Lifting capability for policy advice


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The quality and availability of policy advice to state sector decision makers impacts considerably on the effectiveness of the state at any level of development. This has often been downplayed in global discussion of Public Sector Management where the emphasis has been understandably on service delivery and improved governance. The money spent on policy advice is small in relation to any state budget but it is high powered money if it is improving the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery.

Ministries in many developing states have great difficulty assembling and sustaining the capability for policy advice, which is commonly at least a partial explanation for poor policy outcomes. Much advice is provided by external sources but, no matter how well prepared and relevant, is at risk of being sidelined if it does not become embedded in the fabric of the domestic policy development.

Building capacity and capability for policy advice is challenging anywhere and especially in fragile states. A long view of policy capacity building is essential, as it takes years even in favourable circumstances to recruit, train, motivate and retain the people with the skills to provide sound policy advice. Employment conditions, public sector and alternative career paths, politicisation, relations with ministers and opportunities for professional development are just a few of the issues that bear on the sustainability of effective policy capability. Other issues that affect the outcomes of endeavours to build policy capability include the way advisers relate to ministers individually and collectively, the networking of advisers across the ministries, knowledge management, the management and leadership competence of managers and top professionals in charge of policy units and physical working conditions.

Building policy capability is a many faceted agenda anywhere and a particular challenge in low capacity situations. There is work to be done in developing the methods and resources for capacity building for application in this specialised area of state service delivery.

One recent attempt to diagnose policy capability weaknesses and recommend improvements is the work of the Committee on Policy Expenditure commissioned by the Government of New Zealand in 2010. I was the chair of this committee whose other members were Pat Duignan, an economist working in Wellington and Patricia Faulkner, who is an Australian and former head of the Dept. of Health and Human Services in the State Government of Victoria. The committee was supported by a secretariat drawn from various ministries and led by Veronica Jacobsen from the New Zealand Treasury. The Government has accepted the recommendations and implementation is underway. The report and the Government’s response can be found on the Treasury website.

Photocredit: flickr user xadrian



Graham Scott

Former Secretary of Finance, New Zealand

Join the Conversation

Deryck R. Brown
June 10, 2011

Thanks to Graham Scott for drawing to our attention the need to focus more on policy capacity (or capability) which, as he rightly points out, has often been downplayed in the global discussion on Public Sector Management. More emphasis has traditionally been placed on service delivery, improved governance (accountability, anti-corruption, oversight, demand for good governance) and enhancing implementation capacity (especially procurement and financial management). This has always been somewhat of a mystery to me since, in my view, sound policy ought to be at the heart of good governance. It does not matter how well the services are delivered if the policy objectives driving these services are flawed in the first place. Enhancing capacity to implement bad policy is both meaningless and wasteful, and is potentially dangerous.

When I used to teach a graduate class in public policy, I always began by asking the question: "What is a policy and how does it come about?" The answers to this question were most revealing. To many, a policy is usually contained in a document and is the product of a rational process involving research, stakeholder consultation, debate and negotiation, a Cabinet decision and, where necessary, the drafting of legislation to be put before the parliament for debate before being enacted to give life to the policy decision. This is a textbook and, in many places, extremely optimistic view of policy and the policy-making process.

The truth is that real-life policy-making in developing countries (and I wouldn't include New Zealand in this category) is far more opaque. Often, somebody's "good idea" becomes a policy which is not elaborated in any document, is not based on any data analysis or evidence, is not subjected to close scrutiny by the legislature, and is certainly not reviewed systematically through a rigorous monitoring and evaluation system to determine impact.

In fragile states which are "anarchic democracies" where the capacity for policy ananysis is weak or non-existent, political payback and paternalism are all too common, members of Cabinets and legislatures are not well-educated, and legislative drafters are in short supply, what becomes policy and whose interests it is meant to serve are not transparent. Sometimes important policy decisions are merely the expressed interests of well-connected elites taken by powerful cliques and cabals who stand to benefit personally. I have known of cases where Ministers have written their own Cabinet Notes, bypassing the bureaucracy, and of cases where Cabinet decisions were not recorded anywhere so that even the President could not go back to the minute of a Cabinet meeting to seek clarity on a policy decision.

Building capacity for making sound, well-thought-out, evidence-based policy is therefore an essential aspect of the good governance agenda and should feature more prominently in the work of donors and others interested in promoting development.