The UK Government Policy Profession has piloted a new model called Shared Policy Capability Project to support department leaders and policy makers undertake a facilitated self-assessment of their policy environment and identify opportunities for improvement. Through this the government aims to build capability at a department level and enable policymakers to take an active role in improving the environment in which they make policy.
To improve policy and automatically improve outcomes for citizens, we do not only need to invest in individual skills and capabilities of our policy makers but also on creating an environment conducive to good policy making. So far, in the UK, there has not been a government-wide, department-level effort to understand and improve policy making environments. The policy making environment refers to the enablers and barriers related to the ability of policy makers to produce effective and high-quality policy advice and implementation. This may include organisational culture, business processes, personal capability, or effectiveness of support functions, among others.
It is in this context that the UK Government’s Policy Profession Unit has prototyped a new model that supports department leaders and policy makers to undertake a facilitated self-assessment of their policy making environment. The model was created based on research conducted with over 100 policy makers of different grades and from different departments across UK Government. So far, the model has been co-designed and tested with a single department. However, there are plans to scale this across government. In this model, the department puts together a diverse working group representing different policy relevant areas that would undertake the self-assessment using the policy making environment framework. This framework defines what a policy making environment consists of by looking at four pillars: (1) inputs and resources, (2) processes and practices, (3) people and relationships, and (4) culture and context.
The objectives of the pilot of this new Shared Policy Capability model are:
- To shift the attention towards the policy making environment and to enable policy makers to take an active role in better understanding and shaping their policy making environment.
- To provide a forward-looking tool for learning and improvement, focusing on positive opportunities, rather than a backward-looking comparative appraisal.
- To retain clear ownership and responsibility for policy making capability with departmental leaders, seeking to equip them with better information and calibration rather than taking ownership into the centre which is unlikely to have the capacity or capability to deliver on this.
To gain a better understanding of their policy making environments, departments undergo a facilitated self-assessment. The department puts together a group of policy makers from different areas and of different grades, who attend a series of 10 sessions facilitated by the Shared Policy Capability team. Through the 10 sessions the group collectively makes a diagnosis of their policy making environment by:
- Defining key and unique components of their policy making environment.
- Mapping the strengths and weaknesses of their department’s policy making capability.
- Selecting capability areas from the framework most important to them.
- Conducting interviews with colleagues to gather more evidence.
- Framing self-assessment statements on the selected capability areas.
Another key component of the facilitated self-assessment is the involvement of peer challenger external to the department. Recruited by the Shared Policy Capability team, the peer challenger(s) shadow sessions and conduct additional interviews to present feedback and challenge.
The facilitated self-assessment is based on conversations aiming to reveal new and interesting perspectives on the department’s policy making capability. It’s designed to be a starting point for people to discuss priorities and improvements in regard to their policy making environment, instead of a 9-grid box exercise, for example. By letting policy makers at working level drive the process, it brings to light their real experience of their environment and empowers them to shape department’s plans for capability building. By making it a conversation-based self-assessment, instead of a department review or appraisal, people are more open and honest about their policy making environment and use it as an opportunity for reflection and exchange with others. The component of peer challenge as part of the self-assessment, provides a fresh perspective and a welcome challenge to the department.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Shared Policy Capability Project is an innovation in capability building because:
- While efforts have been made to assess departments’ general capability, or the capability of its policymakers. This is the first model, in the UK, that seeks to improve policymaking capability by looking into policy making environments and applying that at department level.
- It is agile, collaborative, and bottom up, giving policy makers at working level the opportunity to reflect and to drive the diagnosis process. The agility and flexibility of the model allows policy makers to consider unique constraints of their policy making environment in the diagnosis and to adjust it towards their needs.
- It is people-centred by using experienced-based qualitative data and providing safe spaces for people to share their experiences.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The project currently is in the evaluation phase of prototyping. Therefore, while we are understanding whether the prototyping phase has achieved the desired outcomes, we are also using insight to further refine the model and develop proposals for scaling up. So far, the early data is promising. The next step is to discuss how the innovation could be scaled across government. The aim is to allow more departments to undertake this facilitated self-assessment of their policy making environment, however this requires more work in terms of the operational aspects of the model.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The following collaborators were involved:
- More than a hundred civil servants from different grades and areas in government, who shared their experiences, provided feedback, and helped co-designing a framework for how to define what the policy making environment is.
- Subject matter experts and external consultants from the field of innovation, capability, and government reform, who provided their expertise.
- A governmental department that piloted and tested the model with us.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
- Policy makers, who use the model to gain a better understanding of their policy making environment and to inform department’s priorities in capability building.
- Department leaders, who get a departmental view of their policy making capability and ideas for improvement.
- The wider policy profession who learn about leading practice and gains insights into the system to tailor future learning initiative to departmental needs.
- Citizens who will benefit from better policy outcomes.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
In essence, the prototype has been successful in helping a department to better understand their policy making environment, to provide a safe space for policy makers to reflect on their conditions and capabilities at a department level and for departmental leaders to get a sense of gaps and priorities for policy making capabilities. Based on results of a pre and post survey conducted with the pilot department, policy makers' understanding of strengths and weaknesses of their policy making environment has increased by 9% and their ability to know what changes to prioritise has increased by 37% (n=10). Participants have also noted the important role of the Shared Policy Capability team and their positive influence in making this a short and concise intervention and making the voice of policy makers at working level heard by valuing their experiencing and letting them drive the self-assessment process. One pilot participant commented: "We got them talking and reflecting on things they wouldn't otherwise”.
Challenges and Failures
Policy makers are very busy and are facing challenging times. One big challenge has been how to fit this self-assessment process into their day-to-day job, making sure it’s not becoming an extra burden, but instead a helpful intervention. In the pilot this has been addressed by focusing on short, intensive, and well facilitated sessions to be as time efficient as possible. Another challenge has been on how to incentivise departments to undertake this self-assessment and to invest into it. We’ve seen great enthusiasm and interest for the model coming from working level and going forward there is more work needed to understand how to best leverage this, as well as ensuring senior buy-in.
Conditions for Success
The project has been centrally funded by the UK policy profession unit. Continuous funding is essential to have a team in place that facilitates the self-assessments with departments. Furthermore, strong commitment from leadership is crucial to promote the project and to ensure actions are taken based on the results of the self-assessment. The concept of the policy making environment and the shift from just looking at individual capabilities towards looking at departmental capabilities is new to most people. It requires a change in how people think about capability, an acceptance that policy making capability is complex and multi-faceted, and a willingness to try to understand that complexity.
So far, the model has been tested only with one government department. With the required resources and leadership in place it has the potential to be scaled across government. We already have people wanting to get involved and to apply this model to inform their own departmental capability strategies. In the future, other governments might become interested in adopting this model, making it a global approach to building policy making capabilities.
Through the research and the pilot, we learned that policy making environments are very complex and diverse and that a “one size fits all“ approach would not meet the individual needs of departments. Allowing flexibility and considering the uniqueness of the department in the self-assessment has been proven as very important. Leadership and policy makers at working level do not necessarily share the same perception of the strengths and the weaknesses of their policy making environment. It’s important to empower people at working level and to make their experiences heard.
- Identifying or Discovering Problems or Opportunities - learning where and how an innovative response is needed
- Generating Ideas or Designing Solutions - finding and filtering ideas to respond to the problem or opportunity
- Developing Proposals - turning ideas into business cases that can be assessed and acted on
- Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
29 July 2023