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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Change

Christopher M. Weible & Paul Cairney

Policy change is a central concern of policy research and practice. Some want to explain it. Some want to achieve it.

Explanation begins with the ‘what is policy?’ question, since we cannot observe something without defining it.  However, we soon find that: no single definition can capture all forms of policy change, the absence of policy change is often more important, and important changes can be found in the everyday application of rules and practices related to public policies.  Further, studies often focus on changes in public policies without a focus on societal outcomes or effects.

One pragmatic solution is to define public policies as decisions made by policymakers or policymaking venues such as legislatures, executives, regulatory agencies, courts, national and local governments (and, in some countries, citizen-led policy changes).  Focusing on this type of policy change, two major categories of insights unfold:

  1. Patterns of Policy Change: incrementalism, punctuations, and drift

A focus on decisions suggests that most policymaking venues contribute primarily to incremental policy change, or often show little change from year to year but with the occasional punctuation of major policymaking activity.  This pattern reflects a frequent story about governments doing too much or nothing at all. The logic is that policymaking attention is always limited, so a focus on one issue in any policymaking venue requires minimal focus on others.  Then, when attention shifts, we see instances of major policy change as attempts to compensate (or overcompensate) for what was ignored for too long.

An additional focus on institutions highlights factors such as policy drift, to describe slow and small changes to policies, or to aspects of their design, that accumulate eventually and can have huge impacts on outcomes and society.  These drifts often happen outside the public eye or are overlooked as being negative but trivial.  For example, rising economic inequality in the US resulted from the slow accumulation of policies – related to labor unions, tax structures, and corporate governance – as well as globalization and labor-saving technologies.

  1. Factors Associated with Policy Change

Many factors help us understand instances of policy change. We can separate them analytically (as below) but, in practice, they occur simultaneously or sequentially, and can reinforce or stifle each other.

Context

Context includes history, biophysical conditions, socio-economic conditions, culture, and basic institutional structures (such as a constitution).  For example, historical and geographic conditions are often viewed as funneling or constraining the type of policy decisions made by a government.

Events 

Policymaking venues are often described as being resistant to change or in a state of equilibrium of competing political forces.  As a result, one common explanation for change is a focusing event or shock.  Events by themselves don’t create policy change. Rather, they present an opportunity for people or coalitions to exploit.   Focusing events might include disasters or crises, tragic incidents, a terrorist attack, disruptive changes in technology, or more routine events such as elections. Events may have tangible qualities, but studies tend to highlight the ways in which people frame events to construct their meaning and implications for policy.

Public Opinion 

The relationship between public opinion and policy change is a difficult one to assess.  Some research shows that the preferences of the general public only matter when they coincide with the preferences of the elite or major interest groups.  Or, it matters only when the topic is salient and the public is paying attention. Little evidence suggests that public opinion matters when few are paying attention.  Others describe public opinion as setting the boundaries within which the government operates.

Learning

Learning is a process of updating understandings of the world in response to signals from the environment.  Learning is a political activity rather than simply a technical exercise in which people learn from teachers. Learning could involve becoming aware of the severity of a policy problem, evaluating outcomes to determine if a government intervention works, and learning to trust an opponent and reach compromise. For example, certain types of rules in a collaborative process can shape the ways in which individuals gain new knowledge and change their views about the scientific evidence informing a problem.

Diffusion of Ideas 

Sometimes governments learn from or transfer policies from other governments. For example, in collections of policymaking venues (such as US state governments or EU member states) it is common for one venue to adopt a policy and prompt this policy to spread across other venues in a process of diffusion.  There are many explanations for diffusion including learning, a response to competition, mimicking, and coercion. In each case, the explanation for policy change comes from an external impetus and an internal context.

Champions and Political Associations

All policy change is driven, to some extent, by individual or group agency.  Key players include public policy champions in the form of policy entrepreneurs or in groups of government and/or non-government entities in the form of coalitions, social movements, epistemic communities, and political parties.  In each case, individuals or organizations mobilize resources, capitalize on opportunities, and apply pressure to formulate and adopt public policies.

 

The presence of these factors does not always lead to policy change, and no single study can capture a full explanation of policy change. Instead, many quantitative studies focus on multiple instances of policy change and are often broad in geographic scope or spans of time, while many case study or qualitative studies focus intensely on a very particular instance of policy change. Both approaches are essential.

See also:

Policy in 500 Words: what is public policy and why does it matter?

Policy in 500 Words: how much does policy change?

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy change and measurement (podcast download)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: how do policy theories describe policy change?

 

 

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: what you need as an analyst versus policymaking reality

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview. Note for the eagle eyed: you are not about to experience déjà vu. I’m just using the same introduction.

When describing ‘the policy sciences’, Lasswell distinguishes between:

  1. ‘knowledge of the policy process’, to foster policy studies (the analysis of policy)
  2. ‘knowledge in the process’, to foster policy analysis (analysis for policy)

The lines between each approach are blurry, and each element makes less sense without the other. However, the distinction is crucial to help us overcome the major confusion associated with this question:

Does policymaking proceed through a series of stages?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is that you can find about 40 blog posts (of 500 and 1000 words) which compare (a) a stage-based model called the policy cycle, and (b) the many, many policy concepts and theories that describe a far messier collection of policy processes.

cycle

In a nutshell, most policy theorists reject this image because it oversimplifies a complex policymaking system. The image provides a great way to introduce policy studies, and serves a political purpose, but it does more harm than good:

  1. Descriptively, it is profoundly inaccurate (unless you imagine thousands of policy cycles interacting with each other to produce less orderly behaviour and less predictable outputs).
  2. Prescriptively, it gives you rotten advice about the nature of your policymaking task (for more on these points, see this chapter, article, article, and series).

Why does the stages/ policy cycle image persist? Two relevant explanations

 

  1. It arose from a misunderstanding in policy studies

In another nutshell, Chris Weible and I argue (in a secret paper) that the stages approach represents a good idea gone wrong:

  • If you trace it back to its origins, you will find Lasswell’s description of decision functions: intelligence, recommendation, prescription, invocation, application, appraisal and termination.
  • These functions correspond reasonably well to a policy cycle’s stages: agenda setting, formulation, legitimation, implementation, evaluation, and maintenance, succession or termination.
  • However, Lasswell was imagining functional requirements, while the cycle seems to describe actual stages.

In other words, if you take Lasswell’s list of what policy analysts/ policymakers need to do, multiple it by the number of actors (spread across many organisations or venues) trying to do it, then you get the multi-centric policy processes described by modern theories. If, instead, you strip all that activity down into a single cycle, you get the wrong idea.

  1. It is a functional requirement of policy analysis

This description should seem familiar, because the classic policy analysis texts appear to describe a similar series of required steps, such as:

  1. define the problem
  2. identify potential solutions
  3. choose the criteria to compare them
  4. evaluate them in relation to their predicted outcomes
  5. recommend a solution
  6. monitor its effects
  7. evaluate past policy to inform current policy.

However, these texts also provide a heavy dose of caution about your ability to perform these steps (compare Bardach, Dunn, Meltzer and Schwartz, Mintrom, Thissen and Walker, Weimer and Vining)

In addition, studies of policy analysis in action suggest that:

  • an individual analyst’s need for simple steps, to turn policymaking complexity into useful heuristics and pragmatic strategies,

should not be confused with

What you need versus what you can expect

Overall, this discussion of policy studies and policy analysis reminds us of a major difference between:

  1. Functional requirements. What you need from policymaking systems, to (a) manage your task (the 5-8 step policy analysis) and (b) understand and engage in policy processes (the simple policy cycle).
  2. Actual processes and outcomes. What policy concepts and theories tell us about bounded rationality (which limit the comprehensiveness of your analysis) and policymaking complexity (which undermines your understanding and engagement in policy processes).

Of course, I am not about to provide you with a solution to these problems.

Still, this discussion should help you worry a little bit less about the circular arguments you will find in key texts: here are some simple policy analysis steps, but policymaking is not as ‘rational’ as the steps suggest, but (unless you can think of an alternative) there is still value in the steps, and so on.

See also:

The New Policy Sciences

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Policy Analysis in 750 Words: Defining policy problems and choosing solutions

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview.

When describing ‘the policy sciences’, Lasswell distinguishes between:

  1. ‘knowledge of the policy process’, to foster policy studies (the analysis of policy)
  2. ‘knowledge in the process’, to foster policy analysis (analysis for policy)

The idea is that both elements are analytically separable but mutually informative: policy analysis is crucial to solving real policy problems, policy studies inform the feasibility of analysis, the study of policy analysts informs policy studies, and so on.

Both elements focus on similar questions – such as What is policy? – and explore their descriptive (what do policy actors do?) and prescriptive (what should they do?) implications.

  1. What is the policy problem?

Policy studies tend to describe problem definition in relation to framing, narrative, social construction, power, and agenda setting.

Actors exercise power to generate attention for their preferred interpretation, and minimise attention to alternative frames (to help foster or undermine policy change, or translate their beliefs into policy).

Policy studies incorporate insights from psychology to understand (a) how policymakers might combine cognition and emotion to understand problems, and therefore (b) how to communicate effectively when presenting policy analysis.

Policy studies focus on the power to reduce ambiguity rather than simply the provision of information to reduce uncertainty. In other words, the power to decide whose interpretation of policy problems counts, and therefore to decide what information is policy-relevant.

This (unequal) competition takes place within a policy process over which no actor has full knowledge or control.

The classic 5-8 step policy analysis texts focus on how to define policy problems well, but they vary somewhat in their definition of doing it well (see also C.Smith):

  • Bardach recommends using rhetoric and eye-catching data to generate attention
  • Weimer and Vining and Mintrom recommend beginning with your client’s ‘diagnosis’, placing it in a wider perspective to help analyse it critically, and asking yourself how else you might define it (see also Bacchi, Stone)
  • Meltzer and Schwartz and Dunn identify additional ways to contextualise your client’s definition, such as by generating a timeline to help ‘map’ causation or using ‘problem-structuring methods’ to compare definitions and avoid making too many assumptions on a problem’s cause.
  • Thissen and Walker compare ‘rational’ and ‘argumentative’ approaches, treating problem definition as something to be measured scientifically or established rhetorically (see also Riker).

These approaches compare with more critical accounts that emphasise the role of power and politics to determine whose knowledge is relevant (L.T.Smith) and whose problem definition counts (Bacchi, Stone). Indeed, Bacchi and Stone provide a crucial bridge between policy analysis and policy studies by reflecting on what policy analysts do and why.

  1. What is the policy solution?

In policy studies, it is common to identify counterintuitive or confusing aspects of policy processes, including:

  • Few studies suggest that policy responses actually solve problems (and many highlight their potential to exacerbate them). Rather, ‘policy solutions’ is shorthand for proposed or alleged solutions.
  • Problem definition often sets the agenda for the production of ‘solutions’, but note the phrase solutions chasing problems (when actors have their ‘pet’ solutions ready, and they seek opportunities to promote them).

Policy studies: problem definition informs the feasibility and success of solutions

Generally speaking, to define the problem is to influence assessments of the feasibility of solutions:

  • Technical feasibility. Will they work as intended, given the alleged severity and cause of the problem?
  • Political feasibility. Will they receive sufficient support, given the ways in which key policy actors weigh up the costs and benefits of action?

Policy studies highlight the inextricable connection between technical and political feasibility. Put simply, (a) a ‘technocratic’ choice about the ‘optimality’ of a solution is useless without considering who will support its adoption, and (b) some types of solution will always be a hard sell, no matter their alleged effectiveness (Box 2.3 below).

In that context, policy studies ask: what types of policy tools or instruments are actually used, and how does their use contribute to policy change? Measures include the size, substance, speed, and direction of policy change.

box 2.3 2nd ed UPP

In turn, problem definition informs: the ways in which actors will frame any evaluation of policy success, and the policy-relevance of the evidence to evaluate solutions. Simple examples include:

  • If you define tobacco in relation to: (a) its economic benefits, or (b) a global public health epidemic, evaluations relate to (a) export and taxation revenues, or (b) reductions in smoking in the population.
  • If you define ‘fracking’ in relation to: (a) seeking more benefits than costs, or (b) minimising environmental damage and climate change, evaluations relate to (a) factors such as revenue and effective regulation, or simply (b) how little it takes place.

Policy analysis: recognising and pushing boundaries

Policy analysis texts tend to accommodate these insights when giving advice:

  • Bardach recommends identifying solutions that your audience might consider, perhaps providing a range of options on a notional spectrum of acceptability.
  • Smith highlights the value of ‘precedent’, or relating potential solutions to previous strategies.
  • Weimer and Vining identify the importance of ‘a professional mind-set’ that may be more important than perfecting ‘technical skills’
  • Mintrom notes that some solutions are easier to sell than others
  • Meltzer and Schwartz describe the benefits of making a preliminary recommendation to inform an iterative process, drawing feedback from clients and stakeholder groups
  • Dunn warns against too-narrow forms of ‘evidence based’ analysis which undermine a researcher’s ability to adapt well to the evidence-demands of policymakers
  • Thissen and Walker relate solution feasibility to a wide range of policy analysis ‘styles’

Still, note the difference in emphasis.

Policy analysis education/ training may be about developing the technical skills to widen definitions and apply many criteria to compare solutions.

Policy studies suggest that problem definition and a search for solutions takes place in an environment where many actors apply a much narrower lens and are not interested in debates on many possibilities (particularly if they begin with a solution).

I have exaggerated this distinction between each element, but it is worth considering the repeated interaction between them in practice: politics and policymaking provide boundaries for policy analysis, analysis could change those boundaries, and policy studies help us reflect on the impact of analysts.

I’ll take a quick break, then discuss how this conclusion relates to the idea of ‘entrepreneurial’ policy analysis.

Further reading

Understanding Public Policy (2020: 28) describes the difference between governments paying for and actually using the ‘tools of policy formulation’. To explore this point, see ‘The use and non-use of policy appraisal tools in public policy making‘ and The Tools of Policy Formulation.

p28 upp 2nd ed policy tools

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