Closer attention to bureaucracy can improve our understanding of public policy: The case of ‘A New Era’ of HIV policy in NSW

Stream: Law and Policy: HIV
Date: Thursday, 31 March 2016
Time: 3.30 pm – 4.45 pm


Theories of the policy process provide explanatory models for how issues come to the attention of policymakers and how public policies change. The pluralism of this literature emphasises civil society and political actors in processes of policy change. This is consistent with popular and scholarly accounts of HIV policy in Australia that centre community activism and political leadership in shaping Australia’s lauded HIV policy settings.

This paper draws from case study research of HIV policy change in NSW during the period 2007 to 2015 that explored whether closer attention to bureaucrats and bureaucracy can improve our understanding of public policy. The research described the arrest of policy drift and the establishment of new, ambitious policy settings during a period of transformative change from 2011.

The case description is compatible with policy process theories but emphasises endogenous sources of change within the NSW bureaucracy even in the context of rapid exogenous developments in HIV prevention science and technology. Endogenous conditions, especially state capacity, ordered and constrained the possibilities for policy change. They included bureaucratic policymaking authority, governance of dense policy networks by bureaucrats with knowledge expertise, and adequate allocable funding. HIV bureaucrats engaged in intensive practices that tended gaps between policy in its real and ideal forms. This occurred through partnerships forums, the allocation and attachment of conditions to funding and the shared examination of evidence and data. In NSW, the ideal form of HIV policy is bureaucratically-engineered and effect is given to it through directed puzzlement, mobilisation and strategy implementation.


Darryl O’Donnell (Presenter), Department of Sociology, Macquarie University
Darryl has 25 years’ experience in HIV community, research and public sector roles. During the 90s he worked with AIDS Councils in Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria. He is a former National President of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations. From 1999 to 2013, he worked for the NSW Government where he was responsible for statewide HIV policy and program development. Before joining ACON in 2015 as Principal, Policy and Development, Darryl was the Executive Director of the NSW Mental Health Commission. In 2015, Darryl completed a Master of Research exploring the role of bureaucracy in processes of policy change.