The APS review: let’s address the key questions, not peripheral ones

Posted on December 13, 2018

review of 20 major Australian policy initiatives (outlined below) was recently conducted on behalf of the new Democracy Foundation by two think tanks: the right-wing Institute of Public affairs; and the left-leaning Per Capita.


  • Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016
  • Abolition of 457 Visa
  • National Energy Guarantee
  • Broadcasting Reform Bill 2017
  • Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey
  • Enterprise Tax Plan 2017
  • Future Submarine Program
  • Creation of Home Affairs Department

 New South Wales

  • Greyhound Racing Prohibition Bill 2016
  • Local council amalgamations
  • Fire and emergency services levy
  • Criminal justice reforms


  • Access to Medicinal Cannabis Act 2016
  • Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017
  • Climate Change Act 2017
  • Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians Act 2018


  • Tackling Alcohol-Fuelled Violence Act 2016
  • North Queensland Stadium
  • Legalising ride-sharing apps
  • Vegetation Management Bill 2018

Each initiative was scored against 10 criteria developed by Professor Ken Wiltshire for the Institute of Public Administration Australia in 2012.

Ten Criteria for a Public Policy Business Case

  1. Establish Need: Identify a demonstrable need for the policy, based on hard
    evidence and consultation with all the stakeholders involved, particularly
    interest groups who will be affected. (‘Hard evidence’ in this context means
    both quantifying tangible and intangible knowledge, for instance the actual
    condition of a road as well as people’s view of that condition so as to identify
    any perception gaps).
  2. Set Objectives: Outline the public interest parameters of the proposed policy
    and clearly establish its objectives. For example interpreting public interest as
    ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ or ‘helping those who can’t help
  3. Identify Options: Identify alternative approaches to the design of the policy,
    preferably with international comparisons where feasible. Engage in realistic
    costings of key alternative approaches.
  4. Consider Mechanisms: Consider implementation choices along a full spectrum
    from incentives to coercion.
  5. Brainstorm Alternatives: Consider the pros and cons of each option and
    mechanism. Subject all key alternatives to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. For
    major policy initiatives (over $100 million), require a Productivity Commission
  6. Design Pathway: Develop a complete policy design framework including
    principles, goals, delivery mechanisms, program or project management
    structure, the implementation process and phases, performance measures,
    ongoing evaluation mechanisms and reporting requirements, oversight and
    audit arrangements, and a review process ideally with a sunset clause.
  7. Consult Further: Undertake further consultation with key affected stakeholders
    of the policy initiative.
  8. Publish Proposals: Produce a Green and then a White paper for public
    feedback and final consultation purposes and to explain complex issues and
  9. Introduce Legislation: Develop legislation and allow for comprehensive
    parliamentary debate especially in committee, and also intergovernmental
    discussion where necessary.
  10. Communicate Decision: Design and implement a clear, simple, and
    inexpensive communication strategy based on information not propaganda,
    regarding the new policy initiative.

To qualify as ‘good’ policy making, an initiative had to pass more than five of the 10 tests. Only 11 of the 20 met this benchmark, with a number failing lamentably (including local council amalgamations in NSW, creation of the Federal Home Affairs Department, and the same-sex marriage law postal survey). Interestingly, all Victorian case studies that were assessed passed the Wiltshire criteria. In light of the recent Victorian election result, this suggests that good policy can equate to good politics.

As the former Chair of the Productivity Commission and former CEO of the Australian and New Zealand School of Government, Gary Banks is well placed to comment on this sobering review of policy design and implementation. He considered the review in a paper he recently presented on the decline of evidence-based policy making. In the paper, he argues that the review may have set the past benchmark too low and therefore was too generous in concluding that 11 of the 20 case studies constituted good public policy design and implementation.

Either way, he argues that the public service must share some of the blame for the failures in due process and public policy, and asks whether the failings are due to:

  • the public service’s lack of influence on government and the political process
  • a failure by the public service to act, even while knowing what was needed for success
  • the public service being complicit in the failure, by attending to short-term political expediency rather than considered analysis.

He concludes that all these explanations are in play and notes that the first raises issues of capability, while the second and third involve deeper matters of ethics and integrity.

These competing explanations are key to the future role of the public service as an institution in Australia. What is concerning is that the Australian Public Service Review may sidestep these core issues of capability, integrity and ethics with important but secondary issues (especially if they are packaged in tiresome management speak, such as ‘employer of choice’ and ‘world-class’).

Any consideration to how the public sector of the future operates, who works there and what it does must flow from a vital understanding of the role of the public service in serving the public interest (which almost sounds old-fashioned to say), and in contributing to and fashioning good public policy.

In our next issue, we will reframe the five themes identified by the Thodey review around these core issues of capability, ethics and integrity.