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The tools of policy formulation: an introduction

John R. Turnpenny, Andrew J. Jordan, David Benson and Tim Rayner


What techniques or means do public policymakers use in their attempts to achieve policy goals? The roles of what may be termed policy instruments, tools and methods (Howlett 2011, p. 22) have attracted a great deal of attention. It is generally accepted that policy tools and instruments exist at all stages of the policy process (Howlett 2011, p. 22), ranging from policy formulation through to ex post evaluation (Dunn 2004). But in the public policy literature, much of the debate has focused on instruments for implementing agreed policy objectives, such as regulations, subsidies, taxes and voluntary agreements (Hood 1983; Hood and Margetts 2007; Salamon 2002). Recently, a second category of implementing instruments has been identified: procedural tools (Howlett 2000). These include education, training, provision of information and public hearings. These are procedural in the sense that they seek to affect outcomes indirectly through manipulating policy processes. The manner in which both types of instruments are selected and deployed aims to change the substance, effects and outcomes of policy, by sending signals about what is to be achieved and how government is likely to respond to target groups. Understanding these processes is critical to a better understanding of governing activities. Adopting an 'instruments perspective' on these activities has arguably contributed significantly to the study of public policy and governance in general (Lascoumes and Le Gales 2007).

There is, however, also a third category of policy tools and instruments which has largely remained outside the mainstream of policy research.1 These tools have typically been developed by researchers and policy practitioners with the aim of performing a rather different set of tasks to the implementing instruments described above. They are variously referred to as 'analytical tools' (Radin 2013, p. viii), 'policy-analytic methods' (Dunn 2004, p. 6), decision support tools or 'analycentric' tools (Schick 1977). Radin rightly devotes a whole chapter of her book charting the development of the field of policy analysis to telling their story - on the grounds that they constitute the 'tools of the [policy analysis] trade' (Radin 2013, p. 143).

From Radin's and others' accounts it soon becomes clear that what we shall term policy formulation tools2 come in many different shapes and sizes. Initially, they were designed to support a very specific task, namely the 'collection of as much information and data as were available to help decision makers address the substantive aspects of the problem at hand' (Radin 2013, p. 23). Nowadays, these tools are regarded as a means to address many other policy formulation tasks, for example understanding the nature of policy problems, estimating how they might change over time and clarifying or even eliminating some of the many possible policy response options. In fact, to understand these tools fully, we argue that policy researchers must view them in the context of the broader activities and processes of policy formulation.

Policy formulation is a very different activity to policy implementation. It is an important phase devoted to 'generating options about what to do about a public problem' (Howlett 2011, p. 29), and is inherent to most, if not all, forms of policymaking. If the agenda-setting stage in the well-known policy cycle is essentially concerned with identifying where to go, the policy formulation stage is all about how to get there (Hill 2009, p. 171). If policy formulation is 'a process of identifying and addressing possible solutions to policy problems or, to put it another way, exploring the various options or alternatives available for addressing a problem', then developing and/or using policy formulation tools is a vital part of that process (Howlett 2011, p. 30). We suggest that, much more than for other policy stages, it is very hard to conceive of policy formulation - let alone properly study it - without thinking in terms of tools. Based on Dunn (2004), these include tools for forecasting and exploring future problems through the use of scenarios, tools for identifying and recommending policy options (for example, cost-benefit, cost-effectiveness and multi-criteria analyses) and tools for exploring problem structuring or framing (for example, brainstorming, boundary analysis and argumentation mapping).

In recent years, the number of potentially deployable policy formulation tools has expanded massively (for an indication of what is currently in the toolbox, see Dunn (2004) and Radin (2013, p. 146)). They include types that may be considered to fall into both positivist and post-positivist categories, with the latter inspired by critiques of the role of technocratic analysis and a concern to address subtle influences that act to condition the content of policy, such as material forces, discourses and ideologies (Fischer 1995). Yet, the policy tools and instruments literature remains stubbornly fixated on implementation instruments. And while there are many individual literatures that seek to promote and/or inform the use of specific policy formulation tools, the policy analysis literature is relatively silent on how, why, when, by whom, in what settings and with what effects, the various tools are used in practice. To the extent that they devote attention to formulation as a specific stage in the policy process, most textbooks frame it around understandings of processes, interests and expertise. In many ways, the limited academic treatment that policy formulation tools have received in the period following the Second World War is symptomatic of a wider division in policy analysis between those doing policy research and those engaged in policy practice. For reasons explored more fully below, when it comes to policy formulation tools, practice has arguably run well ahead of research. In this book, we seek to bring these two wings of the policy analysis community into a closer dialogue.

More specifically, in this book we investigate - for the first time - what might be gained by bringing the study of policy formulation tools back into the mainstream of public policy research. The policy instruments literature might lead us to expect each policy formulation tool to impart a specific 'spin' (Salamon 2002) on ensuing policy dynamics. Certain other literatures, such as science and technology studies (Stirling 2008) or planning (Owens and Cowell 2002), also suggest that certain tools serve to influence policy outputs in a variety of ways. For example, use of cost-benefit analysis to develop policy has the potential to marginalize concern for equity in some sectors, in favour of outputs perceived as the most efficient use of scarce resources. But does this actually happen in practice, and if so how? At present, the various literatures are too fragmented and too detached from public policy theory to tell us. There has, of course, been a huge amount written on individual formulation tools, often by scholars who have invested a great deal in developing them and advocating their use. They are understandably eager to see them being taken up and used by policymakers. Yet we will show that many tool developers and promoters are often vexed - and sometimes deeply disappointed - by their apparent lack of use, or even outright misuse by practitioners (Shulock 1999). We feel that this is another topic which would benefit from greater interaction between those who (to employ another well-known distinction) analyse for policy, and those who conduct analysis of policy.

We believe that now is a particularly opportune moment to look afresh at policy formulation tools. Policy researchers and analysts are becoming more interested in policy formulation - arguably one of the most poorly understood of all the policy process stages; indeed, there is a growing belief that it may constitute the final, 'missing link' (Hargrove 1975) in policy analysis. Interest in policy design is also re-awakening, partly because of the rise to prominence of ever more complex problems such as energy insecurity and climate change that defy standard policy remedies (Howlett et al. 2014). And having invested heavily in tools in the past, tool promoters and policy practitioners are eager to understand how - and indeed if - they perform in practice.

The remainder of this chapter is divided as follows. The second section takes a step back by examining the main actors, processes and venues of policy formulation in a very general sense. The third section scours the various existing literatures to explore in more detail the development of the various policy formulation tools that could in principle be used in these venues. It also charts the subsequent turn away from these tools in mainstream public policy research, and explores some of the reasons why interest in policy formulation has recently undergone a renaissance. Section 4 explores the analytical steps that will be needed to re-assemble the various literatures into a more coherent sub-field of policy research, revolving around a series of common foci. To that end, we propose a new definition and typology of tools, and offer a means of re-assembling the field around an analytical framework focused on actors, venues, capacities and effects. We conclude by introducing the rest of the book, including our final, concluding chapter.

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