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When do reform initiatives punch above their weight?

10 October 2023



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Concerns of a decline in public service policy capacity have seen governments reform their policy practices. An article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration examines flagship reform initiatives from the Australian, Canadian, British and Aotearoa New Zealand governments. The comparative analysis reveals key differences with the Australian approach having suffered as a result of repeated reinvention and leadership issues. In contrast, the Aotearoa New Zealand initiatives are the most comprehensive and stable.

About the initiatives

The initiatives are specifically aimed at reforming and modernising policymaking. The selected reform initiatives are important for the ability of the public service to position itself both as an effective policy adviser in its own right—but also as a member of the advisory system capable of effectively navigating and engaging with others in these systems.

The article focusses on the following four initiatives:

Aotearoa New Zealand: Policy Project

  • Provides tools, information and advice to develop policy skills and capability.
  • Led by the Head of the Policy Profession, supported by the Policy Profession Board which comprises Chief Executives and Deputy Chief Executives of policy agencies.
  • Funded by voluntary contributions from organisations across the public service. Funding was $1.11 M in 2020-21.

Australia: Delivering Great Policy

  • Cross-agency initiative to improve policy advice by lifting policy capability.
  • Secretary Steering Group guides the project with Deputy Secretary Policy Champions.
  • $2 M spent on the initial startup and early operational costs from 2018 to 2023.

Britain: Policy Profession

  • Focusses on modernising policymaking and building capacity.
  • Governed by a board which includes the policy profession heads of ministerial departments.
  • Funded from levies drawn from departments. Funding was £3.3 M in 2021-22.

Canada: Policy Community

  • Cross-functional community of policymakers with policy standards tools.
  • Two senior-level officials who serve as Champions lead the Community.
  • Funded via voluntary annual contributions. Annual budget of $1.5.

Approaches and activities

All four initiatives feature:

  • an opt-in approach that is inclusive and broad.
  • a basic focus on providing some degree of guidance or standard setting regarding optimal policy advising and policymaking.
  • clear convening functions seeking to build a community or network of variously defined policy professionals.

The initiatives share an emphasis on developing a mix of different instruments aimed at addressing the problem of diminishing policy capacity. A core output produced by most of these initiatives is policy improvement frameworks. A range of additional resources aimed at assisting policy community members in developing and improving their skills have also been developed and shared.

The initiatives have all sought to create networks and communities of practice through the holding and sponsoring of events. The Canadian and British initiatives have also developed unique professional development and training opportunities. The British initiative has established partnerships with degree-granting higher education programs and the Canadian approach features an internally focused cross-mobility exchange program for public servants.

Assessing impact

There is a lack of evaluations and audits conducted on these initiatives. This makes it difficult to examine their performance and effectiveness, or to draw robust conclusions about their impact on public service policy capacity. The research suggests the resources allocated are limited and insufficient given the scope of activity associated with system-wide policymaking renewal and modernisation.

There are some major trade-offs and tensions in how these initiatives are designed and run. The first trade-off involves decisions around the breadth of the initiatives linked to their conceptions of policy itself. The self-selection and self-identification of staff into these policy ‘communities’ and ‘professions’ holds promise for inclusivity and for speaking to the broader and more inclusive approaches to the work of policy. However, it also raises questions as to the ability of the policy reform initiatives to have impact given the scale and diversity of the constituency.

Another trade-off involves institutionalisation. This applies in a few different ways including stability in location, leadership, and resourcing. The British and Aotearoa New Zealand initiatives benefit from their established and well-institutionalised status. The Australian and Canadian initiatives have been unable to mature in a similar way in part due to institutional precarity.

However, a high degree of institutionalisation may serve to undermine policy modernisation initiatives as fixed budgets and large staffing models may make these initiatives a target for governments looking to reduce spending or abandon policy-oriented reform. Additionally, a trade-off is inherent in higher levels of operational institutionalisation which may lead to lock-in and path dependence in approaches, activities, and deliverables.

The bottom line

The analysis of the four flagship initiatives reveals different approaches to addressing similar challenges. The research suggests there may be a maturity curve for these types of reform initiatives. Newer initiatives, like the Canadian and Australian ones, may be able to look to established initiatives for better guidance on how to manage the challenges and trade-offs.

There is a lack of publicly available data about the performance of the initiatives. Making this information available would enable better comparisons to be made and enable the agencies to learn from each other. There are also opportunities to strengthen linkages between the public sector reforms in each country. This could include the work being done around decolonising policymaking in Aoteraoa New Zealand and Australia, or digital government transformation initiatives that modernise policymaking with emphasis on user-centred approaches, iterative policy development and data-driven policymaking.

Want to read more? 

Punching above their weight or falling flat? Flagship policy modernisation initiatives in Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand – Jonathan Craft and Samuel Henderson, Australian Journal of Public Administration, September 2023

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Published Date: 10 October 2023