Modern Australian

six ingredients of successful public policy

  • Written by Joannah Luetjens, PhD Candidate, Utrecht University

In the lead up to the recent federal election, there was plenty of negative rhetoric about current policy settings. Piecing together the various messages, it seems we have entered an armageddon of poor fiscal management, intolerable social inequality, and environmental degradation. If we took the rhetoric seriously, who in their right minds would want to take charge of the mess that is government?

These assessments are symptomatic of a longstanding, worldwide tendency of politicians, commentators, and citizens to fixate on the limitations of government. We know the lexicon. Terms such as “blunder”, “blowout”, “crisis”, “failure”, “fiasco”, “incompetence”, “red tape” and “scandal” are well-used in public and academic discourse about government, politics and public policy. But this kind of rhetoric risks creating self-fulfilling prophecies in the way we look at, talk about, think of, evaluate, and emotionally relate to public institutions.

By contrast, successful policy accomplishments are seldom deemed newsworthy. Neither are the thousands of everyday forms of effective public value created by and through governments.

Read more: Australia has been silent on Indigenous suicide for too long, and it must change

To help turn the tide, we recently commissioned 20 up close and in depth case study accounts about the genesis and evolution of standout public policy accomplishments in Australia and New Zealand, across a range of sectors and challenges.

To identify the cases, we convened a panel of experts consisting of prominent public policy scholars and senior practitioners in Australia and New Zealand. We then invited expert scholars in the relevant fields to produce the case studies.

World-leading response to HIV/AIDS

Consider Australia’s response to HIV/AIDS. It emerged in the early 1980s as an unidentifiable, infectious and lethal disease affecting some of the most stigmatised communities.

What followed was ground-breaking policy embedded in three key principles: partnership, community engagement and bipartisan support.

The first Australian National HIV/AIDS Strategy, in 1989, contained three policy goals:

  • restrict the spread of HIV/AIDS transmission
  • care for those infected
  • educate and support healthcare professionals.

Subsequent national strategies have maintained this strong values base. This framework has ensured Australia’s national policy response to HIV/AIDS has been lauded as one of the best in the world.

Read more: 2040: hope and action in the climate crisis

A swift change to gun control policy

Australia’s gun laws offer another case of successful policy.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Australia suffered 14 mass shootings. These culminated on April 28, 1996 in the Port Arthur Massacre, when a single gunman killed 35 people and seriously injured 18 with military-style semiautomatic rifles.

Tasmania was one of the few places in the western world where an unlicensed individual could obtain such a weapon. Policy change was swift. Adopted in a crisis, the new policy was nonetheless the result of years of policy development. The government of the day united different parties and stakeholders to present a broad coalition in favour of the new laws.

With those laws in place, the risk of an Australian dying by gunshot fell by more than half. Australia’s rate of gun homicide remains 25 times lower than that of the United States.

six ingredients of successful public policy Australian Prime Minister John Howard lays a wreath at the memorial site of the Port Arthur massacre during a memorial service to mark the 10th anniversary of the massacre in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Ian Wildie/AAP

Six ingredients of successful public policy

These two cases, along with the others in our study, have led us to note six recurrent patterns that seem to promote successful policy outcomes:

  1. they tend to address a problem that has been well defined and broadly acknowledged at the outset of the policy development process

  2. they tend to rest on conceptually coherent, evidence-informed advice that has paid attention to the realities of implementation

  3. champions and stewards are key, not just during the design and decision making phase, but equally critically during the implementation phase

  4. astute policy advocates carefully build their cases for policy change, readying themselves to fit their workable solutions to the crisis of the hour

  5. virtually all the policies we studied had sufficiently broad appeal that they survived changes of government from the party that gave them initial support

  6. implementation challenges dog any major policy initiative – but when policymakers persevere, learn from experience, and adjust their approaches accordingly, they can help policies become major successes in the longer term.

Read more: Where to now for unions and 'change the rules'?

Governments can and do improve lives

Without doubt, the current times present major challenges for all governments. And new challenges will surely arise in the years ahead. The negative lexicon has its place in political life. But governments can and do generate much that is good, and that serves our collective interests well.

Looking ahead, we encourage more people to reflect on cases of successful public policy. We especially hope that politicians of every ideological persuasion, and those who advise them, will heed the lessons of the past that reveal what it takes to produce strongly positive outcomes that improve the lives of generations of citizens.

Authors: Joannah Luetjens, PhD Candidate, Utrecht University

Read more


Reality slippages and narcissistic stereotyping

Lucy spends much of her life living through her phone screen – what happens when we are let into this vantage point?Mia Forrest/ABCLucy (Charlotte Nicado) is a pink-haired millennial having...

You can help track 4 billion bogong moths with your smartphone – and save pygmy possums from extinction

Healesville Sanctuary, Werribee Open Range ZooEach year, from September to mid-October, the tiny and very precious mountain pygmy-possums arise from their months of hibernation under the snow and begin feasting...

Is vigorous exercise safe during the third trimester of pregnancy?

Vigorous exercise is safe while pregnant, even in the final trimester. But if you don't feel up to it, lighter exercise is beneficial too.From shutterstock.comExpectant mothers receive an avalanche of...

Climate change is the defining issue of our time – we're giving it the attention it deserves

The Conversation has joined more than 250 news outlets around the world to focus on climate change coverage. We provide 100% evidence-based coverage on climate change. Stay informed BY subscribing...

when communities must move because of climate change

Flood damage in Bundaberg, Queensland, in 2013. Most communities are at some risk from extreme events, but repeated disasters raise the question of relocation.srv007/Flickr, CC BY-NCThis story is part of...

Australia to attend climate summit empty-handed despite UN pleas to ‘come with a plan'

The Port Kembla industrial area in NSW. Industry emissions can be cut by improving efficiency, shifting to electricity and closing old plants.Dean Lewins/AAPThis story is part of Covering Climate Now...

Apple's iPhone 11 Pro wants to take your laptop's job (and price tag)

What a week it has been in the Apple core. In recent days the tech giant has released a litany of products, including new phones, watches, tablets, and more.The big-ticket...

how supermarket pharmacies could change the way we shop

Supermarket pharmacies have been around in the US, UK and mainland Europe for years. But will Australia follow?from www.shutterstock.comOn the way home, you wander into the supermarket for a loaf...

As Scott Morrison heads to Washington, the US-Australia alliance is unlikely to change

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-NDPrime Minister Scott Morrison’s official visit to Washington this week carries some prestige. It is just the second “official visit” (including a state dinner) by a...

we need to teach kids activities they'll go on to enjoy

Schools could use bushwalking as an activity and link it to lessons in other subjects such as geography and science.Shutterstock/Monkey Business ImagesPhysical education is one of the most popular subjects...

Morrison's right hand man dispenses with niceties in lecturing big business

The Morrison government appears to be seething with anger at big business. At least, that’s the impression you get from a lecturing, hectoring speech delivered this week by Ben Morton...

New musical has enough warmth, witty lines and catchy tunes to win its own fangirls

Sharon Millerchip, Ayesha Madon, James Majoos, Chika Ikogwe, and Kimberley Hodgson in Fangirls at the Brisbane Festival. Photo: Stephen HenryComedy often succeeds where tragedy fails. Fangirls, the pop...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

Best Paradise Islands You Should Visit in AustraliaMost Popular Mexican Destinations for Australian Visitors How to know the universe is guiding you Cancer 101: 6 Dietary Habits Increasing Cancer RiskQuick turnaround in a rental property at Bondi demands frequent rubbish removal4 Basic Decor Principles That Never Go Out Of StyleEvery Day Should Be Mother’s DayGuys, Are You Making These 5 Critical Skincare Mistakes?What To Check For In Supplements And Slimming Aids?Engineered Wood Flooring vs. Laminate Wood Flooring How Panel Beating Can Quickly Repair Your Car’s Hail DamageBenefits of filtered waterCleaning tips for the kitchen Most popular Latin American destinations for AustraliansWhat Is Laser Dentistry?