Opening the ‘black box’ of policy


Pitching policy to government can be both an art and a science. After researching the ‘black box’ of policy-making processes, Gemma Carey says social change advocates need to break their pitches down into manageable parts, and tell the moral, ethical and ideological stories behind them, if they are to bring the public with them and win politicians over.

When working in the community sector, research or advocacy areas, it is important to know how to get yourself heard and have an impact on policy.

But for the most part, the “complex and shifting rationalities of public policy-making still largely elude” us.1 Despite our best efforts, these processes can remain a black box, the content of which is unknown.

Opening this black box and understanding what is in there is critical to breaking down barriers between sectors, closing research practice gaps and creating policy change. However, to be receptive to what we learn when we do open the black box, we need to first shift our mindset.

There is a glibness in the way terms such as ‘cross-sectoral collaboration’, ‘partnerships’ and ‘evidence-based policy’ are now used, which masks the complexity of designing and implementing public policy.

The policy process now involves a wide range of people, both inside and outside government, including public servants, those on government committees, those in the community sector and researchers. Each of these face different demands according to their professional environment, have a different perspective on the policy process, and have different expectations of how policy design and implementation should occur.

The mismatch between these professional spheres has led to (much commented upon) miscommunication. Academics are seen by others as combative and unwilling to compromise, policymakers are seen as only seeking out evidence to justify decisions that have already been made, and the community sector is seen to ‘just say the same old thing’. However, these stereotypes do nothing to deliver better public policy.

To raise the quality of public debate and public policy, something must change. Rather than criticising, all groups need to cultivate openness toward one another’s work and professional practice, so that we can understand each other and find new and more effective ways of engaging, collaborating and improving public policy.

The need for this improved understanding led to a recent research project undertaken by myself and Brad Crammond from Monash University, Taking Action on the Social Determinants of Health: Insights from Politicians, Policymakers and Lobbyists.

We set out to uncover and explain the shifting rationales of public policy by examining how experienced politicians, policymakers and lobbyists work. While, as noted above, we all need to take steps to understand one another’s work, this project focused on what we, as social change advocates, can learn about how the policy process, and policymakers, operate.

Our conceptual starting point for the study was that those working in the policy process, whether as politicians, policymakers or advocates, were practitioners of the ‘art and science’ of government. From this, we reasoned that by shining a light on their ‘practice’, whether that be policymaking, politics or advocacy, we could begin building a picture of the policy process from a range of vantage points.

“Academics are seen by others as combative and unwilling to compromise, policymakers are seen as only seeking out evidence to justify decisions that have already been made, and the community sector is seen to ‘just say the same old thing’.”

This, we now hope, will enable those interested in advocating for policy change to be more strategic and constructive in the way they work with, lobby or try to influence politicians and policymakers.

For the study we spoke to 21 federal and state politicians, senior public servants, policy advisers and lobbyists.

Through these discussions and examinations of their responses, we found that the efforts of social change advocates were often out of step with what we have called the ‘structural and discursive dimensions’ of the policy process.

Governments govern areas of social and economic responsibility through separate departments, which manage different aspects of people’s lives. MPs elected for four-year terms to represent their constituents’ interests are elevated to the roles of ministers to preside over these departments. These ‘structural dimensions’ make the enormous task of governing the community possible.

However, while necessary, these structures create conventions for the way social problems, and potential solutions, are described, explained and considered. These are the ‘discursive dimensions’ of policymaking.

Those we interviewed during our research suggested that to be successful in improving public policy, advocates should describe and explain social problems and potential solutions in ways that suit these structural and discursive dimensions.

Structural limitations such as ‘departmental silos’ work against large-scale social change and instead favour problems and policies that can be presented in ways that fit within single departmental boundaries.

This means there is a risk that problems like social disadvantage, which are diffuse, complex and cross over many – if not all – government departments, are unlikely to gain traction with any one department, or the government as a whole, if presented in a way that crosses multiple departmental boundaries. Instead, they are potentially dismissed as being too difficult and risky to tackle.

This is driven by the need for government accountability and risk management, the fast pace of political and policy decision-making, the likelihood of issues gaining traction with ministers and central departments – such as the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet where ‘messy’ problems become difficult to sell – and, ultimately, who gets credit for policy and program success. As one senior government advisor said:

“We do everything incrementally, we break things up into small packages: we avoid the risk of the big thing going belly-up so the Minister or the public servant or the department will be embarrassed”.

These sentiments were echoed by each of the groups we interviewed, including successful lobbyists.

For advocates and researchers, this suggests that we must break down problems and solutions into smaller, more manageable initiatives, which can be tackled by one or two departments. While admirable, attempts at seeking broader structural change were thought to be unsuccessful because of the culture created by these structural realities. As one senior political staffer explained:

“Creating and aligning the capacity to act in an integrated, coherent way on many different levels of government and across the many different functions of government… poses the biggest challenge… because it’s not how government thinks of itself… It’s very, very difficult for them to conceptualise a process of integrated change.”

In part, this reality stems from a risk-averse public service, which can limit innovation and large-scale, or ‘transformative’, policy change. Participants in our study also suggested that a government’s sense of its own capacity can be a significant barrier to more widespread policy change. Hence, advocating for changes that are beyond a government’s sense of its capacity to act was thought to be unproductive. A former departmental secretary described this in the following way:

“The challenge we’ve got is that very often the advocates, whether they are individuals or organisations, often make the most bold leaps from the evidence they have collected, to public policy… You have to make sure there is a move from the evidence collected to what the policy options are that are available to government”.

“The policymakers that participated in our study argued that those outside of government should not shy away from engaging in more debate and ideological debate.”

When seeking political commitment, advocates were urged by all those interviewed to build community momentum, rather than appeal directly to policymakers or politicians. As explained by one lobbyist:

“Politicians don’t care [about the issue], if the community isn’t pushing them. It doesn’t matter how strong your argument is, if it’s given to a politician in the closed confines of the politician’s room and then they go outside and people are complaining about the level of [tax] … then that’s what they’ll listen to.”

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

We also found that the structural realities of government, including political structures, such as terms of government, and ‘siloed’ departments, create conventions, or ‘discursive dimensions’, around how problems and solutions are understood and can be ‘pitched’.

The policymakers that participated in our study argued that those outside of government should not shy away from engaging in more debate and ideological debate. 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. To take an excerpt from Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s 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, Mr 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 stronger communities.

These moral arguments about what is needed to create a stronger future for Australia are used to persuade us of a particular course of policy action. They are part of the context of policymaking. To disengage with them is to disengage with the basis upon which political and policy arguments are fought and won. As one of the participants in our study argued, despite the amount of discussion in recent years over the importance of ‘evidence-based’ policy:

“The philosophical cannot be ignored and it cannot be circumnavigated by data and analysis.”

From this research, we provide the following guidelines for advocates to help negotiate the structural realities and discursive conventions of policymaking:

1. Work within the political and policy structures

  • The scale of the problem needs to fit within the remit of specific departments
  • Political commitment is often best gained through building community demand for change

2. Pay closer attention to discursive traditions

  • Linear evidence-based policy approaches should be lessened in favour of a more narrative approach that embraces philosophical and moral reasoning, alongside evidence.
  • The scale of the proposed solutions cannot greatly exceed the government’s sense of its capacity to act. Larger, structural reform requires slow and strategic introduction via community building and trusted advisors.

“To disengage with [moral arguments] is to disengage with the basis upon which political and policy arguments are fought and won.”

While some advocates may find our recommendations frustrating – seeking more transformative policy change – our research indicates that if we do not operate within the conventions of governments, than we may discount ourselves from the very conversations we want to influence.

The full report (Taking Action on the Social Determinants of Health: Insights from Politicians, Policymakers and Lobbyists) can be found at:
Or through the author at

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

1 C Clavier & E de Leeuw, (Eds.), Health policy networks: connecting
the disconnected, Oxford University Press, London, 2013.


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