Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Improving Policy Capability and the Quality of Policy Advice with Initiatives: Lessons from New Zealand Public Sector Agencies

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posted on 2021-12-07, 13:38 authored by Jahan, Khandaker Aftab

There continues to be discourse about declining policy capability at high government levels in Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Over the past 25 years, New Zealand public sector agencies have taken various initiatives intended to change policy practices with a view to professionalising policy analysis and advice. Policy practice refers to the activities of policy staff and agencies to contribute to policy analysis and policy advice. The initiatives indicate an ongoing resolve to improve policy capability and the quality of policy advice to the satisfaction of advice clients.  This thesis examines the initiatives developed by the central government agencies and three agencies (two policy ministries and one council, a local government, which are collectively referred to as ‘agencies’) in New Zealand. The central government initiatives developed between 1990 and 2015 are examined to identify the concepts and ideas used to improve policy capability and the quality of policy advice and explain the contexts that influenced the initiators’ choice and use of initiatives. The initiatives developed between 2008 and 2015 by the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry for the Environment and the Auckland Council are examined in depth to identify and explain the initiators’ choice and use of initiatives. ‘Initiatives’ are used as a means to study organisational choices and activities, centred on the development, use and consequences of initiatives to build, improve or maintain policy capability and ensure high-quality policy advice. The research question addresses what initiatives are developed, why and with what consequences.  A qualitative inquiry draws on evidence from the literature on policy analysis, policy advice and policy capability, focusing on the knowledge, skills, competencies and behaviours required to produce policy analysis and advice. Similarities and differences in the drivers, designs and approaches of the initiatives across three cases are analysed using data from documents and interviews with policy staff and experts outside the case-study agencies.  The findings relating to central agency initiatives suggest that the focus of policy capability initiatives sought to standardise policy practices, ensure the quality of policy inputs with special attention to the use of evidence, tools and frameworks, bring a future focus to policy analysis, and promote collaborative policy analysis. Overall, these initiatives respond to the contextual conditions emanating from state sector reforms.  The findings relating to agency initiatives suggest that policy capability initiatives are driven, approached and designed by the circumstances specific to the organisations (internal influences) and the expectation–response relation between the producers of and clients for policy advice at different levels (external influences). The similarities of the forms of the initiatives with slight modifications in their design but differences in their approaches across the organisations, imply that the initiators are influenced by the contextual conditions.  The initiators’ used their insights and experiences to contextualise initiatives and mixed several ingredients for policy capability to ensure both policy analytical and management capability of policy staff. In some instances, they followed local and international practices considered ‘effective’ in other public-sector organisations. At other times, they responded to the circumstances specific to the agency and external influences on policy capability, and focused on meeting the clients’ quality expectations from policy advice.  The findings confirm that improving policy capability is strongly reliant on the senior leaders’ and policy managers’ ability to identify and apply an appropriate analytical style to policy analysis and bring practical and contextual considerations to bear on policy advice. The appropriateness of the analytical style is determined by a range of factors such as the nature of clients, nature of the problem, political views on the problem, and the demand and supply of policy skills.  The significant influences of contextual variables suggest that policy capability discourse can also be framed as the ability of the policy managers and senior leaders of the organisations to choose policy analytical styles that are fit-for-purpose. This conclusion reveals that the conventional understanding of declining policy capability as due to analytical deficiency is limited in its ability to account for the innovative efforts in New Zealand to improve both policy analytical and management capability at individual and organisation levels.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Public Policy

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Language


Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Government


Wolf, Amanda; Scott, Claudia