Introduction to Policy Design

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What is policy design?

Public policies are the results of efforts made by governments to alter aspects of their own or social behaviour to carry out different and wide-ranging ends or purposes. Should all of these efforts be thought of as embodying a conscious ‘design’? In most cases the answer is ‘yes’. Policy design extends to both the means or mechanisms through which goals are given effect, and to the goals themselves, since goal articulation inevitably involves considerations of feasibility, or what is practical or possible to achieve in given circumstances (Huitt 1968; Majone 1975; Ingraham 1987).

In their many works on the subject in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Stephen H. Linder and B. Guy Peters argued that the actual process of public policy decision-making could, in an analytical sense, be divorced from the abstract concept of policy design, in the same way that an abstract architectural concept can be divorced from its engineering manifestation. In this sense, policy designs  can be thought of as ideal configurations of sets of policy elements which within a specific context can reasonably be expected to deliver a specific outcome.

Irrespective of how it is conducted, the idea of policy design is inextricably linked with the idea of improving government actions through the conscious consideration at the stage of policy formulation of the likely outcomes of policy implementation. Issues of policy design are of importance both for non-governmental actors concerned with bearing the costs of government failures and incompetence, as well as for governmental ones who may be tasked with carrying out impossible duties, meeting unrealistic expectations and seeking to achieve their goals effectively and efficiently, that is, with minimum effort and cost (Weimer 1993, deLeon 1999; Potoski 2002).

Policy-making and especially policy tool selection is a highly constrained process. The choices of programme-level tools and targets are constrained by the existing governance mode, while a policy regime logic (Skodkin, Gulbergand Aakre 2010), that is, the choices of meso-level programme objectives and policy instruments, similarly constrains micro-level targeting and programme goals. The multi-level, nested, nature of policy tool choices, therefore, must be taken into account in any effort to design or plan policy outcomes. Better designs are more effective at doing this, generating policy processes and outcomes which are more consistent with their environments.

Thus, it is important for policy designers to incorporate into their thinking the knowledge that the exact processes by which policy decisions are taken vary greatly by jurisdiction and sector and reflect the great differences, and nuances, that exist between different forms of government – from military regimes to liberal democracies and within each type – as well as the particular configuration of issues, actors and problems various governments, of whatever type, face in particular areas or sectors of activity – such as health or education policy, industrial policy, transportation or energy policy, social policy and many others (Ingraham 1987; Howlett, Ramesh and Perl 2009). In some circumstances, policy decisions will be more highly contingent and ‘irrational’, that is, driven by situational logics and opportunism rather than careful deliberation and assessment, than others (Cohen et al. 1979; Dryzek 1983; Kingdon 1984; Eijlander 2005; Franchino and Hoyland 2009). This high level of contingency in decision-making has led some critics and observers of policy design efforts to suggest that policies cannot be ‘designed’ in the sense that a house or a piece of furniture can be (Dryzek and Ripley 1988).

Policy design and policy formulation

Policy formulation is a process of identifying and assessing possible solutions to policy problems or, to put it another way, exploring the various options or alternatives available for addressing a problem (Linder and Peters 1990). Policy formulation involves identifying both the technical and political constraints on state action (May 1981; Sidney 2007). It involves recognizing limitations on state resources such as a lack of credibility, fiscality, capacity or legitimacy, which can limit what is feasible in specific circumstances (Majone 1989: 76). Politicians in most societies, for example, cannot do everything they consider would appeal to the public but also cannot ignore popular opinion and public sentiments and still maintain their legitimacy and credibility. Other constraints on policy design can arise from limits on the state’s administrative and financial capacity.

As Stephen Linder, B. Guy Peters, Davis Bobrow, Peter May, Patricia Ingraham, Christopher Hood, Renate Mayntz and the other pioneers of policy design research in the 1980s and 1990s argued, like other kinds of design activities in manufacturing and construction, policy design involves three fundamental aspects: (1) knowledge of the basic building blocks or materials with which actors must work in constructing a (policy) object; (2) the elaboration of a set of principles regarding how these materials should be combined in that construction; and (3) understanding the process by which a design becomes translated into reality. In a policy context this means understanding the kinds of implementation tools governments have at their disposal in attempting to alter some aspect of society and societal behaviour; elaborating a set of principles concerning which instruments should be used in which circumstances; and understanding the nuances of policy formulation and implementation processes in government.

These tasks are undertaken by experts in policy advice systems, utilizing different sets of ideas they, and other policy actors, have about the normative and cognitive contents of policies. It is in this sense that one can talk about policies being designed or consciously crafted and constructed by state actors. This does not mean that design is always done well – no more than this is the case in architecture or industrial design – and it does not mean that design is the only activity important to studying or making public policy. Other equally important activities include ‘understanding’ policy-making or researching its nature and processes (Howlett, Ramesh and Perl 2009); ‘managing’ public policy, or ensuring that planned objectives are actually met in practice (Wu et al. 2010); and ‘analyzing’ public policy, that is, evaluating the experiences of past or existing policies in order to better inform future policies and developing methodologies for policy alternative appraisal and evaluation (Weimer and Vining 2004; Dunn 2008). Like all these other tasks, design can be done well or poorly, depending on the skills and knowledge of the designer and the amount of time, information and other resources at his or her disposal in the design task. Designers must not always be simply reacting to circumstances or engaging in a process of incremental policy-making, but require some autonomy and capability to systematically evaluate their circumstances and the range of instrument choices they might make if design is to occur in any meaningful sense.

Design is nevertheless a crucial activity in policy-making and considerations of policy success or failure (Marsh and McConnell 2010; McConnell 2010) since it embodies the lessons learned from other policy activities at the moment in time when a new policy is being developed or an old one reformed. Like architecture or engineering, it is critical to policy-making that the lessons of past efforts – both successes and failures – are encapsulated into principles of sound design which can offer the best chance of the attainment of government goals and objectives in the prevalent circumstances (May 1981; Schneider and Ingram 1988; Weimer 1992; Rose 1993; 2005; Grabosky 1995; Gunningham and Sinclair 1999).


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