Agile Policy Making – A Toolkit
Policy toolkits abound. During the period 1997-2010, the UK Government provided several. One, from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, showed how to develop an evidence base for policy, based on reviews of ‘what works’. There was also a toolkit concerned with international policy comparisons, assessing ‘what works elsewhere’. This was meant to guide officials and policy analysts as to how, starting from a particular domestic policy problem, they might best identify other countries whose experience is of particular interest.
These toolkits tend to assume a stable environment and well-defined policy problems. They may be less appropriate in uncertain and turbulent conditions. Here therefore we offer a toolkit of eight elements for the practice of ‘agile policy-making’.
The eight elements of the toolkit should not be seen as .a simple linear sequence. They must be used iteratively: not just in the sense of being ready to go through the sequence again and again, but more fundamentally allowing each element to co-evolve with the others. The toolkit decomposes the complex process of policy making into eight sub-processes, so as to render them practically manageable, but the agile policy maker must continuously weave them together, adapting them to specific situations. The toolkit is therefore only provisional. Users must hone and re-work it, as their own particular circumstances demand.
The toolkit builds on the conceptual, methodological and policy approaches developed in Complexity, Institutions and Public Policy. It may help if we recall their key points.
- The policy landscape cannot be thought of as tending towards some stable equilibrium, whether market-based or otherwise. Social actors continually drive it away from equilibrium; in doing so, they sculpt the world in new and fateful ways. This is a turbulent world: the policy maker must be ready to deal with unpredictable and exogenous shocks; with crises that extinguish years of patient work by some policy actors, while opening windows of opportunity for others; with new fashions and fads that have captivated political leaders and must now be turned into practical policies.
- The policy landscape involves complex processes of adaptation. Creative innovations by economic, institutional and policy entrepreneurs are variously taken up across the wider society; they then abrade against larger currents of social and economic change, tipping them in new directions. This is an evolutionary model, albeit one in which the protagonists are not blind; they can in some degree anticipate and nurture co-evolutionary dynamics that will bring them positional advantage. The policy maker can however in some degree civilise this struggle, so that it instead of producing warfare or predation, it builds general resilience and well-being.
- Societies can get locked into inertia; there is always the weight of existing institutions and technologies. Nevertheless, change is always possible. Indeed, where a society is frozen into inertia, the policy maker may be the one who sets the positional struggle in motion, energising the protagonists to be active entrepreneurs.
- The policy maker must make political choices in regards to the well-being of different sections of the society and the trade-off between alternative conceptions of the good society. Many writers have admittedly drawn a rather different conclusion: the policy maker may encourage creative energies and innovation but must then be content to leave economic markets and social networks to select those which shall prosper. Nevertheless, policy makers cannot but shape and tune this selection process, by the expenditure programmes they undertake, the regulatory mechanisms they set in place. If society is a complex adaptive system, it is the policy maker who shapes how - and by reference to whose advantage and well-being - it self-organises.
- The policy maker must look for ‘runaway loops’ and eddies of self-organisation that can bring opportunities for reform. However, the policy maker must also persuade his or her constituency that policy reform need not involve risky long-jumps of uncertain outcome: the landscape can be re-fashioned to allow a step-wise walk that will ensure their well-being. This is advocacy: the walk is both necessary and feasible. And of course, persuasion, by building a constituency for reform, itself helps to make those steps more feasible.