Guy Peters, Policy Problems and Policy Design

B. Guy Peters, Policy Problems and Policy Design, Edward Elgar, 2018, 1 78643 134 9, hbk, x + 172 pp, £65. The eBook is priced from £22 from Google and other eBook vendors, while in print the book can be ordered from the Edward Elgar Publishing website

Governments design policies in order to solve problems: but unfortunately life is not that simple, and by the time the reader has got to the end of the first chapter of this important book they will recognise just how complex the situation is. Trust in governments is declining, governments often ignore available evidence, in a complex world policies often fail, and they sometimes produce effects that are the opposite of what was intended. Policy design is political and ideological, it creates effects for human beings whose responses affect outcomes, conflict is inevitable, different policy areas influence each other, and accidents happen. But as Peters points out, this complexity makes it even more important to be clear about the policy design process, because that will enable the relationships between designed policies and other social and political realities to be understood, and it will enable difficulties to be evaluated and the designs to be revised. He sets out a number of design stages (understanding the causes of the problem to be solved; selection of instruments; clarity about desired outcomes; and construction of implementation infrastructure); he recommends attention to institutions; and he suggests that in a complex and changing world design is a process and not a product.

Chapter 2 surveys the literature on policy problems, understands the subjective nature of the framing of problems, finds that lack of clarity about the structures and causes of problems can make it difficult to design policies to solve them, and suggests that persuading a government that a problem needs to be on its agenda is as important as defining the problem. Chapter 3 discusses ‘wicked problems’, for which there will be no definitive formulations and no easy ways to identify solutions or to test them for success. Super-wicked problems are problems that are both wicked and urgent, and that lack an obvious central authority that could solve them. The actors that cause a super-wicked problem are the only ones that can solve it, and the cost of solving the problem today feels more onerous than the higher cost of solving it tomorrow. Climate-change is an obvious example. Peters makes the interesting suggestion that wicked problems might best be tackled with simple solutions. A virtue of this approach is that it will be clear whether the intervention is working, whereas with a more complex set of interventions that won’t be so obvious. A further interesting suggestion is that an intervention that is described as an experiment might not be politically attractive:

Legislators tend to want programs that provide a guarantee, even if it is false, of success. Thinking in experimental terms may be beneficial for the policy analyst, but it may not be so beneficial for practitioners. (p. 83)

Chapter 4 asks about the instruments available to governments – laws, regulations, subsidies, and so on – and suggests a number of criteria for the selection of instruments. Peters suggests that both the efficiency and the effectiveness of the administration of an instrument are important factors, and in particular he finds that

means-testing can stigmatize potential recipients and prevent their taking up the benefit. The take up of means-tested benefits is often low because of that stigmatization and because of administrative complications in qualifying for the benefits. In some instances it may be more effective for governments to provide universal benefits and then claw back the money from the more affluent through taxation. (p. 97)

For the first four chapters, policy design is understood as an ‘engineering’ task: that is, the policymaker asks how the policy machine needs to be adapted or mended. In chapter 5 policy design is understood as product design: that is, more innovation than adaptation. This requires a broadening of the vision, an attempt to design systems rather than objects, and an eye to the future as well as to the present. A final chapter suggests some guidelines for good policy design, among which appear future orientation, flexibility, and simplicity.

The one thing missing from this book is case studies, the inclusion of which would not have made it too long: but that really is the only thing missing. Policy Problems and Policy Design takes the reader on a journey that is both historical and conceptual, and towards an understanding of both the difficulties and the necessity of good policy design.

Anyone interested in social policy would benefit from reading this book; and readers of this Newsletter will find it particularly interesting, because they will experience constant echoes of the Citizen’s Basic Income debate. In chapter 1, a useful set of ‘design principles’ (p. 6) suggests the following in relation to the design of a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme:


Brief expression of the design principle Implications for designing a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme
Employ multiple disciplines As many academic disciplines as possible must be employed
Work out the minimum conditions for success Set targets for the scheme: poverty reduction, inequality reduction, employment market changes, etc.. and test to see whether they are met.
Create safeguards against major errors Implement slowly: either starting with a small Citizen’s Basic Income, or implementing for one demographic group at a time.
The policy must fit into existing practices Add Citizen’s Basic Income to existing tax and benefits systems rather than replace them.
Work out how to defuse potential opposition Design the scheme so that it counters all known objections
Borrow from policies that work Borrow regulations from other unconditional incomes, such as Child Benefit
Continue to improve existing policies After implementing a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme, continue to adapt existing means-tested benefits and the tax system
Start with the most popular Start with Citizen’s Basic Incomes for children, older people, and young adults
Set goals and design the policy accordingly Set goals for reducing poverty and inequality, avoiding losses for low income households at the point of implementation, and enhancing choice in the employment market.
Exercise good judgement Never allow the Citizen’s Basic Income to become something else. It will only work if it remains entirely unconditional.

And chapter 5, on policy design as product design, reveals the extent to which Citizen’s Basic Income would conform to that analogy.

One comparison that we might draw between the book’s approach to policy design and the Citizen’s Basic Income debate’s approach is that the book always begins with policy problems for which policy solutions are sought, whereas the Citizen’s Basic Income debate always seems to begin with the policy and then looks for the problems that the policy would solve. However, this difference is apparent rather than real. Those who find themselves advocating Citizen’s Basic Income will normally have set out from a particular policy problem – the complexity of benefits administration, increasingly precarious employment, and so on; will have found Citizen’s Basic Income to be a useful policy response; and will then have found that the policy would solve other problems as well.

If Peters is thinking of writing a follow-up to this thought-provoking volume then a book that tests his ideas on the Citizen’s Basic Income debate would be a most valuable addition to the literature.