Policy Analysis in Australia- Complexities, Arenas and Challenges

Kate Crowley

Kate Crowley is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Tasmania.

Brian Head

Brian Head is Professor of Policy Analysis at the University of Queensland.

Policy analysis and advice today is a complex exercise. Sound analysis is more important than ever, given the array of intractable, ‘wicked’ problems facing the modern state, and its inadequate capacity to deal with them. But providing policy advice and analysis is no longer solely the preserve of the traditional public sector. Moreover, advice in contemporary times is not necessarily disinterested, apolitical, or given without fear or favour. Indeed, giving ‘the minister’ unwanted advice could, as suggested in the ‘children overboard’ debacle (Weller 2002), be a career limiting move for bureaucrats employed on contract. The context of advice-giving is complicated by intergovernmental relations, with the Commonwealth intruding into the policy-making jurisdictions of the states. The Commonwealth’s growing fiscal dominance since the 1940s, and its associated great expansion of policy ambition and reach, has left the states in its shadow on many areas of strategic policy direction.

We no longer think of the government sector alone when we think of policy analysis and advice.  This is because Australia’s policy landscape has changed massively over recent decades. Vast networks have emerged, as they have elsewhere, well beyond government, in formal and informal arenas where they compete for policy attention. This means there is no single authoritative source of advice informing ministerial decision-making, but rather a bottomless sea of contested information that is shared instantaneously on portable devices through social media across the world. Bureaucrats and political minders, in addition to providing advice to ministers, must also broker this swirling mass of information and make sense of it as part of advancing their minister’s agenda. This is challenging both for advisers inside government and for the academic analysts trying to make sense of policy debates and trends. Some policy advisers may attempt to remain impartial, and rely on objective apolitical research, many others internal and external to government are likely to be highly partisan and at times very powerful through their political or financial resources.

In working recently with colleagues to assemble a group of essays on Policy Analysis in Australia, we have looked at the contemporary context of policy advice and policy analysis in Australia, and observed several notable developments. The first is the changing context of intergovernmental relations, the increasing dominance of the Commonwealth, and the insufficient academic attention to the enduring policy needs and capacities of subnational levels of government. The second very significant development, in framing the context of policy debate, has been the neo-liberal reform movement since the 1980s that has facilitated a dramatic shift in policy directions and advisory roles across levels of government and beyond.  Given the transformative emphasis upon economic productivity and efficiency, ‘economic rationalist’ policy approaches have become the new orthodoxy in Australia and elsewhere, and economic rationales for policy advice and program evaluations have gained ground. In terms of academic analysis, the question of how ‘economic rationalist’ policy frameworks were rapidly, if unevenly, accepted on both sides of politics has been widely analysed, debated and recently revisited by policy researchers. This shift is also important because of its impact on the policy capacity of the modern state.

Interestingly, by the time policy studies emerged out of the shadow of public administration as a distinct field in Australia in the 1980s, the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating Labor government were well underway. Policy was fundamentally reoriented, prompting critical scholarship and institutional reflection throughout the 1990s as the policy agenda became re-aligned along Anglo-American free market lines. Pusey (1991) sparked controversy by claiming that this new paradigm had largely eclipsed the older social welfare paradigm as the ‘nation-building state’ in Australia retreated, downsized, and invariably suffered in breadth and depth of policy capacity. Associated contextual developments since the 1990s included the rise of more collaborative governance as a means of achieving policy outcomes in the context of fiscal constraints, and within academia a new interest in network governance analysis. Questions remain, however, as to how well the networks in the non-government sector are coping with the increased burden of delivering extensive services and providing evidence based advice about policies and programs in this era of diminished resources.

If we look at the total landscape of actors that provide policy advice, we find a plethora of bodies that are close to government, but more or less independent – parliamentary committees, advisory bodies, think tanks and consultancy firms. These organisations undertake important work, but remain relatively unnoticed unless their work is highlighted through intersections with political debate, or through the leaking of confidential information, or through government stepping in to terminate or distance itself from their services. Beyond these bodies and individuals are non-government organisations that play significant roles in generating policy advice and commentary, such as community service NGOs, and the more overtly partisan representative bodies such as business associations, the labour movement, and political party machines. These stakeholders employ the dual strategy of undertaking policy analysis and research, whilst also engaging in strategic policy communication in the public battle for ideas. None of these bodies or stakeholders has been well researched in Australia so little is known about their policy capacity other than the clear tension for some of them between providing advice to government and seeking public funding. All of them operate in a highly ‘mediatised’ environment where traditional media and social media can become the battleground for contested policy advice and analysis.

The challenge for academic policy analysis in Australia is to provide well-informed accounts of policy advising arenas within and beyond government and to document and study the impact of changing contexts such as diminished resources. In this way we will achieve a better understanding of how economic ideologies and new technologies may have affected policy advisory capacity at all levels within and beyond government. The contemporary policy advisory landscape also needs to be better described, interpreted and appreciated for its complexity, just as the art of policy analysis itself needs to be embraced as a diverse, broad ranging project. Australian academic policy analysis is not dominated by any single method. It is both academic (analysis of policy) and applied (analysis for policy). It provides institutionalist (structures and process) and interpretive (actors and individuals) accounts. It has had a long preoccupation with case study methodology, in both policy analysis and in teaching. It includes a strong political economy focus on the power structures and constraints that shape the context for broader policy development. There has been a focus on politics, values, ideas, inclusivity, transparency and participation, as much as on performance, accountability and service delivery.

In Policy Analysis in Australia we found that intergovernmental politics, constitutional capacities and constraints, ‘mediatised’ policy processes, heightened politicisation, policy pragmatism and idiosyncratic decision-making all impact on policy advice. The activity, role and influence of policy analysis can be difficult to interpret in these complex circumstances. The focus of scholarly policy studies has broadened over time to address these complexities. Alongside the traditional focus on institutional and political contexts, there is now a greater attention to the interplay between the ideas and perceptions of actors, their networks, their stakeholders and their organisational resources. There are still classic instances where analysis demonstrates how a few key individuals can prominently influence policy, but the general trend is for more dispersed foci in policy analysis involving multiple players and arenas. Beyond the sphere of government agencies, in non-government organisations, associations and political parties, we found policy analysis to be an important activity alongside policy advocacy, as a means of influencing and persuading not just decision makers but also the broader publics. 


Kate Crowley and Brian Head have edited Policy Analysis in Australia: The State of the Art (http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?k=9781447310273) to be launched by Andrew Podger AO on 30th September at the Australian Political Studies Association Annual Conference (http://www.auspsa.org.au/page/apsa-conference-2015-0).


Michael Pusey (1991) Economic Rationalism in Canberra: A Nation-building State changes its mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Patrick Weller (2002) Don’t Tell the Prime Minister. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.

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