What is Policy?

Deconstructing and defining public policy

The Policy Lab’s mission is to help create better public policy. To do this, we need to be able to describe what it is we’re trying to change. That’s why we’ve developed a model to deconstruct and define ‘policy’, both in terms of a ‘Policy’ (with a Big ‘P’), and policy as a concept and a practice.

This model isn’t definitive or prescriptive – it’s just a tool to help clarify where efforts may need to be targeted in solving policy problems.

The model

A diagram illustrating the policy pyramid - 'why', 'what', 'how' and 'with what'?

The ‘Big P’ Policy – providing a clear strategic objective

The top of the pyramid – the ‘big P’ Policy – provides the ‘why’. It sets the ultimate strategic objective and establishes why this objective is important.

The ‘why’ element informs all the layers that sit below it. That’s why it’s critical that this be constructed first. You should clearly define the strategic objective(s) and purpose before you do any further work.

This layer doesn’t need to be complex or large, but it should ideally establish the following:

  • Policy intent: The Policy should outline what is trying to be achieved through the strategic objective or objectives.
  • Purpose of the Policy: The Policy should tell the story of why the strategic objective is important and necessary . It should link needs and evidence with proposed actions. For example:
    • Who are the intended users and subjects of the Policy? How was this established?
    • What is the user or community need that the Policy is intended to address, or the problem that the Policy is intended to solve? How was this established?
    • How will the Policy meet user or community needs, or otherwise benefit the community? What does the best current evidence suggest will work? What assumptions have been made? You should cite relevant research (including user research or co-design work).
  • Vision: The Policy should set out a clear vision of what ‘good’ looks like.
  • Outcomes measures: The Policy should set out how policy outcomes will be measured. This may be in the short, medium or long term, or all three.
  • Roles and responsibilities: The Policy should set out roles and responsibilities, and outline expectations for all staff.
  • Supporting documents: The Policy should identify the supporting documents. In turn, the supporting documents should reference the Policy so that their purpose for existing is clear.

Centring people in policy design

Public policy has the potential to either raise or lower barriers to participation in society. It should be a key objective of any policy to lower these barriers.

Human-centred design can be a valuable tool to shape the intent of your Policy and your strategic objective. By directly engaging with and centring users and subjects in the policy design process – the people who will have to implement the policy, and the people who will be affected by it – you can ensure that your policy intent is based on a detailed understanding of their context, wants and needs. Co-designing with your various users will help you reduce your reliance on assumptions, minimise risk, and ensure that successfully achieving your strategic objective will achieve the Policy intent in the most efficient and effective way. 

Supporting documents provide the ‘what’ and the ‘how’


The Policy should be supported by prescriptive requirements – these set out what must be done to achieve the Policy intent.

In government, these rules may be set out in laws, or documents such as frameworks or standards.

Laws can be used to establish key requirements and enable regulatory enforcement, but this approach isn’t always necessary.

Frameworks may support or expand on the Policy (or the legal requirements) by outlining the elements of the system that underpin the Policy. The framework could set out and illustrate the connections between business processes, inputs and outputs, key stakeholders and relationships or logical decision points. See, for example, the Human Services Outcomes Framework, which sets out the elements of how to measure outcomes to support the NSW Premier’s and State Priorities.

Standards may set technical and prescriptive rules that dictate what should happen by establishing minimum requirements. Standards can help ensure consistency both within an agency or government and with other jurisdictions. For example, the NSW Digital Design System, which is intended to help creators make consistent and accessible NSW Government digital products, includes a Digital Design Standard that prescribes minimum design requirements.


Once specific requirements have been established, you can set out how these requirements should be met. Procedures, manuals, guidance and similar documents help to achieve the Policy intent by laying out the specific tasks within relevant business systems that must be performed to comply with the applicable standards and frameworks.

With what? Tools, Tips and Tricks

You may create ways to make it easier to do the tasks described in the procedures, manuals and guidance, such as reusable components, tools, forms, and templates. These should be referenced in procedures, manuals and guidance with information about how and when they should be used.

So what? Measuring success to iterate policy

The Policy sets a vision for what ‘good’ looks like. You should identify specific metrics and measures to establish whether you have successfully achieved the Policy intent, and to what degree. Ideally, this should include:

  • reliable, robust and attributable quantative data, and
  • qualitative data - direct feedback from the users and subjects of the policy (and those who can’t or don’t want be users).

Measuring outcomes should be done carefully – ultimately, what gets measured will get done, so you should take care that your metrics don’t create perverse incentives or incomplete or misleading impressions.

You should use your measurements to inform and regularly iterate your Policy and the supporting layers. These changes can be at the macro level (such as a change in the strategic objective) or involve more minor adjustments in the implementation of the Policy (such as changes to frameworks or standards, procedures or tools).

You should also consider whether this information needs to be publicly available. Making your analysis open to the public can help ensure transparency and accountability. If you have detailed data, it may also be useful to and reusable by other agencies, or to members of the public.

Mix and match

In the digital space, we've noticed that NSW has taken a variety of approaches – you can see how in our alpha Digital Policy Landscape.

Specifically, we’ve found that the five classifications may be combined in various ways.

For example, the ‘big P’ Policy is not always contained in a document with the word ‘Policy’ on the cover page. In government, this top layer is often contained in a document called a ‘strategy’, ‘framework’ or ‘plan’, but that meets the characteristics of the ‘big P Policy’ setting out intent, objectives, and purpose, as well as establishing specific requirements. On the other hand, some agencies may combine all four tiers into a single large document that combines the top-level strategic objectives, standards, procedures and tools.

Questions, comments?

Let us know at @PolicyLabAu or at [email protected].

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