The recent OECD’s report, entitled “Strengthening Policy Development in the Irish Public Sector in Ireland”, contains many challenges for the Irish Authorities. 6724d155-en.pdf (oecd-ilibrary.org) . The report was funded by the European Union and was completed with the full co-operation of key Government Departments. At the heart of the report is a drive to enhance overall public policy development and strategic capabilities across Ireland’s Civil and Public Service. While Ireland has a good reputation for public policy making, recent occurrences have challenged the traditional ways of undertaking policy development. These include the impact of Brexit, the influences of Covid-19, and the consequences of Russia’s war against Ukraine. As regards Covid 19 specifically, my recent blog discusses the impact of the pandemic on the policy evaluation process https://pai.ie/policy-evaluation-in-the-era-of-covid-19/
Ireland is not starting with a blank page as regards policy development. The report recognises that Ireland has strengths in policy making and that there many examples of good practices. Notwithstanding these positive features, the OECD suggests several areas of action to bolster the policy development system and improve policymaking.
The OECD argues that addressing recent global challenges requires rethinking of the ways in which policies are designed, co-ordinated, implemented and evaluated. Specifically, it argues that the process needs to be reworked in a way that not only develops good policies but also ensures that these are legitimate to different audiences from ministers to citizens and sustainable in their implementation. The reworking means that governments need to have the right tools at hand so that their policy development systems can adapt and change quickly and deliver policy solutions that have a real and immediate impact on societal well-being. What does that mean for Ireland? It means selecting the key tasks and deciding on the right tools.
- The Tasks: Increasing the ability of Ireland’s Public Sector to develop and deliver on complex policies relating to climate change, digitalisation, demographic changes, housing and homelessness, globalisation, and long-term healthcare and to contribute to future-proofing such policies through strategic foresight.
- The Tools: Ensuring that Public Servants in Ireland have the tools, knowledge, and skills to strengthen their policy development and implementation capacities.
Pillars of Policy Development
The OECD highlights three pillars under which policy should be developed in Ireland in the future. They are Evidence, Implementation/Feasibility and Legitimacy and they are mutually reinforcing. As the OECD puts it – “…the Civil Service would find it difficult to gather and analyse and share data if there isn’t sufficient legitimacy; feasibility depends in part of the availability of good data; and legitimacy depends, in part, on government being able to show they can deliver”.
Box A outlines what the pillars should embrace.
Box A: What is required under the OECD’s Three Pillars?
- Evidence: This pillar refers to the collection and use of evidence to inform policy. Policy development requires the right sorts of evidence and data to enable prompt decision making and action, and the use of them for policy purposes. Their use requires the capacity to properly understand and assess available evidence and to translate it into policy. Moreover, systems, standards and protocols must be in place to allow for understanding, leveraging, and sharing of the available data.
- Implementation and Feasibility: The quality of any individual policy depends on the extent to which it is effectively implemented. Good policy advice includes not just delivery but also how policy is monitored, evaluated, and adjusted in the light of any new evidence that emerges. Traditionally, policy projects have been “closed off” once political decisions are made. This is changing, with the realisation that implementation is a critical part of the policy cycle and that reporting on progress of implementation is an integral part of policy.
- Legitimacy: Legitimacy depends on trust and the democratic basis of support throughout the policy development process. The legitimacy of policy choices has come under increased scrutiny with COVID-19. Important questions emerge about how the public interest is integrated into the policy decisions, design, and implementation. It is important that the public’s views, understanding and engagement are being sufficiently factored into the design and implementation processes for policy making.
Source: Material reworked from the OECD Report “Strengthening Policy Development in the Irish Public Sector in Ireland”, 6724d155-en.pdf (oecd-ilibrary.org)
There is evidence that Ireland is doing many of the right things to meet the requirements of the three pillars of policy. The problem is that the world is changing at a much faster pace than previously. In turn, governments must face many more challenges and they are emerging more frequently. As the OECD report puts it – “The current multi-faceted and global crises that governments are facing, from the pandemic to climate change to the impact of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, have put into question traditional ways of undertaking policy development in many countries around the world, including Ireland”. 6724d155-en.pdf (oecd-ilibrary.org)
Quite clearly, addressing these challenges requires rethinking of the ways in which policies are designed, co-ordinated, implemented and evaluated.
Civil Service Leadership
The OECD report highlights the importance of civil service leadership in driving the momentum for strengthening policy development in Ireland. In that regard, the establishment of the Civil Service Management Board is an example of Ireland’s efforts to build sustainable and comprehensive leadership. It is made up of all Secretaries General and Heads of Offices and is chaired by the Secretary General to the Government. The Board’s focus is on overseeing the implementation of the priorities set out in the Civil Service Renewal Plan. That Plan embraces of 18 Government Departments and a range of associated Offices with over 41,600 staff. Departments and Offices assume a diverse set of responsibilities to support the Government by developing policy and legislation to address major national issues, co-ordinating the broader Public Service, helping to manage the economy and delivering services to the public. It also has an important role to play in interacting with the wider political system, serving the needs of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann and regulating sectors and services.
In its report, the OECD puts great emphasis on a relatively new discipline which is known as ‘strategic foresight’. Put simply, it means having the capability to perceive emerging future changes in the present, then making sense of them and using them to shape policy. The European Commission has a useful website devoted to strategic foresight. https://commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/strategic-planning/strategic-foresight_en What the OECD is recommending, as regards strategic foresight, is that a greater effort is made to further embed this discipline into policy making. The OECD report does acknowledge that work is already being done in relation to strategic foresight in Ireland. Further, interviews carried out by the OECD research team in Ireland suggest that there is a growing appetite for strategic foresight as an aid for strategic policy discussions and a “way to get people to talk about trade-offs and choices”. Other countries have strengthened their ability to embed strategic foresight in their policy planning and development, e.g., Canada, Finland and Singapore.
The OECD report provides several insights and pointers on how the Government of Ireland could develop a policy capability infrastructure. It also proposes the development of an accompanying toolkit as part of a broader good practices hub and suggests several steps that could be considered. The work of Sally Washington ( Australia and New Zealand School of Government) is cited as a base from which Ireland might enhance its policy making process – see “An infrastructure for building policy capability – lessons from practice”, https://doi.org/10.1080/25741292.2022.2139952
This work was shared during a peer learning session as part of this OECD project.
Box B summarises the content of a typical policy capability change programme.
Box B: Dimensions of a Policy Capability Change Programme.
- Agree on a vision and powerful narrative.
- Develop a model of the policy process as an organising framework.
- Articulate what great policy advice looks like and what goes into it.
- Bring together guidance, methods, tools and capabilities to support policy professionals in their day-to-day work.
- Describe the characteristics of a high-performing policy shop (team and organisation).
- Encourage and support leaders and departments to assess their policy capability and kick-start an improvement trajectory.
- Spell out the skills required for policy professionals and take a system-wide view of people’s capability.
- Present the programme as a whole-of-government change process, and
- Leverage and support other reforms.
Source: Work by Sally Washington as cited in the OECD Report “Strengthening Policy Development in the Irish Public Sector in Ireland”, 6724d155-en.pdf (oecd-ilibrary.org)
The OECD suggests that this vision for a policy capability infrastructure can – “…serve as a narrative for socialisation across the civil service to kick-start and build momentum for the change process (use OECD assessment report as an anchor)”. In addition, the OECD recommends that supporting mechanisms should be established to ensure change actually ‘sticks’. In the final analysis, however, change will only ‘stick’ if all the players, and not just government, are fully committed to ensuring the development of an enhanced policy making framework.
Tom Ferris, Consultant Economist.
Tom Ferris is a Consultant Economist specialising in Better Regulation. He lectures on a number of PAI courses and blogs regularly for PAI. He was formerly the Senior Economist at the Department of Transport, Ireland.