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The inherent vices of policy design

15 November 2022



An inherent vice is the quality of any substance or object which causes it to self-destruct, whether quickly or slowly. The inherent vices of policy making are the factors which contribute to policy volatility or the risk of policy failure. An article in Risk Analysis discusses these vices which include unpreparedness, uncertainty, maliciousness, non-compliance and non-learning.  

Policy design and the propensity of policies to fail

There are many problems in policy making that affect policy outcomes and serve as sources of failure or success. These include poor decision making, policy implementation and problems in policy formulation. 

Policy risk is larger than this. Studies of policy design have focused almost exclusively on activities which take place under assumptions of the “right” design conditions. This involves “positive” policy spaces which allow policy making to be driven by knowledge and good intentions. High levels of government legitimacy also mean a strong likelihood that the resulting policies will be followed by the intended users.  

However, these conditions are often lacking in practice. Not only are government decisions undertaken in conditions of uncertainty, but designs must deal with adverse behaviour on the part of both policymakers and policy recipients. Policy designs need to address these policy risks head-on. 

What are the inherent vices of policy design?

An inherent vice is the quality of any substance or object which causes it to self-destruct, whether quickly or slowly. Such vices are defined in relation to the risk they face. For example, with works of art, it could be a function of time, or the paint or materials used. The vice is inherent in the nature of the thing itself. 

As with the case of art preservation, understanding the inherent sources of policy failure is important to policy design and the development of measures to correct, offset or at least mitigate such risks. 

The extent to which these aspects of policy making feature in or affect a policy design can be said to constitute the volatility of that policy design or “mix”. Some policy mixes contain more risks than others and highly volatile mixes can be contrasted with more stable tools and mixes in which designs are more likely to approximate the ideal image of policymaking.  

The five key risks listed in Table 1 are inherent in the sense that they are built into public policy making. These include unpreparedness, uncertainty, maliciousness, noncompliance, and non-learning. 

Table 1: Source of policy problems/Risk management matrix

Uncertainty, maliciousness, and noncompliance

The article focuses on three of the inherent vices in policymaking: uncertainty, maliciousness, and noncompliance. 


There are three types of uncertainty which policies must address: 

1. Substantive uncertainty: the lack of relevant information related to the nature of the complex problem, and the different interpretations of information.  

2. Strategic uncertainty: the unpredictability of strategies deployed by different actors based on their perception of the problem. 

3. Institutional uncertainty: the complexity of interaction of different actors guided by institutional frameworks of the organisations they represent. 

Strategies for better policymaking need to understand these uncertainties and policy designs need to encompass them. This requires: 

  • additional and redundant resources including feedback mechanisms and adaptive processes. 
  • changing course as conditions change. 


This relates to the desire of self-interested parties to hijack, distort, or reorient public processes toward their own ends and goals. This includes both decisionmakers and policy recipients. These kinds of vices can often be corrected through a range of procedural tools. These can augment or bolster knowledge of policy problems, solutions and the positions of different policy actors and mitigate these concerns. 


Overcoming compliance problems is fundamental to implementation success. This includes anticipating and dealing effectively with adverse or malicious behaviour of policy recipients who fail to comply or pervert government wishes and frustrate their intention. 

While addressing such behaviour has been an essential component in fields such as law and accounting, it tends to be glossed over in studies of public policy. 

The bottom line

Risk problems are significant in policy design as they affect whether a policy fails and why. Dealing with problems around policy volatility and inherent vices is necessary if policy design is to achieve its purpose of creating better and more effective policy.  

There are four ways in which policies can be designed to limit their risks of failure. These include designing to enhance: 

1. Resistance: planning for the worst possible case or future situation. 

2. Resilience: making sure that the system can recover quickly whatever happens in the future. 

3. Static robustness: aiming at reducing vulnerability in the largest possible range of conditions. 

4. Dynamic robustness (or flexibility): planning to change policies over time in case conditions change. 

Want to read more? 

The “Inherent vices” of policy design: Uncertainty, maliciousness, and noncompliance – Michael Howlett and Ching Leong Risk Analysis, May 2022 

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Published Date: 15 November 2022