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Actors: Who are the Policy Formulators?

The literature on policy formulation has expanded significantly in the last three decades (Wolman 1981; Thomas 2001; Wu et al. 2010; Howlett 2011). According to Howlett (2011, p. 29), it is the stage of the policy process 'in which options that might help resolve issues and problems recognized at the agenda-setting stage are identified, refined, appraised and formalized'. The process of identifying and comparing alternative actions is said to shape the subsequent stage - that of decision making (Linder and Peters 1990). During the formulation stage, policy analysts will typically have to confront trade-offs between legitimate public demands for action, and the political, technical and financial capabilities to address them. For many scholars, policy formulation is the very essence of public policy analysis, which Wildavsky (1987, pp. 15-16) characterized as how to understand the relationship between 'manipulable means and obtainable objectives'.

But who formulates public policies? It is generally recognized that policy formulation is a critically important but relatively inscrutable stage of the policy process (Wu et al. 2010, p. 47), with many different actors interacting, often under intense and focused political pressure from special advisers, lobbyists and interest groups. There is also a widespread assumption that unlike the agenda-setting stage (in which the media, politicians and the public may be more transparently involved), policy formulation is much more of a political netherworld, dominated by those with specialist knowledge, preferred access to decision makers or a paid position in a particular government agency or department (Howlett and Geist 2012, p. 19). Even though their precise role may be hard to fathom, in principle all may use or seek to use formulation tools. As we shall see, this creates a distinct set of challenges for those (like us) who want to study the use of the tools, or those who wish to design and/or promote them.

In many ways, policy formulation is the stage which the policy analysis community was originally established to understand and inform (Radin 2013, p. 5). Meltsner's (1976) pioneering study of the still relatively inchoate policy analysis community distinguished between analysts with political skills and those with more technical skills. As we shall see, it was the latter that took the lead in developing and applying the first policy formulation tools. The more general literatures have focused on the role of politicians and bureaucrats (Craft and Howlett 2012, p. 80). Pioneering accounts of policymaking (such as Page and Jenkins (2005) and Fleischer (2009)) have, for example, focused on the 'policy process generalists' who rarely, if ever, deal with policy tools in a substantive way and have very little training in formal policy analysis.

More specific studies of policy formulation have sought to offer a more detailed stock take of the different policy analysts who are typically involved (Howlett 2011, p. 31). Together, these actors are often said to constitute a policy advisory system, comprising: decision makers (chiefly politicians); knowledge producers and/or providers; and knowledge brokers (Howlett 2011, pp. 31-33). Other typologies have differentiated the main participants in relation to their location (in other words, core actors - professional policy analysts, central agency officials and others); and level of influence (in other words, public sector insiders; private sector insiders; and outsiders) (Howlett 2011, p. 33). Precisely who formulates policy is ultimately an empirical question. The point which we wish to make is that it is important to appreciate the variety of actors who might be involved in policy formulation activities, as they might well have rather different motives and capabilities for using particular tools - a matter to which we now turn.

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