Developing the capacity to deliver good policy advice is an issue that many governments have identified as a priority. To do this effectively they need to focus on building a ‘policy infrastructure’ that looks beyond people and skills to the broader structures and processes that support good decision-making.
Sally Washington, ANZSOG Practice Fellow (Policy capability & Public management), has worked with a range of organisations and jurisdictions seeking to improve their policy capability (including in the UK, Australia, and Ireland), and was the inaugural director of the New Zealand Policy Project, based in the New Zealand Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
In this article, which originally appeared on the Apolitical website, Ms Washington outlines how governments can build that ‘policy infrastructure’ including by developing an accessible, repeatable, scalable policy advice process model. She says that most existing models reflect an abstract policy cycle’ which works in theory (for teaching) but not in practice. A practical policy advice process model gives policy professionals the guardrails and guidance they need to support their day-to-day work providing policy advice to decision-makers.
Many governments are working to improve their policy advisory systems. I’ve worked with a number; Aotearoa New Zealand’s Policy Project, Australia’s Delivering Great Policy program, the UK Policy Profession Unit and Ireland’s work with the OECD to improve their policy systems. I frame this challenge as building a ‘policy infrastructure’ to broaden the reform process from a narrow focus on people and skills (“we just need to train people better”) to a systemic approach that includes the range of systems, processes and capabilities that enable and support good government decision-making. I also emphasise the importance of the change process itself – it’s vital to ensuring quality practices are adopted, and system transformation is socialised and sticks. In my experience, these are the critical success factors for a systemic approach to improving policy quality and capability (see Figure 1.):
- A shared vision of the future state and powerful narrative for why improvement is necessary
- A model of the policy advice process as an organising framework
- An articulation of what great policy advice looks like and what goes into it.
- An accessible policy toolkit (guidance, methods, tools, in one place to support policy professionals in their day-to-day work)
- Definitions of the skills required for policy professionals and a systemic view of people capability
- A framework setting out the characteristics of a high-performing policy shop (team or organisation) to enable leaders to assess their team/organisation/jurisdiction’s policy capability and kick-start an improvement trajectory
- A deliberate and collaborative change process (that leverages and supports other public sector reforms)
Figure 1. Better policy advice – an infrastructure approach
Policy advice model – an essential ingredient of the policy infrastructure
In previous articles, I’ve focused on different aspects of the policy infrastructure. In this one, I focus on what I see as a weak link in many organisations and jurisdictions: the lack of an accessible, repeatable, scalable policy advice process model. I will share a fledgling model developed at the Australia New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG): the ‘5D policy advice value chain’ model. It has been tested with a range of senior officials from across Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific, with positive feedback.
Many existing models – most based on the ‘policy cycle’ – are good for teaching but not so useful for ‘doing’. A UK Institute for Government survey revealed that “nearly every interviewee said, ‘policy cycles’ were divorced from reality.” Recognising that each element of the policy cycle constitutes an important component of the policy process, the implied sequential pattern of problem identification, analysis, implementation and evaluation is where the model drifts away from practitioner experience.
The demand for new approaches is evident. Several organisations have sought ANZSOG and my help to develop their own bespoke ‘model’, focusing squarely on the work that policy staff actually do — providing advice to decision-makers. In this work, I’ve been influenced by the principles and practice of design and designers: user-centric, participatory, iterative, involving divergent thinking rather than the narrow approach to problem definition typical of traditional policy processes (where we narrow the ‘problem’ up front to the point where we might only be treating symptoms, and close off the experimentation and divergent thinking that might offer new insights and solutions). Methods like design thinking, behavioural insights, foresight etc, appear in a range of policy toolkits but are not anchored to any policy advice design process, so public servants struggle to understand how to apply what method and when.
The design challenge for developing a policy advice model is to articulate a process for developing policy advice that:
- serves as a guide to policy practitioners in their day-to-day work (one that is adaptable and transferable across policy domains and challenges, noting that ‘all policy is not created equally’) and simple without being simplistic (easy to use, and accessible to new public servants as well as seasoned policy leaders),
- provides an anchor for policy toolkits and quality assurance processes,
- supports formal and informal (on-the-job) education and training.
In short, the challenge is a model that works in practice and in theory.
Drawing on existing models and design principles
Although process models are often criticised for being too linear or cyclical (when the reality of a policy process is messy and iterative) policy process models serve as an important organising framework. They give policy practitioners some signposts, guardrails, and a unifying framework for ‘how we do things around here’. The goal is to ensure consistency without constraining innovation and agility. For our model, we drew on a range of models that have been used as heuristic devices in formal policy education and training (e.g. the Australian Policy Handbook ‘policy cycle’) and iterations such as the dynamic policy cycle from Aotearoa New Zealand, and the UK’s ROAMEF framework, as well as recent bespoke models (such as Australia’s Delivering Great Policy model, South Australian Department for Education’s Strategic Policy Model and the NSW Department for Education’s ‘The Way We do Policy’ model). We also scanned problem-solving/decision-making models from other disciplines, such as NESTA’s Innovation Spiral and Novek and Glover’s model in ‘Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit’ .
The 5D Policy Advice Model – a work in progress
Figure 2 below and the related animation articulate a ‘policy advice value-chain’ whereby the value added at each stage is more information, insights, clarity and buy-in about the direction of travel and the way ahead. It presents the policy advisory process as iterative, non-linear, and attentive to shifts in the environment. Being questions-based, the model is permissive, not prescriptive. It encourages those involved in the design and provision of policy advice to continually revisit assumptions (hypotheses and intervention logic), through the 2 Es — new and emerging evidence through regular ‘Engagement’ with internal and external stakeholders and by maintaining curiosity and an ‘Evaluation’ mindset. It seeks to embed a process of advice production that is anticipatory and inclusive (incorporating hindsight, foresight and deep insight).
The 5D’s are articulated with lines of inquiry related to:
- Demand – where is the demand for change coming from? Why now?
- Discover – what do we know about the challenge or opportunity, and what do we need to know?
- Design – what methods will we use to design and test solutions and who will be involved?
- Decide – how do we ensure we give quality advice to help decision-makers take good decisions?
- Deliver – how do we ensure decisions will be implemented and have the desired impact?
These stages are underpinned by continuous consideration of how to:
- Engage – involve, seek insights and test thinking and options with diverse internal and external stakeholders (including end-users and decision-makers).
- Evaluate – constantly test assumptions and hypotheses, reflect, and iterate throughout the process.
Lines of inquiry for each of the stages will be further fleshed out. Each can be supported by a toolkit of methods and approaches. For example, the ‘Decide’ stage would include guidance on briefing decision-makers, quality advice standards and assurance processes. The ‘Discover’ stage would include the existing evidence base and decision tools for assessing the scale and scope of the challenge, such as Aotearoa New Zealand’s Start Right tool (adapted for other organisations). The ‘Demand’ stage would involve clear commissioning and understanding why the issue even demands attention (consideration of the political context and dynamics in the wider policy ecosystem). ‘Deliver’ seeks to build consideration of implementation early in the process, which may require involving delivery partners (internal and external) up front in the policy advice process (as opposed to throwing ‘solutions’ over the fence to implementers once decisions have been taken).
Figure 2. The 5-D Policy Advice Value Chain model Credit: Sally Washington (2023)
My ANZSOG colleague, Professor Christopher Walker, and I will continue to build and refine the model on the basis of feedback from policy practitioners (our networks of senior officials) and academics (a paper for discussion is in progress). Our vision is a ‘value added policy advice model’ that will work in theory (it can be taught) and in practice – it will support and guide policy staff to provide quality advice to decision-makers. Watch this space.
Sally Washington has writtenother articles on how governments can improve policy, including: Building policy capability, Building the infrastructure to support good policy advice, Fixing the demand side: how the public service can support ministers to become ‘intelligent customers’ of policy advice Hindsight, foresight and insight: three lenses for better policy-making | ANZSOG