Heuristics for practitioners of policy design: Rules-of-thumb for structuring unstructured problems

DOI10.1177/0952076717709338
AuthorRobert Hoppe
Publication Date01 October 2018
Date01 October 2018
SubjectSpecial Issue Articles
Special Issue: Questioning Policy Design
Heuristics for
practitioners of policy
design: Rules-of-thumb
for structuring
unstructured problems
Robert Hoppe
University of Twente, The Netherlands
Abstract
This article is an attempt to bridge the divide between academics and practitioners.
Informed by both design theory and the reality of policy work, its focus is on ‘problems’.
From a practitioners’ perspective, policy design is both an intellectual and political
process, an inevitable oscillation between ‘puzzling’ and ‘powering’, in which ‘messy’
or unstructured problems are re-structured from problems as webs of ‘undesirable
situations’ to problems as specific, time-and-space bound ‘opportunities for improve-
ment’. This requires a questioning habitus in practitioners of policy design. Using a
socio-cognitive theory of problem processing, this paper shows how policy design is
an iterative process of problem sensing, problem categorization, problem decompos-
ition and problem definition. For each of these stages, appropriate rules-of-thumb for
questioning and answering can be suggested that induce thought habits and styles for
responsive and solid policy designs.
Keywords
Policy design, politics of design, practitioners, problem governance theory, problem
structuring, unstructured problems
‘‘...the situation is such that the problem itself is problematic....the researcher is not
only in the business of finding or sorting among Answers. He is inevitably involved
also in finding or sorting among Questions.’’ (Rein and White, 1977: 262–263, quoted
in Turnbull, 2006: 6)
Public Policy and Administration
2018, Vol. 33(4) 384–408
!The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/0952076717709338
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Corresponding author:
Robert Hoppe, Universiteit Twente, Faculteit Gedrags-Management-en Maatschappijwetenschappen,
Spo
¨lminkkamp 18, Enschede 7500 AE, The Netherlands.
Email: r.hoppe@utwente.nl
Introduction: Substituting problem-oriented
for government-centered policy design
For many of us policy making is still the prerogative of a political e
´lite; and policy
analysis and design are decision support for leaders (Radin, 2013). One implication
is that policies are perceived as legacies of previous authoritative decisions. Hence,
to an increasing number of citizens, policies are yesterday’s answers to today’s
problems; and not innovative designs that influence their future, and help to
better tackle their day-to-day problems.
This is exacerbated by seemingly unavoidable tendencies among policy
advisors working for government. In judging the relevance of information, their
first criterion is: can it harm my minister, or is it risky for the government in power?
(‘tHart et al., 2002: 157ff; Webber, 1992). Policy-relevant information is framed by
self-protective political reflexes. Politicians, preoccupied with polls, do look to
citizen behaviour stylized in statistics; but their perspective is dominated by
party–political, cabinet or bureau-political interests and considerations of gaining
or maintaining popular support and political power (Hajer, 2009).
Another tendency is a strong role for economic policy analysis to ensure aus-
terity and social benefits outweigh social costs (West, 1988). Therefore, policy
analysts look at welfare theory, institutional economics and public finance
theories; and apply them by using the toolkit of modelling, cost–benefit and
cost-effectiveness analysis, and related calculative heuristics. True, they look out-
side the windows of government departments, but what they see is forged in the
Procrustean-bed of their professional frames. Policy design becomes an academic,
depoliticized exercise in ‘rational choice’, ticking off checklists of standard solu-
tions for problems of government and market failures (Weimer and Vining, 1999),
or using some other standardized set of policy formulation tools (Jordan and
Turnpenny, 2015). Yet another tendency in a neoliberal age that delegitimizes
government is a concern with the legitimacy, scope and capacity of the government
as institution. Policy advisors, preoccupied with government itself, see policy ana-
lysis and design as the professional skill in choosing the right institutional mode(s)
of governance and a fitting instrument mix from a toolkit of available (or to be
upgraded) skills and resources (Howlett, 2011; Howlett et al., 2015).
All these tendencies are rather self-referential (Snellen, 2002). They function as
constraints in governmental problem solving, not as a shift in emphasis from
government-centered problem solving to problem finding and interactive, more
deliberative policymaking in an age of governance where policymaking only
works as coproduction or ‘making sense together’ between governments, citizens
and nongovernmental actors (Hoppe, 1999).
In contrast to these government-centered modes, here I focus on an outward-
looking, problem-oriented form of policy design. It is based on an epistemology of
questioning (Turnbull, 2006, 2013), and it highlights not problem solving, but prob-
lem finding and structuring as major tasks. What is problem-oriented and problem
structuring policy design like? What is the policy designer’s task? Using an
Hoppe 385

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