Connecting theory to public sector practice

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  • Published Date: 05 July 2021

This article is a summary of a chapter in the new book ‘Learning Policy, Doing Policy’, published by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and ANU Press. David Threlfall is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), where he is writing a doctorate on British political rhetoric. He worked previously as Chief of Staff at ANZSOG. Professor Catherine Althaus is the ANZSOG Chair of Public Service Leadership and Reform, UNSW Canberra and ANZSOG Deputy Dean (Teaching & Learning), and the co-author of the Australian Policy Handbook.

By David Threlfall and Catherine Althaus

The relationship between theory and practice is often seen as unidirectional – with theory driving practice. This undervalues the two-way connection between the two domains, and the need for deeper engagement between theorists and practitioners to improve policymaking processes.

For policy professionals, a theory often becomes valuable knowledge only through the experience—in practice—of how to apply it. Likewise, practice should inform theory development through the insights offered by reflection on the experience of practice.

Theorists and practitioners should engage with each other as equals through mutually reinforcing reflective practice. In public policy and public administration, as in many other fields, this has not always been the case, and the professional division of labour between academia and policymaking should not hinder mutually reinforcing knowledge advancement in this way.

Many academics argue that the link between theory and practice in public administration has fundamentally broken down. We remain more optimistic, and believe that, while a disconnect exists, more can and should be done to unite scholarship and practice.

The reasons cited for the disconnect vary and include: academic incentives not valuing practical impact, practitioners not having the time to search out and read theory, academia being unplugged from the reality of practice, and practitioners not understanding academic language or the importance of academic rigour in research.

Every single one of these contains a grain of truth, but they do not constitute an unbridgeable gulf, rather a set of discrete, solvable problems.

There is, and should be, a fundamental link between knowing and doing, from action to reflection and back again. Creating a hierarchy of knowledge—with theory seen as higher than practice—is a hindrance to what should be a shared endeavour of advancing knowledge.

To argue practice is free from theory is either to divorce critical thinking from action, or to overlook the ideological sleight of hand in laying claim to theory-free practice. We all hold some theories or assumptions about the relationship between theory and practice, whether implicit or explicit—even if we do not consciously recognise them.

Academic Wilfred Carr sought to understand this relationship between theory and practice by categorising four major competing approaches in educational theory and their differing views of practice:

  • Common sense: generalisations are acquired through ‘observation and analysis of practice and tested pragmatically in practical situations’. Any notion that theory could be developed independently or objectively is rejected; practice establishes the accuracy of theory rather than theory establishing soundness of practice.
  • Practical: practice does not serve fixed ends but is a fluid activity in which choice of both means and ends is guided by values and criteria immanent in the process itself. Public administration and policy practice relies on ‘practical wisdom’ and the informed, committed action and moral judgement of practitioners.
  • Applied science: with its focus on behaviourism and scientific standards, this approach sees practice as essentially a technical endeavour designed to bring about particular, specifiable ends that adhere to higher-order scientific principles.
  • Critical: theory is meant to help practitioners become self-conscious about the causal determinants of their beliefs and practices, often expressed as ideology, in order to increase their rational autonomy within a social endeavour. The stress is on using ‘critical self-reflection’ to move not between theory and practice but between irrationality and rationality, and from ignorance and habit to knowledge and reflection.

The ‘common sense’ and ‘practical’ models articulate a model familiar to public sector practitioners—learning on-the-job through experience of the policymaking process guided by traditional practical and moral principles. ‘Applied science’ sits well outside that experience, where practice has little to offer.

We find the ‘critical’ approach more promising for encouraging deeper understanding and assisting the shifts back-and-forth between knowing what (theory) and knowing how (practice). A focus on using existing theories to make sense of our policy experiences, and to supplement our own reflections on practice, means we should be able to make clearer the interconnection between theory and practice, and use both to enrich our understanding.

While this sounds complex, it amounts to taking a more conscious approach to learning that values reflection in theory and practice. The daily grind can make this difficult but, if we are going to make progress, both practitioners and theorists need to pursue engagement with each other.

There is one further element to add to this discussion of knowledge creation about practice: the concept of emergence, or what we might term the ‘Harry Potter maze effect’. In the fourth instalment of this now famous book and movie series, Harry Potter and the goblet of fire the by-now teenage wizard, Harry, is selected to compete in the Triwizard Tournament. The final challenge is to find the centre of a magical maze on the Hogwarts grounds to secure the goal of the Triwizard Cup. When the wizards enter the maze it actually shifts around them as they move through it, simultaneously challenging them by revealing their fears and drawing out their courage to confront negative aspects of themselves. As they wade into the maze, not only does the maze change, but also the wizards themselves change in different ways.

The maze metaphor captures an important point about theory and practice—as you are engaging in different ways of looking at policymaking and public administration, you are simultaneously changing yourself and policymaking as you perform this policy work. The processes of thinking and doing policy are unavoidably intertwined and reflexive.

No single tool or theory captures the true operation of policy processes or political systems. Rather, the intent and benefit is to cut through a perfect description or an accurate prediction in order to assist in the task of learning and doing that policy practitioners face on a daily basis.

It is impossible for one grand theory or synthesis to usefully incorporate the varied structural, resource and political challenges of the policy world. We need an approach that uses a diverse range of different theories to gain breadth of insight, and which allows us to use a combination of the array of models, frameworks and theories on offer.

We are deeply engaged with the concept of a policy cycle—a staged process through which policy issues progress, and a means to analyse each stage. We believe that this provides a useful learning tool which articulates an approach to solving public policy ‘puzzles’ on both systemic and process levels.

We promote the policy cycle approach in the full knowledge that it does not explain or describe the realities of policymaking. Criticisms that it oversimplifies, and that policymaking in the real world is always more complex, miss the point. The value of the concept lies in the fact that it is easily taught and understood. It serves to prompt reflection on prior practice and offers a framework for learning about future experience. It allows practitioners to step back from the complicated work of the day-to-day policy world with the aid of a framework that they can internalise, learn from and then work with.

Seen in this light, one of the greatest contributions of the policy cycle is as a heuristic. It is focused on the teaching, learning and reflection process. It provides a tool to make sense of experience as well as a tool to inspire creativity as policymakers navigate the policy maze. Its flexibility means it can combine with other theoretical and practice approaches to derive a richer analysis, with a clearer view of the actors and forces at play in the policymaking process.

 Figure 2.1

We argue strongly against the existence of a theory-practice divide in public administration and policymaking. Rather, we should pursue the interconnection of theory and practice in order to advance knowledge and improve practice for those working in either domain. This interconnection must not perpetuate a hierarchy between theory and practice.

Those working in both fields must possess a shared language and desire to critique, learn and reflect together with a view to improving the policymaking process and outcomes. This two-way task of translation and knowledge creation is vital. Theory building and practice improvement are a shared enterprise. The more we can promote this joint enterprise, and the more we encourage both parties to exercise their agency, the better for policy processes and outcomes.