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Rethinking policy capacity, competencies and capabilities


The increasing complexity of contemporary policy problems coupled with rising public expectations present unprecedented challenges to the capacity of governments to make and implement effective policies.

While policy capacity is a fundamental concept in public policy, there is considerable disagreement over its definition and very few systematic efforts to operationalise and measure it.

At a glance

In a paper for Policy and Society, Xun Wu, M Ramesh and Michael Howlett from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy present a conceptual framework to analyse and measure policy capacity. Capacity includes both the competencies and capabilities needed for policy-making.

Competencies are categorised into three skills essential for policy success: analytical, operational and political.  Policy capabilities are assessed at the individual, organisational and system resource levels. Policy failures often result from imbalanced attention to these elements of policy capacity.

What is policy capacity?

Policy capacity is usually defined from the perspective of the government as:

  • the ability of governments to make intelligent choices
  • to scan the environment and set strategic directions
  • to weigh and assess the implications of policy alternatives.

Some conceptual approaches are narrow in scope concentrating only on the availability or quality of specific skills such as policy advising to support decision-making. Others take a more expansive approach, arguing policy capacity should include the ability of governments to efficiently implement preferred choices of action as well as deciding them.

Policy capacity is also seen as the ‘weaving’ function of modern governments—the ability to join together the multiplicity of organisations and interests to form a coherent policy fabric.

An alternative conceptual framework

The paper approaches policy capacity as the set of skills and resources—or competencies and capabilities—necessary to perform policy functions.

The skills or competencies which comprise policy capacity can be categorised into three types: analytical, operational and political. Each of these involves capabilities at three different levels individual, organisational, and systemic. As a result the framework has the following nine elements:

  • Individual: analytical, operational and political capacity
  • Organisational: analytical, operational and political capacity
  • Systemic: analytical, operational and political capacity

As Figure 1 depicts, these form a nested model.

Fig. 1: A nested model of policy capacity

The framework is not restricted to a particular function or stage in the policy process. It covers all elements: agenda setting, formulation, decision-making, implementation and evaluation. This recognises the challenges that governments face in performing these policy functions is different. Adequate capacity in executing one task does not guarantee the effective performance of others.

The framework also acknowledges that a wide range of organisations such as NGOs, private businesses and other government agencies are involved in policy processes. In turn, their capacities affect the government’s own capacity to perform. Policy-oriented non-governmental organisation need to have or develop a requisite level of policy capacity.

Organisational and system level capabilities

At the system level, capabilities such as the level of support and trust a public agency enjoys from its political masters and society at large are key components of policy capacity.

Trust and available financial resources are critical determinants of organisational capabilities and influence public managers’ ability to perform their policy work. Political support both from above and below is vital because public agencies must be considered legitimate in order to access resources and support from their authorising institutions.

Individual capabilities

At the individual level, policy professionals play a key role in determining how well the functions in the policy process are conducted.  Their policy capacity is determined by their:

  • knowledge about policy processes
  • skills in policy analysis and evaluation
  • managerial expertise
  • political judgement.

The availability and effectiveness of information infrastructure, human and financial resource management systems, and political support can enhance or detract from individual capabilities.

Why it matters

Policy capacity is a vital determinant of the extent to which policy makers are able to address public problems. High levels of capacity are linked to superior policy outcomes while capacity deficits are viewed as a major cause of policy failure and sub-optimal outcome

In the conceptual framework, policy capacity results from the combinations of skills and resources at each level.

  • Analytical-level capacities ensure policy actions are technically and can contribute to attainment of policy goals.
  • Operational-level capacity allows the alignment of resources with policy actions so that they can be implemented in practice.
  • Political-level capacity helps to obtain and sustain political support for policy actions.

Want to read more?

Policy capacity: A conceptual framework for understanding policy competences and capabilities – X Wu, M Ramesh and M Howlett, Policy and Society, Volume 34, 2015, Issue 3

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