APS secretaries unveil online collaboration hub in push to improve policy skills

By Stephen Easton

Friday June 21, 2019

The prototype Policy Hub website.

Heads of Australian Public Service departments have launched the beta version of a new collaboration website as a “hub” for their staff to collectively improve professional standards in policymaking.

It’s the first visible output of the cross-agency Policy Capability Project, an effort led by the Secretaries Board’s APS Reform Committee with the goal of enhancing APS policymaking standards and considering skill gaps.

Human Services secretary Renee Leon introduced the new “Policy Hub” website to members of the Institute of Public Administration Australia during a seminar hosted by its ACT Division on Thursday.

“It’s a place where we are bringing together tools and resources and ideas for capability that will be able to be accessed across the APS, and to provide a platform on which we can work together to share our knowledge and insights about what good policy looks like,” she told colleagues.

“So, this is a beta at this stage; more to come and the [project] team will be reaching out and getting your input and ideas for it.”

The new site lists various nascent projects that are part of the push to improve policy capability, such as a shift towards a “common model for APS policy” as well as a policy toolkit, professional development resources and a section where public servants can find experts outside the APS.

Earlier, the United Kingdom Department of Health and Social Care’s permanent secretary, Sir Chris Wormald, spoke about longer running efforts to improve British policymaking skills and fielding questions from Leon and other public servants in his capacity as head of the UK Civil Service Policy Profession.

Wormald explained what had been achieved and learned over the past five years and gave some updates on the ambitions for the “Policy 2025” project, which he discussed in The Mandarin earlier this month.

The Mandarin understands the new APS Policy Hub beta site went live on Thursday and was put together over about six months. An official launch is expected later this year after it is improved through feedback gathered during beta testing.

“And then the next thing that we’re doing is deputy secretaries across a range of departments over the next 18 months will be leading a series of sprints that are designed to flesh out in more detail, the elements of good policy,” said Leon.

Besides defining good policy, these sprints would also involve “practising how to bridge that policy-implementation gap” as well looking at what skills agencies should invest in, and whether greater employee mobility in the public service could enhance their policy capability, she added.

Images supplied by the APS Policy Capability Project.

In contrast to the APS, the United Kingdom has a set of clearly defined public service professions of which policymaking is but one, and the APS efforts to improve policy capability are at an earlier stage, but Leon said they shared a lot of similarities.

She emphasised that the approach in Australia would be very collaborative. “We’re not having the Public Service Commission or [Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet] come in and impose … rules on us, it’s something the secretaries and teams within our departments are working on collaboratively.

“It’s a way of sharing expertise and developing ideas that then work for all of us — very much a focus on investing in the skills and the capability of people in public service, and seeking to systematise, what does good policy look like.”

It is hoped the new website will be one of the first steps towards that goal.

“As APS staff need to take care of their own career learning, the project looks at the practical ways people can take part in co-designing policy work with a long term approach that can lift policy skills,” explains a brief summary of the wider Policy Capability Project.

Following Wormald’s address, Leon said Australian public servants would do well to apply basic “policy tests” that are framed as blunt questions in plain language, much like a set of five tests introduced in the UK Department for Education that Wormald used as an example (pictured right).

“I know that secretaries who met with Chris yesterday busily took down notes about those tests because, I think we tend to express what we’re trying to do in language that’s perhaps a bit less accessible and a bit less cut-through,” said the DHS secretary, adding that simpler policy tests of this kind could be “a great input” to the APS.

Another similarity she identified in the two nations’ approaches is a recognition that policymakers need to increasingly look outward. Wormald said the days of big-brained bureaucrats solving the nation’s public policy questions in isolation were long gone. Leon emphasised the importance of hearing the “voice of the citizen” and not just that of the academics, consultants and representative bodies that are always ready to provide detailed input.

In his speech, Wormald said this was typically a weakness for UK civil servants, but a relative strength of their counterparts in New Zealand.

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