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The Turn Away from Policy Formulation Tools

In the Lasswellian perspective, tools were seen as having a central role in the development of an integrated approach that united policy researchers with policy practitioners. But for a number of reasons, things did not quite match up to his vision, and policy formulation tools were gradually marginalized in public policy research and some fell out of favour with policymakers.

First, when used, CBA and integrated forms of planning and budgeting such as the PPBS fell some way short of initial expectations. When the academic backlash came it pushed the study of policy formulation tools back in the direction of the 'cloistered' (Radin 2013, p. 166) backroom of policy research. Tools such as computer modelling and CBA seemed to stand for everything that was bad about positivist and 'technocratic' forms of policy analysis (Goodin et al. 2006, p. 4). Tool specialists were derided as 'econocrats' (Self 1985) and 'whizzkids' (Mintrom and Williams 2013, p. 9). Wildavsky (1987, p. xxvi), never keen on tools even when they were in vogue, viewed policy analysis more as an art and a craft than an exercise in applying 'macro-macho' policy tools such as the PPBS and CBA to solve problems. 'The technical base of policy analysis is weak', he continued. 'Its strengths lie in the ability to make a little knowledge go a long way by combining and understanding of the constraints of a situation with the ability to explore the environment constructively' (Wildavsky 1987, p. 16). Others critiqued the assumption that using tools would take the politics out of policymaking; in practice, politics all too readily intervened (DeLeon and Martell 2006, p. 33). Why, to put it bluntly, should a bureaucrat perform a sophisticated policy assessment employing state-of-the-art tools, when critical policy decisions had already effectively been made? (Shulock 1999, p. 241). Politics could also intervene more insidiously, through the values embodied and reproduced by particular, ostensibly neutral tools. CBA in particular lost legitimacy in certain policy sectors as a result (Owens et al. 2004), though hung on quite tenaciously thereafter. The very idea that policy analysis should seek to provide analytical solutions for 'elites' was challenged; rather, claims were made that analysts should concentrate on understanding the multiple actors that are involved in policy formulation (Hajer and Wagenaar 2003), and uncover the many meanings that they bring to the process and the framings they employ (Radin 2013, p. 162). So while the academic critique of tools and methods were mostly centred on the most positivist, rational variants (in other words, the PPBS and CBA) (Self 1985), its effect was eventually much more wide ranging and long lasting.

Second, policymakers also began to turn away from centralized, tool-driven forms of policy planning. The abolition of PPBS in the 1970s and of the CPRS in the early 1980s, coupled with the rise of a much more explicitly ideological approach to policymaking in the 1980s, led not to the removal of analysis altogether, but changes in the type and tools of analysis demanded. Thus, the rise of private sector management techniques in running public services (in other words, the New Public Management agenda), coupled with desire to reduce the power and scope of bureaucracy, nurtured a demand for a new set of accounting tools for contracting out public services (Mintrom and Williams 2013).

Third, the mainstream of public policy research had long before turned to other research questions. These focused more on attempts (of which Lindblom (1959) is a classic early example) to better understand the policy process itself, not as a series of stages in which rational analysis could/ should be applied, but as a much more complex, negotiated and above all deeply political process. Others built on the claim that policy formulation was actually not especially influential - that policy implementation, not formulation, was the missing link - and devoted their energies to post-decisional policymaking processes. Meanwhile, after Salamon's (1989) influential intervention, policy instrument scholars increasingly focused on the selection and effects of the implementing instruments.

Finally, the tool designers and developers became ever more divided into 'clusters of functional interest' (Schick 1977, p. 260). The idea of an integrated policy analysis for democracy was quietly forgotten in the rush to design ever more sophisticated tools. Indeed, some have devoted their entire careers to this task, only later to discover that relatively few policymakers routinely use the tools they had designed (Pearce 1998; Hanley et al. 1990). As Schick (1977, p. 262) had earlier predicted, they believed that the route to usefulness was via ever greater precision and rigour - but it wasn't.

 
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