Towards a professional approach to public policy: reforming people instead of structure and process

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday June 26, 2019

L-R: Alison Larkins, Renée Leon and Chris Wormald.

Efforts to sharpen up policymaking as a defined profession within the United Kingdom civil service differ from past waves of administrative reform in a crucial way, according to the head of the project: they focus on people.

The details of the evolving project were less important than accepting the “old way of doing it” in the civil service was outdated, according to Sir Chris Wormald, permanent secretary of the UK Department of Health and Social Care.

What was important, he told Canberra public servants, was civil service leaders making a statement: that they were not good enough at designing policy to meet contemporary challenges.

Development of the British policy profession ramped up in 2010 when the UK’s first coalition government in over 50 years set about major civil service reform. In 2012 Wormald became head of the policy profession and, together with respective HOPPs for each department, committed to Twelve actions to professionalise policymaking in late 2013.

“An awful lot of what we put in the original action plan, we have subsequently concluded we were aiming at slightly the wrong targets,” Wormald said, addressing the Institute of Public Administration Australia, ACT Division.

“Doesn’t matter, actually. The point was to provoke a debate about how we made policy and [challenge] our old way of doing it, which was basically to recruit a huge number of exceptionally bright people from Oxford and Cambridge or UCL or [Imperial College, London], top universities, stick them in rooms and say, ‘You’re so clever; get on with it.’ And I only stereotype a little.”

Wormald said civil service chiefs could be open, honest and blunt about civil service capability and the gaps in it because it was not a reflection on the government of the day. He began by listing some waves of administrative reform he has seen in over 25 years of civil service — ideas like privatisation, new public management, devolution and so on — commenting firstly that “far too many” new approaches had been tried out.

“But secondly, they’re almost all structural solutions. They’re almost all starting from the principle that the way we improve things is to muck around with the structure of how government works and where power sits in the system and all those sorts of things.

“… And what we were trying to do in the civil service, looking at both the policy profession but also the functional agenda that it sits within, was actually to try and look much more at what the people do and what are the skills of the people and how do they work together as opposed to what are the structures that they sit within, as it were.”

The missing middle

Clearly a focus on people means new recruitment pathways, training and development are key pieces of the professionalisation project. As often seems to be the case, middle management is the trickiest area.

Wormald said new inductions, graduate programs and apprenticeships to recruit secondary school leavers – another way of diluting the “Oxbridge” influence — were all working well so far. Measures to develop senior staff like a new Master of Public Policy degree were also fairly successful.

Chris Wormald. All images: RLDI / IPAA ACT.

“We do much worse in the gap between the two. We have a sort of missing middle, of what is the right training and development offer for … that bit where you’re not a new graduate anymore but you haven’t reached senior management. We’ve struggled much more with how do you set the right standard and what’s the right training and development offer.

“And in our system, that’s when we lose really good people.”

Wormald suggested the answer lay in more clearly resolving the question of: “What’s that layer of management really for?”

Unexpectedly, about a third of applicants for the new masters degree came from senior staff outside the 20,000-strong policy profession, who saw it as a good stepping stone into a career change that previously was difficult to get into.

“That thing where policymaking is a sort of thing you get by osmosis, by doing it for a long time, that of course is a very impenetrable thing from the outside,” Wormald commented.

Formalising the skills and knowledge required of policymakers and teaching them makes them more accessible to civil servants whose career paths have taken them in other directions, he said. If they pass the course, “suddenly you’ve got someone who brings vast operational experience, for example, and now has a policy qualification too. Suddenly they become a very attractive candidate for a policy job.”

Wormald said UK civil servants were “under-qualified” by international standards and those below senior level were not sold on the value of new professional qualifications: just 11% think they are very important to getting ahead, according to a survey, compared to 95% of senior executives.

Twelve actions, three adjectives and 18 skills

Leaders of the policy profession ticked off eight of 12 actions and marked numbers 3, 4, 8 and 9 as works in progress. After reviewing that exercise, they are adjusting the approach and looking ahead to 2025, seeking inspiration in other nations like Canada and New Zealand.

On reflection, they agreed 12 actions was too many and shifted focus to grouping all initiatives to improve policymaking under one of three headings: more open, more professional and more consistent. Next came a list of 18 things a policymaker “ought to know or be good at” developed through a “giant bottom-up exercise” to consult the policy professionals.

Policy is one of 14 professional streams in the UK public service and has about 20,000 formal members (out of a workforce of well over 300,000 in England alone), but it’s not an exclusive profession in the sense of the word as it applies to accountants, lawyers or doctors.

“We are not attempting to establish a cadre of policymakers and only they are allowed to make a policy,” said Wormald, explaining the aim is to have “lots of people working to the same frameworks” in government.

“We’ve also run it as a cooperative. We have not attempted to do a giant, top-down, ‘Here is the UK government’s approach to policy, everyone get on with it.’

“We’re basically a cooperative of policy departments, we all chuck some money into a levy pot, which is how we fund it, and we run it very definitely as an alliance of departments who are cooperating because they want to. So voluntarism is a big principle of what we do.”

Later, Department of Human Services secretary Renée Leon said a similar cooperative approach was being taken in the Australian Public Service as she outlined new elements of its own push to professionalise policymaking.  Wormald emphasised the importance of setting this apart from specific, live policy issues.

“Absolute red line for us. We talk about how policy is made and how we make that better. I, as head of profession, would never comment on the substance of policy, that is rightly a matter for ministers and for individual departments. We look at the how policy is made, not the what.”

Setting standards

Action four had each department work to devise “a set of fundamental policy standards” tailored to its specific needs during 2013-14, and this was quite challenging. Various checklists of this kind already exist and could often be adapted. Wormald said a key point was to use plain English; Leon said the APS could stand to improve there, too.

The value of blunt language in such checklists was it forced public servants not to get lost in the detail. He said this was inspired by the kind of simple questions ministers like to throw back at officials like ‘What’s the point?’ Here’s an example from the Twelve actions manifesto:

  • PURPOSE – Are you absolutely clear what the Government wants to achieve? Do you have a very clear idea of the high level outcomes and outputs that the Government would like to see?
  • ROLE – Are you absolutely clear what the Government’s role is? Is there definitely a problem here that can only be fixed through some form of Government intervention?
  • EVIDENCE – Are you confident that you are providing world-leading policy advice based on the very latest thinking?
  • CREATIVITY – Are you confident that you have explored the most radical and creative ideas available in this policy space…including doing nothing?
  • DELIVERY – Are you confident that your preferred approach can be delivered?

These departmental standards and checklists come under the newer banner of improving the consistency of policymaking. And while a detailed 18-point set of skills sounds like a lot, nobody is expected to be an expert at all of them.

“It was not a back-to-generalism thing. The standard we set was you’re probably going to be an expert in one or two of these things but we expect you to have a working knowledge of all of them to the extent of being able to ask the right question, understand the answer and build it into your policymaking.”

“But how do you really measure the progress of all this? How do you actually tell if your policymaking is any good?” Wormald mused. Part of the answer, he suspects, will be a form of peer-review, and research towards this is underway.

Such standards intend to encourage an iterative rather than a linear process of policymaking, added Wormald, who is also very focused on encouraging civil servants to look outwards and listen to citizens, not only fellow members of the “metropolitan elite” they find in universities, think-tanks and the like. This, he said, was a major challenge in the UK.

Delivery nous and listening to citizens

The importance of thinking about how implementation is going to work when designing policy is well recognised but remains a challenge. Wormald stressed the absurdity of the once-common conclusion that a certain policy was very good, but unfortunately was impossible to implement effectively.

The secretary of DHS, soon to become Services Australia, later said the addition of a Minister for Government Services (Stuart Robert) in the Morrison cabinet would hopefully mean the delivery arm of the federal government could weigh in on policy development at an earlier stage than in the past.

Renée Leon.

Leon said listening to the “voice of the citizen” had to become business as usual in the APS and it had a long way to go in this regard, like its British counterpart, and in line with the view of her fellow department head Mike Mrdak. She said the APS had done some “really good initial experiments” in co-design, human-centred design and so on, but only at the margins.

“On the other hand we’ve tended to develop policy in a very closed and secretive environment, where you can’t possibly put any of it out into the world until you’ve nailed down everything to the Nth degree and had it cleared by ministers and by cabinet, and by then you can’t really change anything,” Leon said.

Developing policy iteratively instead is seen as the key to using input from citizens early and often in the policy process. It sounds like a great idea but, she pointed out, ministers tend to like making grand announcements.

“And yet, it really de-risks it for them if they do it more iteratively, so that by the time they get to the answer they can be more confident that it is going to strike the right note,” added the DHS secretary.

Of course, iterative policymaking only makes sense in some cases and Wormald’s advice was to identify those opportunities to try it out. British behavioural economics expert David Halpern has often spoken of this experimental, iterative process as the “humble” approach, he noted, but he had a more expansive view.

“In a way, policymaking both has to be more confident and more humble simultaneously,” he said.

“We need to be more confident about going out and asking the question, and picking up the phone to that world expert or going to that town hall meeting or whatever it is — more confidence at that, and then humbler at listening to the answer… and with those two things interacting, I think there’s a lot in that.”

Top image, L-R: APS deputy secretary and IPAA host Alison Larkins, Renée Leon, Chris Wormald.

A full video of the discussion including presentation slides and transcript is available on from the IPAA ACT website.

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

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