Skip to content

Expertise, policy advice and policy advisory systems

21 May 2024



An article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration examines the roles public sector policy advice, expertise, and policy advisory systems play in a time of shifting conceptions of expertise and evolving systems of advice. These changes are causing persistent challenges linked to adequate policy capacity, debate about the role of the public service advice, and questions of rigour and legitimacy of policy advising. The article identifies three sets of skills to boost capacity. 

Persistent challenges to policy capacity

In most countries, policy expertise was traditionally seen as the remit of the public service, which served as the primary, and sometimes the sole, source of advice.  The public service offered a unique blend of specialisation, experience, and technical knowledge and the extent of expertise of a policy advisory system has been linked with the quality of public policy experts and analysts. 

Concerns about a lack of responsiveness to new demands and the public service’s ability to meet new policymaking needs have led to questions about how much analytical capacity, and of what kinds, the public service possesses. There is also a question about whether the public service alone can meet the changing needs of governance in a more open, participatory, and populist era. 

Skills and resources needed

In a policy context, capacity has been argued to be a function of three sets of political, managerial, and analytical skills. These need to be supported by the availability of resources at three different levels in an organisation: systemic, organisational, and individual. 

At the individual level, resources are needed to support the following skills: 

  • political: understanding of stakeholders; judgment of political feasibility; communication skills. 
  • managerial: leadership; strategic management; negotiation; conflict resolution.  
  • analytical: knowledge of policy domain; analytical techniques. 

Recent studies have highlighted that expertise in policy advisory systems extends beyond the technical and analytical. It includes political support and legitimacy as well as the interconnection of individual, organisational, and system wide dimensions of policy advice and how well this functions.  

Policy advice systems require diverse forms of policy-relevant skills and resources if they are to be effective. Adaptability is one such resource. Members of a policy advisory system need to adjust and adapt to ensure they are to directly apply their existing capacities. They also need to recognise where they are lacking and where a more complex and adaptable policy advisory system may be needed. This could be achieved through the deployment of ‘on demand’ arrangements to fill gaps or applying surge capacity from other areas.  

This has led to questioning and analysis of how best to organise and operate these systems especially where alternative sets of advisers are involved, such as advisory boards, consultants and think tanks.  

New and old forms of expertise

The way systems of advice are changing and adapting has called into question the role of the public service and the optimal types of advice it should provide. There have been a range of attempts to reform and experiment with different kinds of advisory arrangements from the creation of policy labs to the increased hiring of consultants.  

Current reforms increasingly seek to ensure that advisory systems are adaptable and optimised for a more turbulent and uncertain operating environment. The traditional expert role of the public service, along with the advice it provides, is often juxtaposed against the development of more partisan–political types of advisors operating within and outside of existing ‘evidence-based’ systems. 

Attention has turned to other issues such as short-term versus longer-term forms of expertise and the ability of policy advisors to engage in issue management beyond ‘firefighting’ types of policy. This has brought into focus the longer term anticipatory and foresight types of policy advice available within a system. 

There are concerns that the temporal equilibrium of advice may have moved towards more fire-fighting type activities, particularly in politicised contexts and short-term economic, media, and political cycle. This makes sustaining longer term research and thinking more challenging. These concerns are now common, as are the concern that this short-term orientation is occurring despite the increased need for more forward-looking forms of policy expertise needed to address longer term collective problems, like climate change. 

The bottom line

Policy capacity remains important for well-functioning policy advisory systems. It has become multifaceted, reflecting not only differences in types of expertise and policy advice, but also concerns around its management and deployment in varying governance contexts. 

The competencies required for policy workers inside and outside of government should reflect the changes in the role of expertise and evolving systems of policy advice. 

Want to read more?

Expertise, policy advice, and policy advisory systems in an open, participatory, and populist era: New challenges to research and practice – Jonathan Craft, Brian Head, Michael Howlett, Australian Journal of Public Administration, April 2024 

Each fortnight The Bridge summarises a piece of academic research relevant to public sector managers. 

Sign up to The Bridge 

The Bridge banner
Previous Research Briefs on the role of expertise in policymaking include:
Published Date: 21 May 2024