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Rethinking policy capacity, competencies and capabilities

12 June 2019

News and media


Image of a pen and papers on a table

The increasing complexity of contemporary policy problems coupled with rising public expectations present unprecedented challenges to the capacity of governments to make and implement effective policies.

While policy capacity is a fundamental concept in public policy, there is considerable disagreement over its definition and very few systematic efforts to operationalise and measure it.

At a glance

In a paper for Policy and Society, Xun Wu, M Ramesh and Michael Howlett from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy present a conceptual framework to analyse and measure policy capacity. Capacity includes both the competencies and capabilities needed for policy-making.

Competencies are categorised into three skills essential for policy success: analytical, operational and political.  Policy capabilities are assessed at the individual, organisational and system resource levels. Policy failures often result from imbalanced attention to these elements of policy capacity.

What is policy capacity?

Policy capacity is usually defined from the perspective of the government as:

the ability of governments to make intelligent choices
to scan the environment and set strategic directions
to weigh and assess the implications of policy alternatives

Some conceptual approaches are narrow in scope concentrating only on the availability or quality of specific skills such as policy advising to support decision-making. Others take a more expansive approach, arguing policy capacity should include the ability of governments to efficiently implement preferred choices of action as well as deciding them.

Policy capacity is also seen as the ‘weaving’ function of modern governments—the ability to join together the multiplicity of organisations and interests to form a coherent policy fabric.

An alternative conceptual framework

The paper approaches policy capacity as the set of skills and resources—or competencies and capabilities—necessary to perform policy functions.

The skills or competencies which comprise policy capacity can be categorised into three types: analytical, operational and political. Each of these involves capabilities at three different levels individual, organisational, and systemic. As a result the framework has the following nine elements:

Individual: analytical, operational and political capacity
Organisational: analytical, operational and political capacity
Systemic: analytical, operational and political capacity

As Figure 1 depicts, these form a nested model.

The framework is not restricted to a particular function or stage in the policy process. It covers all elements: agenda setting, formulation, decision-making, implementation and evaluation. This recognises the challenges that governments face in performing these policy functions is different. Adequate capacity in executing one task does not guarantee the effective performance of others.

The framework also acknowledges that a wide range of organisations such as NGOs, private businesses and other government agencies are involved in policy processes. In turn, their capacities affect the government’s own capacity to perform. Policy-oriented non-governmental organisation need to have or develop a requisite level of policy capacity.

Organisational and system level capabilities

At the system level, capabilities such as the level of support and trust a public agency enjoys from its political masters and society at large are key components of policy capacity.

Trust and available financial resources are critical determinants of organisational capabilities and influence public managers’ ability to perform their policy work. Political support both from above and below is vital because public agencies must be considered legitimate in order to access resources and support from their authorising institutions.

Individual capabilities

At the individual level, policy professionals play a key role in determining how well the functions in the policy process are conducted.  Their policy capacity is determined by their:

knowledge about policy processes
skills in policy analysis and evaluation
managerial expertise
political judgement

The availability and effectiveness of information infrastructure, human and financial resource management systems, and political support can enhance or detract from individual capabilities.

Why it matters

Policy capacity is a vital determinant of the extent to which policy makers are able to address public problems. High levels of capacity are linked to superior policy outcomes while capacity deficits are viewed as a major cause of policy failure and sub-optimal outcome

In the conceptual framework, policy capacity results from the combinations of skills and resources at each level.

Analytical-level capacities ensure policy actions are technically and can contribute to attainment of policy goals.
Operational-level capacity allows the alignment of resources with policy actions so that they can be implemented in practice.
Political-level capacity helps to obtain and sustain political support for policy actions.

Want to read more?

Policy capacity: A conceptual framework for understanding policy competences and capabilities – X Wu, M Ramesh and M Howlett, Policy and Society, Volume 34, 2015, Issue 3

This brief is part of a Research Series written by Maria Katsonis. This research brief originally appeared in The Mandarin as part of The Mandarin and ANZSOG’s 2019 Research Series called The Drop.

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