Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “A Guided Tour Through the Policy Factory” (#smp2014 #AdelED )

This session was led of by Dr Subho Banerjee, Deputy Secretary (Science, Research and Skills), Department of Industry, to take us through policy. He also looks after Science policy in the department. His move into public policy was drive by how science could contribute more to the public policy debate – and hence he is a fan of this current activity. Here comes the tour, but wait, here’s the ticket check. And it’s Wonka’s golden ticket!


Like Wonka, policy maker is a process of creation with a somewhat stretched analogy. Oh dear, he just referenced the fact that he wasn’t above a stretched analogy. Is he reading over my shoulder?

What is the policy factory? Most people look in from the outside and have no idea what goes on in the production process. Apparently, Canberra is like this, as well. I should have taken my anti-analogy pills this morning. Back to it, the policy factory takes a number of very rapidly listed elements (cabinet briefs, policy documents, ministerial decisions, etc) and turns it into a public policy, to deliver the agenda of the government of the day and improve Australian life.

What is policy? What is the idea at the heart of the policy? It needs to be explored, mulled over and tested – how it works and how it can be used to define a policy. It should be pushing forward government policy to benefit Australians. Policies are bespoke, we think about each one in a particular way to meet a particular need. But what are the elements that underly every policy process?

There are five basic principles in the simplified policy model:

  1. Anticipation of a problem and establishing what the question is. What are we asking? Unless you think about the question carefully, you’re not serious about addressing the problem.
  2. Formulation: Designing policy options.
  3. Consultation – test the policy options and its feasibility
  4. Adoption – implementing the policy. Getting it done.
  5. Evaluation of the policy – was it effective?

All of these is designed to make the policy consistent but it’s the ideas that are going through the policy machine. How does Science fit in? It helps us to implement all of the steps and provide a good framework for it but it’s not used to make policy directly, it’s part of a conflicting set of conflicting priorities: community views, political capital, financial issues…

Science through the policy cycle, an example, based on Early Childhood Learning.

  1. Anticipation: In the last 10-20 years, there’s been a shift in policy that is significantly driven by fundamental neurological and behavioural science. You can clearly see the imprint of fundamental science on the policy questions being answered.
  2. Formulation: An increased understanding of neuroscience has influenced the design of policy as to what helps to make little brains grow well.
  3. Consultation: There’s been a heap of first order consultation (what do we want to do) with the medical community, with service providers, and the second order consultation as to how this is going to be achieve.
  4. Adoption: Implementation with all of its benefits, costs and impacts.
  5. Evaluation: Studies as part of ongoing policy interventions.

Science interacts with different parts of this process in different ways – but it’s much messier in the real world. (Boy, does this guy really like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and who can blame him?) Policy streams intermingle and run around, an individual could be trying to innovate into several conflicting streams at the same time. We need to realise that it’s not going to be clean and neat – any interaction with a public servant is going to be engaging with someone who is handling and juggling a multi-faceted complicated thing, which is not neatly chronological or procedural. Policy aims to provide the best possible answer to the problem, using the best available tools at that time.

It’s helpful to understand the model and the stages but everyone is working across different parts at the same time. Knowing where your input can be useful and your engagement can be most useful is really important. Policies can take months or years to form but everyone is looking to get to an end point – which is to be implemented. Many high profile policy processes have times when they move very, very quickly indeed and you then have to be ready to move. (Especially, if it’s policy from the PM’s office.) You need to also answer the question that is asked if you’re providing scientific input – what can you say based on what you know, with reasonable caveats on the limits of your knowledge.

How can you get involved? Here are two projects.

Australian Government: Department of Industry project “APS200 Project: the Place of Science in Policy Development in the Public Service (2012)”


Science for Policy: mapping Australian Government Investments and Institutions” (2013) from HC Coombs Policy Forum.

Interesting talk, if a little heavy on the Wonka.