Capano et al, Making Policies Work

Giliberto Capano, Michael Howlett, M. Ramesh and Altaf Virani (eds), Making Policies Work: First- and Second-order mechanisms in policy design, Edward Elgar, 2019, xii + 215 pp, hbk, 1 78811 818 7, £85

It’s all very well designing a policy with a particular outcome in view, but it can happen that the policy design intended to achieve the result in fact prevents the result from being achieved. The intention of this book is to alert policy practitioners and academics to this possibility, and to enable everyone involved in policymaking to design policies that will in practice achieve the results envisaged. In order to achieve their aim, the authors employ the concept of ‘mechanism’ – the definition of which is debated in the introductory chapter – as a means of exploring how processes and circumstances mean that policy designs affect human behaviours in the ways that they do. The editors conclude that in order to ensure that a policy design achieves the results intended, the design must take relevant mechanisms into account, and must influence those mechanisms in such a way that the policy’s intentions are achieved. As the editors put it:

A mechanism-based policy design perspective will improve the capacity of designers to analyse policy tools and programs when policies are under formulation and to better predict the impact on implementation. (p. 4)

The editors suggest that mechanisms occur in two stages: First-order mechanisms, that directly affect human behaviour; and second-order mechanisms, that result from the aggregated effects of first-order mechanisms, and that transform the policy context. The editors provide the example of research assessment exercises, designed to engender institutional competition and therefore better quality research. The first-order competition has occurred, but the expected second-order general improvement in research quality has not, because the process has encouraged risk avoidance and has therefore reduced the amount of more risky research: research that can sometimes generate more significant results than the safer more evolutionary kind.

Following the editors’ introductory chapter, chapter 2 provides a review of policy process theories, which anyone coming new to the policy studies field would find useful. The authors then show how adding a consideration of mechanisms can enhance the usefulness of the theories.

The next few chapters explore first-order mechanisms. Chapter 3 considers how policy design can affect ‘network mechanisms’ that affect structural elements of the context; and chapter 4 is a case study that shows how the outcomes of an Italian policy to prevent food waste can be better understood via an understanding of the mechanisms in play. Chapter 5 shows how Indian healthcare policy has failed to achieve its intended results because it has not taken into account how weaknesses in the policy context affect the operation of first-order mechanisms. The chapter offers a warning to any government thinking of establishing public private partnerships. More hopefully, chapter 6 shows how policy entrepreneurs can enable first-order mechanisms to function, for instance by generating institutional commitment to a policy.

The following chapters study second-order mechanisms, with an emphasis on the second-order effect of policy learning that can result from implementing a policy. Chapter 7 studies this process in relation to impact assessment in the European Union; and Chapter 8 studies how weak regulation of the European Central Bank has prevented the expected accountability. Chapter 9 reviews case studies on public sector reform, and suggests that a mechanistic approach needs to be accompanied by a good understanding of the administrative context and of how specific social dynamics function within a broader social context.

The final part of the book explains methods for designing policy that take into account the book’s mechanistic analysis of policy outcomes. Chapter 10 studies retirement savings decisions, works backwards from outcomes to policy design, and finds the situation highly complex. The final chapter envisages policy-making as successive loops that might enable policymakers to work towards policy goals.

Every policymaker and policy academic should read this book. It reveals not only the important role that mechanisms fulfil in the relationship between policy design and outcomes, but also the complexity of the situation that policymakers face.

The book should be of particular interest to anyone involved in the Citizen’s Basic Income debate. While a Citizen’s Basic Income would be radically simple, any Citizen’s Basic Income scheme – with levels of the Citizen’s Basic Incomes for different age groups specified, the funding method described, and any changes made to existing tax and benefits systems specified – would create a complex policy bundle, the effects of which could be difficult to predict. Understanding how first- and second-order mechanisms might work, and particularly how policy loops might function, will be essential to an understanding of the overall effects that any particular illustrative scheme might deliver.