Understanding contemporary policy design

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In trying to come to terms with the challenges of globalization and the increasing ‘networkization’ of society many scholars have argued that governments have developed a renewed interest in a particular set of policy tools appropriate to market or network modes of governance. Owing to this purported shift in governance contexts – the presence of more flexible economic and political circumstances than have existed in the past (Lenihan and Alcock 2000) – contemporary policy designs in many advanced countries, it has been argued, have changed. In many cases they are argued to have become more indirect and subtle, and often much less visible than was previously the case (Rhodes 1997).

It has been argued in many circles that in response to the increased complexity of society and the international environment, governments in many countries in Western Europe, in particular, have turned away from the use of a relatively limited number of traditional, more or less command-and-control oriented, ‘substantive’ policy tools such as public enterprises, regulatory agencies, subsidies and exhortation, and begun to increasingly use their organizational resources to support a different set of ‘procedural’ tools (Klijn and Teisman 1991; Peters 1998) such as government reorganizations, reviews and inquiries, government–NGO partnerships and stakeholder consultations. These all act to guide or steer policy processes in the direction government wishes through the manipulation of policy actors and their interrelationships, and constitute a ‘new governance’ system (Bingham et al. 2005).

These processes and theories continue to challenge public administrators, managers and scholars (Peters 1996; Peters and Pierre 1998; Knill 1999) but have generally been found to have less grounding in actual patterns of tool use and the evolution of policy designs than their proponents allege. Even if some sectors have been moving in the direction of network governance, the relationship existing between governance modes and policy tool categories is far from one-to-one and, moreover, other trends exist in other sectors featuring other kinds of governance activities and preferences. In addition, the reasons why particular instruments are selected extend beyond macro-factors such as globalization to others associated with expert discourse and historical experience in the process of policy formulation.

Students of public policy-making in many countries have thus begun to move beyond simple macro-level models and theories of policy design and have developed a renewed interest in the meso- and micro-aspects of policy formulation and the investigation of the ways in which governments actually propose and utilize the multiple different types of policy instruments available to them (Goggin et al. 1990; Dunsire 1993). Properly assessing, inventorying, categorizing and modelling procedural policy instrument use and choice has thus become a prerequisite to understanding the evolution of policy designs. And this is just as true for practitioners as it is for theorists and academics.

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