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Using evidence to improve your policy advice

19 July 2022

News and media


Good policy advice needs to be based on rigorous analysis of evidence, but in real-world policy processes, there are many pressures that can mitigate against the effective use of evidence. So how can public servants develop their craft most effectively, to deliver high quality policy advice which meets the requirements of ministers? 

Dr Subho Banerjee is ANZSOG’s Deputy CEO (Research and Advisory) and a former leader of the central strategic policy division in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In conversation with Dr Laura Davy of the Australian National University, Dr Banerjee set out some reflections on the broader craft of policy advice in the Westminster system, and how public servants at all levels can look to develop their skills in using evidence to improve the policy advice they provide. 

The transcript below sets out some excerpts from their discussion, with the full interview available through this link. 

Dr Banerjee will be delivering a further Masterclass on ‘Making evidence count in policy advice’ as part of ANZSOG’s Future Public Sector Leaders series on 8 August. Limited places still available here 

What are the characteristics of good policy advice? 

“I find it’s helpful to use a four-part structure for advice: focus, rigour, imagination and practicality.”  

“Good advice requires focus; you need to answer the question you’ve been set. It needs rigour, it must be soundly based. Imagination, because we need to think beyond the bounds of where we currently are and think about the world as it could be; and practicality, because it needs to have a sense of getting things done in the world as it is. All of these elements are important, and they are then bound together into public sector advice practice.” 

“The role of evidence and research is to ensure that there is rigour in policy advice and is crucial to making sure your advice is good. When you try and do it in practice there are a lot of difficulties and conceptual issues. Whose evidence and under what circumstances? How do you understand the values behind evidence and the lenses that people are talking to you through, and the lenses that you are interpreting the evidence through?  

“Those are extremely important issues, and you can’t understand what your contribution as a public servant can and should be unless you grapple with these concepts.” 

Why is defining the problem important, and how can public servants do this more effectively? 

“The sorts of things we are required to give advice on in general are hard. They’re complex, they have competing interests and multi-dimensional objectives. One of the things that is striking in commercial jobs is that the ‘objective statement’ is a lot simpler and clearer.” 

“There isn’t a technical, or derivable solution, as there is in physics or maths. In general, there is not a single answer to problems. If we are thinking hard about it, it is because it hasn’t already been solved in some kind of reasonable straightforward way.” 

“Given that basis: it’s not surprising that how you frame the problem in and of itself matters an enormous amount and as you start framing the problem you have to recognise the role of values from the start.” 

What is the role of dialogue and responsiveness when providing policy advice to government? 

“In a contemporary Westminster system, ministers are responsible for decisions at the top level and bringing those values to bear. The role of the public service is to draw out the implications of that and often that will be through conversation, particularly when values are contradictory. 

“In practice these are difficult issues and have to be approached through iterations – whether they are verbal or written. 

“There needs to be a sense of trying to lay out the problem and get the endorsement of minsters that you’ve heard the objective statement in a reasonable way, and then to work through what that means and where you go from there. 

“It’s often the case that for difficult problems there are multiple means for trying to get into them, and for the public service it is important to think about those options. It’s an important way of crystallising how you get from intent to action.  

“This shift from intent to action is the particular role of the public service, there are a lot of other people who are there to provide intent or commentary. 

“Part of that unique role is to clarify intent. Intent is not always perfectly defined or crystal clear, or unproblematic in a technical sense. One of the ways that dialogue – a back and forth with ministers – is important, is for trying to get your problem definition in a way that really resonates, that then shapes the analysis and the options and vice versa, it is not a straight line.” 

“One of the ways that Ken Henry, the former Treasury Secretary, used to talk about this was to say that as a senior public servant you should think about this in three. On the first pass, once you have thought about the problem broadly, you should say that the department recommends Option A, but you also have Options B, C and D. If the minister disagrees your second pass is to say, ‘we’ve heard you and here are some ways we might mitigate your discomfort with A’. If the minister still says no, the third pass is to say, you’ve chosen Option B, and here’s how you can implement it in a way that, in our professional judgment, goes closest to your intent.” 

“That’s a much more complex and nuanced conversation about how these things need to play out in practice, with this process of going back and forth, and round and round, until you can land the different dimensions that are involved.” 

How does the institutional role that the public service plays in a Westminster system shape the way that public servants provide advice? 

I think it is also very important to think about the APS as a national democratic institution within the Australian Westminster settlement and think about the value of that institution and the values that the institution lives by. It’s really important to think about the role of professional advice and say ‘this is what we think’ also to understand that the role of the public service in a Westminster system is to serve the government of the day. That’s a really important practice issue to work through in your mind, particularly as you become more senior. 

“It’s really important for public sector, that senior leaders say that public servants need to think about their advice in terms of rigour, and integrity and think about what that means in terms of evidence and argumentation. This goes to matters of craft in a big way: saying ‘if you choose to do B, this is how you can implement it’ is completely consistent with the professional opinion that A is a better option, this is respecting your role within the structures that we have.” 

You can listen to audio of the full discussion here. Dr Banerjee’s Making evidence count in policy advice masterclass will be held on Monday 8 August, and registrations for this and other Future public sector leaders masterclasses are now open.