Policy design is ‘ubiquitous, necessary and difficult’ but surprisingly little studied and understood (Bobrow, 2006). Over the past three decades it has received some treatment in the existing policy literature, but not as much, or in as much detail, as is necessary (May 1981, 1991 and 2003; Weimer 1992; Bobrow 2006). Within the policy sciences it has been linked to studies of policy implementation and policy instruments (May 2003) and to those of policy ideas and policy formulation (Linder and Peters 1990; James and Jorgensen 2009), but without systematic attention being paid to such basic elements as the definition of key terms and concepts. In addition, it has been a large, if typically implicit, part of a more recent trend towards the study of governance, and even ‘meta-governance’, but again, without the benefit of clear and systematic analysis (Meuleman 2009; 2010).
Despite the vagueness and uncertainties currently associated with its principles and elements, the purpose and expectations of policy design have always been clear. Policy design has been conducted by policy actors in the hope of improving policy-making and policy outcomes through the accurate anticipation of the consequences of government actions (Tinbergen 1958; 1967; Schon 1992). It thus is situated firmly in the ‘rational’ tradition of policy studies, aimed at improving policy outcomes through the application of policy-relevant and policy specific knowledge to policy-making processes, specifically in the crafting of alternative possible courses of action intended to address social, political, economic and other kinds of policy problems (Cahill and Overman 1990; Bobrow 2006).
While somewhat similar in this regard to activities such as planning and strategic management, policy design is much less technocratic in nature than these other efforts at ‘scientific’ government and administration (Forester 1989; Voss et al. 2009). However, it too is oriented towards avoiding many of the inefficiencies and inadequacies apparent in other, less knowledge-informed ways of formulating policy, such as pure political bargaining, ad hocism, or trial and error (Bobrow 2006). In general, it is less specific than planning in developing alternatives rather than detailed ‘plans’, fully acknowledges the uncertainty of the future and the contingent nature of policy outcomes (Voss et al. 2009) and is more open than strategic management to the idea that there are alternative sources of knowledge and design criteria than those residing in, or proposed by, experts (Fischer and Forester 1987; May 1991).
May (2003) argues that rather than treating design as simply a technical activity of finding the best design, it should be seen to involve channelling the energies of disparate actors towards agreement in working towards similar goals. In this sense, policy design contains both a substantive component – a set of alternative arrangements potentially capable of resolving or addressing some aspect of a policy problem, one or more of which is ultimately put into practice – as well as a procedural component – a set of activities related to securing some level of agreement among those charged with formulating, deciding upon, and administering that alternative. It thus overlaps and straddles both policy formulation and policy implementation and involves actors, ideas and interests present at both these stages of the policy process (Howlett, Ramesh and Perl 2009).
The contextual orientation of policy design
Conceived of as both a process and outcome, policy design is very much situated in the ‘contextual’ orientation which is characteristic of modern policy science (Torgerson 1985; May 2003). That is, it is an activity or set of activities which takes place within a specific historical and institutional context that largely determines its content (Clemens and Cook 1999). Which alternatives can be imagined, and prove feasible or acceptable at any given point in time, change as conditions evolve and different sets of actors and ideas alter their calculations of both the consequences and appropriateness of particular policy options or implemented designs (March and Olsen 2004; Goldmann 2005). This contextual orientation has led many observers of policy outcomes and policy deliberations to focus on the policy environment as a key factor affecting policy designs (May 1991) and upon changes in that environment as a key determinant of any trends or patterns existing in design choices. There is a broad agreement among many popular commentators on globalization, for example, that this phenomenon has fundamentally altered many aspects of contemporary governance and policy designs. As a result of golobalization, it is often alleged, states’ governance practices have been greatly constrained; not only in what states do but also in how they do it (Cerny 1996; Reinicke 1998). That is, as globalization has proceeded apace, states’ options in terms of the policy instruments available to them to realize their ends have been argued to have changed in response to their growing inability to manage public policy-making processes and outcomes. This process has therefore altered the nature of the kinds of policy options which are feasible in the new global circumstances, affecting the kinds of designs which emerge from policy formulation processes and can be successfully implemented.
Similarly, many commentators have also argued, either separately or in conjunction with the globalization thesis, that state practices have also been changing as societies are being transformed by improved information and communication technologies to become ever more complex networks of interorganizational actors (Mayntz 1993; Castells, 1996). This increased ‘networkization’ of society, it is argued, has meant that many functions and activities traditionally undertaken exclusively by governments increasingly involve ever-larger varieties of non-governmental actors, themselves involved in increasingly complex relationships with other societal, and state, actors (Foster and Plowden 1996). This second movement towards the development of networked societies, it is often argued, has further complicated the situation and accentuated the constraints globalization has imposed upon the capabilities of domestic states, further reducing their capacity for independent action and limiting their design choices and alternatives (Dobuzinskis 1987; Lehmbruch 1991).
The result of these dual processes, many commentators have suggested is that implementation practices have become more participatory and consultative over the last several decades (Alshuwaikhat and Nkwenti 2002; Arellano-Gault and Vera-Cortes 2005) as networkization has increased, while over this same time period and longer many public enterprises have also been privatized and previously government-provided services contracted-out to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as globalization has advanced. In addition, it has also been argued that in some sectors regulatory activities have shifted from ‘enforcement’ to ‘compliance’ regimes; tax incentives have increasingly substituted for earlier systems of subsidies and grants; and many countries now place an increasing emphasis on public information and other similar types of campaigns, replacing or supplementing more coercive forms of government activity (Woodside 1983; Hawkins and Thomas 1989; Hood 1991; Howlett and Ramesh 1993; Weiss and Tschirhart 1994; Doern and Wilks 1998).
However, while the evidence of some changes in how governments function in the contemporary era, the scope, significance and causes of these changes remain contentious. Especially contentious is the belief that the changes in formulation and implementation practices which have occurred have been triggered solely by the changes in the domestic and international spheres encapsulated in the dual movements of globalization and ‘networkization’ cited above. And even more contentious is the closely related idea that governments have no choice in their policy designs but to continue these transformations and continue to work towards the reduction of the state presence in the economy and society as these dual processes continue to unfold and intensify (Levi-Faur 2009; O’Toole and Meier, 2010).