Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

Tom Ferris, Economic Consultant

It can be tempting for Governments to react to a crisis without using good policy tools. Often, decisions have to be made in haste, and do not always have the best of outcomes. But even with sufficient time, public policy-making is never easy. Best practice suggests that problems need to be first defined, alternative solutions examined, and consultation undertaken. The measure of success is how good the outcomes are and the extent to which they successfully deliver on government objectives.

Making Public Policy

The making of public policy has been defined as the process by which governments translate their political visions into programmes and actions to deliver “outcomes”. A recent example of policy-making is the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs. This Plan began in 2012, when the action needed to support enterprise in the creation and maintenance of jobs was announced. The latest edition of the Jobs Plan was published in January 2015 and it tracks the progress being made in realising the targets set.1

Policy-making is not a simple process. Policy proposals can come from a variety of sources: from Government Programmes, Court decisions, EU decisions, international obligations, think-tanks, and from the public. It is a matter for Governments to make policy decisions. Government ministers are not alone when it comes to making policy decisions; they have their civil servants and their advisers—and there is no shortage of outside interests who are only too ready to make their voices heard.

Evidence-based Policy Making

There has been a discernible shift towards evidence-based policy during the past decade. It is seen, for example, in value-for-money reviews undertaken by Government Departments, greater use of research in the social sciences and policy proofing tools to underpin key policy objectives, e.g. reducing poverty, and promoting gender equality. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has developed a Public Spending Code in recent years to guide policy analysts. It provides a consistent set of rules and procedures to ensure that these standards are upheld across the Irish public service.2

Sources of Advice

Governments, as decision-makers, are usually under pressure to respond to short-term needs and to external demands from advisers, other politicians, regulators, and pressure groups. Such pressures can result in research being given a low priority. As circumstances change, evidence for policy-making needs to be updated and re-evaluated. This point is highlighted in a publication from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), entitled Using Evidence to Inform Policy; it was edited by Peter Lunn and Frances Ruane.

The challenge for those interested in the evolving public policy process and research is how to engage with those who undertake research, provide training and education, and organise seminars and conference. There is a range of bodies in Ireland that provide some (or all) of the foregoing services, e.g., the ESRI, Institute of International and European affairs (IIEA), Institute of Public Administration (IPA), Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI), National Economic and Social Council (NESC), Public Affairs Ireland (PAI), and TASC. Many of these organisations not only help policy-watchers keep up-to-date with new public policy developments, but also provide commentaries on how public policies are succeeding. The need to follow-up on policy implementation is particularly important in this era of scarce resources.

PAI regularly runs courses on policy making. The next two-day course on “Policy Development, Legislative Drafting & the Legislative Process” starts on 23 April. View here.