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Policy shops and the roles of policy professionals

2 August 2023



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Public servants no longer have a monopoly on advice to governments, and many different actors now form part of the broader policy advisory system. Internal actors include political staffers while external actors encompass think tanks, interest groups and policy labs. An article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration Review examines the implications of these changes to better understand the work of public servants in policy advice.

Understanding policy advisory systems

Over the past decades, improving the quality of policy advice has been a key goal for public administrators, politicians, consultants and academics alike. Different actors contribute to policy advisory system (PAS). These are fluid, complex systems of knowledge creation, composed of multiple actors who engage in complex interactions with each other and with key decision-makers in the provision of policy advice.

It has been argued that PAS’s in most countries have become more complex over time as more actors have been added into existing systems. These changes have occurred both internally where additional political advisors have joined traditional public servants, and externally where additional sources of advice such as think tanks have grown to challenge any monopoly once held by the public service.

These developments have complicated the advisory processes found in government. Nonetheless, policy professionals still represent a key source of advice and provide a measure of the quality and competence of policy-making functions in government.

About policy shops

Policy capacity is a multi-dimensional concept, encompassing the quality of the advice being provided by PASs and the multiple activities policy workers are engaged in. While policy capacity has both an organisational and an individual aspect, policy workers are embedded in the political, technical, and organisational dimensions of their organisations.

Policy shops are the home of professional advisors and analysts in government, usually found clustered together organisationally into central units. These highly centralised models have relatively straightforward functions. However, some jurisdictions have seen a shift in the policy shop model. Professional policy advisors now work in at least four different kinds of organisational settings.

  • Integrated policy shops: the classic model which exists mainly in single-function ministries where policy professionals are concentrated in central shops to the exclusion of other areas of the organisation.
  • Gatekeeper shops: another version of the ‘classic model’ but where policy shops are larger. These are found mainly in central agencies
  • Distributed model: in which many policy professionals are concentrated within a central policy shop, but other smaller shops are also broadly distributed across a ministry.
  • Hired gun model: where most policy professionals are concentrated within a policy shop but at the same time, small groups of policy advisors (are found in specific areas or units in the organisation dealing with high-profile or high-priority policy areas.

Policy shops in practice

The researchers mapped out the distribution of policy workers in five Canadian jurisdictions, to analyse the structure and capacity of policy shops. The analysis found the distributed model was the most common and dominant in these jurisdictions. This included both multi-branch agencies where it might be expected but also in historically more centralised agencies

The transition from a previously dominant integrated policy shop to newer more distributed models has several implications for government policy-making. These include a propensity for more diversity of views, but also the potential for more conflicting internal advice which can undermine other efforts. The predominance of the distributed model also contributes to the fragmentation of policy advice already underway in government due to the growth in external advisors such as consultants and think tanks, and internal ones such as political staffers.

The bottom line

Policy professionals specifically tasked with policy analysis in government are key players in policy advisory systems despite the addition of more external and internal actors in policy advice systems. How these advisors are organised in government, and how they interact with other public servants and policy-makers are a key determinant of their activities and influence in policy-making.

The shift to a distributed policy shop model requires reconciling different opinions and a need to develop specific approaches to maintaining overall policy advice continuity and alignment.

Want to read more? 

Assessing the ‘forgotten fundamental’ in policy advisory systems research: Policy shops and the role(s) of core policy professionals – Andrea Migone and Michael Howlett, Australian Journal of Public Administration, July 2023

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Published Date: 2 August 2023