The idea of policy design: Intention, process, outcome, meaning and validity

Date01 October 2018
AuthorHK Colebatch
Publication Date01 October 2018
SubjectSpecial Issue Articles
untitled Special Issue: Questioning Policy Design
Public Policy and Administration
2018, Vol. 33(4) 365–383
The idea of policy design:
! The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
Intention, process,
DOI: 10.1177/0952076717709525
outcome, meaning
and validity
HK Colebatch
University of New South Wales, Australia
While policy design is a relatively recent term in the social science literature, the
concept itself is ancient. The modernist incarnation, from the mid-20th century
onwards, is grounded in the applied social sciences: the systematic calculation of prob-
lems, values, practices and outcomes. But in many ways, the confidence of the faith in
systematic design was not borne out by experience. It became clear that rather than
finding expert designers advising authoritative decision-makers and perhaps monitoring
the activities of subordinate ‘implementers’, the world of policy was populated by
multiple participants in distinct organisational locations, with divergent framings, con-
tinuing negotiation on practice, and ambiguity in the understanding of outcomes. There
is clearly a tension between the image of policy design and the experience of the activity.
The response to this tension in the literature on policy design has largely been aimed at
reconciling the experience of practice with the norms of instrumental rationality. It has
tended to give little attention to the interpretive significance of ‘design talk’ in the
process of governing. This paper argues that ‘policy design’ is an exercise in giving
meaning – framing activity in a way that makes practices and outcomes appropriate
and valid – and develops a more comprehensive analysis of ‘policy design’ as a concept in
use in both policy practice and the analysis of that practice.
Framing, policy analysis, policy design, validation
For special issue of Public Policy and Administration on ‘Questioning policy design: theory and practice’, editor:
Dr Nick Turnbull, University of Manchester, UK.
Corresponding author:
HK Colebatch, University of New South Wales, New South Wales, Australia.

Public Policy and Administration 33(4)
Policy, design and the theorising of governing
The idea of design can be traced back to the earliest academic writings on policy,
going back at least to Plato, focusing on the actions of the wise ruler, taking
thought, acting appropriately, and ruling well. It drew on the development of
the social sciences in the 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to Lasswell’s
(1951) call for a ‘policy science’ which would be problem-focused, multi-disciplin-
ary and explicitly normative (Lasswell, 1951). There followed the growth and insti-
tutionalisation (notably in North America) of ‘policy analysis’ as a f‌ield of
professional practice and academic study (Radin, 2000), from which emerged a
focus on ‘policy design’. However, its leading advocates claim that academic work
on policy design has ‘declined precipitously’ because of shifts in analytical focus,
and call for a ‘renewal’ of academic attention to the subject (Howlett, 2014;
Howlett and Lejano, 2012: 364). This paper examines the argument for seeing
design as a central element in the practice or the analysis of policy, as compared
with the alternative approaches. It points to the assumptions underlying the design
approach, the ways in which its advocates have responded to critiques of its empir-
ical accuracy, and draws on newer, interpretive modes of analysis to of‌fer an
explanation of the continuing claims made for the design approach. It is widely
argued that in the last half-century, there have been major changes in governing
practice and in the analysis of this practice. If there is now less interest in address-
ing the question of policy design, is it still the right question?
It is worth going back to the analytical assumptions within which ‘policy design’
is located. It is part of a perspective which sees the process of governing as an
exercise in what could be called ‘authoritative instrumentalism’: it is something
accomplished by authorised leaders (‘the government’), who exercise their author-
ity to accomplish their objectives. These leaders are seen as coming to power with
agendas to pursue, and preferences which guide them, though they are also con-
fronted with ‘problems’ not of their choosing, which call for the exercise of the
power of government. Policy is a tool which they use in this process, something that
they ‘make’ as part of the exercise of control. ‘Public policy’, says Dye, ‘is whatever
government decides to do or not to do’ (1976: 3). The authoritative leaders make
decisions; these are ‘policy’.
Policy, then, is seen as an artefact, the creation of a small group at the top of the
hierarchy of of‌f‌icialdom – ‘the government’, or ‘the policy-makers’ – but this raises
the question of what all the others are doing. ‘The government’ is a vast conglom-
erate of organisations, in which a large number of people perform diverse and often
quite specialised tasks. How do their activities relate to those of the authoritative
leaders? The answer, in this perspective, is that the leaders make policy, and of‌f‌i-
cials either advise them (before the decision), or implement the decision after it has
been taken. The activity of governing is explained in terms of these critical decision
points: giving advice, making decisions, and giving ef‌fect to them. The experts
design the policy and the authoritative leaders approve it (making it a little unclear
just who ‘the policymakers’ are). ‘Policy design’ is part of the diversity of activities
which are absorbed into a narrative of authoritative decision.

Policy activity as skilled practice
The perception of policy as a f‌ield of skilled practice (including policy design) has
emerged relatively recently. Before then (at least in Anglophone countries), policy
was seen as emerging from constitutional processes: leaders (and parties) identif‌ied
areas of concern and desirable responses to them, and mobilised support by the
enunciation of these concerns and planned responses. At election time, these
became the basis of party platforms, and election success was therefore viewed as
popular endorsement for the platform and justif‌ication for following it (‘the man-
date’). UK Cabinet minister Richard Crossman (1975) noted in his memoirs that
ministers needed the platform ‘to protect us against the Dame’ (referring to the civil
servant head of his department) – in other words, having an electoral justif‌ication for
action as well as, perhaps as a counter to, an expert bureaucratic one. In the US,
political scientists tended to see government as essentially about distribution: e.g.
Lasswell’s (1936) Politics: Who Gets What, When and How, the Founding Fathers
having put state structure there to regulate the competition – ‘a state of courts and
parties’, as Skrowneck (1982) put it – rather than to be an independent actor.
The post-war years saw changes in these perceptions. In the US, the much-
expanded role of the federal government in the war carried over into peacetime;
the air force moved to set up the RAND Corporation, building on wartime work
on operations research and systems analysis (McCloskey, 1987a), and Lasswell
(1951) called for a ‘policy science’ that was interdisciplinary, problem-oriented
and explicitly normative. In this context, ‘policy analysis’ – variously seen as a
technique for the comparison of options, a f‌ield of professional practice, and a
body of academic knowledge – emerged in the US.
As a technique, ‘policy analysis’ (initially ‘systems analysis’) as it emerged in the
US was seen as a form of ‘decision support, grounded in operations research and
microeconomics’. It was argued that a policymaker must specify the objectives,
identify alternative ways of achieving them and the costs of each, evaluate the
consequences of each option, and choose the alternative that delivers the greatest
net benef‌it – Jeremy Bentham’s ‘felicif‌ic calculus’ (Majone, 1989: 12–13; see also
Torgerson, 1985). This should be done before the policy decision (ex ante) and
(preferably) also after (ex post), in which case it would probably be called ‘evalu-
ation’. The elaboration of these calculations stimulated an interest in the applica-
tion of cost–benef‌it analysis in relation to outcomes to which it was dif‌f‌icult to
attach a market price, but the assumption tended to be that such questions were
incidental, technical dif‌f‌iculties, and that well-planned quantitative analysis would
show the optimum outcome, which should settle the debate about the action that
should be taken.
This approach to policy had wide currency in the US in the 1960s, and ‘policy
analysts’ and organisational units containing them became common features of
American government agencies, legislatures and organised interests (Meltsner,
1975; Radin, 2000). While the federal requirement for agencies to use PPBS (the
Planning, Programming and Budgeting System) as the basis for their budget
requests was soon abandoned (Schick, 1973), the rhetoric of quantitatively based

Public Policy and Administration 33(4)
systematic choice retained great force, and it provided the analytic format for the
evaluations which came to be demanded of federally funded programmes.
This emerging occupational specialisation was further institutionalised by the
foundation of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, with a
journal, conferences and awards,...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT