What is the ‘policy problem’ and what’s to be done about it? Building an infrastructure for great policy


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Many governments recognise their policy advisory systems aren’t up to scratch. Reviews of public administration over the past decade consistently identify a ‘policy problem’. It’s all a bit Groundhog Day.

In Australia, submissions to the Thodey review highlighted policy quality and capability gaps, as did Peter Shergold’s report on policy failure, and the 2009 Moran review before that. In New Zealand, the diagnosis that set the groundwork for the Policy Project was preceded by the Scott Review in 2010 and a State Services Commission-led program to improve the quality of policy advice in the late 1990s. UK civil service reforms also reference ongoing concerns about policy capability, leading to the program ‘12 Actions to professionalise policy’ currently being refreshed after a recent review.

So, what is the ‘policy problem’ and what’s to be done about it?

Diagnosing the policy problem — common themes

Analyses of policy systems in various jurisdictions report some remarkably common themes. They point to:

  • A lack of consistency and policy performance across government in terms of both policy processes and the quality of advice to decision-makers;
  • Shortages of highly skilled advisors, partly driven by opaque expectations about the role of the various people involved in designing, developing and implementing policy and what skills and capabilities they need. Training and development of policy staff are patchy, often ad-hoc, and led by individuals themselves not by an understanding of and strategy for team, organization, and overall system capability needs;
  • Weaknesses in policy processes: poor implementation (implementation is often not considered adequately in policy design), inadequate generation and use of evidence (including use of data, and insights from end-users and frontline staff), and lack of evaluation (indicators and measurement of impact are often not built into policy design);
  • Urgent demands crowding out work to articulate and meet important longer-term goals and challenges; and
  • Weak collaboration, alignment, and prioritization within and across departments and across the administration and the wider policy ecosystem (NGOs, private sector, community).

So, what’s needed to shift the dial?

Good policy depends on underpinning enablers and systems

As administrations develop their national and international connections, they are getting better at sharing exemplars of substantive policies that can be adopted or adapted. Recent research highlights some critical success factors based on policy exemplars. Sharing insights and experience about the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ of policy (systems, tools, and processes for policy design and delivery) might be even more enlightening. A system for good policy means action on multiple fronts.

Let’s start with people.

Good policy advice depends on a highly-skilled cadre of policy analysts and advisors — policy professionals as opposed to ‘gifted amateurs’. That means articulating the skills and behaviours expected of them. The UK’s policy profession standards and New Zealand’s policy skills framework are attempts at this. But smart and well-trained individuals aren’t enough. Policy leaders need to match capability to policy challenges and ensure the right people with the right skills are in the right place at the right time. And they need to ensure policy professionals are supported by a policy system that includes enabling organisations, clear leadership and direction (well-articulated outcomes and priorities), effective quality assurance processes (before, during, and after advice is produced), and mature relationships with other functional groups like frontline staff, procurement, finance, and legal. A modern policy toolkit is also vital. Methods such as user-centred design and behavioural insights, data and analytics capabilities, public engagement tools, and innovation mindsets (curiosity, focusing on opportunities and strengths — not just problems and hurdles) are vital for delivering people-centred policy. Policy professionals need to be able to genuinely engage to better understand user needs and to include those who will be affected by government policy into policy design and delivery.

While meeting current demands, policy leaders also need to have an eye on the future. Future-focused policy advice means developing various futures capabilities and investing in ‘policy stewardship’ to build the capacity to give advice that spans election cycles and the priorities of governments of the day. This is essential for tackling areas like climate change or intergenerational disadvantage. It means investing in the knowledge base, expertise, and tools for anticipating and managing emerging issues, and the courage to shape the desired future. The NZ Treasury’s living standards framework, developed over a number of years despite no explicit ministerial demand at the time and culminating in the current government’s first wellbeing budget, is a good example of policy stewardship.

All these elements need to be mutually reinforcing and accessible to the policy professionals producing policy advice. If we think of them as components of infrastructure, then it makes building the parts and the whole more accessible. All are important, but it’s how they are joined-up that counts.

The policy infrastructure

The demand side — ministers as ‘intelligent customers’ of advice

Getting the supply-side of the policy problem sorted is one challenge. The other, less discussed, challenge is nudging the ‘demand side’ — in particular, how to help ministers and other decision-makers be more ‘intelligent customers’ and commissioners of frank and fearless policy advice. How do we set up the policy advisory relationship so decision-makers get the best evidence-informed advice, and policy demands aren’t lost in translation? This requires public service advisors to be politically neutral and politically savvy. It requires them to develop seamless relationships with the growing cadre of political advisors. It requires them to be able to negotiate space in budgets and work programmes for stewardship and future-focused policy advice.

For their part, ministers and other decision-makers need to know how to ask the right questions and be able to articulate their policy intent; they don’t have to have all the answers, but they do need to know what they want to achieve and be open to different options for getting there.

Making change stick

How do we ensure change sticks and take off? Lessons from programs to improve policy advice in NZ and the UK offer some pointers for building and maintaining a policy improvement trajectory. Here are just a few:

  • Collaboration and co-design are crucial for change: collaboration is key to ensuring buy-in and a shared direction of travel. And that means co-designing standards, frameworks, tools, and methods with the people who need to use them. That was critical to the development and adoption of the Policy Project frameworks and highlighted by reviewers and policy leaders alike in the UK (500 policy professionals and other experts helped co-design their ‘policy professions standards’). It contrasts with the bulk of public sector reform around the world which usually adopts a ‘top-down’ ‘command and control’ approach (and often results in a report that sits on a shelf at best, or outright or passive resistance.)
  • It takes a community — with an effective hub. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Share good practice across departments and even jurisdictions. And put someone in charge of catalysing the change. Organisations such as the Policy Project in NZ, the Policy Profession Unit in the UK, and the fledgling policy hub in Canberra need to be actively nurturing the policy community, acting as brokers and facilitators to share and scale good practice, and constantly coming up with fresh material on policy methods and their application to inspire and maintain the momentum.

Evidence-informed frank and fearless policy advice is critical for good government decision-making. Good policy advice depends on highly skilled policy professionals enabled and supported by a mutually reinforcing infrastructure. Policy leaders and advisors need to be able to balance the demands of current ministers while maintaining and building capability and the knowledge base to serve future governments. They need to understand the supply and demand sides of the policy equation. Systems and processes also need to be adaptive, able to learn from experimentation, success and failure, and capable of anticipating and responding to emerging challenges and opportunities. If not, we’ll all be stuck in groundhog day.

The Mandarin is hosting a Mandarin Live session on policy infrastructure, facilitated by Sally Washington and Michael Mintrom, in Melbourne on 19 November. For details about this event and to register, see Mandarin Live.

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