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Context king on public service policy implementation: research

Governments need better tools to analyse the impact of environmental factors on policy delivery in order to avoid high profile failures like the Rudd government's home insulation scheme, new research has shown.

A series of new papers published by UNSW Canberra's Public Service Research Group on Wednesday includes research by Katie Moon, Deborah Blackman and Helen Dickinson, arguing the context of public service delivery is not sufficiently considered when policies are designed.

It says new approaches are needed to analyse outcomes after the fact.

The research could help guide roll out of the National Broadband Network and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, if adequate emphasis is given to the role implementation plays in policy outcomes.

Rushed to help Australia's response to the global financial crisis, Labor's home insulation scheme led to four deaths of installers, eventually prompting a royal commission.

"When a policy is successfully implemented, we need to be looking at how it was implemented, rather than simply assuming it was successful because the policy was well designed," Professor Blackman said.

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"Instead of always evaluating the failures, we need to also have serious evaluations of the successes as well. That's something governments can do."

The paper considers the so-called "multi-layer problem", the involvement of different levels of governance across local, regional, state and federal governments.

"The multi-layer problem throws up an endless number of complexities. For example, as the number of actors increases, the clarity of responsibility decreases.

"When power is shared among different governance levels, actors can become confused as to who is responsible for what, with some actors choosing to take advantage of the ambiguity. Different actors pursue different objectives and priorities and face different constraints, so that policies developed in different parts of the institutional machinery will be the result of different interests, procedures and institutional arrangements," the paper said.

It says addressing research gaps will help provide better policy and implementation.

"What we want to do is offer an alternative research agenda that might enable enhanced implementation design such that outcomes become, if not predictable, at least more understandable," Dr. Moon said.

Another paper from the series showed public service managers remain committed to tackling gender inequality and unconscious bias in employment processes.

Authors Sue Williamson and Meraiah Foley interviewed about 250 public service employees and managers and widespread support for the gender equality strategy, which was responsible for wider institutional considerations about the causes of gender inequality.

"Unconscious bias training has been very effective at giving people a language to talk about the negative effects of stereotyping," Dr Foley said.

"Many of the people we interviewed were acutely aware of the potential for unconscious bias to influence employment decisions, and were very motivated to prevent that."

"However, the research shows that just being aware of unconscious bias is not enough to prevent it from affecting our decisions. Agencies need to monitor the outcomes of bias training or other awareness measures to determine whether it is effective over the longer term."

The study also showed workplace flexibility is supported and valued by public servants and grassroots networks promoting gender equality within agencies are being established.