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Policy Formulation as Control

A rather different lens through which to study the interaction of actors, venues, capacities and effects is that of executive oversight and/or political control over non-majoritarian agencies (Turnpenny et al. 2009, p. 645). This idea was originally elaborated with the USA in mind, and has since been tested on the UK by Froud et al. (1998) and on the EU by Radaelli and Meuwese (2010). According to an extensive literature (for a summary, see Thatcher and Stone Sweet (2002)), elected politicians actively promote the use of certain policy formulation tools in order to:

• Provide information on whether departments and agencies, or supranational bodies such as the European Commission, are operating in venues and in ways which damage important political constituencies;

• Prevent these bodies from being captured by vested interests, engaging in overzealous implementation and/or presenting their political masters with a policy fait accompli;

• Build delay into the policy system, thereby permitting greater oversight and ensuring political legitimacy. (Radaelli and de Francesco 2010, p. 284)

Several chapters in this book draw on the terminology of political control to highlight certain tool-related tasks and thus explain the development and utilization of certain kinds of tool. The classic example is of course CBA, the use of which is legally prescribed in many countries. Other than indicators (Chapters 4 and 11) and certain types of risk analysis, no other policy formulation tool consistently enjoys such high-level political backing. A focus on political control can, however, also help to explain the emergence of more process-based tools such as forms of participatory assessment. According to Chapter 2, some were originally developed (and are now widely deployed) to deal with 'an angry public'. Indeed focus groups, consensus conferences and forms of brainstorming are used much later in the policy process too, chiefly to secure sufficient public support for the policy option which is eventually selected at the end of the formulation stage.

There are, however, many important questions still to be addressed by those seeking to move the new sub-field in this theoretical direction. First of all, while political control may be the means through which certain tools are imposed on agencies, theories of control do not fully account for why politicians learn about, and over time become committed to, them in the first place. Both the chapters on indicators (Chapter 4) and CBA (Chapter 7) imply that diffusion partly occurs via softer channels of influence, such as guidelines, best practice examples and academic networks (Benson and Jordan 2011). Related to that (and building on the findings of Chapter 9), it is important to explain why only certain countries, policy sectors and/or policy venues are so heavily populated with tools of control such as CBA, whereas in others their use is virtually absent. It should therefore be possible to start with theories of comparative politics such as political control of bureaucracies, and use policy formulation tools as a case study (Turnpenny et al. 2009, p. 647). It will be especially intriguing to try to explain how far the adoption of tools that 'open up' debate and challenge the status quo can be explained using theories of political control.

Second, just because agencies and departments are required to employ formulation tools does not necessarily mean that they will faithfully use them. Chapter 9 suggests that tools constitute 'an incomplete contract' between principals and agents that can be actively shaped by the latter. The notion of 'perfunctory' forms of usage invites further work, perhaps linked to the idea that some agents might be following rituals of verification (Radaelli and de Francesco 2010, p. 282), as manifest in the tendency for some tools to be used in a manner that departs significantly from the guidance in the handbooks and textbooks. One possible explanation is that bureaucrats in the agencies actively resist political control. Another is that they might like to use tools, but lack the policy capacities to do so (Russel and Jordan 2009). Finally, it might be that all policy formulation tools are prone to suffer some unintended consequences, no matter how much political backing or force they enjoy. This observation is certainly one of the explanations offered by Boswell et al. to account for the use of indicators in the UK (Chapter 11).

Finally, there are opportunities to build links between the rationality and control perspectives in order to explain how policy formulators resist the imposition of political control. Do they, for example, employ the tool (for example, CBA) as required, but in a manner that utilizes knowledge in a politically advantageous way? One of the emerging debates within the CBA community (Chapter 7) is how and why policy knowledge is fed into assessments in a form that suits particular actors (for example, target groups seeking laxer regulation, or eligible regions bidding for greater state spending).

 
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