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ANZSOG Executive Master in Public Administration course: The context and challenges of policy advising

Presented 12 June 2007

Please note: This document is for reference purposes only and is no longer considered by the APS Commission to be current.

It may contain good practice advice and/or advice on the transitional arrangements between the 1922 and 1999 Public Service Acts.


I would like to thank the convenors for my invitation to speak to you today. I would also like to congratulate you all for taking the opportunity to participate in the ANZSOG Executive Masters in Public Administration programme. Speaking on behalf of senior leaders in the public sector generally, we place great store in your development. We expect that, over time, you will be able to use the insights, creativity, leadership and resourcefulness that you gain from your studies to help tackle some of the critical challenges confronting the public sector.

In my role as the Australian Public Service Commissioner, I strongly endorse the work of ANZSOG. I share its vision of enhancing the breadth and depth of the policy, leadership and management skills needed in today’s public sector.

I have been asked to speak to you today specifically about the context and challenges for policy advising. Some of you may already be aware that this is a topic that I am passionate about.

The ability of the public service to provide high quality and persuasive policy advice to governments goes to the very crux of the reason for our existence. Our capacity to provide such advice is fundamental to ensuring that Australia deals effectively with a range of complex policy challenges, irrespective of whether they are climate change, welfare dependency or encouraging effective workplace relations. It is also fundamental to ensuring the continuing relevance of the public service.

Today, I would like to start by looking at the context in which policy advice occurs in the 21st century. I will then go on to look at some of the challenges that face policy advisers in Australia. These include ensuring that public service agencies have high levels of research and policy capability, and that we develop policy in a collaborative way across agencies and jurisdictions. I would add to this that we need to take a strategic approach to engaging with the community in developing policy advice where this can add value.

What is ‘Policy’?

First, I need to define my terms. The word ‘policy’ is used to cover two related but distinct topics. Policy can refer both to a government's stated approach to an issue and the process which establishes a new or modified direction. It is this second concept that I am talking about today.

Most policy work is spread along a continuum: there is strategic big picture policy at one end, and day-to-day minor regulatory or programme policy at the other end. Wherever it fits on the continuum, policy advice needs to be considered in the context of the process of policy implementation and the broader public sector environment.

Since the seventies, the public sector in Australia, and the OECD, has adapted to a wide range of economic, social and technological developments. During this time, the Australian Public Service has come through probably the greatest policy reform effort in our history.

The economy has opened up, our social policies have been better targeted at community needs, our tax system and labour markets have been reformed. At the same time, the public sector has seen devolution of responsibility, increased openness and accountability and a greater focus on efficient delivery of services.

Our policy advising role has also changed. Thirty years ago, the public service in Australia had what constituted essentially a monopoly on policy advice to government. Today, we operate in a highly contestable environment.

As policy makers we are continually faced with new problems or the need to deal with new dimensions of existing problems. We also also need to deal with the expectations of, and changing relationships between citizens and governments.

The Policy Advising Context in the 21st Century

Government Priorities

As policy makers, we need to be aware of government priorities, and the major policy issues of the day that affect our work. We also need to be aware of some of the distinctive features of the current policy environment.

Policy makers also need to be responsive to the government of the day. At the Australian Government level, the Prime Minister laid down five top priorities for the fourth term of the Coalition Government. Many of these are equally applicable at the State or Territory level and for our New Zealand colleagues. These priorities are:

  • security
  • a strong and prosperous economy
  • an enterprising culture
  • a fair and decent society, and
  • sustainable resource use.

We can see these priorities playing out in a number of major policy issues currently facing Australia and New Zealand. Let me refer to just a few.

Perhaps most fundamentally, September 11, the Iraq War and the Indonesian bombings have had profound effects on how all public sector agencies, in Australia and New Zealand, operate to different degrees. Many public servants are engaged directly in work to promote stability and peace. Others are affected more indirectly, whether by working to build better institutional structures in our region or more cohesive social structures at home.

For all of us the events of September 11 reinforced the importance of policy makers anticipating to the extent possible, major shifts in our operating environment, as well as being able to respond quickly and effectively to the completely unexpected.

The issues of climate change and sustainable water management are also receiving significant international attention, not only from the scientific community and government, but also from increasingly concerned communities in Australia and New Zealand and the rest of the world.

Policy makers from a range of public sector agencies, whether economic, environmental or agriculture, are under increasing pressure to come up with effective long-term solutions to these difficult problems. Our ability to do this is a test of our capability and our relevance.

Continuing to invest in our education and training systems to underpin sustainable economic growth is another major priority for all governments. At the Australian level, education and training received significant attention in last month’s Budget. It continues to be a major focus for both sides of politics.

Another area policy makers need to be aware of is the requirement for continued microeconomic reform to improve productivity and strengthen the economy. This is a major driver in the Australian Government’s efforts to further build our prosperity. It also has implications for a wide range of policy areas.

In Australia, achieving sustainable improvements in the circumstances of Indigenous Australians is another ongoing policy challenge—one that has eluded our policy makers and administrators over many years. We have much to learn from our New Zealand colleagues about enhancing Indigenous well being and self-reliance. This is an area which clearly shows the importance for policy makers of sharing and learning from others’ experience.

Finally, public services are under increasing pressure to develop innovative approaches to increase the impact and responsiveness of service delivery, including better customisation and design around citizens. This is not just an issue for policy implementation. Policy makers need to be aware of citizen expectations and how their proposals for change will affect the clients that use them. They also need to be aware of the implications of new technology for service delivery.

As policy makers I think it is important that we keep our heads up, so that we are aware of developments in all these areas. A narrow focus on our own area of concern can lead us to miss important changes in the policy environment or the potential for linkages between our own and other issues.

The Features of the Policy Advising Operating Environment

An awareness of the major policy issues facing our jurisdictions, however, is not enough on its own. In seeking to address such complex policy problems, we also need to factor in the operating environment in which policy advising occurs.

A range of external and internal forces form this complex and dynamic environment. We face competing priorities, as well as fiscal and time constraints with increasing pressure to provide the ‘instant’ fix. Of course, we also have to factor in the electoral cycle that looms particularly large this year for Australian Public Service employees.

The impact of globalisation is also profound. It would be a very foolish policy maker who fails to factor in the international situation. A clear example here is climate change, which has both national and international ramifications. Air, water and the weather know no boundaries.

Free trade agreements are another example of the international context adding additional complexities to the policy environment; as are tax arrangements between nations which are designed to minimise avoidance activities.

A key change in recent years has been the growth in the contestability of policy advice. The public service is only one of a range of key players in the policy advice process. Today we have a growing number of ministerial staffers, lobbyists, non-government organisations, institutes and ‘think’ tanks and other interested groups—all providing policy inputs and advice to government.

This can be challenging for the public service. I believe, however, that we have an important competitive advantage as public servants. In the Australian Public Service, our fundamental advantage is our Values, clearly laid out in the Public Service Act. Most other jurisdictions also have their values or underlying principles clearly articulated as part of their legislative framework.

All the jurisdictions represented here have professional public services that provide disinterested, impartial and apolitical advice. As such we have no interest group to serve and no profit to make from the policy advice we provide. We are, therefore, uniquely placed to weigh up the advice that the Government receives from other players.

This position is further strengthened from a policy perspective as we can call on institutional memory and can assist the Government to keep history from repeating itself.

Another significant advantage we have for policy advising is our diversity. Diversity is a tangible component of our organisational capability and we need to tap into the diverse perspectives within the public sector, and our links to the community to inform our policy-making.

The Challenges for Policy Advisers

For the APS, and other public services, the context itself drives policy advising. The challenge, if we are to retain our competitive ‘edge’, is to be responsive to this context.

We must be ready for anything, be quick at it, and accountable for it!

To do this we need to work collaboratively within our own public service jurisdictions and across the public/private divide. We need to show strong and strategic leadership, understand our workforce and plan to increase our policy advising capability.

Building our Capability for Research and Policy

One of the building blocks for policy is strong research skills.

I have been concerned for some time that there has been an erosion of the capacity in the Australian public service in research, analysis and evaluation, even though these are the very skills that underpin the fresh thinking that has the potential to resolve national problems.

There are various reasons for this decline including the contracting out of research, the impact of resource constraints, and sometimes, too great a focus on day-to-day activities, programme management mantras and media management.

As well as a decline in research capacity, I am also concerned that we may be seeing a decline in the ability of public servants to provide strategic policy advice.

In my last State of the Service Report, I found that the capacity of our senior leaders and middle managers to shape strategic thinking in the Australian Public Service is an area that needs attention. I suspect that this may also be true in other Australian jurisdictions.

The decline in our strategic thinking capability is likely to reflect our strong emphasis on achieving results and negotiating outcomes and is, to some extent, a combination of the competing and expanded management roles in agencies.

The tendency for more policy issues to be drawn into the centre may also be marginalising our line agencies’ contribution to policy advising. It is very hard for a line officer in a discrete business area to appreciate wider systemic issues or see the bigger picture, and often times they don’t have the information to do so anyway.

The decline is also likely to reflect some of the stark workforce challenges facing most of our jurisdictions. For many of us, the retirement of our baby boomers, combined with the impact of general labour market supply shortage, is already starting to bite.

In the Australian Public Service, we are seeing an increase in the number of Senior Executive and Executive Level, or middle management staff with limited experience, both at the current level and in terms of broader experience outside their current agency. This has a particular impact on our capacity to provide strategic policy advice, as strategic capacity only develops with time and with exposure to a broad range of relevant experiences .

To address this trend we need to be actively identifying those with a flair for strategic thinking at an early stage and giving them opportunities to develop their research and policy skills. We also need to look at more proactive recruitment strategies to attract staff with the strategic thinking skills we need. When we locate these people, we should incubate them—train them in the practical skills of research and policy making, and give them good opportunities for exposure to high profile issues, Ministers and stakeholders.

Whole of Government Policy Making

Strategic thinking capability is essential in tackling the big policy issues facing all our jurisdictions. The major policy problems that we face today have no respect for agency or jurisdictional boundaries. We cannot let these boundaries get in the way of providing effective policy advice.

Whole of government activity is already well underway to deliver better outcomes in areas such as security, natural resource management and the environment, health, biosecurity, service delivery and social policy.

In Australia, the massive effort to respond to Cyclones Larry and Monica last year demonstrates whole of government working at its best. We generally work well together when responding to a crisis situation or where there are clear expectations among all parties of responsibility for what needs to be achieved.

The challenge for us as policy makers is to translate these successes to some of the chronic policy issues that we face where the problems are less clearly defined, and the solutions are less obvious, for example, water resources management or Indigenous health.

Collaboration requires changes in agency culture, closer working relationships across agencies and across jurisdictions, and changes in the mindset of many public servants. It means encouraging public servants to think out of the box and to move beyond agency-bound limits to thinking.

Policy advising would be greatly improved if creative problem solving approaches based on achieving shared outcomes across portfolios and across jurisdictional boundaries became the norm. Policy makers should look for opportunities to work collaboratively within their own public service and beyond.

One of the great advantages of the ANZSOG Masters course is the insight you get into the way other jurisdictions work and in the contacts you make, that will help you to do just that!

Policy Advising and Community Engagement

Working collaboratively, however, extends beyond working with other government agencies. It also increasingly means engaging directly with the community, both in developing policy advice and in developing plans to implement policies.

Actively engaging with the community in the development of policy is something that needs to be targeted in areas where it will have most impact. It is likely to be of most benefit where the active participation and cooperation of citizens is required as part of the solution. Policies aimed at encouraging farmers to adopt sustainable land management practices come to mind. We are more likely to be successful at changing behaviour if the issues we are addressing are widely understood, discussed and owned by the people whose behaviour we are trying to change.

For some of our most pressing policy issues there is no agreement about what the problem is we are addressing—no shared understanding. Climate change is a good example. We may now have international agreement that climate change is real, but there is still huge debate about the extent of the problem and how and where it should be addressed. And, even if there was agreement, while many countries in the world would sign up to implement the agreement, they do not always deliver in practice. In these circumstances, it can be extremely difficult not only to make headway on developing an acceptable solution, but also in seeing it delivered.

Active participation or citizen engagement can be an important part of policy-making in these circumstances. But it is not something that is easy to achieve. The OECD says that basic principles of citizen engagement include ‘shared agenda setting for all participants, a relaxed time frame for deliberation, an emphasis on value-sharing rather than debate, and consultative practices based on inclusiveness, courtesy and respect’.

These are not easy principles to put into practice. And they are not shared in all parts of the world. We often work in highly politically-charged environments marked by resource constraints and pressures for the delivery of immediate solutions. Most countries have limited resources and they tend to be focussed on the provision of basic services, rather than overall service and the quality of life of citizens.

Whether the benefits of active citizen engagement outweigh the costs needs to be accessed on a case-by-case basis. It will, in any case, require some level of ministerial authorisation.

What I am suggesting to you today is that you need to be aware of the fact that, in the right circumstances, citizen engagement can be a powerful tool for the policy maker.

I am particularly pleased that this year, one of the ANZSOG Masters students’ work-based projects sponsored by the Australian Public Service Commission, is looking at where citizen engagement should best be targeted and what are the right tools to use in the right circumstances. I am looking forward to seeing the outputs of this research.

Developing Policy-Making Capability

Given the range of challenges facing today’s policy makers we need to look carefully at how to develop policy-making capability.

Internationally, there are a number of initiatives aimed at improving the capacity of public servants to use evidence-based policy-making.

The UK’s National School of Government provides courses for public servants on evidence-based policy-making. It has also set up ‘practitioner exchange forums’ for academics and policy practitioners to discuss issues.

In the Australian Public Service, the Australian Public Service Commission provides programmes for our executive level (middle managers) on collaborative policy formulation and advice and is developing specific policy advising courses for our Senior Executives.

The emphasis on designing Public Policies and Programmes in the ANZSOG Executive Masters course is another good example.

I am particularly keen for our policy-making courses to put a greater emphasis on how evidence-based policies can promote behaviour change in complex policy areas, such as tackling obesity or drug use.

Developing capability is, of course, about more than attending courses. To develop your policy-making skills you need to actively put yourself forward to take on challenging policy work, and broaden your experience by exposure to different policy-making environments.

A turn in programme management or direct service delivery is also a good idea. First hand experience of the challenges of implementing policies in the real world is invaluable for any policy maker.

At an agency level, we also need to ensure that policy makers working on the big issues are equipped with the skills and experience to work effectively with the community.


As policy makers we must be ready and able to respond quickly as the need arises to future issues and internal and external challenges.

Good policy takes a 360-degree view. It ensures policy advice is integrated within the broader policy framework, anticipates and addresses the consequences of proposed policies, and responds quickly to any unanticipated consequences.

I urge you to take up the challenge of policy advising even though the challenges may be many and varied.

The complexity and contestability of modern policy advising reminds me of the ancient Chinese curse which says, ‘May you live in interesting times’. But, on policy advice provides the opportunity for those with a sense of commitment to public service and to improving the well being of our fellow citizens, to make a real difference.

I wish you all the very best for what I feel will be a most exciting and rewarding future in policy-making in the public sector.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018