When describing ‘the policy sciences’, Lasswell distinguishes between:
- ‘knowledge of the policy process’, to foster policy studies (the analysis of policy)
- ‘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.
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:
- 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).
- 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
- 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.
- 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:
- define the problem
- identify potential solutions
- choose the criteria to compare them
- evaluate them in relation to their predicted outcomes
- recommend a solution
- monitor its effects
- evaluate past policy to inform current policy.
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 actually happens when many policy analysts, influencers, and policymakers interact in policy processes (see Radin, and Brans, Geva-May, and Howlett).
What you need versus what you can expect
Overall, this discussion of policy studies and policy analysis reminds us of a major difference between:
- 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).
- 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.