Home Political science The tools of policy formulation
THEORIZING POLICY FORMULATION TOOLS: REASSEMBLING THE PIECES
In this section we explore some of the issues raised above through three different theoretical lenses, with the aim of both grounding the findings within established theoretical traditions, and using the findings to highlight particular gaps in each theory. Both approaches lead to a range of promising new research questions.
If all tools embody an 'implicit political theory' which provides both a raison d'etre for policy analysis and a causal account of how it should proceed (Weale 2001, p. 378), then the theory informing many studies and practices of policy formulation is a rational-instrumental one: '[t]he idea is one of a linear process in which a problem exists, information is lacking, [tools] produce information, and the decision maker can eventually decide' (Radaelli 2004, p. 743). Rational theories have constituted such a significant theme of policy analysis since the 1950s that they represent an obvious stepping off point for those wishing to think afresh about policy formulation (Howlett et al. 2014) and other aspects of the 'new' policy design (Howlett and Lejano 2013). In what follows, we therefore start with this theoretical lens before moving onto two very different ones.
Policy Formulation as Rationality
Although policy analysts long ago dispensed with the notion that policymakers are rational in the sense of having very clear and stable views of means and ends, a sense of rationality lives on in many contemporary frameworks such as policy learning, knowledge utilization, evidence-based policymaking and policy instrument selection and use. Selecting tools in a more or less rational fashion to achieve policy formulation goals and tasks clearly corresponds to what Weiss (1979, p. 427) identified as a 'problem-solving model' of knowledge utilization.
Scholars who wish to study policy formulation tools from a more or less rational standpoint will find a number of reasons to do so. First of all, it offers an intuitively straightforward basis on which to typologize tools. Our proposed typology is, after all, inherently rationalistic in its conception of the intersection of means and ends. Although it offers an incomplete guide to tool choices in practice, it may be regarded as a good starting point all the same.
Second (and related to the above), more rational theories offer a means to engage in normative policy analysis (in other words, 'analysis for' policy). To varying degrees of explicitness, rational assumptions pervade the thoughts of those who produce tool handbooks, supply (in other words, develop) tools and/or 'compliance test' their performance (for example, de Ridder et al. 2007, pp. 430-431). In fact, the original purpose of tools was to base decisions on rational arguments and evidence, instead of bargaining and political interests (Chapter 1; see also Turnpenny et al. (2009, p. 644)). Even if this normative ideal is rarely observed, it behoves of policy analysts to explain the divergence. And there is also the question of why rationalism appears to appeal so strongly to politicians and (perhaps in a somewhat different way) to scholars of policy design, on which more below.
Third, the rationality or otherwise of policy formulation also encourages scholars to think about tool choices in and across different venues. Were rationality dominant, we would expect policy formulators to select tools to match problem types and policy formulation tasks, rather than repeatedly rely upon the same tool (Linder and Peters 1989, p. 37). Different actors may prioritize different kinds of knowledge depending on, among other things, their core preferences and whether they are in the public, private or third sectors. Furthermore, actors operating in venues at different levels of governance might be expected to seek out different types of knowledge. For example, actors at EU and UK levels of decision making appear to seek out a more strategic overview of drivers and impacts (Turnpenny et al. 2014), whereas those charged with implementing policy at the 'street' level tend to be more heavily influenced by their client groups (Haines-Young and Potschin 2014).
Of course politics repeatedly intrudes into the operation of all tools -even the most explicitly 'rational' ones such as CBA. One of the most active debates in the CBA literature (see Chapters 7 and 10), is around the apparent asymmetry between cost and benefit predictions ex ante versus ex post. Is this genuinely the product of 'appraisal optimism' amongst policy analysts (Chapter 7), or because of special interests crying wolf over cost estimates? Although specific examples of policy formulation may not follow a rational-instrumental form, many of the chapters in Part II nonetheless reveal a surprisingly strong element of purposiveness in the selection and use of policy tools in general. Many detect a rather limited use of more sophisticated modelling-based tools, which suggests that some actors may be following the (rational) principle of proportionality, that is, using tools only where and when significant impacts and/or high levels of uncertainty are expected.
Fourth, if the main purpose of policy appraisal is to 'make institutions think differently' (Radaelli 2007, p. 3), then policy formulation tools are an obvious means to extend their collective 'regulatory imagination' (Dunlop 2014, p. 215). Rationalism thus encourages analysts to consider what types of tools generate what types of learning in particular venues (Turnpenny et al. 2009, p. 648). There are many types and degrees of policy learning (Dunlop 2014, pp. 210-211), and potentially many different research designs that could be employed to probe them. One approach is to follow Chapter 12 and trace out the use of a single tool across different policy venues. Chapter 12 found that the MARKAL energy model has provided opportunities for (conceptual) learning and helped to rationalize pre-existing policy decisions (in other words, more political uses of knowledge). Causality is, of course, very difficult to pin down in such studies, particularly as regards the more conceptual forms of use which regularly extend over long periods of time. Policy formula-tors may themselves also unwittingly compound this problem by refusing to reveal sources, especially in relation to the more symbolic and political categories of use. Nonetheless, these analytical challenges - which are well known to scholars of learning and knowledge utilization - will have to be confronted if scholars of policy formulation tools are to move beyond broad brush explanations of selection and adoption couched in Cash et al.'s (2002) terms of 'credibility, salience and legitimacy' (see Chapters 3 and 4).
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