Wikis > Lessons for students of policy design and practitioners

Two central points need concerning the nature of policy design and the preconditions for its success are set out here for students of policy design and practitioners to consider. These are: (1) the need for designers to thoroughly analyze and understand the ‘policy space’ in which they are working; and (2) the need for them to be aware of and deal with the temporal dimensions of this space.

Understanding the design space

Designing successful policies requires thinking about policy-making in such a way as to fully take into account the dual purposes – substantive and procedural – which polices can serve and the nature of the multiple levels of policy elements or components which make up a typical policy.  Policy formulation typically occurs within the confines of an existing governance mode and policy logic which simplifies the task of policy design. It does this by restricting the number of alternatives which are considered feasible in any given planning situation, reducing to manageable proportions the otherwise almost infinite range of possible specific micro-level instrument choices (Meuleman 2010); but only if these contextual constraints are diagnosed accurately.

The process of design and instrument selection is made simpler once the fact that some of the elements of public policies remain more amenable to careful thought and deliberate government manipulation than others is recognized. Understanding exactly how instrument choices are constrained by higher-order sets of variables is thus crucial to making correct policy design decisions in specific policy-making contexts.

As Linder and Peters (1991) argued, policy design can be thought of as a spatial activity. That is, as:

a systematic activity composed of a series of choices . . . design solutions,  then, will correspond to a set of possible locations in a design space . . . this construction emphasizes not only the potential for generating new  mixtures of conventional solutions, but also the importance of giving  careful attention to tradeoffs among design criteria when considering  instrument choices.  (130)

Establishing the nature of the policy design ‘space’ is therefore a crucial activity for policy designers. Designers must avoid simply advocating ‘stock’ solutions unless this is called for by the limited nature of the space available for new designs (May 1981). Rather they should ‘consider the range of feasible’ options possible in a given circumstance and package these into sets of ‘competing strategies’ to achieve policy goals (May 1981: 236, 238). As David Weimer (1992) has argued, ‘Instruments, alone or in combination, must be crafted to fit particular substantive, organizational and political contexts’ (373).

Adopting a multi-level, nested model of policy context helps clarify what ‘room’ exists at what level of policy for new or alternative policy design elements (Hamdouch and Depret 2010). High-level abstract ‘macro’ level policy goals typically vary in accordance with the nature of the governance mode found in a particular sector at a specific time which itself encompasses the set of political actors, ideas and institutional rules which are prevalent in that jurisdiction at the moment at which policy deliberations and decision-making takes place (Moore 1988; Braun 1999; Howlett and Ramesh 2003). The existence of these fairly longterm and stable governance arrangements helps maintain relatively constant general implementation preferences, since these derive from and are constrained by the same set of factors which influence and inform the development and articulation of abstract policy aims (Howlett 1991; May 1991; Dunsire 1993; Kooiman 2000 and 2008).

These different modes thus involve different overall preferences for general kinds of substantive and procedural policy instruments expected to attain the general aims of government. The existence of a dominant governance mode in a particular sector or issue area generates certain propensities for the use of specific kinds of tools within and across Hood’s resource categories. Different countries and sectors share these styles and they are the first important overall determinant of the policy design space found in specific policy and issue areas (Meuleman 2010; Hardiman and Scott 2010).

In many countries, the preferred instruments for policy implementation in many sectors have been configured as largely legal and corporatist rather than market or network based, but the context, style, and substance of both the marketplace and the network has infiltrated the policy formulation process in recent years (Majone 1989). However, the policy design space in most sectors in recent decades remains firmly fixed within earlier modes, especially, in many countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America, for example, within corporatist modes (Heritier et al. 1996; Knill 2001; Pollitt 2001). Although compliance with government intentions has been approached in some sectors in these countries in terms of market-based factors: profit margins and the economic viability of industry, employment patterns, and international competitiveness, this new emphasis on market-based policy tools – or what is sometimes referred to as ‘the new governance’ – has had little effect on implemented policy designs in many sectors (Rhodes 1996; Salamon 2001 ; O’Toole and Meier 2010). This underlines the linkages which exist in governance modes between patterns of policy instrument choices and general governance preferences and the need for policy designers to be thoroughly aware of the nature of the design space within which they are working.

Promoting ‘integrated’ policy designs congruent with existing design spaces multiplies the problems designers face in making choices and selection of instruments (Meijers and Stead 2004; Stead et al. 2004; Briassoulis 2005b; 2005c) and assumes a great deal of administrative and analytical capacity on the part of state actors that may or may not exist in different sectors and countries (Howlett 2009; Howlett and Newman 2010). That is, in order for ‘design’ to meaningfully occur at all, policy designers need a great deal of knowledge and insight into the workings of their polity and specific policy sectors, raising to the forefront questions about the capacity of policy experts involved in the policy formulation process (Bye and Bruvoll, 2008; Schön 1992). In order to be able to make an appropriate decision about when to introduce new instruments and when to renew old ones, they must be familiar not only with the technical aspects of the menu of instruments before them, but also with the nature of the governance and policy contexts in which they are working, and thus require training and experience in both these aspects of the policy design process if design is to occur (Braathen 2005; 2007; Grant 2010 ; skodvin, Gullberg and Aakre 2010).

Understanding the temporality of design choices

Specific instrument choices are embedded decisions, existing within a nested, multi-level environment of governance modes, policy regime logics and tool calibrations, and is heavily context laden. The basic nature of possible governance regimes, however, is well known and the general implementation preferences they entail are also quite clear. That leaves the essential design challenge in many sectors as one of the identification and articulation of specific policy measures, more or less carefully calibrated, from within each resource category, within an already existing governance mode.

However, the common existence of fairly ‘routine’ design situations should not be taken to suggest complete stability in all areas and it is certainly the case that preferred governance modes do change as governments move away, for example, from legalistic and corporatist modes towards more flexible modes associated with market and network governance and governance styles. And such moves, as adherents of the globalization network hypothesis have noted, can have a large impact on the types of policy design choices taken by government, such as a shift away from ‘direct’ government activities towards an increased reliance on the indirect manipulation of market and policy network actors.

There is a temporal aspect to these policy designs contexts, therefore, which policy designers must also take into account. As Christensen et al. have argued, the leeway or degree of manoeuvrability policy designers have in developing new designs is influenced not only by existing contextual factors and polity features but also by historical-institutionalist ones. As they argue, ‘these factors place constraints on and create opportunities for purposeful choice, deliberate instrumental actions and intentional efforts taken by political and administrative leaders to launch administrative reforms through administrative design’ (2002: 158).

That is, except in the case of completely new policy areas, which are relatively rare, designers are typically faced with a situation in which an already existing policy mix is in place (Thelen 2003; 2004). These arrangements commonly have emerged or evolved over relatively long periods of time through previous design decisions, and even if they had a clear logic and plan at the outset they may no longer do so (Bode 2006). This is because they may have evolved through such temporal processes as layering in which instruments and goals are simply added to existing ones without abandoning the previous ones, a process which has been linked to both incoherence amongst the policy ends and inconsistency with respect to policy means (Howlett and Rayner 1995; Orren and Skowronek 1999; Rayner et al. 2001). Or they may have emerged through drift, in which policy ends change while instruments remain unchanged, a process through which means become inconsistent with respect to changed ends and most likely ineffective in achieving them (Torenvlied and Akkerman 2004; Hacker 2005). In these contexts designers are faced with the challenge of redesign or the replacement of existing regime elements in which the design space has been altered by the continued existence of the remnants of earlier policy efforts. In such situations designers often attempt to patch or restructure existing policy elements rather than propose alternatives de novo although the situation may require the latter if any degree of coherence and consistency is to be achieved in the reformed policy mix (Gunningham and Sinclair 1999; Thelen 2003; 2004; Eliadis et al. 2005). In such redesigns, Howlett and Rayner (2007) and Kern and Howlett (2009) have focused attention on the importance of designers aiming to achieve ‘coherence, consistency and congruence’ in the new design. That is, designers should ensure that any new design elements are coherent in the sense that they are logically related to overall policy aims and objectives; that they be consistent in that they work together to support a policy goal; and that both policy goals and means should be congruent, rather than working at cross-purposes.