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New ANZSOG/ANU Press book “Learning Policy, Doing Policy” to bring theory and practice together

21 June 2021

News and media


Image of Ariadne Vromen, Louise Gilding, Trish Mercer, Glyn Davis

The latest volume in the ANZSOG/ANU Press series, Learning Policy, Doing Policy, explores how policy theory is understood by practitioners and how it influences their practice, bringing together insights from research, teaching and practice.

The book, edited by Trish Mercer, Russell Ayres, Brian Head, and John Wanna, grew out of an ANZSOG seminar in 2018 which explored how public servants access and respond to academic research about the policy process, and examines the perceived disconnect between theory and practice.

The editors say that distilling the many issues involved reveals two main problems: practitioners do not see academic insights as directly useful to their policy activities, and theorists tend to write for other scholars and to contribute to existing debates in the literature.

The book aims to bring together the theory and practice of policy and see these two perspectives as complementing each other. It recognises that while public servants have traditionally learned ‘on the job’, with practical experience and tacit knowledge valued over theory-based learning and academic analysis, increasing numbers of them are undertaking formal policy training.

The book was formally launched in Canberra on Wednesday June 16, with a speech by Glyn Davis AC, Distinguished Professor at ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy.

Today we launched the @ANZSOG book Learning policy theory, doing policy – a great & useful book edited by Trish Mercer (with Ayres, Head & Wanna) – available for free download at @ANU_Press ? ? pic.twitter.com/wNWzOUqOhD

— ariadne vromen (@AriadneVromen) June 16, 2021

It contains contributions from Australian and international policy scholars, and current and former practitioners from government agencies, including chapters written by ANZSOG Deputy Dean (Teaching and Learning) Professor Catherine Althaus, Professor Allan McConnell, senior ACT Government executive Louise Gilding and Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Professor Davis said that the two worlds of policy making and academic research were not so far apart, with each benefiting from different perspectives and motivations, and from exchanging ideas and lessons.

“The COVID pandemic has reminded us why effective public service remains indispensable – and the damage when short-sighted savings undermine policy knowledge and service delivery capability,” Professor Davis said.

“This book faces the challenge of a public service after corporate management, contracting and managerialism. Given the very mixed record of such public administration fashions, what will be the measure of a professional, capable public service?

“Policy making in Australia, as in New Zealand, is known for its pragmatism. Use what works, learn from other places, try out promising ideas, be willing to acknowledge failure and start again. Theory will not provide a ready-made solution. At best it offers a hypothesis about what might prevail amid chaos.

“Sometimes just the new vocabulary helps us see the problem in a new light. Concepts such as ‘policy window’, ‘policy cycle stages’, and ‘authorising environment’ have moved from ANZSOG classes on public value to the language of official reports and presentations.”

The first part of the book focuses on theorising, teaching and learning about the policymaking process; the second part outlines how current and former practitioners have employed policy process theory in the form of models or frameworks to guide and analyse policymaking in practice; and the final part examines how policy theory insights can assist policy practitioners.

Professor Davis said that Learning Policy, Doing Policy speaks to everyone engaged in policy work, from seasoned public servants to students and their teachers.

“With a new professions model embraced by the Australian Public Service Commission following the Thodey Review, perhaps this can be the moment when we can bring policy studies and practice closer,” he said.

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