The tools of policy formulation: new perspectives and new challenges

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


It is generally accepted that policy tools and instruments exist at all stages of the policy process (Howlett 2011, p. 22). But as was pointed out in Chapter 1, only some tools and instruments, operating at certain policy stages, have garnered the sustained analytical attention of policy researchers. Policy formulation - a very important but imperfectly understood stage - has certainly been targeted by developers of new tools, ranging from foresight and scenario tools that seek to open up problem framings and conceptualizations, through to tools like cost-benefit analysis (CBA) that seek to recommend preferred policy solutions. Tool developers and policy analysts have also made many normative recommendations on how these and other policy formulation tools should be used (Vining and Weimer 2010; Dunn 2004). But as was made clear in Chapter 1, mainstream policy researchers have largely ignored policy formulation tools, meaning that a lot less is known about how they have actually been utilized in practice. As Howlett et al. (Chapter 8) suggest, policy researchers have long suspected that they probably play some role in structuring policymaking activity, but what that function is remains a largely unexplored research topic.

The general aim of this book is to investigate - for the first time - what can be gained by bringing the study of policy formulation tools back into the mainstream of public policy research. We say 'back into' because having been a central concern of policy analysis in the 1950s and 1960s, it gradually fell out of fashion and, as Chapter 1 explained, policy researchers turned their attention to the fine detail of a small sub-set of the policy implementation instruments, namely regulation and taxation. The aim of our final chapter is to draw upon the findings of the empirical chapters to identify some initial conclusions and pinpoint a number of promising new avenues for research on policy formulation tools. Conscious that this has the look and feel of a sub-field 'in the making', in the second section we begin by critically reflecting on the typology and definition of tools proposed in Chapter 1. Given the current state of knowledge, we believe it is especially important to engage in basic, foundational activities such as these, otherwise the sub-field will not consolidate quickly enough to support future endeavours. We then analyse all the chapters (2-12) from the perspective of the analytical framework for understanding policy formulation tools, covering actors, venues, capacities and effects.

In the third section, we seek to make sense of this rich empirical detail by drawing on relevant policy theories. In our view, it would be a mistake to develop a dedicated theory of policy formulation tools as this would perpetuate the isolation of the sub-field. A more productive strategy is, as many scholars of policy instruments have finally come to recognize (Jordan et al. 2013), to build upon and where possible enrich more general policy theoretical frameworks. Unlike tool theories that mostly operate at the micro level, these frameworks allow analysts to move beyond definitions and typologies, towards more conditional explanations of tool choices, capacities and uses. To that end, the third section explains why and how three particular bodies of theory are especially well suited to this task. We show that potentially one of the most valuable functions performed by the theories is to problematize the underlying motive for using the tools in the first place (and hence task(s) to be accomplished). Recall from Chapter 1 that when the tools first began to emerge in the 1950s, they were mainly perceived as a means to harvest information to help decision makers address the substantive aspects of policy problems (Radin 2013, p. 23). Consequently, we start with theories which broadly correspond to this fairly rationalistic and linear conceptualization of policy formulation, before moving onto other, rather different motives and/or tasks. Finally, the last section reflects on what a more systematic approach to examining the tools may add to our collective understanding of - in turn - the tools themselves, policy formulation and policymaking more generally, politics, and finally, the field of policy analysis. Throughout, we pinpoint some critical challenges that are likely to emerge as a new sub-field of policy research of tools coalesces and matures.

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