The ‘ideal’ policy making process

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This is one of those blogs I have to get out of my head….that means it isn’t going to be full of references that back up my thoughts, I just need to round them up so that I can be more structured in taking them forward.

It’s prompted by the idea of the ‘ideal’ type – a normative standard against which we compare things.  Often ‘ideal’ types get understood as prescriptions…and also sometimes we start thinking that things actually do happen according to those ‘ideal’ types (which is dangerous!).

So as I’ve been looking into policy making, I’ve started to realise that we have a number of ‘ideals’ as to what it ought to be like.  I’m going to brain-dump them here…

1) We talk of EVIDENCE-BASED policy

I touched on this in a blog before.  It’s particularly something that I see as I’ve looked into the role of social research – after all, if policy isn’t evidence-based what can be the impact of (point of) social research? The evidence-based movement has sparked a whole set of practices thought to be about ‘knowledge transfer’ – systematic reviews; evidence briefings. But the evidence-based policy movement is being critiqued for being naive, for not taking the science of policy making into account in their normative cry.  Sometimes the phrase gets ‘softened’ – evidence-informed; research-informed and so on.

There are some helpful resources that I’ve started to use – Paul Cairney’s blog (especially the draft chapters of his upcoming book); and, I’ve found a number of (rather ironically) systematic reviews that synthesis the ‘state of the art’/’effectiveness of the art’ in terms of the research etc into knowledge transfer.  More specifically in the health field, an excellent recent critique (Oliver et al, 2014) provides suggestions for a new direction.

Key message – regardless of what we wish, what people say they are doing – policy isn’t evidence-based – it is an ‘ideal type’; not a description of reality.  And we’d be naive to think otherwise.

2) We talk of PARTICIPATORY policy-making

I haven’t looked into this one as much (yet), but it stems from ideas of new forms of governance and participatory democracy.  The “policy-maker” is no longer a centralised government – lots of actors need to be involved.  This may be easy for big business, ‘Think Tanks’ or larger NGOs who employ lobbyists and have strategies for this sort of thing.  They can make a nuisance of themselves in the existing design of policy processes.

I’m more concerned with us citizens and how we ought to be more involved, especially in the more localised policy processes run by our councils.  Add to this involving local professionals, such as front-line clinicians or social workers.  And, linking into the EVIDENCE-BASED discussion above also ‘experts’ and researchers.

In some ways, the restructuring of the state is making policy-making more participatory, but those with the quietest voices (usually citizens) can get heard less.  Society should make policy – shouldn’t it?

Key thoughts – is participatory policy-making also an ‘ideal type’, something to compare against or strive towards.  The ethical nature of this means it worries me more than the ‘evidence-based’ side.  Other than ‘Arnstein’s ladder’ which seems a little out of date, there is little to grasp on to – or is there, I need to look into this more.  There’s got to be links with the social learning stuff I covered on my MSc.

3) We talk of HEALTHY public policy

The bottom-line is our health is shaped by the conditions in which we live – the social determinants; political determinants; commercial determinants are all in turn shaped and determined by public policy.  Ever since 1986 when the WHO incorporated healthy public policy as an area of action in the Ottawa Charter, ‘we’ (those with an interest in health promotion) have been making this call for healthy public policy.  More recently, the phrase ‘health in all policies’ has been introduced – it carries on the theme and includes a concern for governance.  This is advocating for a particular policy content, rather than a particular way of developing policy – but is it also an ‘ideal’ type.  Something to strive for.

Key thoughts – other groups of policy advocates have other phrases for injecting their policy interests into broader policy fields – so we hear of the importance of equality/equity in the policy process; or the importance of sustainability; or a wellbeing approach to policy.  ‘Policy’ interests aren’t neatly divided by the department that leads on making them – there may be a central focal point – but everyone has an interest and everyone can play a part.  Ultimately, we are looking at the same thing through different lenses.

4) We talk of SYSTEMS THINKING in policy making

Okay ‘we’ may be quite a small community, but I am part of that and because I am ‘systems thinking aware’ I look for it in the literature I read.  People talk of policies and policy making that should take ‘complexity’ into account or appreciate inter-dependencies more.  Less so do people talk of the importance of appreciating multiple partial perspectives, but may be there are synergies there with the call to be PARTICIPATORY.  I also see things that talk of the nature of change and of policies that are ‘adaptive’ – flex and change over time, rather than remain static and out of date.  It’s all to do with dealing with a world that we now know isn’t controllable; certain; predictable and so on.

The call for ‘systems thinking’ to be in policy making is also a normative call – could it be helpful to think of it as another ‘ideal’ type – a lens through which we compare the existing world with?


The interesting thing about these ‘ideal types’ is that policy makers/practitioners know that we should be like that – so their (I mean our) rhetoric reflects them – we say that we are being evidence-based; we say we have involved people; we say we are incorporating different considerations through impact assessment; we say we are thinking holistically or of the big picture.    It seems that the ‘ideals’ have crossed from the advocates (whether researchers or others) into the discourse of policy but on the way they have adapted, or (to use the language of Smith, 2014)  the ideas have a chameleonic form, we’ve made them into what we want them to be; what is actually feasible and do-able in the actual, real messy world.  And then we big what we do up, say what people expect us to say.

So, if you are going to research policy-making, to try and compare it against these ‘ideal’ types, all you’ll get is ‘of course’ from your research participants.  Because, the ‘ideals’ mean different things to those who originated them and advocate for them.  We’ve learned the language but have we really embodied the meaning or underpinning theory?

There are theories of policy making – theories that have developed from empirical studies of reality, rather than normative claims.  I’ve got a mental lists – Kingdon’s multiple streams; actor-network theory; the argumentative ‘turn’ – I’ve just got to create time to get to grips with them more, rather than just skimming the surface all the time.  But, I’ve also got to work out a way of bridging the two – it’s fine describing what it is really like; it’s fine saying what it ought to be like – but, has anyone looked into the change over time?  Are practices actually changing towards or away from those ‘ideal types’?  What is the change journey?  What sorts of efforts have to be made to prompt the change, without resorting to the constraints of making prescriptions?

Which leads me to end on a slight sideward jump – a quote from Freire (1970) that I read recently:

One of the basic elements of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed is prescription.  Every prescription represents the imposition of one man’s [sic] choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the man prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness.  Thus, the behaviour of the oppressed is a prescribed behaviour, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor.

Freire, P. (1970) The pedagogy of the oppressed, page 31

Oh no, not quite the end – as I have read this back I’ve noticed I’ve used the word ‘strive towards’ a lot – it’s made me link to the definition of a healthy city which talks about a city which is ‘continually striving to create conditions for….’ in that case it’s conditions for health; but is there something about continually striving for better policy-making – more healthy, more inclusive, more evidence-based, more recognition of inter-dependencies and so on – as an integral part of being a healthy city???

And that is the ‘turf’ of my research field.  That is what I am interested in.  But how on earth does it become a neat research question, with a neat (acceptable) research design.  Help.



Smith, K.E. (2014), The politics of ideas: the complex interplay of health inequalities research and policy. Science and Public Policy, 41(5), pp.561–574.

Oliver, K., Lorenc, T. and Innvar, S. (2014), New directions in evidence-based policy research: a critical analysis of the literature. Health Research Policy and Systems, 12(34).

2 thoughts on “The ‘ideal’ policy making process

  1. Hello

    You reminded me of doing TU872 a long long time ago. There we explored the idea of ‘policy as process’, which maybe describes something similar to what you are saying about participatory policy making. You did TU872 too, didn’t you? It is about development policy and may not be relevant for you. In any case, my few sketchy notes say…

    Mackintosh (92) policy as process
    “deliberate actions by public institutions seeking to promote development… competing definitions of what might be meant by ‘development’”
     emergent not rationalist
     constanly unfolding and unfinished
     uncertainty of outcomes
    • Dpolicy not necessarily beneficial
    • judgment of outcomes contested

  2. Hi Arwen
    Thanks for reminding me of this – yes I do remember it and I suppose in a way Mackintosh’s perspectives provided a bakground foundation for my current inquiries. I think Mackintosh used her idea of ‘policy as process’ to talk about development policy-making where participation is particularly in focus. But her writing is relevant more broadly.

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