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Building policy capacity: Challenges and Implications Across Policy Sectors. Dr Anne Tiernan Dept Politics & Public Policy. Presentation to Department of Education and Training Research Forum 13 October 2010 Dr Anne Tiernan Department of Politics & Public Policy. Griffith Business School.

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building policy capacity challenges and implications across policy sectors

Building policy capacity: Challenges and Implications Across Policy Sectors

Dr Anne Tiernan

Dept Politics & Public Policy

Presentation to Department of Education and Training Research Forum

13 October 2010

Dr Anne Tiernan

Department of Politics & Public Policy

Griffith Business School

slide2
Internationally, concerns have been expressed about the policy skills and capabilities of career bureaucracies

A pervasive sense that governments are not capable of successfully developing, implementing and evaluating policies.

Similar concerns are widespread in Australia amongst decision-makers, senior officials and stakeholders (notably business) at Commonwealth, State and Territory levels.

Empirical evidence of and explanations for this real or perceived decline are the subject of a major ARC Discovery Grant (Weller, Wanna and Tiernan: DP773267).

The problem of policy skills

slide3
Examines the policy advisory skills and capacities of the APS across key policy sectors:

These initially included: Housing; Environment; Transport; Economic policy (Treasury and Finance); Central coordination (PM&C) and National Security.

We take ‘policy advisory skills’ to be their ability to support decision-making through their policy advisory functions.

Has a longitudinal focus:

20 year period since the 1987 machinery of government changes.

In practice, there is some flexibility around the time periods in question.

Our project:

slide4
Change of government in November 2007 prompted some re-thinking, also opened some new opportunities, particularly given the Rudd government’s concerns about public sector performance

We deal with Ministers’, Chiefs of Staff and senior officials’ perceptions of the ‘capacity problem’ in our book Learning to be a Minister (MUP, 2010).

Initially concerns centred on ‘strategic policy capacity’

Advisory Group on reform of Australian Government Administration considered these issues in depth.

More recently, concerns have evolved to focus on implementation and delivery

We have made some revisions to our sample of agencies accordingly.

Some revisions and modifications

slide5
A contested concept. No one clear definition, but a degree of consistency in the discourse.

Incorporates concerns about:

A perceived lack of strategic thinking and analysis

A lack of ‘creative ideas’

Tendency for short-term considerations to predominate

Tension here about extent to which decision-makers are interested in longer-term issues (a demand-side problem) and/or agencies are capable of producing the requisite analysis (a supply problem).

An inability to solve problems or solve them in desired ways.

Extends beyond policy analytic work into implementation and policy delivery.

Dimensions of the capacity problem

Griffith Business School

slide6

Possible explanations for the problem

  • A consequence of the NPM reforms
    • Loss of staff, corporate knowledge and expertise through restructuring, outsourcing and contracting. Decline in in-house research and analytic units.
    • Changing role for the public service in policy analysis and advice:
      • Contestability; governments’ perceptions of what constitutes an appropriate role (formulation vs implementation).
      • Relations between ministers and public servants are central here.
  • Changing nature and role for government: complexity and uncertainty; expectations and demands of external environment.

Griffith Business School

slide7
Public sector reform initiatives over 35 years:

Commonwealth Government’s Ahead of the Game: Reform of Australian Government Administration.

In Queensland, successive public sector reform efforts since 1989. Most recently 2008 reform initiatives; 2009 MOG changes, performance frameworks etc.

Most states and territories are doing work in this area, notably SA, Victoria and WA.

State governments face particular challenges in the current environment: fiscal constraints, service delivery demands and unpredictable nature of intergovernmental relations.

Governmental responses

Griffith Business School

slide8
Has a strong sense of its mission and purpose within government and a compelling narrative about its contribution to Australia’s well-being.

Is small and focused – its responsibilities are well defined and have equivalents in other jurisdictions.

Strong, stable leadership over a long period of time

Limited turnover at the political leadership level (6 Treasurers in 30 years)

Bureaucratic leaders have maintained a sense of ‘stewardship’ of the organisation – continued to invest.

Some insights from our cases: Treasury

Griffith Business School

slide9
Staff are drawn from broadly consistent disciplinary backgrounds: economics, accounting, finance etc.

There are recognised methodologies and analytic tools for the work they do.

Able to attract and retain high quality staff because

it remains prestigious (and a career accelerator); and

it has adopted innovative approaches to staff and skills development.

Treasury (2)

Griffith Business School

slide10
But…

It is operating in a competitive and contestable environment and Ministers do not simply defer to the Treasury as they once did.

They have their own sources of expertise in their private offices and constantly probe other sources in the broader policy community, including those developed in Opposition and at earlier points in their careers.

Treasury has worked very hard to make sure it remains influential and relevant – see some of Ken Henry’s speeches on policy advising.

This is not risk-free.

Treasury (3)

Griffith Business School

slide11
There are lots of skills it doesn’t and can’t have – because of the nature of financial markets, banking etc.

So they have creative strategies to source this information. Rather than trying to buy or develop what would immediately become redundant, they partner, broker and furiously work the policy community, including academia, other governments, international organisations etc.

Though in many ways inwardly focused, it is very outwardly focused and connected. An international network maintained through loyalty to the organisation.

Treasury (4)

Griffith Business School

slide12
Capacity has fluctuated according to interest and needs of the government of the day

Can leaders maintain investments in capacity if there is no effective demand?

In any case, difficult to attract and retaining quality staff when there is no appetite for their work.

Built up from 1970s to mid-1990s, but significant loss of in-house knowledge and expertise from mid to late 1990s on

Might have been less of a problem if major reform directions had been achieved, however…

Insights from our cases: Housing

Griffith Business School

slide13
Disinvestment in in-house research and analytic units, but investment in broader policy community through, for example, AHURI and through their own volition, by non-governmental actors

So is capacity lost or just dispersed and what are the implications?

Lack of in-house expertise (including in Treasury) proved a significant frustration to Rudd government in 2007/08.

Had to look to State governments...

Who of course, had known for more than a decade this was a problem and had experienced its consequences.

Insights from our cases: Housing (2)

Griffith Business School

how to ministers chiefs of staff and senior officials see the problem
How to Ministers, Chiefs of Staff and Senior Officials see the problem?
  • We put this question specifically to all three groups when doing interviews for our book.
  • We report on this in detail, including some insightful quotes.

Griffith Business School

slide15
That concerns about capacity in the APS:

Are a phenomenon of changes of government – time it takes to adapt to new priorities and style.

Reflect a mismatch of expectations between the roles a public service has performed under a previous government and the aspirations of a new one.

Unwillingness to put forward advice and options unless asked (a common ministerial complaint) may reflect uncertainty and disagreement about what now constitutes appropriate professional norms for public servants post-NPM.

Elite perspectives on the problem suggest:

slide16
Are a product of a changing environment/pressures on policy advising – complexity, media, citizen expectations etc.

As governments mature, concerns shift to the public service’s ability to implement and deliver.

Issues of leadership emerge as a persistent theme.

Elite perspectives on the problem suggest:

slide17
Complicated by:

Inheritances and administrative traditions

State public services have antecedents in colonial administrations – not unified from birth like the APS.

Develop their own particular ‘policy styles’ – Queensland a case in point.

Breadth of responsibilities

Large systems – often decentralised.

Reliance on ‘street level bureaucrats’ – potential tensions between the centre and the front-line and in directing professional staff.

Delivery rather than policy focused

Cadre of policy people often mired in reactive work – arising from delivery issues, inter-governmental agendas etc

Or focused on coordination given dispersal both spatially and organisationally

Not a lot of ‘organisational slack’ to pursue strategic work.

Building capacity at the sub-national level

Griffith Business School

slide18
Dependency and constraints on unilateral action

Particularly because of Commonwealth-state financial arrangements and increasingly blurred roles and responsibilities.

Adds uncertainty and complexity.

Political, organisational and administrative discontinuity

Relatively frequent turnover of ministers and senior leaders

Turnover and churn at other levels.

Organisational restructuring to reflect government priorities, emerging issues etc.

Policy capacity at sub-national level probably has some parallels to the challenges that have confronted Defence.

Worth noting that where the APS has become involved in delivery, it has experienced similar challenges to sub-national agencies.

Building capacity at the sub-national level (2)

Griffith Business School

slide19
Focus on building the skills of individuals

Professional knowledge and skills.

Judgment: what Kane and Patapan describe as ‘prudence and practical wisdom’.

Ability to navigate ambiguity and complexity inherent to policy-making.

Personality and character traits: professional motivation, integrity etc.

Seek to recruit staff with diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Leadership skills.

Approaches to building policy capacity:

Griffith Business School

slide20
Focus on attributes of institutions and organisations

Information and research resources, including knowledge sharing practices and institutional memory.

Human resources: leadership, role conception, professional norms and orientations; workforce issues including recruitment and retention, churn, career paths.

Processes: routines for policy coordination; ways in which specialists and generalists work together; how central vs front-line perspectives are managed;

Organisational culture: organisational identity, presence (or not) of a learning culture.

Approaches to building policy capacity (2):

Griffith Business School

slide21
Being cognisant of the broader network/policy context

Pressures of the political and broader operating environment

Dynamism and volatility

Are policy issues new or presenting in unprecedented ways

Expertise may need to be levered in from elsewhere or may require deliberate network building strategies (e.g. counter-terrorism; collapse of ABC Learning, how to respond to the GFC).

How to overcome the expectation gap?

Impossible to ignore the demand-side, but often the ‘elephant in the room’.

Approaches to building policy capacity (3):

Griffith Business School

slide22
What should governments be able to expect from their public service advisers?

How well is the public service delivering on its side of ‘the bargain’ – in terms of providing high quality, responsive, professional, expert and impartial advice and support for government decision-making?

For discussion: