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FORMULATION TOOLS: TOWARDS A NEW SUB-FIELD OF POLICY ANALYSIS?

The Literatures on Policy Formulation Tools: Taking Stock

In attempting to move the study of policy formulation tools back into the mainstream of public policy research, we immediately confront a problem-the relative absence of common definitions and typologies. Without these, it is difficult to believe that the literatures discussed above can be telescoped into a new sub-field. We believe that four literatures provide an especially important source of common terms and concepts, which we now briefly summarize.

The first literature describes the internal characteristics and functions of each tool, and/or offers tool kits which seek to assist policy formulators in selecting 'the right tool for the job'. On closer inspection, there are in fact many sub-literatures for all of a vast array of different tools; numerous classic texts like Dunn (2004) and Rossi et al. (2004) introduce some of the main ones. Generally speaking, rather fragmented into the main tool subtypes, and rather rationalistic in its framing, this literature nonetheless remains crucial because it outlines the intrinsic features of each tool. However (as repeatedly noted above), it does not have a great deal to say about where, how, why and by whom (in other words, by which actors and in which venues) they are used, and what effects they (do not) produce.

The second is dominated by typologies. Tools can be typologized in a number of different ways, for example: by the resources or capacities they require; by the activity they mainly support (for example, agenda setting, options appraisal); by the task they perform; and by their spatial resolution. Radin (2013, p. 145) opts for a more parsimonious framing, distinguishing between two main types: the more economic tools such as cost-benefit analysis (CBA) and what she terms the more 'systematic approaches' such as criteria analysis and political mapping. The problem is that dividing the field into two does not really offer much typological variation. In an earlier analysis, we elected to subdivide the main tools into three main types based on their level of technical complexity (Nilsson et al. 2008):

• Simple tools such as checklists, questionnaires, impact tables or similar techniques for assisting expert judgement.

• More formal tools, such as scenario techniques, CBA, risk assessment and multi-criteria analysis, which entail several analytical steps corresponding to predefined rules, methods and procedures.

• Advanced tools which attempt to capture the more dynamic and complex aspects of societal or economic development by performing computer-based simulation exercises.

At the time, we noted that there was no normative ranking implied in this typology. We also noted the basic difference between tools (such as scenarios and public participation) with more open procedures and purposes, and those like CBA that follow a set of standard procedural steps. But we did not relate these to the policy formulation tasks that tools could or should perform. We return to the matter of typologies below.

The third literature adopts a more critical perspective (Wildavsky 1987; Shulock 1999; Self 1981), offering words of caution about expecting too much from tools. It appears to have left a deep impression on a sufficient number of policy analysts, perhaps sufficient to militate against the development of a new sub-field. However, it is clear that despite these cautionary words, many tools have been developed and are very heavily applied in certain venues to routinely produce effects that are not currently understood. Hence, questions about precisely where, how, why and by whom they are used remain.

A fourth and final literature is more strongly focused on the main venues and processes of policy formulation rather than the tools. In attempting to better understand and explain how policy is made and what influences it, this literature encompasses studies of crucial factors such as the utilization of knowledge in policymaking (Radaelli 1995), and the role of power and institutions (for an excellent summary, see Sabatier 2005). The manner in which power and particular analytical practices are bound up with one another has been explored in planning/geography (see for example, Owens and Cowell 2002) and science and technology studies (Stirling 2008). Other aspects focus on the political demand for evidence-based policymaking (Sanderson 2002; Shine and Bartley 2011). Much of this literature adopts a macro- or a meso-level focus and draws on or develops theory. To the extent that it considers policy formulation tools at all, there is, however, a tendency (although by no means universal) to assume that tools are epiphenomenal and hence not warranting detailed analysis. But we shall argue that without more detailed research, these remain no more than untested assumptions.

 
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