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Building the infrastructure to support good policy advice

13 September 2021

News and media


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Good policy is fundamental to good government, and giving good policy advice is a vital part of the public sector’s work.

ANZSOG’s Aotearoa-New Zealand Executive Director Sally Washington says that good policy requires more than ‘smart people coming up with good ideas’. It needs a supporting infrastructure, includes effective policy design and development processes, a modern methods toolkit, and skilled people who can collaborate across government and beyond.

Ms Washington designed and led a whole-of-government program – the Policy Project – to improve policy quality and capability in Aotearoa-New Zealand. The frameworks and tools co-designed with the policy community, and launched by the New Zealand Prime Minister in 2016, have been picked up and used in other jurisdictions and recognised by the OECD.

She will share her experience and lessons learned with participants from across the Australian and New Zealand public sector when she presents the ‘Building policy capability – an infrastructure approach’ masterclass as part of ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series (registrations are now open).

Ms Washington said that the course would look at the broader conditions needed for public sector agencies to create good policy. This consists of four broad areas: leadership, policy quality systems, engagement and people capability.

“This course will not be policy 101, it will be about how you create an infrastructure that supports good policy,” she said.

“I want people to understand that quality policy depends on a system – a range of things that need to happen to support and enable good advice for decision-makers.

“Public service leaders need to be able to meet the demands of current decision-makers while building capability and the knowledge base to serve future governments. They need to be able to understand the supply and demand sides of the policy equation.”

Improving policy advisory systems and community engagement

Ms Washington said that many governments around the world recognised that their policy advisory systems were not up to scratch.

“Analyses of those systems reveal remarkably common challenges. An infrastructure or systems approach to improving policy quality and building policy capability can be a game changer for lifting policy performance,” she said.

She said there are several things public sector agencies fail to do to make the most of their policy capability.

“They don’t do enough up front in the planning stage. There needs to be flexible project management for policy, to get clarity on what we are trying to achieve, and who needs to be involved – from frontline staff who will be crucial for delivery, to end users or those who will be affected by policies and programs. We also need to set quality standards so people know what’s expected of them.

“An area where we often fall down is on the engagement side, both within the organisation (up and down, from policy to operations) and with the broader public service, wider community and other stakeholders. Agencies need to build trust and to invest in building ‘relationship capital’ with groups outside government.

“The public service has a way to go to really engage outside government, including to better understand user needs. The classic approach to policy development is a desk-based exercise that starts by identifying the presenting problem to be solved. The ‘problem definition’ process can often be so narrowed down that it ends up addressing symptoms not the real problem. Many of our policy problems today are often multi-faceted and require a broader approach. This might include adding methods to our toolkit from other sectors like design – to focus on end-users and opportunities for innovation.”

“We need to ask, ‘what is the role of government?’ in creating the conditions for people and businesses to thrive. Instead of just being the do-er, how might we act as a broker/facilitator and/or catalyst, to work with community groups and other organisations towards common goals? This doesn’t mean just contracting and commissioning. It means developing deep partnerships with others outside government. But that also requires us to think about the implications for accountability, funding arrangements, and the sorts of skills and capabilities we need in the public sector.

She said that implementation needs to be built into policy proposals, rather than policy being seen as the ideas phase that then gets thrown over the fence for implementation people to make sense of and deal with.

“Even the word ‘policy’ can sometimes get in the way. What we’re talking about is supporting the government in good-decision making and that can be everybody’s responsibility – from policy to delivery and back again.”

Managing the politics of policy and looking to the long-term

Ms Washington said that public sector agencies needed to be aware of the political environment, without getting down and dirty in it. They need to be politically savvy but also be aware of their dual mission of serving the government of the day while being stewards of long-term policy capability so that they can advise successive governments.

Policy stewardship means thinking beyond the timeframe of the next election. In Aotearoa-New Zealand this has recently been enshrined in legislation, with departments required to produce regular Long-term Insights Briefings. The briefings should focus on key issues at least ten years into the future and are destined for Parliament, not ministers or the current government. They will also be made public.

As well as working to increase the supply of good policy, Ms Washington has written about the importance other side of the policy equation – ensuring that there is demand from ministers for quality policy advice, something she says is often overlooked.

Agencies need to engage productively with ministers and support them to become intelligent customers of policy advice.

“It’s not up to ministers to have all the answers, that’s what the public service is there for. It’s more important that they ask the right questions,” she said.

“Being able to speak truth to power and to offer free and frank advice to ministers comes from a place of trust and mutual respect. Public servants need to earn that trust by giving quality advice that will help ministers make a positive difference.

“Making a positive difference is what both sides of the political-administrative interface are trying to do. That’s a powerful foundation for good working relationships between politicians and officials.”

The ‘Building policy capability’ masterclass will be held on 19 October and registrations for individuals and groups are now open. This masterclass is ideal for public sector executives, senior managers, aspiring leaders, policy officers, or anyone involved in the policy process or delivering advice to decision makers or any manager or aspiring leader working in a non-policy role who interacts with policy colleagues and wants a better understanding of how policy works and how they can have more input and impact. Participants will have to opportunity to share their own challenges and gain insights and tools required to be a more effective leader.

ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series (FPSL) offers inspiration and knowledge to hard-working and passionate emerging leaders, providing an invaluable opportunity for self-reflection and professional growth. FPSL is a ‘choose-your-own adventure’ style series which puts you in control of your online learning experience. The 2021/22 series begins on 23 September and registrations are now open.

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