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Creating an infrastructure for building policy capability – lessons from practice

21 November 2022

News and media


Governments around the world recognise that their policy making systems need a step change and are working to improve policy capability. The imperative is well rehearsed and the challenges eerily similar. They include concerns about poor quality policy advice, or proposals not backed up by evidence; shortages of well-trained policy advisors; weak systems for prioritisation, collaboration and alignment between organisations and portfolios (the silo problem); and a focus on short-term demands to the detriment of longer-term policy needs (like climate change, inter-generational poverty, aging populations).  

A new Policy Design and Practice article by Sally Washington, ANZSOG Executive Director Aotearoa New Zealand, entitled An infrastructure for building policy capability – lessons from practice articulates key dimensions of policy capability based on the practical experience of policy practitioners from a range of jurisdictions, and explains how the key components of policy capability form a self-reinforcing ‘policy capability infrastructure’. These include “supply side” components of leadership, policy quality systems, people capability, and effective internal and external engagement, as well as the “demand side” component of the political administrative interface that shapes and is shaped by policy capability in the public service.

Diagram illustrating the policy capability infrastructure

Her approach allows governments to move the definition of policy capability from a narrow focus on people and skills, to a broader systemic approach that includes the systems and processes that enable and support good government decision-making. The article argues that the policy capability infrastructure could serve as a useful and generic analytical framework for describing, assessing, and improving policy capability in teams, organisations, or across an entire public service. 

The common challenges of policy capability are being addressed in different ways by governments across the world. The UK has a long-standing Policy Profession Unit with recently refreshed standards for policy professionals and a policy curriculum, while Australia has a “Delivering Great Policy” programme in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet with a policy hub and policy training (now falling under the auspices of the Australian Public Service Academy). Canada has a policy community of practice supported by a Policy Community Partnership Office. The Irish government is currently working with the OECD on a project to enhance its policy making system. At a whole-of-government level Aotearoa New Zealand has taken arguably the most comprehensive approach in the Policy Project in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Within jurisdictions multiple organizations are also working to improve their policy capability and advice to decision makers, and ANZSOG led by Ms Washington is working with a range of departments across its national and state jurisdictions on their various quests to improve their policy capability. 

The article states that ‘analysis of action on the policy capability front suggest that most organisations and jurisdictions adopt a piecemeal approach, focusing on a piece of the policy problem rather than taking a system view of how the bits of the policy puzzle fit together’. 

The academic literature offers little in the way of guidance for improving an overall policy system, and Ms Washington draws on some of the lessons from her practical work with various jurisdictions to outline a framework for policy development including detailed explanations of how to cultivate the key ‘supply side’ elements of: 

  • Leadership—to ensure the organisation (or team or whole-of-government system) is focused on policy priorities while at the same time investing in the ongoing health of the policy function and the capacity to provide future advice. 
  • Policy quality systems—the frameworks, tools, evidence base, analytical methods, and processes to ensure the provision of quality advice to decision makers. 
  • People capability—making sure policy professionals have the right skills and are supported in their work and development: right people, right place, right time. 
  • Engagement—ensuring that a diverse range of people and perspectives are involved in the development of policy advice, that ministers are well-served as the “customers of policy advice” and that decisions meet the needs of the people it was designed for. 

The corresponding demand side component focuses on the authorising environment and is about supporting ministers to be “intelligent customers” of advice and ensuring the political administrative relationship is functioning well. The article also discusses how organisations can put themselves on an improvement trajectory to measure where they are and where they are going. 

The article concludes that: 

“While all the parts described above are important, it is how they work together that matters. They need to be seen as parts of a mutually reinforcing policy infrastructure. The policy capability infrastructure is based on the views and practical experience of policy practitioners from a range of jurisdictions. It is hoped that the concept adds to the literature on policy development and the capability of public sector organisations and whole-of-government systems. Because the concept has resonated with senior officials and policy practitioners, the policy capability infrastructure could serve as a useful and generic analytical framework for describing, assessing, and improving policy capability. Policy leaders in other jurisdictions are encouraged to test it and share their insights and results, including with colleagues in academia. If it works in practice, it might also work in theory.” 

The full article is freely available here.


Other articles by Ms Washington on policy capability include Fixing the demand side: how public services can support ministers to be intelligent customers of policy advice, Ministers and officials: how to get the relationship right. As part of ANZSOG’s work building policy capability she also facilitated a conversation between three education departments which was captured in the ANZSOG Research Insights publication Building policy capability. She has also written about her work establishing and leading the Aotearoa New Zealand Policy Project.