It's time to bring implementation into policy design

In difficult times such as these, public policy plays a critical role in addressing the increasingly complex and interrelated issues we face today. But we need to make the development and implementation of good public policy more collaborative if we really want to create better, more sustainable outcomes.

We’re living in challenging times. The reality of cost-of-living and housing crises are everyday conversations, and we brace for severe weather disasters as a regular occurrence. From pandemics, commissions and referendum, we’ve seen the deep-set inequalities and systemic and cultural stigma that faces our most vulnerable, our First Nations and our ageing Australians.

In a time where the need for reform is all around us, the need for good policy is more acute than ever. Public policy shapes the society we live in and is instrumental to our environmental, social and economic wellbeing. But after decades of sound-bite politics and small target government, is it time to improve how we make public policy?


Policy development in a silo

Collaboration is key to addressing the changes we must face, from creating new opportunities and ideas, to removing the barriers and opposition that often cause change to fail. Equally, collaboration also needs to be at the heart of good public policy. Yet all too often, Australian public policy occurs in a silo. A secret that can’t be discussed until it’s approved.

That’s why it was heartening to hear The Hon Bill Shorten MP call for change in the way we think about policy development at the recent AFR Government Summit: “I want to discuss how siloed thinking between policy and implementation can act as a barrier to putting the user first. Policy is important. We need big ideas. We need people to think about how to deliver a government’s agenda.

But implementation is equally important, or government simply doesn’t work. Somewhere along the way, I worry that the intellectualism of policy development has been elevated to a position of superiority over the practicality of implementation. And yet, starting with implementation means starting with the user.”


Well informed policy

Starting with the user and designing through the line is pivotal to the approach we’ve developed, delivering many successful Government reform initiatives. Policy development, implementation design and customer experience work best when equal, connected and developed in parallel to create transformative outcomes.

Making good public policy that balances and anticipates a range of complex factors, behaviours and external influences is challenging. It needs a breadth of perspectives, insights and deep understanding of human behaviour and the connectivity of the ecosystem.

In recent years more policy makers have engaged the public or businesses throughout the development process. But a survey, or theoretical high-level workshop, is not the same as building a deep understanding of their experience and the real problem to be solved. As a result, current approaches often fail to understand how to sustainably and successfully deliver the desired policy outcomes.

This is in part, because policy makers don’t engage those at the frontline and haven’t considered how it might be best implemented. Time and time again, implementation is hand-balled over the fence to service delivery teams after the policy and legislation has been finalised. And by then it’s too late. The opportunity to shape the policy is lost.


The need for an adaptive mindset

The Australian Government’s Policy Hub has some useful advice on how to develop great policy. It states that great policy is “developed with those involved in implementation to try out multiple options, so we have a practical solution and a plan for evaluation”. It recognises that service delivery staff and customers have valuable insights into complex issues, including understanding what the problem is, what they need, and what will work that can help make for better policy. We need to start engaging these stakeholders in solving the problem and developing policy, implementation and customer experience in parallel.

Fundamentally, we need to reframe the way we think about policy development – from being a confidential process that occurs behind closed doors, to one that is transparent, open and shaped by collaboration and evidence. It takes bravery and willingness to value different perspectives, but the evidence shows that the outcomes are so much stronger, and we’ll be all the better for it.


Fiona Armstrong is Head of Strategy at Liquid and has executive-level experience leading and transforming government services. Knowing what it takes to deliver major reform, Fiona works with our clients to imagine and create better outcomes through the transformation of their organisations, experiences and services. She loves a challenge and is committed to improving social outcomes.