Policy capacity is one of the recurring topics at meetings of the provincial Clerks of Executive Councils and Secretaries to Cabinet in Canada. Robert Thompson has just retired as Clerk of the Executive Council and Secretary to Cabinet in Newfoundland and Labrador. He led an initiative to ensure that policy capacity in the province remains relevant and useful to government decision makers.
Evolution of policy capacity
Internal policy capacity is an important topic at the present time because of the rapid speed of change in the policy environment and the expanding need to contextualize for decision-makers the massive volumes of information flowing into the government. The policy agenda is also growing to respond to the needs of a more populous, diverse, better educated and wealthy society, which has an increasing expectation of being consulted on policy issues. The pace of change requires dedicated internal resources to collect and assess data and determine how new information affects the policy priorities of the government.
A government’s success in assessing and responding to complex streams of information is directly related to the competence and efficiency of policy professionals who are in close dialogue with senior public service leaders, deeply acquainted with the policy priorities of the government, and fully aligned with the values of public service.
Policy capacity can be regarded as strategic knowledge infrastructure, used for scanning the environment, collecting and maintaining information, conducting analysis, staying connected with stakeholders, modelling policy options, navigating the decision-making maze, coordinating policy agendas across organizations, monitoring outcomes and evaluating results. This function is difficult to out-source. While certain parts of the policy repertoire can be contracted to external experts, even the contracting and project management process with these experts needs to be aligned with internal policy development and, therefore, must be overseen by internal policy professionals.
To argue the importance of internal capacity is not to argue that internal policy professionals provide better advice or that they should have a preferred position over other sources of input to government. Governments need access to policy inputs from citizens, stakeholders, media, think tanks, academia and other sectors. The democratic process demands, and good sense dictates, that the best ideas and information should make their way to decision makers. Moreover, the best decision makers will establish means of avoiding over-reliance on a single dominant source of advice, including the public service. Policy professionals outside government have powerful and sophisticated tools for producing policy analysis and advice, and they make an extraordinarily valuable contribution to policy development.
But it is important to remember that external policy professionals operate with varying degrees of public interest and self-interest. Therefore, government organizations need expert internal policy professionals whose allegiance, through their employment, rests exclusively with the public interest. The ideas, evidence and recommendations from external entities must be filtered by these professionals who, better than any other group, can assist decision makers in dealing with the constraints and opportunities of the policy process. There is a great responsibility on the shoulders of internal policy professionals to provide loyal service with integrity, as no other source of advice and information sits as close to the action when helping decision makers formulate public policy.
Controversies about policy capacity
Unfortunately, the locus of debate, especially by academic and media commentators, about policy capacity in Canada has centred on the erosion of capacity and the perceived stifling of policy ideas by ever-more powerful central agencies and controllers of communications. My opinion is that these perspectives are either wrong or of minor relevance.
Compelling data has not been produced that spending on policy capacity has been disproportionately reduced across governments in Canada. And surveys of public servants show divergence of opinion on this topic. In the 2011 IPAC survey of deputy ministers, 63% of respondents said they perceive that policy capacity is eroding in the public service. Conversely, in another 2011 survey of senior federal and provincial public servants by researchers at Ryerson University, 50% of respondents agreed that policy capacity is increasing while 21% disagreed and, somewhat more objectively, 48% of respondents said that their units employed more policy professionals than five years ago while 18% saw fewer employed.
As for the stifling of policy ideas, anecdotes abound. What many commentators fail to recognize is the legitimacy of the diversification of policy advice from many sectors. They yearn for a return to the day when the public service dominated the policy process. This conception of government is out-dated.
Policy ideas from the public service exist in a kind of marketplace for ideas and solutions, sometimes competing with and sometimes complementing ideas from many external sources. Decision makers have their own criteria for determining which ideas will be turned into policy and which ones do not fit the government’s agenda. This reality bolsters the need for strong and sophisticated internal policy capacity alongside the flow of ideas from external sources.
Internal policy professionals do not use an “ideas scorecard” to judge their success. They sit in crucial proximity to decision makers and provide a set of important and complex policy services. The focus of public and academic debate about policy capacity should, therefore, be expanded beyond erosion and the stifling of ideas. It should concentrate more on whether the policy capacity in the public service is skilled, informed, networked, and consistently able to perform policy services that it is uniquely situated to perform.
Progress in Newfoundland and Labrador
We developed a range of integrated activities to cultivate and improve policy capacity. It is a major focus of professional development within the public service and has resulted in a diverse group of professionals that self-identify as part of the policy community. The key initiatives were as follows.
• Establishment of PolicyNL – launched on the occasion of the 2012 IPAC conference in St. John’s, PolicyNL (www.policynl.ca) is a networking initiative to strengthen our public policy community of practice. Members are mainly from the provincial government, but we have proactively reached out to federal and municipal policy professionals, and practitioners in the non-profit, consulting and academic sectors. Our inaugural event comprised 10 workshops and a plenary event that was attended by several hundred policy professionals of all levels. In addition to these signature events we also host guest speakers at “lunch and learns” and partner with entities such as IPAC and Memorial University’s Harris Centre on topics of shared interest.
• Establishment of the PolicyNL Marketplace – an online networking platform that allows policy professionals to share resources, promote upcoming events, ask questions, and share their skills and experiences with peers.
• Targeted Learning – a Competency Framework for Policy Professionals has been developed, which outlines key skills and a step-by-step guide to develop targeted learning plans. We have also delivered a three-day core policy training course to over 300 people in the public service, and are now evolving our efforts by piloting more sophisticated policy courses and tailoring other general interest courses to the specific needs of the policy community.
• Publication of the NL Policy Model – an online resource that delineates the stages in the policy cycle and sets out our expectations for high-quality policy work. It includes generic best practices for all policy professionals, as well as customized information relevant to Newfoundland and Labrador including key contacts, processes, guides and templates.
• Publication of the Policy Excellence Newsletter – the PEN was launched in June and includes custom articles from members of the policy community to promote policy development work and resources they have found credible and useful.
Through initiatives like PolicyNL, the public service can remain focused on providing excellent policy services to decision makers in government. Continously improving internal policy capacity is critical to successful democratic government in a complex, fast-changing environment.