The 2023-24 Federal Budget confirmed that the so-called "hollowing out" of the Australian Public Service (APS) has stopped and that things like policy advice and service delivery are now predominantly going to be delivered in-house by public servants instead of external consultants.

With the Government to rely a great deal more on the APS for what was previously outsourced there is a real need to broaden and develop the knowledge and skills of those who will be delivering this work within the APS.

The one key tool any public servant involved in policy development should have in their kitbag right now is the Australian Policy Handbook, which has been an essential resource for policymakers in Australia for over 25 years and was recently updated through the release of its 7th edition.

The Handbook, launched recently by UNSW Canberra and ANU, equips public servants with clear and simple knowledge to help guide them through the policy maze.

There is an urgent need for an APS skill uplift

The 2021 Finance and Public Administration References Committee report and the 2019 Thodey Review report both pointed to alarming trends concerning APS use of external consultants and contractors. Both reports expressed concern that the APS was being "hollowed out".

The reports also said there was a pressing need to invest in delivering core capabilities in-house, suggesting the APS more closely “manage [the] use of external capability” and focus on an internal uplift in areas such as policy advice, regulatory oversight, service delivery, and internal enabling functions.

The Albanese Government has been clear in its desire to have much more policy development work done by public servants, with less reliance on external consultancies. This shift has already begun and over the next few years the pendulum will have swung away from outsourcing and back towards insourcing; and the public service needs to be prepared to manage this shift effectively.

Your map through the maze - why every APS policymaker should have a copy of the Australian Policy Handbook

The Australian Policy Handbook is a resource for anyone engaged with the policy process.

It is an important tool for public servants because it helps explain in simple language the foundational concepts and processes underpinning policymaking in the current Australian governance system.

It offers a view of how policymaking can be understood and put into practice, with pragmatic stages set out so that policymakers can use a simple framework to help assess what they are doing in real-time.

Just like the London Tube map is neither perfectly accurate nor to scale it still helps passengers navigate the tube labyrinth; and so too the Handbook provides a simplified guide for those new to policy or those well-versed practitioners wanting some sage reminders and well-thumbed checklists. 

The Handbook depicts a policy cycle as a rhythm and pattern of the policy world that is intended to help identity a need, explore possible responses, apply the resources and expertise of government and civil society, and finally test whether the desired outcome has been achieved.

Of course, no single policy model can capture the complexity of reality. While we know that problems in the real world are not simple or ring-fenced, over 25 years and seven updates the Handbook has proven extremely helpful to public servants who have sought assistance on where to start when developing policy and what they might consider in how to improve the way they go about it.

Must-have resources for public servants - the Australian Policy Handbook together with the UNSW Canberra Public Service Research Group

UNSW Canberra's Public Service Research Group (PSRG) performs timely, high-quality and reliable research into public policy implementation and draws on this to deliver world-class executive education and professional development.

PSRG is one of Australia's leading public sector research groups that provides new insights into effective public service implementation and evaluation to solve real-world problems. In simple terms, the expert advice and knowledge that PSRG provides supplements the guidance that the Handbook provides.

Professor Catherine Althaus was a co-author of the Australian Policy Handbook and is also a member of the UNSW Canberra's Public Service Research Group.