Practitioners in the 'art of government' what do policy makers, politicians, lobbyists say about the policy process?

Researchers Dr Gemma Carey (@gemcarey) and Brad Crammond have interviewed a range of politicians, senior past and present bureaucrats, government advisors and lobbyists to find ways to break down barriers between sectors, close research practice gaps and create policy change. Their report was released this week at a research forum hosted by the national Social Determinants of Health Alliance (SDOHA).

Whether we work in the community sector, research or advocacy, we all want to know how to get ourselves heard and how to have an impact on policy.

But for the most part, the “complex and shifting rationalities of public policy-making still largely elude” us. Despite our best efforts, these rationalities and processes remain a black box, the content of which is unknown. Opening this black box is critical to breaking down barriers between sectors, closing research practice gaps and creating policy change.

In Taking action on the social determinants of health. Insights from politicians, policymakers and lobbyists, we attempt to reveal and explain the rationalities of policymakers and how we – as advocates and researchers – can better negotiate them.

In the report, we took, as our conceptual starting point, that those who work within the policy process are practitioners in the art and science of government. From this, we reasoned that shining a light on their ‘practice’ (whether that was the practice of policymaking, of politics or of political advocacy) would enable those interested in policy change to be more strategic and constructive in the way they work with, lobby or try to influence politicians and policymakers.

We spoke to 21 federal and state politicians, senior public servants and policy advisers in order to build a picture of the policy process from a range of different vantage points.

The report draws attention to the ways in many of our efforts to create social change are out of step with what we call the ‘structural and discursive’ dimensions of the policy process.

Put simply, governments are ‘structured’ in particular ways that help them to do the essential job of ‘governing’ the population. Government is broken down into departments, who manage different aspects of our lives. These departments are presided over by ministers, who are elected on a four-term basis to represent our interests. These structures make the enormous task of governing a population possible.

While necessary, these structures create certain conventions for how social problems (and potential solutions) are described and explained (the ‘discursive dimensions’ of policymaking). In short, they need to be amenable to resolution by and within these structures. This means that problems like social inequality that are diffuse, complex and cross over many – if not all – departments of government, are unlikely to gain traction. Instead, they are dismissed as too difficult and risky for governments to tackle.

These structures of government mean that advocates must break down problems and solutions into more manageable initiatives, which can be tackled by one or two departments.

Although we recognise that widespread change is necessary, based on our findings, securing such change requires a more strategic approach: an approach that begins with small-scale, solutions-focused interventions that can secure early success. This, in turn, will open doors for researchers and advocates and provide them with a more influential seat within policy agenda setting and decision-making processes.

We also found that advocates and researchers should not shy away from engaging in more and ideological debate. While objective ‘evidence-based’ approaches have been all the rage in recent years, they are (again) out of step with the discursive conventions of policymaking. Moral, ethical and ideological arguments sit at the core of political debate and public policy. For example, winning an election requires politicians to present a vision of the future. To do this, they engage in moral and ethical reasoning. Lets take an excerpt from the Prime Minister’s recent book:

You cannot have stronger communities without a stronger economy to sustain them and you cannot have a stronger economy without stronger, more profitable businesses. My basic message to Australians today is that securing our future depends more on strong citizens than on big government.

Here, Tony Abbott paints a picture of ‘reality’, where small government and free markets create happy and prosperous communities. The policy response to this is to do away with government structures and policies that ‘get in the way’ of communities.

These moral arguments over what is needed to create a stronger future for Australia, used to persuade us of a particular course of policy action, are part of the context of policymaking. To disengage with these is to disengage with the basis upon which political and policy arguments are fought and won.

In our report, we provide guidelines for researchers and advocates to help negotiate the structural realities and discursive conventions of policymaking. While some may find our recommendations frustrating – seeking more transformative policy change – our research indicates that if we don’t operate within the conventions of governments, than we may discount ourselves from the very conversations we want to influence.


Dr Gemma Carey is a Research Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University.

 Brad Crammond is a lecturer and PhD student at the Centre for Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at  Monash University.

Posted by Marie McInerney