled by the plague rats (consultants). I guess my favorites currently include ‘sustainability’ and ‘adaptation’ the first of which which has morphed when spoken in environmental contextsfrom implying the need to sustain a healthly world to sustaining the capitalist system which is destroying it.

    One thing that surprises me about the above posts is noone has acknowledged the wonderful contribution of Don Watson and his Weasel Words web site.

    And of course there is Weasel words bingo. A few years back I was in a workshop where the CEO / presenter of this alliance punctuated every second assertion with “Moving Forward”. Noone seemed to bat an eyelid which worried me. Were all my colleagues sheep? Happily it turned out that on another table they had actually been running a competition to score how many times “Moving Forward” was uttered.

    So as Cardinal Pell once said “Peace be upon you….moving forward” – or mangled words to that effect.

  14. If you mean ‘policy change along social democratic lines’, why not say ‘policy change along social democratic lines’? That’s as likely as not to be clearer than looking for a single-word term. Not every concept has to be expressed in a single word, not for anybody with more sophistication than John Howard.

  15. @Ernestine Gross

    Denying a word in discourse equals denying the concept* equals an ideological attempt to control the discourse and rule some concepts and analyses out of court. Sorry, but I can’t and won’t accept that approach nor what underpins it. We will have to agree to disagree.

    * Better than denying a concept a place in received discourse (which is mere gainsaying) is engaging with it and validating it or refuting it with logical argument as the case may be. But it would take us off topic and we would never agree (I predict) so no point.

  16. @ tony lynch: Roughly 7billion prisms?

    Good one, though – the ism is encased in a solid and no matter where one takes a slice, it (the projection) looks the same. No change in focus is possible.

  17. @Ikonoclast

    In my experience, ‘ism’ words do not define a ‘concept’ but rather refer to a set of losely arranged ideas such that discourse aimed at clarification is hardly ever possible.

    (Tomorrow morning I am going away for some time – obviously I am missing the ‘discourse’ already.)

  18. Reform saw CSIRO lose its STEM branch from SA. With reforms like that, we should also ask for an extra hole in our head 😦

    Reform is a dirty word, but why replace it? The replacement would be sullied forthwith, and then we would have lost not one, but two words to the Ironic Invocation Club.

  19. Mmm, that should have included reference to the name of the linked site, ‘Word Spy’.

  20. Ikonoclast @ #!7 quoted wikipedia on TR’s big game hunting as if bagging a few brutes is an unpardonable sin against the environment.

    In reality elephants can be a bit of a plague to African villagers. They eat their crops and you don’t want to be stomped by a stampeding herd. And elephants are lambs cmpared to to hippos, the most dangerous large animal in Africa. These ridiculous looking creatures turn into psychopathic monsters when they encounter humans.

    Also, selective quoting is not good journalistic practice. The rest of the wikipedia article goes onto note TR’s pivotal role in the creation of the environmental movement:

    Roosevelt was one of the first Presidents to make conservation a national issue. In his speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, on August 31, 1910, he outlined his views on conservation of the lands of the United States. He favored using America’s natural resources, but opposed wasteful consumption.[168] One of his most lasting legacies was his significant role in the creation of 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, and 150 National Forests, among other works of conservation. Roosevelt was instrumental in conserving about 230 million acres (930,000 km2) of American soil among various parks and other federal projects.[169]

    In the 21st century, historians have paid renewed attention to President Roosevelt as “The Wilderness Warrior” and his energetic promotion of the conservation movement. He collaborated with his chief advisor, Gifford Pinchot, the chief of the Forest Service. Pinchot and Roosevelt… used magazine articles, speeches, press conferences, interviews, and especially large-scale presidential commissions…to encourage his middle-class reform-minded base to add conservation to their list of issues.

    The original Progressives were real men of the world.

  21. Ha ha ha. The dialectic of our Westminster system is failing abysmally. Another great column, Professor Quiggin!

  22. @Jack Strocchi

    Shouldn’t you be working on that book you are writing?

    And about African villages; did you know they are based on fractal math?

    “In 1988, Ron Eglash was studying aerial photographs of a traditional Tanzanian village when a strangely familiar pattern caught his eye.

    The thatched-roof huts were organized in a geometric pattern of circular clusters within circular clusters, an arrangement Eglash recognized from his former days as a Silicon Valley computer engineer.

    Stunned, Eglash digitized the images and fed the information into a computer. The computer’s calculations agreed with his intuition: He was seeing fractals.

    Since then, Eglash has documented the use of fractal geometry — the geometry of similar shapes repeated on ever-shrinking scales — in everything from hairstyles and architecture to artwork and religious practices in African culture.

    The complicated designs and surprisingly complex mathematical processes involved in their creation may force researchers and historians to rethink their assumptions about traditional African mathematics. “

  23. I think I like Ernestine’s “refocus”.

    “Refine” would also add meaning, but refocus is all encompassing.

  24. For example, it is true to say that Hockey is attempting to refocus taxation policy for the benefit of the higher income of the community. Refocus requires declaration of intent, reform obscures intent.

  25. re-detonate.

    Usually the shambles left in the debris after reform is qualification enough to refer to it as re-detonation.

  26. Actually at 39 I had that completely around the wrong way. Hockey is trying to focus taxation attention away from income to goods and services. This is the “netball” distraction tactic applied to draw attention away from incomes directly while attacking lower incomes from behind. The ball is in play at the GST part of the court where focus is drawn to the thought of 15% GST. The tactic is to settle on 12.5% while avoiding any discussion of tax rates on the high end, then smoothly slip in the argument about tax brackets and unfairness. It is all slight of hand, which is totally about focus.

    Believe it or not Hockey is playing his best hand right now. Will the community fall for the ploy? or will they emerge from the coma to see that Abbott’s “economic recovery” is pure farce based on the perpetual Liberal line of “we can create a great economy if only we don’t have to pay people for doing the work”. That is the underlying thrust of “work choices”, flat taxation, user pays, social services dependent on “charity”, private only health services, private universities, no minimum wage, etc.

  27. @Fran Barlow

    I vote for “progress” and “progressive”. The fact that the right hates the word is good as it gives it clear social-democratic connotations.

  28. As good a place as any to note:

    That silly old US farcist – Rupert Murdoch – has decided Australia needs a “snap election”.

    The evil old coot has a point, faced with the choice of Abbott or the guy who promises to be exactly like Abbott but less convincingly so, people might just decide that “I’d be exactly the same as the guy you have now” is no basis upon which to be elected to run the country.

    He’s cunning that old rat.

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