This post summarizes the conclusion of ‘The politics of policy design’ for a Design and Policy Network workshop (15th June). My contribution to this interdisciplinary academic-practitioner discussion is to present insights from political science and policy process research, which required me to define some terms (background) before identifying three cautionary messages.
A broad definition of policy design as an activity is to (1) define policy aims, and (2) identify the tools to deliver those aims (compare with policy analysis).
However, note the verb/noun distinction, and common architectural metaphor, to distinguish between the (a) act of design, and (b) the output (e.g. the blueprints).
In terms of the outputs, tools can be defined narrowly as policy instruments – including tax/spending, regulations, staff and other resources for delivery, information sharing, ‘nudging’, etc. – or more widely to include the processes involved in their formulation (such as participatory and deliberative). Therefore, we could be describing:
- A highly centralized process, involving very few people, to produce the equivalent of a blueprint.
- A decentralized, and perhaps uncoordinated, process involving many people, built on the principle that to seek a blueprint would be to miss the point of participation and deliberation.
Policymaking research tends to focus on
(1) measuring policy change with reference to the ‘policy mix’ of these tools/ instruments, and generally showing that most policy change is minor (and some is major) (link1, link2, link3, link4), and/ or
(2) how to understand the complex policymaking systems or environments in which policy design processes take place.
These studies are the source of my messages of doom.
Three cautionary messages about new policy design
There is a major gap between the act of policy design and actual policies and policy processes. This issue led to the decline of old policy design studies in the 1980s.
While ‘new policy design’ scholars seek to reinvigorate the field, the old issues serve as a cautionary tale, reminding us that (1) policy design is not new, and (2) its decline did not relate to the lack of sophisticated skills or insights among policy designers.
In other words, these old problems will not simply be solved by modern scientific, methodological, or policy design advances. Rather, I encourage policy designers to pay particular attention to:
1. The gap between functional requirements and real world policymaking.
Policy analysts and designers often focus on what they need, or require to get their job done or produce the outcomes they seek.
Policy process researchers identify the major, inevitable, gaps between those requirements and actual policy processes (to the extent that the link between design and policy is often difficult to identify).
2. The strong rationale for the policy processes that undermine policy design.
Policy processes – and their contribution to policy mixes – may seem incoherent from a design perspective. However, they make sense to the participants involved.
Some relate to choice, including to share responsibility for instruments across many levels or types of government (without focusing on how those responsibilities will connect or be coordinated).
Some result from necessity, to delegate responsibility to many policy communities spread across government, each with their own ways to define and address problems (without the ability to know how those responsibilities will be connected).
3. The policy analysis and design dilemmas that cannot be solved by design methods alone.
When seen from the ‘top down’, design problems often relate to the perceived lack of delivery or follow-through in relation to agreed high level design outputs (great design, poor delivery).
When seen from the ‘bottom up’, they represent legitimate ways to incorporate local stakeholder and citizen perspectives. This process will inevitably produce a gap between different sources and outputs of design, making it difficult to separate poor delivery (bad?) from deviation (good?).
Such dynamics are solved via political choice rather than design processes and techniques.
Notes on the workshop discussion
The workshop discussion prompted us initially to consider how many different people would define it. The range of responses included seeing policy design as:
- a specific process with specific tools to produce a well-defined output (applied to specific areas conducive to design methods)
- a more general philosophy or way of thinking about things like policy issues (compare with systems thinking)
- a means to encourage experimentation (such as to produce a prototype policy instrument, use it, and reflect or learn about its impact) or change completely how people think about an issue
- the production of a policy solution, or one part of a large policy mix
- a niche activity in one unit of government, or something mainstreamed across governments
- something done in government, or inside and outside of government
- producing something new (like writing on a blank sheet of paper), adding to a pile of solutions, or redesigning what exists
- primarily a means to empower people to tell their story, or as a means to improve policy advocacy (as in discussions of narrative/ storytelling)
- something done with authoritative policymakers like government ministers (in other words, people with the power to make policy changes after they participate in design processes) or given to them (in other words, the same people but as the audience for the outcomes of design)
These definitions matter since they have very different implications for policy and practice. Take, for example, the link – made by Professor Liz Richardson – between policy design and the idea of evidence-based policymaking, to consider two very different scenarios:
- A minister is directly involved in policy design processes. They use design thinking to revisit how they think about a policy problem (and target populations), seek to foster participation and deliberation, and use that process – perhaps continuously – to consider how to reconcile very different sources of evidence (including, say, new data from randomized control trials and powerful stories from citizens, stakeholders, service users). I reckon that this kind of scenario would be in the minds of people who describe policy design optimistically.
- A minister is the intended audience of a report on the outcomes of policy design. You assume that their thoughts on a policy problem are well-established. There is no obvious way for them to reconcile different sources of policy-relevant evidence. Crucially, the fruits of your efforts have made a profound impact on the people involved but, for the minister, the outcome is just one of too-many sources of information (likely produced too soon before or after they want to consider the issue).
The second scenario is closer to the process that I describe in the main post, although policy studies would warn against seeing someone like a government minister as authoritative in the sense that they reside in the centre of government. Rather, studies of multi-centric policymaking remind us that there are many possible centres spread across political systems. If so, policy design – according to approaches like the IAD – is about ways to envisage a much bigger context in which design success depends on the participation and agreement of a large number of influential actors (who have limited or no ability to oblige others to cooperate).
Paul Cairney (2022) ‘The politics of policy design’, EURO Journal on Decision Processes https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejdp.2021.100002
Paul Cairney, Tanya Heikkila, and Matthew Wood (2019) Making Policy in a Complex World (Cambridge Elements) PDF Blog
Complex systems and systems thinking (part of a series of thematic posts on policy analysis)