From walk to talk: academics and practitioners join forces for public policy learning

By David Threlfall

Monday September 10, 2018

ANZSOG chief of staff David Threlfall explores how our public service practitioners access and respond to academic policy frameworks.

How did you learn to do your job? And, what are you learning to prepare you for the next one?

If you are haphazardly acquiring craft skills as you go, while working under pressure to provide detailed policy analysis on an unrealistic timeline, then you are not alone. Australian public servants are far less likely to have formal training in public policy, public administration or even political science than officials in the US.

This may not necessarily mean they lack the experience and tools to be good public servants, but a separation between the theorists and practitioners of public policy cannot be healthy for either side. Theory and thought always inform good practice. Philosopher Immanuel Kant is quoted as saying: “Theory without practice is empty; practice without theory is blind”.

At a recent workshop at the Australian National University, organised by Dr Trish Mercer and Professor John Wanna, the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) brought together current and retired senior public servants and academics from across ANZSOG’s network to discuss the theoretical  tools practitioners use to inform policymaking.

There are a host of academic theories, models and frameworks about the policy process. The question put to this group was whether these translate to real-world policy practice. Yes – and no – was the answer.

The freedom to make mistakes and learn from them

“There’s no such thing as a theory-free public service, but there can be ‘theory-blindness’ among practitioners.”

Participants made it clear that policy skills are most often acquired in practice. Ideally, first-hand experience comes with the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, and is complemented by mentoring or coaching from senior colleagues. ‘Getting the job done’ calls for a pragmatic approach, and public servants learn to draw on a range of tools as they go. This can see academic or theoretical models dismissed as irrelevant to the practice of policy and public administration.

It might not be as simple as that, though. Dr Russell Ayres, Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Canberra and long-term public servant in the APS, argued that there’s “no such thing as a theory-free public service, but there can be ‘theory-blindness’ among practitioners.”

Another message was clear on the day too: a lack of formal theoretical training in the public service doesn’t invalidate the theories themselves. If we spend the time, we can see the analytical and explanatory value of different academic approaches. Three frameworks in particular guided the day’s discussion:

  • The ‘Policy Cycle’, an idealised process of policy development, moving through issue identification, policy analysis, policy instruments, consultation, coordination, decision, implementation and evaluation (or other versions thereof);
  • Public value and the ‘Strategic Triangle’, which describes the relationship between the authorising environment (formal or informal consent to act, from a superior or the political arena), operational capability (the people and capability to get the job done) and public value (purpose and outcome of work by the public sector);
  • ‘Multiple Streams’ analysis, which emphasises the ambiguity of the policy process, and suggests that policy solutions can only be reached at a ‘window of opportunity’ where the problem, the policy change required to resolve it, and the desire of the political class to do so, all align.

The resonance of any of these particular theories was dependent on career stage, seniority and experience. We heard stories of whole offices or branches that make the policy cycle essential reading for grads, for example handing out copies of The Australian Policy Handbook to new starters so they can internalise the steps to perfect policy.

Of course, things never work out perfectly, but the point of a heuristic like the policy cycle is to provide the tools for later action, not to elegantly capture the complexity of the policy world.

Others at a later point in their career found more value in the strategic triangle and its emphasis on the authorising environment for policy proposals. If you don’t have a supportive secretary, or your minister can’t swing the cabinet, your idea isn’t going to get up. You need to understand the barriers in the way of your success and manoeuvre accordingly. It helps to remain focused on the end goal — creating value for the public — too.

Those who question the process of policymaking (whether through bittersweet experience or perhaps from a critical academic perspective of government) might find more value in multiple streams analysis. Intent to resolve a pressing public problem, for example in the environmental policy space in recent years, can mean nothing if the political situation is hostile, rendering the policy solution unpalatable. Months of painstaking analysis could miss its window and be consigned to the dustbin of history.

One thing we learnt was that public servants are influenced by theory, perhaps more than they would admit.

Difference between academic and policy worlds

However, the academic and policy worlds do have different incentives and working cultures — and can lack a shared language.

“(Public service) practitioners don’t have the luxury of seeing the policy maze from a single perspective, as academics often do.”

Academics in particular can do more to translate impressive and important new work into public servant circles. Familiarity and accessibility are likely the biggest barrier to better understanding and take up. Public services, on the other hand, could work harder to incentivise this kind of collaboration between sectors and professions. Academic perspectives may be as valuable as those of other independent consultants.

We should aspire to a situation where practitioners have the broadest possible knowledge and range of tools available to them, in support of a system that promotes policy learning. Academic proponents of any one theoretical approach should acknowledge that each theory explains a different part of the policy process, and will not comfortably fit every situation a public servant finds themselves in.

A tapestry of different models can explain more of the policy world than any particular theory alone. Practitioners don’t have the luxury of seeing the policy maze from a single perspective, as academics often do. They have to prioritise outcomes (thus ends) over purity of means.

Where to from here? Attempts at organisational capability building and improvement, like the APS Review, could encourage more learning and collaboration between sectors. We might also look across the ditch to The Policy Project in New Zealand, and its series of policy frameworks, for inspiration. And we can all try to be a bit less eager to protect our own patch, and instead just learn from each other — we’re all trying to improve the work of government, after all.

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