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Public Policy 101: The Stages of the Policy Process


Public policies are everywhere in today’s world, but their ubiquity is also why their definition is often elusive and the analysis of public policies tends to be complex. The Public Policy 101 series offers the reader several tools of analysis that help make sense of the complexity of public policies. This 101 series comprises eight different articles, each focusing on a different aspect, which should provide the reader with a framework of analysis to better understand the complex world of public policy-making.

  1. The stages of the policy process

  2. Rationalist and constructivist ontology in public policy

  3. An overview of the theories of the policy process

  4. The public policy actors

  5. The policy subsystem

  6. Beyond national public policy

  7. New approaches in public policy studies

The first instalment of the series offered some definitions of public policy, highlighted its complexity, and concluded by suggesting that scholars use different heuristic tools to simplify the analysis of the public policy-making process. This article provides an overview of one of the earliest and most popular approaches: the disaggregation of the policy-making process in a series of discrete stages, known as the ‘policy cycle’.

The idea of a policy cycle stems from a common understanding of public policy as a ‘process’, as the definitions in the first instalment made clear. Policy outputs are shaped by the actions of policy-makers, operating within institutional structures on the basis of the ideas they hold regarding the problem and the potential solutions. Thus, disaggregating this process into multiple, interrelated stages through which policy flows in a more or less sequential fashion from inputs to outputs is a way to provide order and reduce analytical difficulties (see Howlett et al., 2020: 8-9).

Figure 1: The loop cycle as represented in the manuscript Zoroaster Clavis Artis. Source: BBC

One of the first attempts to categorise the policy process came from Harold Lasswell, an early pioneer of the policy sciences. Lasswell (1956) divided the process into seven different stages, each with a specific policy-making function: intelligence, recommendation, prescription, invocation, application, appraisal, and termination. In the following decades, scholars built on this approach to stylise new and more empirically accurate models (e.g. Jones, 1970; Anderson, 1975; Brewer & deLeon, 1983), eventually settling with what is today called the ‘textbook approach’ (Nakamura, 1987).

This approach to the policy cycle broadly draws on the functions Lasswell (1956) assumed public policy-making ought to perform to identify five (sometimes six) stages of the policy process: (1) agenda setting, which recognises the problem; (2) policy formulation, where a solution is proposed; (3) decision-making, where the solution is chosen and legitimised; (4) implementation, in which the solution is put into action; (5) evaluation, or the monitoring of the results; and in some cases (6) the choice to either maintain, replace or terminate the policy. Below, each stage is delineated, and the advantages and disadvantages of the policy cycle model are discussed.

Figure 2: Stages of the policy cycle. Source: Own elaboration.

Agenda setting is the first in both logical and chronological order: the government can pass no policy if a problem is not identified in the first place. Agenda setting is concerned with the way policy problems emerge and how they gain the government’s attention (Howlett et al., 2020: 100; see also Birkland, 2007: 63). In other words, the agenda-setting process aims to answer the question of ‘what makes an idea’s time come’ (Kingdon, 1984).

Agenda-setting scholars identify three ways through which items can reach the government’s agenda. Firstly, society can learn about problems through objective indicators. Examples are the rate of unemployment, inflation, pollution levels or criminality. These measures may indicate that things are getting worse, and that action is needed, thus making the issue gain considerable attention. Secondly, focusing events – sudden, relatively rare events that spark media and public attention (Birkland, 1997) – are another way to gain policy-makers’ attention. Examples are natural calamities, wars, or scandals. In the wake of such events, policy-makers may be pushed to provide an immediate solution, which requires giving heightened attention to the issue. Finally, since attention is scarce compared to the number of potential issues, agenda setting is fundamentally a competition to exercise power and define policy issues to establish their severity and causes (Cairney, 2019: 28). Agenda priorities thus create political winners and losers by their very nature (Zahariadis, 2016: 3). As such, for a problem to gain attention, it is important to create compelling stories that help policy-makers focus their attention to that particular issue (Peterson & Jones, 2016; Stone, 2012).

In sum, the agenda-setting process shows very well both the social construction of policy problems and the importance of power in policy-making. Zahariadis (2016) neatly summarises this stage using the so-called ‘Four Ps of agenda setting’: power, perception, potency (i.e. severity) and proximity.

Once the problem has been identified and put on the decision agenda, the next question to ask is: what is the plan for dealing with the problem (Sidney, 2007)? This is what the formulation stage sets out to do. This stage is essentially a matter of policy design: it is about setting objectives, choosing which course of action to take among the various options available, and which tools can be employed to address the problem (Howlett, 2018: 95ff.). The main job of policy formulation is then to ‘narrow down the range of all possible options to those that are available and that decision-makers might accept’ (Howlett et al., 2020: 133). At this stage, policy-makers may avail themselves of the opinion of epistemic communities, stakeholders and interest groups, thus engaging in what is known as ‘evidence-based policy-making’ (see Cairney, 2016).

Figure 3: Public opinion plays a key role in agenda setting. Source: Shutterstock.

In the decision-making stage, legislators follow up on the formulated policies to legitimise them. Although ideally the decision to be made would be optimal and the result of an ‘evidence-based’ and informed choice, most often decision-making is a satisficing process, depending on institutional constraints and political calculations (Howlett & Giest, 2018). Hence, like agenda setting creates winners and losers in the selection of a problem, the decision-making stage creates winners and losers in the selection of the solution to be enacted (Howlett et al., 2020: 177).

It is during the implementation stage that the intentions of the policy-makers are translated into action (Barrett, 2004: 255). Implementation is arguably the most crucial stage since a policy on paper is not worth anything unless it is implemented. But when can a policy be said to be ‘properly implemented’? For a long time, scholars took a ‘top-down’ approach whereby policies are said to either fail or succeed based on several factors, such as the clarity of the policy’s objectives, the presence of financial and ideational resources and of skilled and compliant officers, minimal dependency relationship (i.e. few ‘veto players’), and generally few external constraints beyond the control of policy-makers (Cairney, 2019: 28-9; see also Pressman & Wildavsky, 1973; Sabatier & Mazmanian, 1980).

This ‘top-down’ school was opposed to a ‘bottom-up’ approach whereby central decision-makers only have a limited role, since implementation mainly relies on a decentralised apparatus of civil servants and administrative officials (Howlett et al., 2020: 210). Bottom-uppers identify the main actors of policy delivery in local bureaucrats and see implementation as a ‘decentralised problem-solving’ exercise where negotiations take place within networks of implementers (Pülzl and Treib, 2007; see also Hjern & Hull, 1982; Thomann, 2019: 4). Several attempts have been made to synthesise the two positions (e.g. Matland, 1995; Sabatier, 1986; Winter, 2012), but the two perspectives essentially reflect preferences in research design: top-downers take a prescriptive approach, whereas bottom-uppers a descriptive one (Cairney, 2019: 29). Neither, alone, offers a comprehensive view of implementation.

Policy evaluation is about assessing the extent to which a policy was successful (Cairney, 2019: 32; see also Howlett et al., 2020: 241; Jann & Wegrich, 2007: 54). It is the last and most contentious stage of the policy process for two reasons. First, it is very difficult to answer the question ‘to what degree was the policy successful?’ since it requires knowing whose success is being measured (the government’s? the stakeholders’? the lobbyists’?), and about what kind of success policy-makers should care (the effect on their popularity? the completion of their agenda? the long-term impacts?) (Cairney, 2019: 32; see also McConnell, 2010). Hence, evaluation is by necessity subjective and very difficult to carry out analytically. Secondly, what is significant at this stage is not so much the success or failure of the policy, but the ‘lesson-drawing’ aspect for policy-makers. Evaluation should be an opportunity for policy-makers to shed light on the experience of the policies on the ground to understand whether or not the intended results were achieved and what can be learned for future policies (Howlett et al., 2020: 242; Howlett & Giest, 2018: 24).

Figure 4: Path dependence is a key element of policy change, which makes termination more difficult. Source: Shutterstock.

At the end of this process, and some time after the policy is enacted, legislators must decide whether to maintain, replace or terminate it. A policy, for instance, may be terminated either because it has absolved its goals, or because it has been proven to be ineffective (Jann & Wegrich, 2007: 55). But under real-world circumstances, this is a rather difficult process, because of the path-dependent nature of policies. Governments tend to inherit policies from past administrations, and they generally accept the ongoing programmes they find when coming into office, since it would be too costly (both economically and politically) to reverse them (John, 2013: 25; on inheritance, see Rose, 1990; on path dependence, see Pierson, 2004). Hence, termination is often not included in discussions of the policy cycle both because of its relative rarity and because, unlike the other stages, it is not always necessary.

It is clear from the discussion so far that the policy cycle model has some important advantages. First of all, and most apparently, this disaggregation facilitates the understanding of multi-dimensional processes by bringing logical and chronological order into what is a very complex web of interactions. Secondly, the policy cycle model can be applied at multiple levels of analysis, ranging from the local to the international. For instance, Mattli and Woods (2009) apply a similar model, called ANIME – Agenda setting, Negotiations, Implementation, Monitoring, and Enforcement – to describe patterns of international public policy among states. Finally, the policy cycle model addresses the intertwining of actors, institutions and ideas by describing where action takes place, who the actors are, and what they strive for.

However, the disadvantages perhaps outweigh the advantages of this model, which explains why most public policy textbooks today eschew such an approach (see for instance Cairney, 2019: 33-5; Howlett et al., 2020: 12-3; John, 2013:18-20 for critiques). Firstly, its sequentiality suggests an apparent linearity that does not, in fact, exist in most real-world cases (John, 2013: 18-20). For instance, it is widely acknowledged that the implementation stage can be used to rethink and reformulate policies (John, 2013: 20; Thomann, 2019). Secondly, the policy cycle model lacks any notion of causation: it does not explain what, or who, drives a policy stage from one stage to another nor why this should be the case. Finally, this model remains silent about the content of a policy and how this may affect policy-making styles (see Howlett et al., 2020: 13).

Figure 5: Actors involved at each stage of the policy cycle. Source: Own elaboration based on Howlett et al. (2020).

Hence, while the policy cycle model is often one of the starting points in public policy courses, two correctives should be applied. First, its apparent linearity should be taken writ large in the minimal sense that a formal policy must be proposed and legislated on, and the means of its implementation agreed upon. Such a model is more relevant for understanding the presentation and legitimation of policy rather than detecting the bargaining that happens during decision-making and implementation (John, 2013: 19-20). Secondly, rather than a model, the policy cycle should be seen as a methodologic heuristic founded upon a deep empirical record, which can serve as a benchmark for two different tasks. It can offer a perspective against which the democratic quality of the processes of policy can be assessed (Jann & Wegrich, 2007: 58). And, by facilitating the investigation of the public policy process, this approach can help with the accumulation of empirical insights from multiple cases that can be aggregated based on the stage at which they are analysed in order to generate new models and theories of the policy process (Howlett et al., 2020: 274). The next steps of this series will be to understand the ontology on which public policy theories can rest.


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  • Zahariadis, N. (2016). Setting the agenda on agenda setting: definitions, concepts and controversies. In Handbook of Public Policy Agenda Setting. Zahariadis, N. (Ed.). Chelthenam and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 1-22.

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Feb 25, 2023

I want to reference your work, especially the policy cycle. How to do it? This is my mail


Mar 13, 2022

Nice job simplifying an obviously complex and intricate issue for people who might not be familiar with the topic.

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Marco Schito

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