Do we need policies when we have all the knowledge? Eight talking points on policy change

The students in the Faculty of Management’s Master’s Programme in Leadership for Change wrote short memos as responses to Professor Elias Pekkola’s lecture on policy, policy change and knowledge.

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I must admit that I have ranted about why turning clear scientific evidence into policies seems to be an impossible task. Have you?

Paul Cairney (2016) suggests that we should reject naïve illusions about a straightforward relationship between science and policy and rather study how things work. A basic understanding of policy development process is thus needed before one can even think about promoting scientific evidence to policymakers.

Policy change, pictured as a policy cycle, gives an idea of a relatively simple multistage process, but the reality is far more intricate. Policymakers can be elected officials with political interests but also unelected, e.g. civil servants. They all have personal opinions, values and emotions. In addition, other issues like lobbying, public pressure, networks and other outside interests have an impact on policymaking.

Most importantly, not all problems are alike. With proper knowledge, technical problems are usually easier to solve. However, policy change often deals with wicked, social problems. It might be difficult to even recognize whether we are dealing with the right problem – or with a consequence of something else. With technical problems, it is easy to say afterwards that we have followed the rules and regulations but obviously, we did not know enough at the time.

Solutions to social problems cannot usually be tested so as to learn from the mistakes. This is the case because the solution becomes a part of the reality the moment it is implemented. Due to the nature of the problems and available timeframe, it is impossible to have all the information of the problem or cognitive capability to understand every option or consequence. Instead of an ideal comprehensive rationality, bounded rationality is what we have (Cairney 2016). It leads to satisfactory options and eventually suboptimal decisions and policies. Yet, the pressure to be ‘right’ remains enormous.

When this is so complicated why not just leave it to the scientific method to come up with solutions? Pure technocracy cannot be desired due to the unsolvable, wicked nature of the problems. Political judgement is needed as there are no ultimate solutions. After all, policy change is always a political process and all the participants – including scientists and experts – are political actors. However, policy-makers cannot manage by themselves either. Scientific knowledge is crucial in recognising the need for policy change as well as in researching impacts and understanding relations. Also, evidence and knowledge should always be the basis for agenda setting. So next time, instead of ranting, let’s promote knowledge and make sure that the important issues stay on the agenda!

Eve Vuorela

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At the beginning of the class, we were asked to discuss the definition of policy. While others were talking about a direction given by government or practical adaptation of politics, I was trying to think of the issue from a more general perspective.

When hearing the word “policy”, many people seem to think of the political aspect of the term. However, there are also policies within individual organizations or companies. Therefore, I would say that a policy is a practical guideline proposed by all types of organizations to develop towards the direction which is in line with their strategy.

During my bachelor degree, I took organizational behaviour and organizational development courses emphasizing the importance of policy. Observing the issue from the perspective of business, policies guide and regulate behaviour patterns thus cultivating specific organizational cultures within companies. Such an impact can also be found within the political aspect. Policy, to some extent, reflects the culture, values as well as the strategy of a party. Therefore, the design and changes of policy should be carefully considered.

However, in reality policy creation is not smooth. At our lecture, Prof Elias Pekkola discussed cognitive limitations, information imperfections and time constrains. As a result of them, organizations may end up compromising and choosing secondary options instead of the most optimal ones. Another barrier to policy making is the complexity of issues. As policies are applied at a more strategic level, problems consist of different areas. Therefore, wicked problems might the most common issues that policies are addressing.

Initially, wicked problems seem undefinable. Due to context and time specifications, they cannot be formulated. And more commonly, the solutions may be defining the problem. Such a feature can be found in the example of immigration. Some countries may have a policy against immigration, while others are encouraging it to attract talents.

Moreover, wicked problems are constantly changing. They function differently under various circumstances, solutions that are made to address the problem create a new environment cultivating another wicked problem. This leads to the third feature – infinity. In addition, there is no absolute and ultimate solution to a wicked problem. Instead, it can only mitigate the “problem” to some extent. Therefore, policies should be created, not only with political, economic or scientific knowledge, but rather the combination of diverse aspects and techniques.

Zheng Zhao

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We hear word policy on the TV news quite often. But what does it actually mean? Policy is political direction towards a change or control of a current issue. Policies serve as a practical adaptation of politics, guidelines for action. There can be different types of policies: institutional policies, public policies and national policies.

To have a policy, something needs to be politicized, discussed, be on the debate agenda. There needs to be a problem, and defining this problem is the next step in the policy cycle. The third step is looking at all possible alternatives to deal with the problem. The fourth step is evaluation of policy option and its implementation. The final step of the policy cycle is the evaluation of chosen policy.

There are myriads of complex problems in policy making. For example, the issue of immigration is so complex that people do not really understand what is happening. On top of that, there are emotional implications involved in the process. As a result, there are cognitive limitations in policy making. Also, information imperfections make it hard for policy makers to make rational decisions.

To make the matters worse, there is time constraint attached to each issue—some decision need to be made in a very short period of time. This leads policy makers to make suboptimal decisions that are only partly true. Many actors are involved in these complex problems, making it very hard to change policies.

Selection of policy options is not a solely rational process. There are times when policy makers have to rely on “garbage can decision making”. Participants, solutions, problems and choice opportunities are chosen at random, thrown into a “can”, shaken up and whatever combinations come out, those are used as solutions. Evidently, policy-making is a very far from perfect process. Policies are very difficult to study as well. Whatever worked as a good solution in the past, may not work ever again.

Inessa Lotonina

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Policy is a practice, formulation or statement with a certain goal and legitimation. Its results can be evaluated. Policy can also be defined as an indicator of direction or a guideline for behavior.

Policy cycle presents one way of understanding policy change. It explains the different phases of policy formulation. First of all, the problem needs to be identified, the options evaluated, the policy implemented, and the results evaluated. However, the process is not easy and some problems are more complicated than others.

Many of the problems encountered are not rational or technical by nature. Due to this, scientific knowledge is not sufficient, and political judgement is highly involved in decision-making. Changing complex things is a long and complicated process. However, scientific knowledge is useful in understanding the scope of problems and identifying the need for policy change. The relations between various phenomena can also be better understood using scientific knowledge.

Prof Pekkola presented a theory of policy change called ‘multiple streams analysis’. According to it, policy change is possible if three conditions are met: The problem gets enough attention, an accepted solution can be found, and there is enough willingness and space to implement the solution.

Moral judgement is a necessary element of any policy change process. However, most of the problems are demanding from the point of view of moral judgements, as they can be classified as ‘wicked problems’. Wicked problems are very context and time specific. There is ‘no stopping rule’, which means that one cannot actually say that a problem has been fixed as wicked problems may continue to exist despite efforts to fix them – good examples being certain health care problems where it is hard to define the problem has actually ceased to exist.

Wicked problems can also be symptoms of another problem. When trying to find solutions to these problems, it is usually not possible to learn by error, while in traditional policy problems learning by error is possible. In finding solutions to these kinds of problems, both scientific knowledge and political judgement is needed.

Noora Suni

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The concept “policy” can be defined in various ways. It is a direction of action with a certain aim. It may also be understood as a label for a field of activity, expression of a desired state of affairs, formal authorisation, or output/outcome of a process. Policy as a practice has a legitimation, aim/goal and results that can be evaluated/measured.

A policy cycle has many elements to it. It starts with an idea of there being a problem, and something becomes politicized. Then the problem is being defined, which is followed by an analysis of possible solutions, evaluation of options, selection of options, implementation and, finally, evaluation.

This is the perfect picture of a perfect cycle — and things do not always work like that. For instance, wicked problems cannot usually be analysed through this cycle.

Knowledge plays an important role in policies. It distinguishes technocracy from ad-hoc-racy and suggests that policies can be based on rational judgements instead of moral ones. But most of the policy problems and policy changes are not technical by nature. Policy changes are often complex and socially embedded. They are inherently different from the problems of engineers, due to which social problems cannot be solved without political judgement. Thus, scientific knowledge alone is not enough. Wicked problems that need solutions cannot be formulated in a definite way. They have no stopping rules or immediate and ultimate solutions.

Fortunately, there are several theories of policy change to turn to make sense of such complex situations. Among these are, for example,

  • multiple stream analysis, according to which policy only changes if several conditions are met
  • advocacy policy framework, according to which beliefs are transferred to coalitions and policies
  • policy learning, which distinguishes between subjects of learning, subjects to learn and objects of learning
  • policy transfer, which focuses on competition, imitation and coercion in policy change
  • and punctuated equilibrium

All these examples highlight that policy change is always a social and political process requiring a lot of analysis and time. Moreover, it requires readiness on the part of people implementing policies to fully take the responsibility. Politicians usually have no trials and rights to make mistakes. A decision cannot be right or wrong – but it can be good or bad, this is the case especially when dealing with wicked problems.

Jekaterina Stukane

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Governments are increasingly tasked to solve complex socially embedded issues through public policy change. Some governments argue that these kinds of problems are difficult to handle effectively by using the traditional linear policy making techniques (e.g. The Australian Government, 2007). Policymakers usually gather limited information and seek ‘good enough’ solutions before making decisions based on gut feeling and emotions rather than scientific evidence. (The Australian Government, 2007; The Guardian, 2016; Cairney, 2016).

Herbert Simon, the founder of the theory “bounded rationality”, stated that individuals cannot take in and understand all information properly since the human mind is bounded by certain intellectual limits. He also argued that individuals, such as decision-makers, usually seek for acceptable solutions rather than the best ones (The Economist, 2009). Cairney (2016, p. 2) defines policy as “the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes”. However, there is no agreed upon definition of policy, and there are different opinions of what it is and how the process should be carried out (Cairney, 2016).

Harold D. Lasswell introduced the stages of policy cycle in the 1950s (Jann & Wegrich, 2007). The cycle starts with acknowledging a policy problem. The remaining stages are defining the problem, identifying alternative solutions, evaluating and selecting different options, implementing and evaluating the policy.

Prof Pekkola stated that wicked problems do not give an opportunity to learn by error since the solutions can also change the experienced reality. Thus, following the traditional linear policy-making techniques and processes can be problematic when dealing with wicked problems. This is the case as the prospect of a trial and error is almost non-existent and also not preferable since such trials tend affect people’s lives.

As bounded rationality may occur during policymakers’ decision-making process, experts should both simplify the already complex issues and emphasize the problem through emotions so the supply of evidence becomes more receivable and understandable (The Guardian, 2016). In the end, a key matter regarding policy change and wicked problems is that strategies suited for our complex world can be created if policymakers and scientists start understanding the processes of one another and meet halfway.

Ann-Charlotte Johansson

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One organizational perspective considers every organization to be public. This is due to the fact that every organization – in one way or another – is influenced by the involvement of political authority. To understand the connection, it is important to acknowledge two main ends on the spectrum of authorities: At one end, there is ‘political authority’ and at the other end, the ‘market, economic or business’ authority.

Within this polarity of authorities, it is possible for the political end to be completely autonomous of the market end. Yet, the market end can in no way be independent from political influence.

The main subject bridging these variables is public policy. Public policy can be approached as political direction or practical adaptation of theoretical solutions. Its three procedural components are politics, policy and polity. Politics involves debates and discussions. Policy stands for possible directions that an idea could take. Polity designates forums or institutional settings for political action.

Public policy making includes systematic procedures for defining problems, and this process requires efforts of experts and different parties who need to come into an agreement of what the problem is. Then the solution or responses are recognized, and soon after the options are evaluated. The next step is to select the policy and plan on how to implement the policy. Finally, evaluation of the policy is made on the basis of results in order to collect data for further understanding and future policy.

Even though such processes are extensively substantiated, there are limitations to the picture. Among these are limited rationality, insufficient information and time constraints, which could contribute to the inefficiency and suboptimal outcomes.

An interesting analogy for specific decision-making processes is the “garbage can model”. A garbage can decision occurs when the parties making a decision only focus on the quantity of contributions and put little importance on the relevance and synergy of the contributions of the involved parties.

Wicked problems are a nemesis of policy makers. The nature of the wicked problem is very spontaneous and it disallows policy makers from preemptively planning a solution. This calls upon the need of scientific knowledge and politics to come together and unify their efforts on formulating solution. Viable solutions can be derived through linking conditions, drawing and strategizing mutual goals through frame works and more importantly through reasoning learning.

Edward Hingert


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