Reimagining how NZ public servants go about their work

By David Donaldson

Monday April 16, 2018

New Zealand is trying out a systemic approach to fixing inconsistency in the quality of policy advice — and experts argue it could be adapted in Australia.

Plenty of public servants would love to reform the way they do business, improving the processes that support government and ultimately attaining better outcomes for citizens.

The problem is that reformers often lack a framework for leading these reforms, and end up spending lots of time and effort re-inventing the wheel.

Recognising this problem, New Zealand has established a set of frameworks co-designed with the policy community to provide a systematic outline for improving the quality of advice that goes to government.

The Policy Project, as it’s known, was born in response to widespread inconsistency in the quality of advice being produced by government departments. It’s providing New Zealand public servants with a set of tools to optimise and reimagine how they do their work, bringing a set of common expectations to what is in many ways a rather decentralised bureaucracy.

The project “has the potential to deliver longer-term benefits to New Zealand” and could be a good model for Australia to follow, conclude former Policy Project director Sally Washington and ANZSOG Professor of Public Management Michael Mintrom in a recently published paper.

Washington and Mintrom believe it is “a unique effort” at driving “systemic improvement of policy capability across the whole of the government sector” that offers “a sound model of systemic intervention that policy leaders in other jurisdictions could readily emulate to achieve better results for their governments and their citizens.”

What is the Policy Project?

The Policy Project was launched in 2014 with the hope of “lifting the policy game across the system”. There was a sense at the time that:

  • Policy was of variable quality within agencies and across the system and that there was no shared view of good policy advice, good policy advisors or good policy organisations;
  • A significant amount of policy advice was short on evidence, showed limited knowledge of user needs and was poorly informed on what had or had not worked in the past;
  • Skilled senior policy advisors were few and far between and agencies were competing to attract them;
  • There was a focus on meeting ministers’ immediate demands to the detriment of investment in policy capability for the future or policy stewardship;
  • Cross-government systems for collaboration, alignment and prioritisation of both policy development and implementation were weak.

Situated with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Policy Project has been built with an emphasis on buy-in and engagement, rather than the command-and-control approach taken by some central agencies, with tools being co-designed in collaboration with the policy community.

The Policy Project has enjoyed senior sponsorship, being backed by the chief executive of the DPMC, Andrew Kibblewhite, who has also taken on the relatively new role of head of the policy profession. It is also supported by a network of deputy chief executives who meet regularly to discuss how to improve policy.

To help address these problems, the project team has developed a set of tools for public servants, and is underpinned by three policy improvement frameworks, which were launched by the prime minister in 2016.

The Policy Quality Framework articulates the characteristics of good quality policy advice, and what the enablers are, such as consideration of multiple perspectives, good commissioning, quality assurance processes and work planning. A package of tools has been developed to assist practitioners at the outset of conducting policy work, including assessment tools and guidance on a range of activities.

The Policy Quality Framework.

A policy methods toolkit is currently in development. This would provide a searchable repository of information and guidance on analytical methods, such as when and how to use behavioural insights or design thinking. Different sections will be informed by agencies with relevant expertise — Statistics New Zealand will handle guidance for data and analytics for policy, for example. The idea is not to be prescriptive about which methods are best — the toolkit will cover a broad range of concepts that public servants will be expected to draw on in combination.

Then there’s the Policy Skills Framework, which describes the knowledge, applied skills, and behaviour expected of good policy advisers. Descriptions are split into levels from “developing” to “practicing” to “expert/leading”, which loosely equate to analyst, senior analyst, principal analyst and above. It includes tools to help individuals work out their policy skills profile or credentials and for managers to map the skills composition of their team, allowing them to identify any gaps or overlaps.

The Policy Skills Framework.

Better engagement with the community is one of the focus areas of the framework.

“Policy practitioners need to get better at understanding the lives of the people they are designing policy for; they need to get better at engaging with customers and stakeholders,” says DPMC. “They need to interpret the available evidence and data. They need to be savvy to the political context and understand what government wants to achieve.”

The third key component is the Policy Capability Framework, a set of diagnostic tools for assessing organisational capacity to produce quality advice.

The Policy Capability Framework.

This includes the deep dive review tool, which prompts managers to ask questions such as “how well does the policy team know what it is trying to achieve and its contribution to agency, sector and system policy objectives?” and “how well is the policy team actively investing in building its knowledge base over time?”.

Could it be adapted for Australia?

While Washington and Mintrom argue that it’s still early days so there isn’t much evidence to evaluate the Policy Project’s impact yet, its implementation approach has the all features that research shows are essential for successful rollout.

“To date, no other jurisdiction has tried such a systemic intervention as New Zealand’s Policy Project,” they note.

“The Policy Project offers a sound model of systemic intervention that policy leaders in other jurisdictions could readily emulate to achieve better results for their governments and their citizens.

“The policy improvement frameworks reviewed here are highly transferable and could be adopted and adapted in other contexts (local government, NGOs, the private sector, or anywhere else where advice is provided to decision-makers).”

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