The policy-making process

Definition of policy:

Policy can be defined as a set of ideas and/or proposals for action, leading to a government decision.

Policy making models:

There are a variety of models which seek to demonstrate how policies are devised.

The first three models are concerned with political relationships inside the executive:

· conventional model - this is the traditional constitutional model in which decisions are taken by ministers; civil servants advise and implement. The convention of individual ministerial responsibility is based on this model.

· party government model - political parties are the main vehicle for policy making; for example, parties have their own policy units, while party conferences also a policy making role.

· Whitehall model - also sometimes called the technocratic model; this suggests that civil servants are the main originators of policy ideas as they are permanent and experienced in their field, unlike ministers who are only relatively briefly in their posts.

The next three models seek to explain in whose interests policy decisions are taken:

· ruling class model - the Marxist approach, which argues that ultimately, most policy decisions are taken to serve the interests of the economically dominant group in society - i.e. the biggest and financial companies and individuals.

· pluralist model - according to this model, power is dispersed to a number of groups throughout society, e.g. business, unions, the church, the law, the education elite, etc. Decisions are reached by competition/negotiation between these groups, with the government acting as arbiter.

· corporatist model - according to this model, the most powerful interest groups become closely involved with government decision making, in effect becoming part of the decision making process themselves: e.g. business, unions and government in the 70s.

The final two models are explanations of the actual process of decision and policy making:

· rational decision making - decisions are made after a logical process of thinking everything through, looking at all the options and making a conscious, logical decision.

· incrementalism - decisions are made by "muddling through", adding to what already exists, adapting to existing situations.

Policy initiation

Policy ideas and proposals can arise from a variety of sources. These include, in roughly increasing order of importance:

· the general public - they can influence decision making by lobbying, signing petitions, etc. For example, the tightening of gun laws can be seen as being a response to widespread public concern after the Dunblane massacre.

· cause groups - pressure group campaigns can raise issues which eventually reach the statute books; e.g. Greenpeace and others raised environmental issues.

· the media - press campaigns can set the political agenda and influence the public and politicians - for example over Europe, and some law and order issues. Editors, media owners and others can have a direct line of contact with decision makers.

· academics - some academics are the originators of influential theories: e.g. Keynes (economic interventionism), Friedman (monetarism). Others can be used as advisors to ministers (e.g. the Treasury team of "wise men").

· political parties - these have a policy making role through party conferences, policy forums, etc (especially the Labour Party).

· parliamentary parties - MPs and party committees in parliament have significant potential influence.

· select committees - their reports and recommendations can be taken up by ministers.

· "think tanks" - such as the Centre for Policy Studies, the Adam Smith Institute, Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research have all been influential in determining party policies.

· ministers - individual ministers may have their own particular policy ideas and preferences.

· civil servants - departmental views may be evident, regardless of changes of minister or government - for example, there is a well-known “Treasury view” of economic policy, regardless of the party in power.

· Prime Minister - some PMs are very determined and influential in policy making, e.g. Thatcher (privatisation, poll tax, etc), Blair (constitutional change, “modernisation” policies, etc); others take a less prominent position, e.g. Major (Citizen's Charter).

Policy formulation

Once policy ideas have been developed, they go through a process of preparation by civil servants and ministers; then through the legislative process in Parliament.

· the bureaucratic process - policies are formulated, first by going through departmental committees; then through the Cabinet Office; then by being drafted by Parliamentary Counsel.

· the legislative process - there are a series of readings and stages in both the Commons and the Lords; bills are subject to amendment by the Opposition and/or backbench revolts by majority party MPs. But significant change is rare, especially when there are large government majorities.

Policy implementation

Once legislated for, policy should, in theory, be put into practice fully. However, this does not always occur:

· policy may be based on inadequate information and therefore not work effectively.

· advice may have been ignored.

· circumstances may have changed.

· other agencies may resist the implementation of the policy, either openly or covertly (e.g. local government).