//Rational Policy-Making Explained
Rational policy-making

Rational Policy-Making Explained

What is Rational Policy-making?

Rational policy-making is widespread and well-utilized, but what exactly is it that leads many to consider it “as the commonsense way in which a democracy should function.”?

Policy making can typically be understood as the process whereby states commit to taking action. Indeed it is through this lens we must further examine the approaches used in developing policy. There are a number of theories related to how policies can be approached but through the course of this essay we will seek to examine the ways in which the Rational policy-making approach functions in formulating and developing policy.

In this piece the aim is to evaluate rational policy making as a tool in the development of policies, you can also find my work on Incremental Policy-Making hereHowever it’s important to note that when evaluating policy making and the approaches related to the process of making policies to take account of the policy cycle. This is a model through which we can evaluate approaches and contextualise them within the policy cycle. The policy cycle we will use throughout this essay and which serves as the effective frame in which we can view the approaches is that which is proposed by (Anderson, 2015)this includes analysing policy making through 5 stages, that of;

  • Agenda Setting – identifying the problem that the proposed policy(s) will seek to address,
  • Policy formulation – the approach to be taken to address the problem identified in the agenda setting stage of the policy cycle
  • Decision-making – the process of deciding which approach to take or whether an approach will be taken at all
  • Implementation – putting the policy into practice
  • Evaluation – evaluating the performance of the policy and establishing whether it was a success or failure by examining its impact and outcomes ultimately

In line with (Wegrich and Jann, 2006) we will evaluate the approaches according to how they function alongside how they work in relation to the policy cycle outlined above.

The Policy Cycle
Source: https://blogs.egu.eu/geolog/2016/09/14/geopolicy-science-and-the-policy-cycle/

Rational Policy making.

The rational approach to policy making can be viewed as stated in (Cairney, 2012) as the commonsense way in which a democracy should function. (Cairney, 2012) goes on to state that it may be better viewed as an ideal in which one should aim for “a process in which elected policymakers identify problems, clarify their aims and carefully weigh up solutions before making a choice (based on perfect information and no resistance from unelected implementing officials)”. This however may be viewed as an ideal but it is commonly stated by critics that it is an ideal which simply can’t be reached, due to the difficulty of having perfect information and in making decisions where the factors that are considered can be ranked in a fair and impartial manner. It is because of this that many scholars are increasingly seeing the rational approach to policy making requiring significant interaction with the more incrementalist approach. By incorporating rational approaches over a prolonged period of time that are responsive to changes and utilising the best available evidence over a given time period. There are a number of ways in which this debate permeates modern discussions on what constitutes modern political and policy approaches. however we can evaluate this policy as described in (Cairney, 2012),  namely to evaluate whether elected policymakers can effectively seek to translate their values into policy supported by groups and organisations that behave in a ‘logical, reasoned and neutral way’.

There are a number of primary assumptions that must be made to provide creedence to whether the comprehensive rational approach to policy making can function effectively. These look at whether it is possible for organisations to separate facts from theories and values in an artificial manner, whether policymakers can rank their objectives in any meaningful way that supports policy making.

There are a host of reasons why this policy approach can face significant challenges, specifically if we look at for example contrictatory objectives. This is where there is divergence between two particular policies and how to address these contradictions alongside how one can go about conducting a fair and effective ranking of the relevant factors to consider.

We must also look at how the rational policy-making approach fits in with the policy cycle outlined above and whether it is possible for the rational approach to mirror this model in such a linear fashion, namely is it possible for the rational approach to follow a linear process. There is also the consideration that rational policy making assumes that a policy maker can understand and interpret all possible outcomes which is not possible, which many authors cite as down to a variety of factors, not least including cognitive limitations.

However if we look at bounded rationality, which as stated in (Cairney, 2012) which doesn’t seek to simply maximise one’s utility but instead seeks to follow a course of action that is ‘good enough’. This approach within the rational approach would also explore using ‘rules of thumb’ to consider the relevant factors in making policy decisions. Within this context we can view rational policy making as a process where we are seeking to make the best possible decision as far as possible by using administrative science to support that decision, however this has its limitations as we will explore below.

Comparing Rationalist & Incrementalist Policy-Making

We can see both from the information above, alongside this article that there is significant overlap in terms of use of these approaches in the process of policymaking. however when we begin to examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of the approaches we can see that within either incrementalism or the rational approach to policy making that there is a wide variation in terms of how these approaches can be used. (Hayes, 2017) states that nonincremental policy changes occur during a period of crises or during mass public arousal and that a departure from incrementalism to a more rational approach to policy making would typically occur after a number of years of experience with policy implementation and that rational approaches can occur in a punctuated equilibrium. We can see that incremental approaches typically occur over a longer period of time and that the main point of departure would typically occur in bursts of public pressure or engagement on a particular issue, for example the issue of healthcare in the U.K with a gradual and incrementalist approach being pursued until an institution such as the NHS is established, which would be a radical departure from the norm only to lead to a punctuated equilibrium where incrementalist changes then re-occur on a more radical approach such as the establishment of such an institution as the National Health Service.

However when comparing the policy making approaches it is important to note the significant overlap between both approaches. Most notably (Lindblom, 1979) assertion that opting for an approach other than comprehensive rationality does not instead mean that one has to reject the approach that favours better decision making in favour of a more gradual process but instead an approach that can incorporate both the thoroughness of the comprehensive rationality approach to policy making with the more tried and tested approach of the incrementalist approach which allows for checks on the progress of policy initiatives to reach a particular desired policy outcome. This can become an approach that allows policy to reach its more desired outcome that blends the strengths of both approaches. This however faces the challenge of where power to make policy should be concentrated or if it should be concentrated at all?

The Rational policy-making approach, with its subsections can mean that power is centralised and that organisations and policy makers seek to make use of ‘administrative science’ as stated by (Simon, 1976) and that organisations should seek to evaluate the possible outcomes and decide the best possible policy solution with the available evidence. While this approach seeks to incorporate the relevant evidence it requires that “an assumption that power is held centrally by policymakers and carried out by neutral bureaucrats or other organisations” as stated within (Cairney, 2012). This assumption that policy and policy making should be controlled centrally and in a hierarchical fashion, can lead to the disenfranchisement from the policymaking process of lower ranking staff, clients and patients. Such centralised control of policy making may hold important considerations for the implementation of such rational policy making, with those trusted to implement a particular policy being excluded from the making of the policy they are tasked with implementing. This contains within it a contraction of sorts where the rational approach to policy making may take account of the best available evidence while neglecting to include those who are responsible for its implementation which may encounter the problem of being well developed in its scope and objectives but failing due to poor implementation.Again inherent within both approaches and as mentioned by (Cairney, 2012) is the impact the systems of governance has on the policy approach to be taken. (Cairney, 2012) specifically mentions the divergence between the Westminster model of government with much more centralised control and two parties which are conflicting in their aims, as opposed to the systems of government in the US which contains within it more checks and balances, this can also be seen in countries such as Japan where political inertia makes the arguments around policy making approaches much more nuanced and conditional on government structure.


It is clear that while both rational and incremental policy-making approaches have major concerns and considerations with regards to their applicability, it could be understood that both approaches to policy making can have sufficient cross-over in terms of their applicability. Indeed we can see from one of the main proponents of the incrementalist approach Charles Lindblom that he believes there is scope to incorporate the incrementalist approach with the Rational policy-making approach.

Jason Deegan is a PhD Candidate and research fellow at the University of Stavanger. His work primarily focuses on; Innovation, Regional Studies, Smart Specialisation and Policy.