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Design quality is a key urban policy goal in global cities worldwide, and the Sydney experience fits this trend. From the turn of the century, the City of Sydney Council has employed a unique “Design Excellence” policy setting which, amongst other things, mandates competitive design processes for major private developments across the Local Government Area. We provide here an overview of the operation and outcomes of the competitive design policy to date within the central business district. While stopping short of a comprehensive evaluation, the tracking though of the policy as it has evolved in practice identifies two key operational phases of the policy reflecting a mix of market, political and regulatory changes. We describe and analyse key attributes of policy development and implementation across these two phases from 2001-2011 and 2012-2016 drawing on quantitative and qualitative evidence. These findings point to the institutionalisation of a policy representing an innovative and critical intervention in the market by a local authority. It appears to have adapted to different imperatives over time and in so doing added significant value to the design process and helped to secure positive outcomes in the public interest.