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Building policy capability – an infrastructure approach

6 April 2022

News and media


A group of people standing in a circle holding puzzle pieces together

Many organisations and jurisdictions recognise that their policy advisory systems need improving. They report remarkably similar challenges, including concerns about the quality of policy advice, shortages of skilled senior policy advisors, a lack of investment in future capability, and weak systems for collaboration, alignment and prioritisation.

ANZSOG works with a range of organisations and jurisdictions to support them to improve their policy advisory systems by taking a systemic approach and developing an effective ‘policy infrastructure’. This infrastructure includes committed leadership, action to strengthen and align policy development systems and processes, effective frameworks, tools, and guidance to support policy professions in their work, and targeted skills development.

Among those organisations are several education departments and ANZSOG recently convened a ‘curated conversation’ to bring together senior officials from the South Australian Department for Education, The Ministry of Education in Aotearoa New Zealand and the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. Each jurisdiction is on a quest to improve policy capability in order to produce high-quality policy advice to support good government.

The result of the conversation has been published as Building policy capability – an infrastructure approach the most recent addition to ANZSOG’s Research Insights, a series which allows work facilitated by ANZSOG to reach a broader audience of public sector practitioners and academics.

The conversation was designed to provide an opportunity for those organisations to share lessons and approaches to improving policy capability as well as fostering ongoing inter-jurisdictional relationships. The focus was on policy capability rather than education policy, with the education domain providing a useful common context. The discussion and insights have broad relevance.

Participants were chosen by each jurisdiction and the session was held under Chatham House Rule (quotations not attributed). Sally Washington, ANZSOG Executive Director for Aotearoa New Zealand, facilitated the session and Subho Banerjee, ANZSOG Deputy CEO acted as ‘keynote listener’ to draw out insights at the end. Ms Washington was inaugural director of the New Zealand Policy Project, a collaborative program to improve policy quality and capability across government, and has written about building policy capability, including the role of ministers in ensuring good policy advice.

The conversation explored questions around the context and drivers for policy capability improvement initiatives, asking what frameworks and skills policy staff needed to support them in their day-to-day work, and discussing the importance of leaders in sponsoring and enabling purposeful change.

Insights have been gathered under three themes: The imperative, Actions towards improvement, and Catalysing change and making it stick.

Participants agreed that new leadership, organisational change or other reform initiatives can provide an opportunity and potential leverage for improvement initiatives. They placed importance on identifying internal champions as enablers to work with teams across the agency as part of the need for broad adoption of change.

They agreed that the quality of policy advice and guidance on policy processes is often inconsistent, even within an organisation, and that agreeing and articulating repeatable and scalable processes is important for ensuring consistently high-performance and for improving overall capability.

Another key was to recognise policy skills across the policy value chain, including those who don’t identify as policy professionals, and valuing diversity in all forms, including diversity of thought. Reframing evidence to include indigenous knowledge and frontline or user experience is also crucial for ensuring effective policy advice.

Participants shared their insights about how to catalyse and maintain an improvement program. All agreed that connecting-up the pieces of the policy improvement puzzle was important for sustainable reform. Improvement initiatives that are mutually reinforcing add up to more significant and longer-lasting change, and that top-down approaches were less successful than collaborative change processes.

Among the key insights from the conversation is the importance of recognising the interdependence between the policy infrastructure and the broader elements of government, and the need for a supportive culture and enabling leadership to make sure new ways of working are embedded across an agency.

For the full curated conversation click here, and for detailed outline of how ANZSOG worked with the SA Education Department to design and implement a model for strategic policy development and capability in education click here.