In considering the widely held view that we have experienced an era of qualitative decline in policy provision, this paper briefly reviews four questions that appear to underlie such a view. Have there been identifiable transitions in deliberative processes, political practices and policy capacity in recent decades (and if so, what were the catalysts)? Has the relationship between policy practitioners and expert providers of policy advice changed (and if so, how)? Have channels of communication between the political/policy community and the research community deteriorated (and if so, why)? Has the political appreciation of public concerns and the public understanding of policy imperatives diminished? We use these to frame the results of a workshop in which researchers, policy practitioners and service providers participated. Our objective is to identify systematically the origin of contemporary policy problems, foreshadowing four articles that illuminate instances of success and failure in disruptive times.