How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs

Tanya Krister

This is a guest post by Professor Tanya Heikkila (left) and  Professor Krister Andersson (right), discussing how to use insights from the institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework to think about how to design policy effectively. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Policy design is hard work. Attempts in the United States Congress to repeal and replace, or even revise, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the spring and summer or 2017 are good examples of the challenges.  Even setting aside issues of congressional partisanship, key lawmakers and President Trump seemed taken aback by how complex both the ACA and the underlying health care insurance issue are. Lawmakers struggled for several months, and failed, to come up with viable policy options that could make health insurance in the U.S. more cost-efficient, while providing flexibility to states, private firms, and individuals who must comply with the policy.

The recent experience in the US with revising the ACA is illustrative of a larger question:

How do policymakers or analysts navigate and design effective policies around complex collective problems?

Tips from the IAD framework

In general, these tips encourage a policymaker or analyst to take a step back and start with the basics—what we might call the research lessons for sound policy design. Below we offer a summary of three basic lessons.

1. People are capable of solving collective problems from the bottom-up, both outside and within government settings.

Some conventional wisdom has suggested that it’s best to leave policy design up to the “experts,” which might include technocrats, senior elected officials, or even benevolent dictators.

Institutional analysis research has shown, however, that people who are most closely tied to or affected by a policy issue, are not only capable but often best at designing policies. Excluding these groups from the design stage is likely to lead to weakened legitimacy resulting in less compliance.

One might assume that this idea only applies to localized issues, or problems that are small in scope.  Yet, in many formal policy settings or government venues, decision-makers similarly must learn to embrace the wisdom of their collectives, and of the actors affected by the policy issue.

Of course this takes time, because to do this well requires the development of trust, experience, and adequate information gathering. And in the case of a complex decision-making body like the US Congress, policymakers may believe it’s more important to take advantage of a political window of opportunity and push through decisions quickly. Additionally, individual elected officials may believe that their interests are best served by taking a position on an issue that seems to be most politically palatable to their constituents, without thinking in the interest of the whole country (or even their states).

This line of thinking back-fired in the summer of 2017 with the ACA repeal efforts. A more robust approach, as supported by the IAD-logic, would be for elected officials to take the time to build and open dialogue, work directly with key constituents in thinking about the best approach for health care for the country, and spend time with each other, in Congress and in state legislatures, to make to design and/or adapt policy toward more productive ends.

2. Use a framework to navigate the complexity of policy design

We can’t devise, amend, or adapt policy effectively without understanding it. Yet, people have a natural tendency to engage in reactionary and emotional reasoning when they are passionate about an issue. Even when not colored by emotional reasoning, policymakers and analysts also come with their own professional and cultural biases that can lead to ‘blind spots’.

Frameworks can help us guard against the tendency toward biased analyses or a focus on features of a policy that are most obvious. A good framework provides a toolkit for identifying the general factors that policymakers and other stakeholders should consider when developing new policies or trying to understanding existing policies.

The IAD framework, for instance, helps identify:

  • the relevant actors for devising and implementing policy
  • their information, knowledge motivations, and interactions
  • the various types of rules these actors already use
  • the biophysical and community context surrounding the actors
  • the evaluative criteria appropriate for assessing the policy in question.

It also helps us understand what external or broader rules can constrain or enable particular actions.  In other words, it makes us aware of our ‘blind spots’ and enables a deeper understanding of the factors that are important for effective policy design.

3. Stop looking for panaceas. Instead, understand the nuance of policy design

There are no silver bullets to policy designs. General blueprint solutions rarely work and it is important to design contextually appropriate policy interventions.

This requires scrutinizing the design elements of policies (e.g., the types of rules embedded in policies), and how they interact with the incentives and information that different actors use in devising or implementing a policy.

It also involves deep knowledge of the factors that can structure their choices in light of the local context where policies are used.  Policy designs ultimately are more likely to be successful when they acknowledge the autonomy and problem-solving capabilities of people whose behavior the interventions are trying to change.

In the context of the ACA, for instance, policymakers need to be tuned into the ways in which different rules for participating in health exchanges can affect the incentives for participation, which can be critical for keeping insurance costs down.

While these types of recommendations may seem intuitive, we often fail to follow them. Perhaps this is because they require extra time, which may mean we miss our windows of opportunity.

Ultimately, resisting the temptation to rush policy analysis and design, and instead engaging with people who understand the policy, using an analytical framework to mitigate our biases, and paying close attention to the nuances of policy design helps us produce more successful policies.


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9 responses to “How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs

  1. Pingback: Practical Lessons from Policy Theories | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. This is a very helpful blog for me, especially with my latest research paper, about Saudi Arabia’s, titled, “Institutional Capacity Constraints, Limitations and the Challenges of Implementing Saudi Vision 2030”

  3. Great post. Look forward to reading the full paper.

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