Policy and decision-making development and implementation studies have emerged as a separate direction of studies only 30 years ago (Birkland, 2010). However, many strategies and approaches to policy development have already been created. First studies in this area focused on the complexity of joint actions and consideration of successful and not successful policy implementations. Later on, the studies of implementation conflicts and factors affecting decision-making have emerged. Two distinct approaches to decision-making appeared: top-down and bottom-up perspectives of implementing policies. Furthermore, synthesis approach combining the advantages of both has evolved. The purpose of this assignment is to consider synthesis in policy development and decision-making from theoretical and practical points of view.
1. Theoretical frameworks
Top-down theories and approaches are based on selecting a specific political decision (e.g. a law) and then consider its implementation through the whole system; this approach holds a particular interest in the upper level of decision-making. These theories provide useful recommendations for controlling and structuring the implementation, and minimizing the number of decision-making points. Key works in this approach are framework by Mazmanian and Sabatier, Pressman and Vildavsky, works by Erwin Hargrove etc (Birkland, 2010).
Bottom-up researchers also used the legislation for developing policy implementation frameworks; however, they place the roots of decision-making around specific problems and map the policy development around this problem, in contrast with top-down researchers. Well-known works in this area were created by Michael Lipsky, Hull and Hjern, Elmore and Bogason etc (Birkland, 2010). While top-down theories explain the situations where the ambiguity of the policy is rather high (and low conflict level perceived), and bottom-up approaches are good when the level of conflict is high and ambiguity is low. Many researchers from both camps realized the need for synthesis of these approaches, and have created balanced frameworks which combined these approaches.
Richard Matland has developed evaluations of the relationship between conflict level and ambiguity in the environment allowing to make a choice between these two approaches to decision-making (Peters & Pierre, 2006). Hull and Hjern created a synthesis inductive method involving systematic analysis and review of key actors from the bottom to the top (Peters & Pierre, 2006). Sabatier developed a new framework – ACF (advocacy coalition framework) (Fischer, 2003). This framework is likely to be the most known synthesis theory.
Together with Jenkins-Smith, Sabatier has moved the focus of studies towards synthesis of policy formation. The purpose of the synthesis is to unite the findings of empirical research, and to generate rigorous understanding of successful policy making. According to this framework, policy making is a continuous process, with no clear beginning or end, and policy involves a complex set of processes, related to major groups of stakeholders. Key participants described by ACF are not only politicians, but also administrators, public groups, journalists, state and local officials, committee member, industry representatives etc (Peters & Pierre, 2006). The development of policy using synthesis approach, according to ACF, is shaped by the “interaction of competing advocacy coalitions” (Fischer, 2003); here the advocacy coalition consists of various actors sharing the same values and beliefs from all governmental levels and related groups. Figure 1 illustrates the decision-making and policy-making according to this framework.
Figure 1. Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith Advocacy Coalition Framework (Fischer, 2003)
Generally, the number of coalitions ranges between two and four. ACF states that policy development is a long-term perspective, and the synthesis should operate subsystems as main agents (Peters & Pierre, 2006). ACF does not only relate to policy development, but also considers the socio-economic factors affecting the policies and its outcomes, empirical research and theory of rational choice, as well as issues of policy networks and policy learning. One of the advantages of this framework is that it perceives policies as the systems closely related to belief (Birkland, 2010).
Synthesis frameworks are effective for decision-making since they can be used to generate practical recommendations on policy development depending on a number of key factors, and ACF framework is considered to be one of the most applicable and notable works in this area.
2. Practical approach
Policy synthesis has to deal with a large number of factors and stakeholders, and is aimed to synthesize empirical experience and research results. It is based on the premises of the framework (ACF framework chosen as the main one), experience of decision makers, and knowledge of the major subsystems provided by the researchers. The variables which should be considered by the decision-makers, according to AFC, are (Fischer, 2003):
- Stable exogenous variables: constitutional structure, social and cultural values, environment outside the political system, natural resources
- Dynamic exogenous variables: changes in impact of different subsystems, economic dislocation changes and changes of government coalitions;
Coalitions can be classified according to their belief systems: deep core beliefs (not likely to change) and policy core beliefs (might be changed in the course of time). Every coalition is tending to adopt own strategy aimed at the realization of its policy objectives through influencing the behaviour of governmental actors. Goals of every coalition are likely to be complex and there are certain preliminary constraints for each actor, such as (Peters & Pierre, 2006):
- Time and resource limitations with regard to analyzing the information
- Losses are perceived heavier than gains
- Normative and sociocultural beliefs of actors influence the decisions on salient issues
Thus, according to ACF framework, problems around which the policy should be centered may be classified as belonging to deep core set of values, policy core values and to secondary aspects. Secondary aspects can be relatively easy affected by legislative decisions and performance improvements; issues related to policy core values should be addresses using fundamental normative precepts or rely on significant empirical components, and problems related to deep core values can be addresses by appealing to sociocultural identity, distributive justice or ultimate values.
The set of recommendations for decision-making using synthesis approach includes analysis from top-down perspective and bottom-up point of view as well as merging of these results on the basis of a synthesis framework. Using the ACF framework, it is possible to determine the following set of actions:
- key exogenous variables should be determined and divided to stable and dynamic
- subsystems and key actors should be identified (advocacy coalitions)
- resources and constraints of the coalitions and their perceived objectives should be determined
- basing on the type of policy beliefs and available resources, perceived strategy of every subsystem should be evaluated
- decisions should be made taking into account the interests and values of all stakeholders
- policy based on the previous decisions should be implemented
- control and evaluation of results should be followed by the next round of iterative policy-making synthesis process.
Top-down and bottom-up approaches are two key methods which have emerged during the studies of policy and decision-making strategies. Policy synthesis is the approach which combines advantages of two above-mentioned methods, and allows to build and implement a consistent policy. A number of frameworks have been developed to address these questions, the major of them being the Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF).
This framework is broader than other synthesis approaches since it includes non-governmental actors such as journalists, agency officials, researchers etc. as active members of advocacy coalitions. ACF allows to develop long-term policies and is based on the analysis of external and internal factors affecting the subsystems (coalitions). One of key ideas in this policy synthesis framework is that policy decisions and implementations are based on the beliefs, and the beliefs can be classified into three groups, with each of these groups treated differently when implementing a subgroup strategy, Using policy synthesis, it is possible to develop a consistent set of decisions with taking into account all stakeholders, and to improve it in the course of time using iterative procedures described in the recommendations.
Birkland, T. (2010). An Introduction to the Policy Process: Theories, Concepts, and Models of Public Policy Making. M.E. Sharpe.
Fischer, F. (2003). Reframing public policy: discursive politics and deliberative practices. Oxford University Press.
Peters, B.G. & Pierre, J. (2006). Handbook of public policy. SAGE.