Challenges and Prospects
Edited by John Fenwick and Janice McMillan
Perspectives Across Frontiers
Edited by Leo W.J.C. Huberts, Jeroen Maesschalk and Carole L. Jurkiewicz
Edited by Fergus Carr and Andrew Massey
Theory and Evidence
B. Guy Peters
B. Guy Peters
Scholars and the individuals involved in making public policy use a variety of words to describe how they actually arrive at the content of those policies. Perhaps the most commonly used word is “formulation” (see Jordan and Turnpenny, 2015), but words such as creation, innovation, and development are also used to describe the process of finding some form of intervention to confront a policy problem. The hope is always that the policy that is formulated or created will be able to “solve” the problem, and that government (and citizens) can go on to cope with the next problem that arises. When Herbert Simon (1996, 111) wrote that “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”, the definition was somewhat generic but was definitely speaking to policy design. Although thinking about policy design has become more common in policy studies, it should be considered as a significant alternative to more casual ways of thinking about policy formulation. As Jan Tinbergen (1958, 3), a Nobel laureate in economics argued, design (in particular design for development policy) was an alternative to “decisions taken on the basis of a general idea of progress and often somewhat haphazardly”. That haphazard style of making policies persists in many countries and in many policy areas. Therefore, careful consideration of design strategies is important for both academic students of policy and policymakers in the “real world” of government.
B. Guy Peters
There is an old saying that a problem well put is half solved. This much is obvious. What is not so obvious is how to put the problem well. (Churchman et al., 1957) A policy problem is an unrealized need, value, or opportunity for improvement (Dunn, 2016). Public policymaking is ultimately about solving, or at least attempting to solve, policy problems. That is easy to say, but much harder to do. One of the first barriers encountered when attempting to solve problems is being able to define problems in any meaningful way that can facilitate designing adequate solutions for those problems. As noted in the previous chapter, one of the basic requirements for policy design is having a theory of causation, and that theory is fundamentally related to the definition of the policy problem. While we may be able to attach a convenient label to any problems identified within society, we need to understand more fundamentally the causes of those problems and the dynamics through which they emerge. Understanding the dynamics of the targets of the problem (Kiviniemi, 1986) will help design effective policies as well as prevent waste and unintended consequences. As we will address in greater detail in this chapter, if there were a single understanding of a problem the resolution of that problem would be simple. However, unfortunately for both academic analysts and practitioners, the world of policymaking is rarely that simple. Almost any policy problem of any consequence can be conceptualized in a variety of ways, and those alternative views of policy can produce very different ideas about how best to intervene to affect the issue. As I will be arguing throughout this and the following chapters, this conceptualization of policymaking means that the definition of policy problems is a political process, and not a technical exercise (see Hoppe, 2010). That political process of defining the problem, and through that process attempting to understand the possible means of solving the problem, is as political, albeit perhaps not so overtly so, as the processes of formulating and legitimating a solution to the problem.
B. Guy Peters
Making public policy is difficult. Richard Coyne (2005) argues that confronting ill-defined and awkward problems that are, in essence, wicked problems is the norm for policymaking, and that being able to deal with well-defined and rational policymaking is the exception. If that is at all an accurate depiction of the nature of contemporary policymaking then we need to invest heavily in understanding these problems if we are going to be able to cope with policy design, whether as academics or as practitioners. The preceding chapter provided a discussion of policy problems from a somewhat general perspective. In this chapter I will focus on a particular class of problems that have been referred to as “wicked”, “messy”, “complex”, or “intractable”. While, as Coyne points out, decision-makers should be careful in expecting any policy problem to be simple, or “tame”, clearly some problems are still more difficult than others. While many of the same principles of design may be applied to wicked problems, they also require some very careful attention and differentiated strategies if policy designers are to be effective in coping with them.
B. Guy Peters
All the tools, techniques and technology in the world are nothing without the head, heart and hands to use them wisely, kindly and mindfully. (Rasheed Ogunlaru) We argued in the first chapter that design can be conceptualized, albeit perhaps in a somewhat mechanistic manner, as being composed of linkages among problems (causation), solutions (instruments), values (evaluation), and implementation (intervention). Up to this point in the discussion I have emphasized the need to understand causation and the nature of policy problems. As important as that understanding is, it is only the beginning of the process of designing programs that can be effective in ameliorating, if not solving, problems in the economy and society. The tricky part of designing is moving from a (hopefully) adequate understanding of the problem to the creation of a means of intervention. In the more mechanistic conceptions of design discussed in Chapter 1 there is an implicit, if not explicit, search for a philosopher’s stone that can map characteristics of instruments onto the characteristics of problems and produce workable results. To date no such algorithm has been developed, and design remains largely a matter of judgment – and to some extent even of experimentation. Further, the more recent returns to design thinking in the policy sciences have tended to eschew thinking about the neat technical solutions to problems in favor of more systemic styles of intervention.
B. Guy Peters
If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse. (Henry Ford) All policymaking involves design. The reason this book has concentrated on issues of design is that the process of policy design needs to be a more conscious action by decision-makers, and considered more carefully. Much of the conventional design thinking, both in academia and in the “real world” of government has – to the extent that it has been explicit about its assumptions – been making an analogy between engineering or architecture and policy design.1 But engineers have a number of important advantages over policy designers – notably that the objects of their designs tend to behave in very predictable ways, and do not have political rights and political opinions. Likewise, the materials being used in building obey physical laws without complaint or court cases. Thus, any mechanistic conception of design may underestimate the difficulties posed to their designing by the unpredictable nature of humans and the complexity and indeterminacy of the social system within which they are designing. There have been several approaches to moving away from the engineering, technocratic style of policy design. One approach has been to focus not on the usual instruments that we employ in public policy (see Chapter 4) but to focus more on the underlying mechanisms that make those instruments work, or perhaps not work, in various settings (see Howlett et al., forthcoming). The concern with fundamental social mechanisms has become widespread in the social sciences (Hedström and Swedberg, 1998) and they also can help construct more powerful social theories.