Policy Capacity, Brazil

  • Natália Massaco KogaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3770-1


Capability; Capacity; Governance capacity; Institutional capacity; State capacity

Policy capacity is a relative new concept developed in the field of policy studies that derives from the state capacity debate. After a period of disinterest, in the 1980s and 1990s, on the state as a subject of analysis in the political studies and the focus on processes of transition to democracy and factors that limit and control political power, capacity approach revitalizes the discussion on the accumulation and operation of state’s power (Fukuyama 2013).

State capacity was initially conceived as an analytical category to examine processes of state formation in comparative historical experiences of economic development. In other words, its original conception entailed the question on how state capacity conditions countries’ economic development (Amsden 1989; Evans 1992). However, the concept’s malleability allowed the expansion of its content and further applications in distinct disciplinary fields for an increasing number of researches’ aims (Cingolani 2013).

Aside from the subject of the role of the state in economic development, state capacity is applied to analyze other issues such as emerging forms of governance in the public sector, experiences of public administration reform and innovation, conditions and dynamics of policy making process, among others (Cingolani 2013). The variety of state capacity’s aims led to the concept’s growing multidimensionality. A nonexhaustive listing of capacity’s dimensions entails, for instance: bureaucratic or administrative, relational, political, military, fiscal, legal, infrastructural, industrial, and so one (Cingolani 2013). Indeed, while capacity of collecting taxes, enforcing law, and declaring war are more significant for studies on state formation, capacity of acknowledging and negating with policy stakeholders, providing informed advice and building external partnerships are showing relevance in the policy making process in both developing and developed contexts (Repetto 2004; Gomide and Pires 2014; Pires and Gomide 2016).

Policy capacity emerged as one of that usage’s variations of the capacity term. As in the state capacity literature, there is no consensus on policy capacity definition and its possible implications are still being explored. Two main approaches, though, can be pointed out looking at the current stage of the concept’s development. The aspect that distinguishes them is basically their level of comprehensiveness.

While the narrower and initially formulated meaning focuses more specifically on bureaucracy’s capability of collecting and analyzing information to support policy making (Bavkis 2000; Lindquist and Tiernan 2011), the broader and most recent definitions of policy capacity examines distinct policy functions to identify government’s ample capability and autonomy to make decisions and to produce actions towards desired policy objectives (Painter and Pierre 2005; Wu et al. 2015).

Even though both conceptions aim to examine governments’ accumulated resources to policy making, the latter meaning looks at policy functions throughout the whole policy cycle and the former approach gives emphasis to the policy formulation stage and the specific skills and infrastructure that provide knowledge for policy making purposes (Newman et al. 2017).

That distinction reflects in some level the development of the policy analysis field, which engaged scholars and professionals, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries, towards the formation of a proper discipline that gathers specific knowledge, methods, and applications to support decision-making in the policy process. It distinguishes itself from the policy studies which consists in studies of the policy process to focus on producing knowledge and research for public policies (Farah 2016). The professional category of policy analysts evolved from that, courses and academic departments were created, and job positions are now found in governments agencies, think tanks, political parties, interest groups in different countries’ contexts (Vaitsman et al. 2013).

One may argue that the more restricted elaboration of policy capacities derives from investigations that looked at the policy analyst’s function. The broader meaning, in its turn, engages with most recent findings of empirical works that show that a larger range of tasks are performed by policy analyst and multiple roles and governance arrangements are requested from government to allow the policy production in the contemporary context (Colebatch et al. 2010; Mayer et al. 2004). Therefore, capability of negotiation, mediation, and clarification of values and arguments among the distinct policy stakeholders is understood as essential capacities for governments as the analytical capacity for building cohesive public policies. Moreover, systemic resources such as rule of the state, merit system, social trust, and government legitimacy among society are pointed out as equally necessary for policy production (Wu et al. 2015.

The multiplicity of definitions and studies of policy capacity echoes, thus, that trajectory in the policy studies.

Painter and Pierre (2005) comprehensive work on the conception and implications of policy capacity for governing, proposed the following definition: “Policy capacity is the ability to marshal the necessary resources to make intelligent collective choices about and set strategic directions for the allocation of scarce resources to public ends” (p. 2). Policy capacity is understood as one of the three types of capacity that compose governing capacity. The other two types are the administrative and state capacity. While the first is conceived, in that proposition, as the ability of managing state’s different resources, the second entails relational capabilities through which internal and societal support is achieved for policy production.

That proposition is developed in dialogue with the institutional analysis, considering thus in the governance process not only government structural characteristics and stocks of resources but also outcomes of relationships and interconnections between state and external actors such as society and the international system.

Despite their explicit distinction, the three dimensions are understood in Painter and Pierre’s (2005) proposition as interdependent. Policy capacity is conceived as essential to activate the other two dimensions, given that it enables the strategic decisions that guide the mobilization of administrative and state capacities. Acknowledging that interdependency, policy capacity, in that model, is examined in conjunction with the support systems for administrative and state capacity. Not only stocks of institutional resources but also specific policy outputs and outcomes function as sources of evidence of policy capacity in that proposition.

Wu et al. (2015) propose a more operational conception for policy capacity in contrast with the dominant macrolevel perspective of the existing definitions. Authors argue for a concept that acknowledges policy context and the performance of policy functions. Policy capacity is conceived in that proposition as the “set of skills and resources…necessary to perform policy functions” (p. 2) which are accumulated in three dimensions – analytical, operational, and political – and can be examined in three levels – individual, organizational, and systemic. In that approach, analytical dimension of capacity represents the policy analysis function abovementioned, while operational dimension involves managerial roles and structures necessary for the bureaucracy internal functioning and, finally, the political dimension captures the governance deliberations on the products of the interactions between the state and external environment.

Dialoguing with most recent empirical findings, Wu et al. (2015) matrix model is a proposal for operationalizing policy capacity’s multidimensionality. It aims to allow the simultaneous observation of distinct dimensions and levels of capacity. Two main assumptions are carried in its conception. Firstly, that not only the analytical but also operational and relational dimensions condition policy results. Secondly, that policy effectiveness depends not only on knowledges, skills, and judgments hold by policy professionals (policy analysts, policy makers, policy managers, etc.) but also on organizational resources and systemic conditions.

The Concept Application in the Brazilian Context

From the narrower to the broader approaches, policy capacity debate is benefiting from an increasing number of empirical investigations that explores bureaucracy and public organizations conditions to contribute to different policy contexts. The concept malleability allows it operationalization as both dependent variable to assess government’s performance as independent variable to have its constitution to be explained by all sort of factors such as level of education, policy work, professional carrier, among others (Gomide et al. 2017).

Looking at the Brazilian context some of these recent investigations entail, for instance, the construction of latent variables to compare agencies’ levels of capacity and autonomy (Bersch et al. 2017), comparative study on the effects of institutional arrangements and state capacities in social, infrastructure, and industrial development policy fields (Pires and Gomide 2016), and analysis based on survey data of the interlaces between bureaucrats’ policy work and policy capacity (Enap 2018).

However, while that flexibility is attractive, it also poses challenges in its application. Two main criticisms are pointed out by the literature. The first one concerns the general assumption of bureaucracy and public organizations as homogeneous and uniform entities. That assumptions do not take into account phenomena such as dissent or competition within bureaucracy that leads to unexpected behaviors and effects distinct from the original policy formulation (Peters 2015). The second one relates to the latency of capacity’s concept. Acknowledging capacity as potential resources and conditions for state actions, one must argue that its direct observation is not possible and that indirect constructs are necessary to explore the phenomenon. That raises the risks of circularity, conceptual overlaps, and imprecisions in the object definition, demanding thus very clear and justifiable methodological choices in the concept operationalization (Mazzuca 2012; Cingolani 2013; Gomide et al. 2017).

An additional conceptual challenge must be considered in the Brazilian case. It is worth noting that in Brazil, the activity of policy analysis does not constitute a specific field of knowledge and professional category, as occurred in developed Anglo-Saxon countries. In Brazil, the activity of policy analyst is being developed and shaped in practice, relying on the local existing references and instruments (Vaitsman et al. 2014; Farah 2016). That lack of a clear conceptual demarcation on the policy actors’ tasks and roles might have produced distinct patterns of policy production and policy capacity in the Brazilian.

Given to the influence of the field of policy analysis in the policy capacity development, that distinct route raises questions on the level of applicability of the Anglo-Saxon’s models and analytical tools of policy capacity in developing countries such as Brazil. In fact, more recent empirical inductive investigations are starting to show differences in the policy styles and the way policy capacity is mobilized in developing countries (Veselý et al. 2014; Saguin et al. (2018); Enap 2018). That is a path that deserves to be further explored to expand the concept’s usage and understanding.



  1. Amsden A (1989) Asia’s next giant. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  2. Bavkis H (2000) Rebuilding policy capacity in the era of the fiscal dividend: a report from Canada. Governance 13(1):71–103CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bersch K, Praça S, Taylor M (2017) State capacity, bureaucratic politicization and corruption in the Brazilian state. Governance 30(1):105–124CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cingolani L (2013) The state of state capacity: a review of concepts, evidence and measures, Working paper series on institutions and economic growth, 13. Maastricht University – UNU-Merit, MaastrichtGoogle Scholar
  5. Colebatch HK, Hoppe R, Noordegraaf M (2010) Understanding policy work. In: Working for policy, vol 1. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, pp 11–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Enap (2018) State capacities for policy making: results of the survey with civil service in Brazil. Enap, BrasíliaGoogle Scholar
  7. Evans P (1992) The state as a problem and as a solution: predation, embedded autonomy and structural change. In: Haggard S, Kaufman R (eds) The politics of economic adjustment: international constraints, distributive conflicts, and the state. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  8. Farah MFS (2016) An analysis of public policies in Brazil: from an unnamed procatice to the institucionalization of the “public field”. Revista Adm Púb 50(6):959–979CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Fukuyama F (2013) What is governance? Governance 26(3):347–368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Gomide ADÁ, Pires RRC (2014) Capacidades estatais e democracia: arranjos institucionais de políticas públicas. IPEA, BrasíliaGoogle Scholar
  11. Gomide AG, Pereira AKM, Machado R (2017) Apresentação. O conceito de capacidade estatal e a pesquisa científica. Sociedade e Cultura. Sociedade e Cultura 20(1):3–11.Google Scholar
  12. Lindquist E, Tiernan A (2011) The Australian public service and policy advising: meeting the challenges of 21st century governance. Aust J Public Adm 70(4):437–450.  https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8500.2011.00743.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Mayer IS, van Daalen CE, Bots PWG (2004) Perspectives on policy analyses: a framework for understanding and design. Int J Technol Policy Manage 4(2):169–191CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Mazzuca SL (2012) Legitimidad, Autonomía y Capacidad: Conceptualizando (una vez más) los Poderes del Estado. Rev Cienc Pol 32(3):545–560.  https://doi.org/10.4067/S0718-090X2012000300002CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Newman J, Cherney A, Head BW (2017) Policy capacity and evidencebased policy in the public service. Public Manag Rev 19(2):157–174.  https://doi.org/10.1080/14719037.2016.1148191CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Painter M, Pierre J (2005) Unpacking policy capacity: issues and themes. In: Challenges to state policy capacity. Springer, New York, pp 1–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Peters G (2015) Policy capacity in public administration. Policy Sci 34(2015):219–228CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Pires RRC, Gomide ADÁ (2016) Governança e capacidades estatais: uma análise comparativa de programas federais. Rev Sociol Pol 24(58):121–143CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Repetto F (2004) Capacidad Estatal: requisito para el mejoramiento de la política social en América Latina. Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  20. Saguin K, Ramesh M, Howlett M (2018) Policy work and capacities in a developing country: evidence form the Philippines. Asia Pac J Public Adm 40(1):1–22Google Scholar
  21. Vaitsman J, Ribeiro J, Lobato L (2013) Policy analysis in Brazil. Policy Press at Univeristy of Bristol, BristoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Veselý A, Wellstead A, Evans B (2014) Comparing sub-national policy workers in Canada and the Czech Republic: who are they, what they do, and why it matters? Polic Soc 33(2):103–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Wu X, Ramesh M, Howllet M (2015) Policy capacity: a conceptual framework for understanding policy competences and capabilities. Polic Soc 34:165–171.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polsoc.2015.09.001CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National School of Public Administration – ENAPBrasíliaBrazil