The Geography of Transport Systems
FOURTH EDITION
Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2017), New York: Routledge, 440 pages.
ISBN 978-1138669574
The Policy Process
Author: Dr. Brian Slack
1. Problem Definition
Policies are developed in response to the existence of a perceived problem or an opportunity; they never exist in a vacuum. The context is extremely important because it will shape the actions being considered. For example:
  • Who has identified the problem? Is it widely recognized by society as a whole or is limited in scope to a local pressure group for example? In the case of the former there may be a greater willingness to intervene than in the latter, depending on the political power exerted by the pressure group.
  • Do the public authorities have the interest or will to respond? There are usually many more problems than the policy makers are willing to address. Many issues remain unaddressed.
  • Do the public authorities wish to wield the instruments necessary to carry out a policy response? The problem may be recognized, but public authorities may have little ability to effect change. Such is the problem of many environmental problems that require global solutions.
  • What is the timescale? How pressing is the problem, and how long would a response takes? Policy makers are notoriously prone to attempt only short-term interventions, since their mandates are usually of relatively short duration. Long term issues may not attract policy makers because the results of any policy intervention may be decades away.
These questions lie at the heart of the need to correctly identify the problem or opportunity. No policy response is likely to be effective without a clear definition of the issue. The following elements need to be considered in defining a problem:
  • Who has identified the problem, and why should be seen to be a problem? Many problems exist, but few are taken up because they are not brought before a wide audience.
  • Is there agreement on the problem? If there is no agreement that a problem exists, it is unlikely that a strong policy response will be forthcoming. Effective policies are more likely to be formulated if there is widespread recognition of a problem and its causes. A problem for the Kyoto Accord on global warming is that decision-makers in the US have not been convinced that the problem is due to human-induced carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Is it an issue that can be addressed by public policy? The price of oil is regarded by many as a problem, but individual countries have no power to affect the price of this commodity.
  • Is it too soon to develop a policy? This argument was used by the lobby in California that opposed stricter emission controls on vehicles in the early 1990s, based on the argument that the technology of alternative energy for vehicles was not sufficiently advanced.
  • Is the problem seen differently by groups with different values? Environmentalists see many transport issues differently than many other interest groups. Divergence of opinions may affect how the problem is addressed.
  • Is the problem fully understood? Do we know the causal relationships that may be necessary to provide a solution? Transport and development, the role of transport in climate change are issues around which there is a debate.
  • Can the relationships between the factors that make up the problem be quantified? Problem definition is better when it is possible to measure the scale and scope of the issues involved.
In defining the problem or opportunity and to help address the questions above, background studies are required. The state of affairs needs to be provided which will identify the actors, the issues and the possible means that are available. It is also important to forecast trends in order to identify whether the issue is likely to change.
2. Policy Objectives and Options
The eventual success of a policy depends upon establishing clear goals. If there are multiple objectives they must be consistent. They must be flexible enough to change over time as the circumstances evolve. In simple terms the objectives must:
  • Identify the present conditions and situation.
  • Indicate what the goals are.
  • Identify the barriers to achieving the goals.
  • Identify what is needed from other agencies and the private sector.
  • Determine how success will be judged and measured.
  • Identify what steps are required to achieve success.
Having defined the problem and objectives, policy options must be formulated and evaluated. In many cases more than one solution has to be considered for policy adoption. The objectives may be realized in many different ways. Best practices from other jurisdictions may be considered, and all other possible solutions need to be considered. By evaluating the options it may be possible to identify the one that best meets the goals that have been established and at the same time is the best fit for local circumstances. These types of evaluations are referred to as ex ante, because the outcomes are being assessed even before the policy is put into practice. Although one can never completely anticipate the outcome of different prospective policy options, ex ante evaluations are capable of bringing to light what problems may develop when the preferred option is implemented. Thus, when the future policy is to be evaluated (ex post), problems of data, reporting, and identification of success criteria may have been already anticipated and resolved through an earlier ex ante assessment.
Many types of evaluation methods are employed in both ex ante and ex post assessments. These include cost-benefit analysis, multi-criteria analysis, economic impact and Delphi forecasting. Because evaluation takes place at several of the steps in the policy process, it is now regarded as a critically important issue. New ideas involving managing the policy process include performance based management, where evaluation is built into the entire process. It means in the policy process, a great deal of attention has to be paid as to how the goals, results, and beneficiaries are to be measured. The selection of indicators has to be agreed upon by policy managers from the inception.
3. Policy Implementation
The implementation of the selected option represents a critical aspect of the policy process. The most carefully crafted policy that is widely accepted by those it affects can flounder because of improper implementation. It is impossible to define an optimal implementation procedure because of the wide range of socioeconomic circumstances that policies are applied, and also because of the diversity of policies themselves. However, a ten step model of policy implementation can be considered:
  1. Policies must not face insurmountable external constraints. By this is meant that the policy must not exceed the jurisdictional or constitutional limits of the agency. This is a common issue in federal states, where different transport modes may be under different jurisdictions.  Other examples include cases where the transport issue cannot be resolved because of international borders. However, transnational agreements, especially within the European Union, have considerably reduced external constrains in transport policy implementation.
  2. In implementing the policy there must be an adequate time frame and resources. The policy may be appropriate, but may fail because its implementation took longer or was more expensive than budgeted.
  3. The implementing agency must have adequate staff and resources to carry out the policy. A growing problem with environmental legislation is that the agencies do not have the means to ensure guidelines and standards are enforced.
  4. The premises of policy and theory must be compatible. At one time public ownership was seen as a valid policy alternative. Today it may be a valid option in theory in some circumstances, but is not politically acceptable.
  5. Cause and effect relationships in the policy must be direct and uncluttered. A successful policy must be seen to be based on clear and unambiguous relationships. Complex policies are more likely to be misunderstood.
  6. Dependency relationships should be kept to a minimum. If the agency in charge of implementing the policy has to rely on others to it carry out, the more fragmented will become the authority. The implementing agency will become more dependent on others with not necessarily the same interests.
  7. The basic objectives of the policy need to be agreed upon and understood. All actors in the policy process must possess a clear understanding of the policy and what is required to carry it out. It goes without saying that all those involved must understand the policy and have knowledge about their roles in carrying it out. Information and training are essential elements in the policy process.
  8. Tasks must be specified in an appropriate sequence. Implementation is a process with connected steps from conception to the end. If the steps are not carried out in the correct sequence the policy may fail. Difficulties may arise, for example, if evaluation is completed without the indicators of success being agreed upon beforehand, or if another agency is involved before necessary pre-conditions for its participation have been completed.
  9. Communication and coordination need to be on the same wavelength. Those implementing the policy have to possess the same information base, have to interpret it in the same way, and to communicate well with each other.
  10. There must be compliance. Those agencies involved in implementing the policy must work towards total compliance. Many times policies are formulated but their compliance is lacking (see 3 and 7 above).
4. Policy Evaluation and Maintenance
The implementation stage is not the final step in the policy process. The effectiveness of the policy needs to be assessed after a certain period of time, and steps must be taken to ensure that there are resources and means to maintain a successful policy. In the past, this tended to be overlooked, and after a while policies would be sidetracked by other newer initiatives. The long term effect was the presence of many different policy initiatives frequently with conflicting goals. The result was that policies in place frequently conflicted with each other in terms of goals or implementation measures.
On-going program evaluation is thus central to the maintenance of policy. This has tended to be a difficult issue for managers who today find their programs being assessed by methods and data requirements that were never built into the policy initially. Performance Based Management has become an essential tool in the policy process as a result. Under this system evaluation is built into all stages of the policy process, and indicators are agreed upon by the managers who carry out the programs as well as the units that undertake evaluation. If performance criteria are not met, then policy goals and objectives need to be revised, if not abandoned altogether. This step can be controversial since it is an indication that the policy has failed.