Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Business


An intrepid traveller, the lone anthropologist, leaves familiar surroundings to embed herself in a foreign community, hoping to make sense of the people and place located here. Her task is to document and interpret the customs and practices of the people and seek understanding of their distinctive ways. She enters a smooth-grey concrete building, dons a laptop and security swipe, and embarks on a prolonged and intensive process of watching, learning and ultimately, doing—as she is welcomed and inducted into the daily lives of a group of public servants who administer policies and programs in an Australian government agency.

Having commenced this endeavour with previous knowledge and experience of how to ‘be’ a public servant in a different, but related, setting; and with a suspicion of normative assumptions and expectations about what policy work involves and the knowledge dimensions related to this—her underlying quest was to generate new understandings of the relevance of academic research, and the evidence it promotes and advocates for, in enacting and administering policy. These new understandings did not emerge through discovering and documenting ‘never-before’ seen customs, but took form by foregrounding the mundane and everyday ways of being a public servant. In this view, she embraced the people she encountered as individuals who occupy a role in their workplace, but bring personal and professional values, ethics and perspectives to bear on being a public sector worker and how to go about it. Her study explains and illustrates this micro-context within, and against, the wider institutional and political milieu—to illustrate how these people contend with working to fixed, and sometimes idiosyncratic, routines and procedures, under the umbrella of external expectations placed upon them and the institution to which they belong and represent.

Told through the voice of the ethnographer this story features their efforts to infuse evidence-informed ways of ‘doing’ and ‘knowing’ with their daily tasks and responsibilities. Three ethnographic case studies emerged, which she constructs around the daily carriage of teams with their discrete, but ultimately interconnected, projects that evaluated government programs, and analysed and prepared for future policy.

The researcher followed her participants into meeting rooms to join in with the discussions and conversations that occur within these spaces, and participated in producing documents that arose from these interactions. These same people became her colleagues, and accordingly, her actions blended with the daily office routines, activities and events of this office; but she took notes on what went on around her while reflecting on her own entangled participation in the work. What she derived from this experience helps to redress a disguise of what ‘evidence-based policy’ is thought to involve and signify, executed from this grounded and insider perspective of the policy making setting.

In writing interpretations of what she observed, and by examining policy practices through the lens of ‘policy work’ and ‘policy knowledge’—she sketched a ‘culture’ of research engagement using a heuristic of what staff do, know, use/make to ‘construct and coordinate’, ‘conduct and consult’ and ‘consolidate and contextualise’ research and evidence. She concludes that while knowledge-based expertise is harnessed through such engagements, for staff to decide on appropriate use of information, to script policy advice and initiate policy action—this requires professional expertise to synthesise information from a range of sources, and integrate understandings from across the policy domain. Ultimately, this is oriented to generating reliable and persuasive narratives to inform future policy action.

FoR codes (2020)

440107 Social and cultural anthropology, 440708 Public administration, 440709 Public policy, 440801 Australian government and politics



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.