Lifting capability for policy advice

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ImageThe 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

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