Mapping your policy skills using the NZ Policy Skills Framework

The NZ Policy Project material is of value to Australian applicants.

A tool has been released which helps you map your policy skills using the NZ Policy Skills Framework. You can use this tool to assess your current skills and to think about your future as a policy professional. This term – policy professional – is worth keeping in mind. If you are pursuing a career in policy, then consider defining yourself as a policy professional in your application and resume.

The tool starts with some useful questions.

  • What sorts of policy roles do I want?

Do you want to work in a central agency?

Do you want to work on policy related to a corporate role, which may not be the main focus of the role? For example, human resources or financial management policy?

Do you want to work on policy in a particular area? For example, immigration, intelligence, unemployment, education?

  • What does this tell me about the knowledge, applied skills and behaviours needed?

Examining this framework will help with this question.

  • What are the best opportunities to extend my skills and experiences in my current role?

Most learning comes via on-the-job experiences. The APSC’s On-the-job learning Good Practice Guide can help with exploring opportunities and gaining the most from them.

The Policy Skills Framework describes each component at three levels: developing, practicing, expert/leading, which loosely equates to analyst, senior analyst, and principal analyst. The tool provides a self-assessment page on which you can rate yourself on each component. This raises the question: On what basis will you make that rating? Experience? Manager feedback? Personal opinion?

The relationship between knowledge and skills is worth keeping in mind. The framework list three areas of knowledge:

  • Domain knowledge: specialist subject matter expertise
  • Government systems and processes
  • Political context & priorities.

One of the skills often listed for policy roles is analytical thinking. Knowledge and skills, by being listed separately, can seem unrelated. Daniel Willingham makes useful comments on this relationship in his paper ‘Knowledge and Practice: The Real Keys to Critical Thinking’.

His main point is that knowledge and skills are intertwined. He writes: “In layperson’s terms, critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth. In addition, there are specific types of critical thinking that are characteristic of different subject matter: That’s what we mean when we refer to “thinking like a scientist” or “thinking like a historian.”

After exploring his theme in the context of teaching, Willingham concludes: “First, critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically—to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for—depends on domain knowledge and practice.”

The Skills Framework reflects the relationship between analysis and domain knowledge by focusing on the ability to apply a range of analytical frameworks and methods that are based on academic disciplines or are purpose built. A person operating at ‘practicing’ level is “acquiring deeper and broader experience in applying different analytical frameworks, understanding their underlying assumptions and limitations, and able to identify the best ‘fit-for-purpose’ analytical framework (or combinations) depending on the stage of the policy process and the type of complexity of the policy challenge”.

Analytical frameworks could come from economics [e.g. cost-benefit, opportunity costs, regulatory impact], environmental studies [e.g. environmental quality, biodiversity, habitat preservation], law [e.g. constitutionality, access to the law, enforceability], politics [e.g. electoral impacts, consistency with governing party principles and policies], to name a few. [Peter Bridgman & Glyn Davis, The Australian Policy Handbook, 3rd edn, Allen & Unwin, 2004].

A policy professional is unlikely to have deep knowledge of multiple domains, so skills in recognising gaps and calling on a range of professions and experts are also needed. Combining these contributions then demands sophisticated skills in ‘translating’ and ‘interpreting’ across disciplines.

Recognising how knowledge and skills are interrelated is likely to contribute to more informed professional development and applications.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.