The role of policy

Many of us who embark on a PhD do so because we want to change the world. It might only be a very small part of the world, but we seek positive change, nevertheless. This might be through building greater understanding of an issue or developing new ways to address an issue. The ideal outcome for those seeking to make a difference would be some level of positive social, cultural, or environmental impact.

One of the ways in which change can be instigated is through policy. Policies provide a formal statement on the position and values of an organisation about a particular topic. Policies are concise, formal documents that simplify, or provide organisational context, for the implementation of legislation. Unlike legislation, policies are not legally binding, but they do stipulate mandatory expectations to achieve a desired outcome, and some form of disciplinary action may be taken where a policy is not followed.

Policies can be instigated at different levels. Corporate policies, developed by individual organisations, typically focus on the conduct of their employees and the delivery of products and services. Public policy, implemented by a government body, will have application across the public sector and a broad cross-section of the population. Public policy can be used to formalise the government’s expectations of businesses, but it does not always lead the way. There are times when corporate policies, and public opinion, precede or exceed government requirements.

Forward thinking corporate entities may adopt higher standards of practice voluntarily, ahead of government regulation or policy. This may be influenced by changes in public opinion or the desire to gain a competitive advantage. Individual and corporate action can progress change and start to normalise behaviour. However, broader systemic change relies on governments establishing formalised policy or legislation.

Adoption of a matter into public policy raises the standards and expectations across industry and the community and elevates the issue for budgetary consideration. The successful implementation of public policy, requires:

  • adequate funding, to implement action plans and enforce requirements;
  • specific measures to track progress and report on success; and
  • clear allocation of responsibilities and accountability.

Policies developed by international organisations can have broad application but often struggle to impose mandatory requirements upon individual organisations or nation-states. It is the role of the governments of nation-states to integrate international agreements, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), into legislation or public policy to enforce, or encourage and facilitate, desired actions.

Policy and the SDGs

The SDGs are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets designed to provide a roadmap to achieve a more sustainable future by 2030 (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2023). They were adopted by all 193 UN Member States in 2015, but in 2023 only 10 of the 17 goals were even partially on track, and of these none of the goals had more than 40% of the assessed targets on track (UN Secretary-General 2023).

It can be difficult to adequately assess the status of progress towards a goal when there are significant gaps in the data available. Since 2016, 187 UN Member States have submitted voluntary national reviews (VNR), to provide updates on progress in implementing the SDG commitments. Of these, 100 have only submitted one report in that timeframe and six countries have not submitted any (Sachs et al. 2022).

The countries having the most success achieving the SDGs are Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. These three countries each have a score over 85%, representing the proportion of SDGs achieved (Sachs et al. 2022, see Australia, and the countries that I am investigating for my PhD, being France and the United States, have had varied success in implementing the SDGs. France is ranked 7th with an SDG achievement score of 81.24, Australia is 38th with a score of 75.58, and the United States is 41st with 74.55.

Brolan and Smith (2020), in a report prepared on behalf of the Whitlam Institute, investigated international best practice implementation of the SDGs. They reported a lack of political leadership and prioritisation of the SDGs in Australia evidenced by the lack of:

  • a national plan of action;
  • planning and accountability mechanisms;
  • financing in the national budget; and
  • Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound goals for SDG implementation.

Table 1 demonstrates the variable levels to which each of the four countries selected has implemented the SDGs within the national governance framework. It is evident that the lack of any of the components, being a national strategy or action plan, budgetary allocation, performance measures, or a clear accountable government organisation responsible for SDGs, has resulted in lower levels of success in implementing the SDGs.

Table 1: Rankings and integration of SDGs by four countries

CountryFinlandFranceAustraliaUnited States
SDG score86.5181.2475.5874.55
Voluntary National ReviewsYes – 2Yes – 1Yes – 1No
SDGs integrated into strategy/ action planYesYesNoNo
SDGs mentioned in national budgetYesNoNoNo
Indicators to monitor SDG implementationYes – 48Yes – 98NoNo
Government unit responsible for SDGsYesYesNoNo
Source: Sachs et al. 2022, Sustainable Development Report 2022 (

Without a concerted effort by the governments of the Member States to integrate SDGs into the national policy framework and budget, the likelihood of achieving the SDGs by 2030 is low. There is much work to be done. Researchers can assist in achieving a shift in government action by providing a sound evidence-base from which to develop and implement public policy for a more sustainable future.


Brolan, C.E. and Smith, L. (2020) No one left behind: Implementing the sustainable development goals in Australia, Whitlam Institute, Parramatta.

Sachs, J., Lafortune, G., Kroll, C., Fuller, G., and Woelm F. (2022) Sustainable Development Report 2022: From Crisis to Sustainable Development: the SDGs as Roadmap to 2030 and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. DOI 10.1017/9781009210058

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2023) Sustainable Development Goals, accessed on 10 May 2023 at

UN Secretary-General (2023) Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Towards a Rescue Plan for People and Planet, Advanced Unedited Version, Economic and Social Council, downloaded on 30 April 2023 at

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