Policies are made by a variety of different actors interacting with each other over a relatively long period of time within the confines of a set of political and economic institutions and governing norms, each with different interests and resources, and all operating within a climate of uncertainty caused both by context and time-specific knowledge and information limitations (Bressers and O’Toole 1998; 2005). Understanding who these actors are and how they act is thus a critical aspect of all public policy-making activity, including policy instrument selection and in policy design (Skodvin, Gulberg and Aakre 2010).
Many traditional ways of thinking about these activities and their impact on policy instrument and policy designs are outdated. Dichotomous sets of policy alternatives – like ‘market versus state’ – and metaphors – like ‘carrots versus sticks’, for example, – lend themselves to blunt thinking about instruments and their modalities. Administrators and politicians involved in policy design need to expand the menu of government choice to include both substantive and procedural instruments and a wider range of options of each, and to understand the important context-based nature of instrument choices.
Beyond such obvious points, however, theorists and practitioners also need to move beyond simple notions of the pervasive impact of both large-scale macro developments such as globalization and networkization. Blunt choices lend themselves to blunt thinking about instruments and their modalities which is not helpful in conducting or thinking about policy design. Scholars need more empirical analysis in order to test their models and provide better advice to governments about the process of tool selection and how to better match tools to the job at hand. Innovative policy design, especially, requires that the parameters of instrument choice be well understood, both in order to reduce the risk of policy failure and to enhance the probability of policy success (Linder and Peters 1990a; Schneider and Ingram 1997).
The challenge for a new generation of design studies is to develop not only the conceptual clarity and the methodological sophistication needed to identify changes in policy contexts, but also the techniques for understanding the influences of interactions between these contexts and the on other elements of policy (Eliadis et al. 2005; Yeung and Dixon-Woods 2010; del Rio, Carillo-Hermosilla and Konnola 2010; Hamelin 2010).
Given the complexity of policy making it is not surprising that many noble efforts by governments and citizens to create a better and safer world have foundered on poor policy design. However, while not an optional outcome, this has led to a greater appreciation of the difficulties encountered in designing public policies, and to the attempt to correct the gaps in our understanding, a process which, albeit slowly, has improved our knowledge of the principles and elements of the nature of policy instruments and their governance contexts of policy design.
As the basis for the design and implementation of carefully calibrated policy measures, the templates developed by Doern, Hood, Linder and Peters, Schneider and Ingram, and Salamon in the mid-1980s are still very useful in helping to organize the literature and focus design discussions. But, in spite of this work and the centrality and importance of design to public policy-making, the subject still remains in many respects a ‘missing link’ in policy studies (Hargrove 1975). The design process is complex, often internally orchestrated between bureaucrats and target groups, and usually much less accessible to public scrutiny than many other kinds of policy deliberations, but this should not be allowed to stand in the way of its further elaboration and refinement (Kiviniemi 1986; Donovan 2001).