Last updated 30 August 2016

Not all government activity falls into the category of administration. Some government action is concerned with the formulation of policy, which is a political rather than an administrative function. Courts do not normally involve themselves with questions of policy, unless it can be shown that the particular policy is unlawful or if a policy is being applied without proper regard to the merits of an individual case.

What is policy?

Policy is concerned with the implementation of a desired course of government action. For example, a decision to levy a particular tax or charge, or a decision to conscript troops or to deploy forces to a war zone are policy decisions. The decision to set up some form of tax assessment system to implement taxation policies also forms part of the policy decision.

What is administration?

The daily operation of systems that are created as a result of policy decisions comes within the realm of administration and is subject to the requirements of administrative law. The distinction between the formulation of policy and administration of policy is an important one, because a complaint about formulation of policy is a complaint about a purely political matter, and none of the avenues of redress discussed in this part ordinarily apply to such a complaint.

Complaints about the administration of policy (e.g. decisions concerning the application of the policy to particular circumstances) are, however, generally subject to review.

Some other decisions may not be subject to administrative law because they are contractual or managerial in nature (for more information as to which decisions are subject to administrative law see the Complaints Against Government – Judicial Review chapter).


Legislation normally places the power to make decisions with the holder of a specific position such as the relevant minister or the permanent head of a department. Modern departments are often huge entities with thousands of employees. It would be impossible for one person to perform all of the functions entrusted to them, and it is quite usual for functions to be delegated to others. For example, under the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth), the Secretary of the Department of Social Security is given the power to decide claims for unemployment benefits. One can imagine that if the secretary had to deal personally with every individual claim, the system would grind to a halt. Therefore, the law permits the secretary to delegate much of the day-to-day work to Centrelink officers (Carltona Ltd v Commissioners of Works [1943] 2 All ER 560; O’Reilly v Commissioners of State Bank of Victoria (1983) 153 CLR 1). However, the secretary remains responsible for ensuring that delegated functions are carried out properly (see s 27A(10A) of the Acts Interpretation Act 1954 (Qld)).

General guidelines and instruction manuals are normally issued by departments to assist their officers in the performance of delegated functions. Such manuals must be made available to the public (s 20 Right to Information Act 2009 (Qld)). In framing a review of an administrative decision, it may be very important to see these documents, as they may contain incorrect interpretations of the law or may require some irrelevant or improper factors to be considered before administrative action is taken or a decision is made.