Home Political science The tools of policy formulation
In theory, scenarios are tools that aim to deal with the increasing complexity and future uncertainty of modern life. The real world examples presented in this chapter indicate that they have become indispensable tools in policy formulation processes and are used in very different policy venues. Scenarios are fundamentally linked to the initial, problem conceptualization stage of the policy formulation process. However, a full foresight process is closely interwoven with the other phases and important tasks. Scenarios can, for example, be used to acquire and consolidate ideas on the long-term effects of possible policy decisions, and can facilitate evaluation of the trade-offs that would result from adopting different policy options.
The two examples described above highlight the three 'golden rules' that make futures studies more successful in informing the policy formulation process: credibility, legitimacy and saliency. Credibility is perhaps the critical factor: trust in the sources (in other words, who gave information, the data quality), in the foresight process (addressing the developers' and stakeholders' subjectivities), in the models used (data, calibration), the framing (narrative, metaphor) as well as the dissemination of the results (who communicates and in what context) (Selin 2006). Explorative scenarios seem to be more credible in the eyes of policymakers because they are based on the knowledge of experts in the fields at stake that understand the current state and possible future trends. Normative scenarios tend to have lower credibility because their development relies upon 'crystal-ball gazing' and leaping inferentially to what will occur in a (usually probabilistic) future. However, little objective evidence exists to defend these assertions. The inputs to explorative scenarios could be biased as well, consciously or unconsciously, and not in a systematic manner.
As regards saliency, scenario processes that ensure relevance to the policy context combine different scenario development methods (mainly explorative and normative) to expand the range of possible alternative futures. In this way, they increase the number of possible pathways to the future and enhance flexibility in the policy formulation process. The lack of diversity in scenario types is often the main limitation in scenario-based policy formulation activities. Focusing on one 'most probable' or 'most wishful' scenario makes policy formulation easier, but may constrain innovation, limit strategic thinking, and distract policymakers from the more creative solutions that are widely perceived to be needed in the environmental sector. Rosy futures with optimistic assumptions about policy effectiveness increase the risk of problem misdiagnosis and eventually policy failure (Neugarten 2006). In addition, the integration of normative and explorative methods will enhance legitimacy (as different methods allow a broader participation of society in the development of narratives). However this has proved to be challenging because it requires dynamic system modelling techniques including feedback relationships that are not yet fully developed.
As nobody has a monopoly on knowledge of the future, broad participation and communication with relevant stakeholders is a critical factor to ensure greater legitimacy. However, involving more stakeholders often leads in practice to new problems (Tonn 2003): a high turnover among process participants and a lack of credibility because some participants miss expert authority. If some are unwilling to reveal their values and stakes, tensions between participants (for example, from different departments and government levels) could prevent creative thinking.
In practice, the belief in a scenario is limited to the people involved in their construction (Schoonenboom 2003). The theoretical solution would be to involve 'internal' policymakers in the scenario development process. However, involvement of policymakers could block the development of alternative futures, as many policymakers are not willing to have the existing policy criticized. In practice, many policymakers have difficulties in dealing with uncertain futures (especially when scenarios are also value-laden). They may expect experts to deliver certainty, as shown by the examples in this chapter which were developed by experts 'external' to the government.
Theoretically, scenarios need to be credible, legitimate and salient to be successfully used in policy formulation. Understanding the characteristics of the relevant policy venue at the start of scenario development activities, considering who will use the scenarios, for what purpose and in what political context (in other words, the values and stakes of those involved), is more likely to make the scenario a more successful tool in informing policy formulation. For example, in relation to really complex issues such as the 'sustainable development' of a country or the development of a 'smart city', legitimacy and credibility are crucial and therefore participatory approaches are a 'must' for successful scenarios.
Finally, as an additional way to reduce uncertainty and understand complexity, policymakers are starting to request periodic ex post evaluations of the actual realization of scenarios and policy plans (for example, mid-term assessment of Europe 2020, mid-term review of EU Common Agricultural Policy) in order to draw lessons for future forecasts and plans. Optimism on the actual implementation of envisaged policy measures (for example, on energy saving or clean vehicles) often causes a structural bias in scenarios (Maas 2000). The challenge is to either accept the risks of non-compliance with the policy targets, or to develop robust scenarios that include reserve measures in the policy package that can substitute for those that do not survive the implementation phase.
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