Seven years ago in New Zealand, public servants’ performance was patchy. Departments approached policy problems and staff training differently in the decentralised bureaucracy, leading to inconsistent results.
In 2018, the government set standards for what good policymaking looks like across government, via the Policy Project, a set of online frameworks and toolkits.
“We weren’t trying to squeeze out a diversity of views, but we had too many areas of underperforming capabilities. We wanted to invest in building capabilities more thoughtfully,” said Andrew Kibblewhite, Secretary for Justice at the Ministry of Justice in New Zealand.
The guidelines outline the skills, knowledge and behaviour public servants should exhibit, alongside tools for learning and practising these competencies. The idea is to set common expectations for policy advice across the whole of government.
Some may assume that tools for learning how to be an effective public servant would simply lie unused on government websites. But the opposite has been true for the Policy Project, which was launched in 2014.
“The guidelines are directly shaping the way policy practitioners are going about their craft. They’re shifting onto this consistent, system-wide approach, rather than the idiosyncratic ways they have approached policy before,” said Kibblewhite.
For example, the Policy Skills Framework outlines a broad range of capabilities government employees should possess, such as the ability to interpret evidence, use data or engage citizens in the policy process. Accompanying toolkits offer lessons on how to learn or build on these skills. These include deep dives on design thinking, behavioural insights and public consultations.
Public servants can use an assessment tool (“Map Your Skills”) to determine which capabilities they have and which they need to work on. “People are having a much more structured conversation about the competencies you need as a policy professional,” said Kibblewhite.
As the project is focused on capacity-building, it’s impossible to quantify results. But Kibblewhite said the change in government is palpable.
“We’re coming onto a common language and understanding of good policy. This means cooperation is easier and more straightforward,” he said. “You can see the project has influenced the way policy is being done across the board.”
The Policy Project was designed by policy leaders, chief executives, deputy secretaries, practitioners, experts and MPs, all of whom worked together to define standards for New Zealand’s public service. These participants now make up a board which governs the project.
To get the word out, Policy Project representatives travelled from agency to agency to encourage adoption of the frameworks. Half of New Zealand’s government departments already use the tools provided.
“One of the secrets of this project is that we’ve done it with the policy community, rather than to them,” said Kibblewhite.
The Policy Project is not allocated any funding from central government, so the board has to convince individual departments to make voluntary contributions. Thus far, the project has secured two rounds of financing, with several agencies promising to fund a third. It costs approximately $800,000 NZ (US $560,000) per year to run.
All the frameworks and toolkits are available online, and are free to use for public servants all over the world.