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A repeatable, scalable approach to policy design and delivery: Lessons on building policy capability from the NSW Department of Education

24 January 2024

News and media


This article, detailing ANZSOG’s work with the NSW Department of Education to develop a standardised approach to policymaking, first appeared on the Apolitical website as part of their Design&Delivery series.

The New South Wales Department of Education (DoE) manages one of the largest education systems in the southern hemisphere, serving more than one million students.

Like other large departments, it has many dedicated professional policymakers, often working on diverse issues, even in different physical locations. Under these circumstances, it can be challenging to ensure that policy advice is produced in a consistently high-quality way.

Throughout 2022, the department worked with ANZSOG to design a standardised approach for policymaking in the department. Derek Schwarz, co-director of schools policy, and Kathy Lu, the principal policy analyst in the department, joined Apolitical’s Design&Delivery series to share ‘The way we do policy’, their process for strategic policymaking.

Designing the method

Kathy Lu started by introducing the five-stage model which underpins the department’s policymaking process. The model resembles traditional policymaking cycles. The design was informed by extensive research into best practices from Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom and adapted for the specific context of the education sector.

The five stages are set out below.

  • First, policymakers need to identify the issue for policy development, conduct initial research and identify key stakeholders.
  • Then they need to analyse and define the problem. This incorporates conducting comprehensive research and necessary consultation with stakeholders and end users. Policymakers will identify the desired outcomes and success measures.
  • Once the problem has been defined, they need to develop evidence-based policy measures and test them with users. This is where they begin to plan for implementation and evaluation.
  • The fourth stage is where design transitions into delivery. Policymakers help to implement the policy by facilitating a smooth handover to the implementation team. They need to stay engaged so they can adjust the policy in response to feedback and evidence on the ground.
  • Finally, policymakers need to prepare to evaluate the policy solution, bringing together key information to support effective evaluation design.

The five stages of policy development explained

Graphic reference: ”[The Way We Do Policy – Five-stage model, New South Wales Department of Education (DoE)

Lu stressed a similar point that others have made at previous Design&Delivery sessions: policy models may be linear, but that’s not how complex, fast-moving policy is made in reality. “In practice, we do multiple of these things at the same time, and it’s iterative the whole way,” she said.

Moving quickly was essential in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic when students across the state, especially the most disadvantaged, were at serious risk of falling behind in their learning as schools closed for several weeks. As Schwarz described it, the DoE only had a few months to design and deliver a policy that could help students catch up. The team was able to accelerate the ‘identify’ and ‘analyse’ stages of the process by drawing on extensive international evidence on learning loss and small group tutoring.

What emerged from their analysis was a refreshingly clear picture of what the problem was, who was most at risk and an intervention that was proven to work. They centred their policy on a core foundation of evidence that showed classes of three-to-five children, with a dedicated tutor, learning three times a week in 10 or 20-week cycles could help address the risks of learning loss.

Between the ‘identify’ and ‘develop’ stages, where the policy moves into early planning for implementation, the team at DoE had just six weeks. A special task force was established to oversee the delivery of the policy. As Schwarz explained, what enabled them to move quickly and confidently was the strength of the underlying evidence which demonstrated the effectiveness of small group tutoring.

That also enabled them to be flexible about the details of how the policy was delivered. They worked closely with the implementation task force to tweak specific elements of the program without altering the core, evidence-based features.

Building the infrastructure for policy capability at scale

‘The way we do policy’ is designed for scalability.

The DoE’s intent was to improve both the quality and consistency of policymaking across the department. To do that, they had to think about how the method could be absorbed into the daily policymaking practices of multiple teams.

Using ANZSOG Practice Fellow (Policy capability & Public management) Sally Washington’s concept of policy capability infrastructure, they approached this as a systemic challenge, not necessarily just one of individual knowledge or skill. Washington’s framework, set out in a 2022 paper, identifies four elements that form the foundation for policy capability. These are leadership, policy quality systems, people capability, and engagement.

The four elements that form the foundation for policy capability: leadership, policy quality systems, people capability, and engagement

They have developed a series of resources which enhance the supply-side elements of the capability infrastructure. These include:

  • A detailed playbook which provides a step-by-step guide to the entire strategic policy process.
  • A toolkit with a selection of tools mapped across the five-stage process — these tools help policymakers follow the appropriate methodology for certain policy tasks, such as problem identification.
  • They have an internal community of practice where colleagues can participate in knowledge-sharing and problem-solving.
  • Finally, there is a central learning strategy to help policymakers build their technical policy skills.

Schwarz stressed the importance of internal and external collaboration and engagement in the department’s approach to policymaking. It’s embedded into every stage of the policy process and in all the tools policymakers use to work through each stage. Within the department, there is a strong ethos of working with teachers and other stakeholders on the frontline of the education system to make policies and programmes workable and effective.

The case for process

Across government, the pandemic forced teams to rapidly develop major policies and programs at extraordinary speed and scale.

In some cases, speed and scale were not combined with quality. But the example from New South Wales’ successful small group tutoring program, now entering its third year, shows that government can achieve that elusive trifecta. Schwarz and Lu’s reflections suggest that high-quality processes are an enabler of this ambition, not a blockage.

“No matter how much time you have, it is possible — and, in fact, necessary — to go through these stages, even if it has to be fairly rapid.”

It’s a worthwhile reminder of why clearly defined and widely shared methods are so crucial for consistent and high-quality policy development.