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Successful Policy Design Can Be Messy. Smart Policy Design and Implementation Can Help.

Future of government


  • Governments have multiple tools at their disposal which may help in successfully designing policies, but these can be confusing or contradictory, or both. Smart Policy Design and Implementation, which involves many elements of the Future of Government Framework, can help governments optimally refine the process of delivering policies that benefit citizens.

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Much literature promotes a problem-based approach to reform, emphasizing learning and adaptation, collaboration, and the need for local solutions to local problems, aligned to local capability. However, in recent years, emphasis in the policy sphere has been increasingly on implementation and challenges therein, such as political and elite will or delivery capacity, rather than on the design phases of policy, which are arguably more important – if the policy design is flawed, it only follows that implementation will fall short of what citizens need.

Traditionally, policy design was thought of as a clear-cut and rational “fait accompli,” a somewhat bureaucratic art driven by a higher purpose. But policy design has increasingly been understood as a process which can be fine tuned (or radically altered) and is influenced by politics, and thus by election cycles, citizen demand, and political goals of various sorts. Agency of policy makers is seen as essential as well, and policy is both noun and verb, process and outcome.

The scholastic debates on what makes good policy design (is it capacity? Effectiveness?), and indeed, what policy design is, can be outright contradictory and confusing to governments wishing to please multiple stakeholders, adapt to rapidly shifting citizen demands, and trying to implement policies all the while. And there are so many current design tools available to governments that it can be confusing which one to use for any given policy goal.

Often, the problem is that once governments have moved beyond the design phase to the implementation phase, the design phase chapter is closed for good, come what potential problems there may be with implementation.

Thus, governments of the future could benefit from aligning design and implementation, rather than treating them as altogether separate elements, with the latter coming after the former. They could do this by integrating feedback mechanisms into implementation, where the design of the policy can be flexible enough to be continuously adjusted if current implementation makes it clear that adjustment is necessary.

This refinement is at the center of Harvard’s Kennedy School’s Smart Policy Design and Implementation (SPDI). It involves six steps, the sixth being “refine.” In many ways, this novel approach to policy design brings together many elements of the Future of Government framework. Refining a policy’s design feeds back into each of the preceding five steps, which are:

  1. Identify: identifying a policy problem which, to be successful, involves communication with all involved stakeholders recognizing opportunities to approach the problem;
  2. Diagnose: figuring out why there is a problem, distinguishing between causes of a problem and symptoms of it;
  3. Design: feasible options to tackle the problem, taking into account context and capability and taking advantage of technology;
  4. Implement: only now is actual delivery initiated, and not necessarily at scale from the get-go;
  5. Test: it is crucial to test the outcomes of the policy delivery process outlined in the previous steps, which naturally leads to refining one or several steps that require it.


Source: Harvard Kennedy School

Encouragingly, there are already several examples of this process in action. These steps demonstrate what is perhaps the most important aspect of policy making: it is an ongoing process which takes the form of a feedback cycle, one which requires governments to be flexible, take risks, be open to making mistakes and learning from them, adjusting the route they are on, and as the below illustrates, go through a policymaker’s checklist to ensure the policy is meaningful and viable.


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