Policy Formulation Tools as Institutions

A third perspective views policy formulation tools as institutions in themselves that over time generate enduring policy feedback effects. In comparison with theories emphasizing control and rationality, this perspective challenges the sense of linearity apparent in many tool literatures and of course our own tool typology. From this perspective, as they are used, tools gradually take on a life of their own. Tools do, as noted above, seem to incorporate a particular logic or view of the world. Those employing them will, therefore, tend to conceive of problems in a way that perpetuates their use. Over time, tools tend to develop 'tool constituencies' that have invested time and resources in furthering their use; a pattern that only becomes fully apparent when their long-term 'careers' are studied over time (Lascoumes and Le Gales 2007, p. 17). To the extent that tools are not politically neutral, this body of theory suggests that they deserve to be treated as causal factors in their own right (Kassim and Le Gales 2010, p. 5; Radaelli and Meuwese 2010). For example, in terms of the choice between tools, technical effectiveness considerations will not necessarily be the dominant criteria; sometimes instruments may determine preferences (not the other way around).

In some respects, this approach corresponds to the self-sustaining logic that appears to have been at work in the way that certain tools have created a need for more policy specialists in government - think, for example, of how the need for skills in CBA has grown (at least relatively) in the last 10 years, as government in general has shrunk (Mintrom and Williams 2013, p. 7). Indeed in several chapters, references are explicitly made to tool constituencies (Voss and Simons 2014) (for example, the 'indicator industry' - Chapter 4), which have a stake in the development of a particular policy formulation approach, as distinct to their commitment to a particular policy objective or level of governance. In Chapter 2 the claim was made that certain participatory tools evolve slowly over time, pushed by particular advocates. Schick (1977, p. 261) was one of the first to raise this point when he argued that the policy analysis community had fragmented into different tool-focused sections that engage in 'tireless tinkering' (Schick 1977, p. 261) with 'their' preferred tools and methods. At the time, he claimed that their main effect was to bewilder policymakers. In fact, the effects may be more complex; they may, for example, open the door to policy influence. Dunlop (2014, p. 212), for example, has noted how certain tools confer legitimacy on (or 'certify') particular knowledge claims made by particular actors. CBA, for example, is well known amongst environmentalists for having a much greater ability to 'clinch' policy debates than other tools (Owens and Cowell 2002). This may explain why some environmentalists actively seek out opportunities to employ such tools to ensure their own knowledge claims are equally valid and hence usable (Dunlop 2014, p. 213).

In Chapter 2, however, a slightly different set of claims was made in relation to tool-specific constituencies. For example, over time participatory conferences and conflict avoidance tools, as well as certain computerized models (see Chapter 12), might develop such a strong set of political backers that they gradually morph into new policy venues. Or advocates of different tools compete for political attention and funding, or even engage in a much deeper ideological battle with one another (see Chapter 2). The manner in which newer tools such as MCA and scenarios have gradually emerged as a reaction to the more mainstream tools such as CBA and models, could conceivably be explained in much the same way.

In comparison to the other two, this perspective has rather mixed theoretical roots, drawing on political sociology (Lascoumes and Le Gales 2007; Voss and Simons 2014), systems thinking (Jordan and Matt 2014), historical institutionalism (Wurzel et al. 2013) and social constructivism (Hajer 1995). Future work might therefore profitably explore the relationship between actors, venues, capacities and effects in a more precise and systematic fashion. For example, in some situations politicians are assumed to select certain tools to conceal their true motives, whereas in others they appear to do so in order to reveal them (Kassim and Le Gales 2010, p. 10). This suggests that actors may have different and to an extent unique tool preferences - a matter which we considered in section 2 above.

Following the careers of particular tools is unlikely to uncover the specific tool choices at work; but analysing the choice between tools may do (an approach, for example, adopted in Chapters 8 and 9).

Second, and related to that, there do appear to be discernible patterns in the selection and use of tools that seem a lot more functional than this theoretical perspective seems able fully to account for. Indeed, it struggles to account for the appearance of entirely new tools; if self-replication were entirely dominant, the scope for tool innovation would be minuscule. The impression given, however, is that new tools emerge in the wake of crisis events.

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