By Professor Paul Cairney
Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy in the Division of History, Heritage, and Politics at the University of Stirling in Scotland. He is a specialist in British politics and public policy, often focusing on the ways in which policy studies can explain the use of evidence in politics and policy. This article first appeared on his Politics & Public Policy blog.
We talk a lot about ‘the policy process’ without really saying what it is. If you are new to policy studies, maybe you think that you’ll learn what it is eventually if you read enough material. This would be a mistake. Instead, when you seek a definition of the policy process, you’ll find two common responses:
Many will seek to define policy or public policy instead of ‘the policy process’.
Some will describe the policy process as a policy cycle with stages.
Both responses seem inadequate: one avoids giving an answer, and the other gives the wrong answer. However, we can combine elements of each approach to give you just enough of a sense of ‘the policy process’.
1. The beauty of the ‘what is policy?’ question
The beauty of the ‘what is policy’ question is that we don’t give you an answer. It may seem frustrating at first to fail to find a definitive answer, but eventually you’ll accept this. The more important outcome is to use the ‘what is policy?’ question to develop analytical skills, to allow you to define policy in more specific circumstances (such as, what are the key elements of policy in this case study?), and ask more useful and specific questions about policy and policymaking. So, look at the questions we need to ask if we begin with the definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’: does action include statements of intent? Do we include unintended policy outcomes? Are all policymakers in government? What about the things policymakers choose not to do? And so on.
2. The beauty of the policy cycle approach
The beauty of the policy cycle approach is that it provides a simple way to imagine policy ‘dynamics’, or events and choices producing a never-ending sequence of other events and choices. Look at the stages model to identify many different tasks within one ‘process’, and to get the sense that policymaking is continuous and often ‘its own cause’. It’s not a good description of what actually happens, but it describes what some might like to happen, and used by many governments to describe what they do. Consequently, we can’t simply ignore it, at least without providing a better description, a better plan and a better way for governments to justify what they do.
There are more complicated but better ways of describing policymaking dynamics. This picture is the ‘policy process’ equivalent of my definition of public policy. It captures the main elements of the policy process described – albeit in different ways – by most policy theories in this series. I present it here to give you enough of an answer – to ‘what is the policy process?’ – to help you ask more questions.
In the middle is ‘policy choice’.
At the heart of most policy theory is ‘bounded rationality’, which describes (a) the cognitive limits of all people, and (b) how policymakers overcome such limits to make decisions. In short, they use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to action, but these are provocative terms to prompt further reading (on, for example, ‘evidence-based policymaking’).
‘Rational’ describes goal-oriented activity: people may have limits to their attention and ‘information processing’, but they find systematic ways to respond, by setting goals and producing criteria to find the best information. ‘Irrational’ describes aspects of psychology: people draw on habit, emotions, their ‘gut’ or intuition, well-established beliefs, and their familiarity with information to make often-almost-instant decisions.
Surrounding choice is what we’ll call the ‘policy environment’.
Environment is a metaphor we’ll use to describe the combination of key elements of the policy process which (a) I describe separately in further 1000 words posts, and (b) policy theories bring together to produce an overall picture of policy dynamics.
Policy environments are made up of:
A wide range of actors (which can be individuals and organisations with the ability to deliberate and act) making or influencing policy at many levels and types of government.
Institutions, defined as the rules followed by actors. Some are formal, written down and easy to identify. Others are informal, reproduced via processes like socialisation, and difficult to spot and describe.
Networks, or the relationships between policymakers and influencers. Some are wide open, competitive, and contain many actors. Others are relatively closed, insulated from external attention, and contain few actors.
Ideas, or the beliefs held and shared by actors. There is often a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion, constraining or facilitating the progress of new ‘ideas’ as policy solutions.
Context and events. Context describes the policy conditions – including economic, social, demographic, and technological factors – that provide the context for policy choice, and are often outside of the control of policymakers. Events can be routine and predictable, or unpredictable ‘focusing’ events that prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.
This picture is only the beginning of analysis, raising further questions that will make more sense when you read further, including: should policymaker choice be at the centre of this picture? Why are there arrows in the cycle but not in my picture? Should we describe complex policymaking ‘systems’ rather than ‘environments’? How exactly does each element in the ‘policy environment’ or ‘system’ relate to the other?
The answer to the final question can only be found in each theory of the policy process, and each theory describes this relationship in a different way.