UNSW Canberra

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  • (2022) Faulkner, Anne
    Policy capacity implies the presence of a range of individual skills, work activities and organisational abilities that combine to facilitate high-level performance of the policy function in an organisation. In the context of increasingly complex public policy issues and processes, high-level policy capacity is a key objective for public sector development in Australia and internationally. Since the late 1970s, several administrative reviews have assessed the ability of the Australian Public Service (APS) to meet the demands of a changing and increasingly complex public governance environment. Policy capacity has persistently been identified as an area for improvement in these reviews, resulting in repeated attempts to address deficiencies. Why APS policy capacity has failed to improve despite these attempts is unclear; however, persistent negative assessments of APS policy capacity suggest a failure of reformers to identify critical obstacles to the development of policy capacity in the APS environment. The importance of policy capacity to policy performance necessitates clarifying how the conditions for effective policy capacity can be shaped by environmental factors and how conditions might be engineered for improved performance. This study considers these issues through examination of policy capacity in APS social policy agencies. Performance and accountability instruments are key tools for establishing performance and behaviour in an institutional setting and have acted as key tools for reform of policy performance within the APS. However, how performance and accountability instruments determine the level of policy capacity in the APS environment, how policy capacity is built and the influence of contextual factors on policy capacity remain under-examined, implying some assumptions underlying past reforms of these instruments are untested. Performance and accountability instruments, like all administrative instruments, must meet multiple objectives in their implementation including administrative functionality and political ideological objectives. Those designed since 1980 are likely to have New Public Management (NPM) objectives at their core, such as efficiency and effectiveness, avoiding risk and performance measurement. However, these may be at odds with other objectives for policy work, such as the development of specialist skills, power-sharing, working across portfolios and systems, and working closely and responsively with the public. Social policy work objectives, in particular, can be hard-to-measure social wellbeing objectives that require working in ways that may be challenging for administrative efficiency such as working in consultative and inclusive ways and across multiple portfolios and their policy settings To examine policy capacity in APS social policy agencies, this exploratory study employs qualitative methods for content analysis of key APS performance and accountability documents and thematic analysis of interviews with APS social policy workers. The research framework is underpinned by critical realist principles and institutional theories. This study shows that while the APS performance and accountability framework builds social policy staff knowledge about policy capacity, it fails to enable social policy through an effective combination of hard and soft structures. This thesis argues that this failure to structure appropriately for policy capacity derives from competition between core expectations in the politico-administrative environment regarding the APS’ role in policy work and visions of policy capacity, suggesting that policy capacity is unrealistic in certain political and administrative systems. This argument suggests that policy capacity can face an uphill battle against the competing demands of political and administrative settings, even as the concept of policy capacity becomes more entrenched as desirable in academic and public sector discourse. This study contributes knowledge about building policy capacity, how context influences policy capacity and how performance and accountability instruments contribute to policy capacity, this study confirms principles in the extant public administration and institutional literature on the functioning and efficacy of administrative frameworks and NPM tools in shaping behaviour, knowledge, performance. The study also contributes new knowledge to the policy capacity and public administration literature regarding a concept of social policy capacity, how different types of performance and accountability structures shape the potential for policy capacity and can inform structural planning principles for developing policy capacity, and the influence of the politico-administrative context on policy capacity.