Home Political science The tools of policy formulation
Policy Formulation Processes and Tasks
One of the most common ways to comprehend the process of policy formulation is to break it down into constituent steps or tasks. For Wolman (1981), policy formulation comprises several 'components', each impacting heavily on overall policy performance. In his view, the 'formulating process' starts with the 'conceptualization of the problem' by policymakers (Wolman 1981, p. 435). Like Wolman, Thomas (2001, pp. 216-217) also identifies an initial '[a]ppraisal phase' of data collection where 'critical issues.. . [are] identified' by stakeholders. However, as many commentators have observed, 'problems' themselves are not self-evident or neutral, with Wolman (1981, p. 437) arguing that they may be contested, subjective or socially constructed and may change through time in response to societal values. Problem characterization could therefore be considered to be an extension of the agenda-setting process. Policymakers may select certain forms of evidence to support action on specific issues, or issues themselves may be productive of certain types of evidence (see for example, Kingdon 2010; Baumgartner and Jones 1991).
Having established the existence of a policy problem (or problems) through some form of data collection, the various policy-relevant dimensions of the problem are then evaluated to determine their causes and extent, chiefly as a basis for identifying potential policy solutions. Inadequate understanding at this stage creates a need for what Wolman (1981, p. 437) terms '[theory evaluation and selection'. While the point is often made that causation tends to be difficult to precisely establish, Wolman observes that 'the better the understanding is of the causal process . .. the more likely ... we will be able to devise public policy to deal with it successfully' (Wolman 1981, p. 437). Understanding causation, as Wolman puts it, is also reliant on the generation of adequate theoretical propositions in addition to relevant data on which to support them. For Wu et al. (2010, p. 40) '[understanding the source of the problem' is an unavoidable part of formulation. They also make the point that rarely is there 'full agreement over .. . underlying causes' (Wu et al. 2010, p. 40). Like initial problem characterization, evaluation of the causes of a problem may thus involve political conflict as different actors seek to apportion blame, reduce their perceived complicity or shape subsequent policy responses in line with their interests. These characteristics strongly condition the type of tools used.
Once a broad consensus has been reached on the nature and extent of the problem(s), policymakers turn to consider appropriate responses. From the initial information gathering and analysis of causes, formula-tors engage in the '[specification of objectives' (Wolman 1981, p. 438) or '[clarifying policy objectives' (Wu et al. 2010, p. 40) stage. Initially, this third step of objective specification can involve the determination of the objectives to be met and the timescales for action (Wu et al. 2010). Again, disagreements over objectives can quickly ensue but once they are established, as a fourth step, specific policy options can be assessed and recommendations made on policy design(s). Because any particular problem may have multiple potential solutions, each with differing costs and benefits, these options require comparative assessment to guide decision making. As Howlett (2011, p. 31) puts it, this part of the formulation process 'sees public officials weighing the evidence on various policy options and drafting some form of proposal that identifies which of these options will be advanced to the ratification stage'.
Prior to the adoption of the final policy, it undergoes a fifth step - design. Having determined objectives, various means are available for selection from the tool box (for example Howlett 2011; Jordan et al. 2012; Jordan et al. 2013b). Determining the preferred policy mix is central to design considerations. While typologies also abound in the instruments literature, four main categories are evident: regulations; market-based instruments; voluntary approaches; and informational measures (Jordan et al. 2013b). In addition, the instrument of public spending or budgeting may also be identified (see for example, Russel and Jordan 2014). Policymakers select from these instruments according to a range of considerations that are both internal and external to the instrument. This stage of formulation could, according to Wolman (1981, pp. 440-446), consequently involve the weighing-up of several factors: the 'causal efficacy' of the policy; 'political feasibility'; 'technical feasibility'; any 'secondary consequences' resulting from the design; instrument type (regulations or incentives); and the capacity of implementation structures.
As above, all the steps including this one may become deeply contested. After all, the final architecture of the policy could, once implemented, create winners and losers via processes of positive and negative feedback (Jordan and Matt 2014). One means of dissipating distributional conflict throughout the entire formulation process is to engage in what Thomas (2001, p. 218) terms consensus building or 'consolidation', whereby agreement is sought between the various policy formulators and their client groupings. We shall show that a number of tools have been developed specifically for this purpose. But while '[anticipating and addressing the . .. concerns of the various powerful social groups is essential', consultation may create associated transaction costs such as the slowing down of policy adoption (Wu et al. 2010, p. 41). A decision can be taken - the subsequent stage of the policy process - once agreement has been reached on the chosen course of action.
These five tasks constitute the standard steps or tasks of policy formulation. During the 1960s and 1970s, when the policy analysis movement was still in its infancy, policy formulation was depicted as though it were both analytically and in practice separate from agenda setting and decision making. It was the stage where policy analysts 'would explore alternative approaches to "solve" a policy problem that had gained the attention of decision makers and had reached the policy agenda' (Radin 2013, p. 23). In doing so, policy formulation could be 'politically deodorized' (Heclo 1972, p. 15) in a way that allowed policy specialists to draw on the state of the art in policy tools and planning philosophies, to ensure that policy remained on as rationally determined a track as possible (Self 1981, p. 222).
As we saw above, and shall explain more fully below, it soon became apparent that the politics could not be so easily squeezed out of policy formulation by using tools or indeed any other devices. It also became clear that some of the formulation tasks could overlap or be missed out entirely. Indeed, policy formulation may not culminate in the adoption of a discrete and hence settled 'policy': on the contrary, policies may continue to be (re) formulated throughout their implementation as tool-informed learning takes place in relation to their operational effectiveness and associated outcomes (Jordan et al. 2013a). As we shall show, many policy analysts responded to these discomforting discoveries by offering ever more strident recommendations on how policy formulation should be conducted (Vining and Weimer 2010; Dunn 2004); notably fewer have studied how it is actually practiced (Colebatch and Radin 2006; Noordegraaf 2011). In the following section we shall explore what a perspective focusing on tools and venues offers by way of greater insight into the steps and the venues of policy formulation.
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