Program & Policy Design Research Paper Starter

Program & Policy Design

(Research Starters)

This article will focus on program and policy design in the United States government. The article will describe and analyze the main types of program and policy design, the program and policy design process, and the rising trend in participatory program and policy design. The relationships between programs and policy design and public problems, public policies, and policy agendas will be introduced. Issues surrounding target populations and program and policy design will be addressed.

Keywords Policy Agendas; Program & Policy Design; Public Policies; Public Problems; Target Populations



Program and policy design refers to targeting candidate programs and policies to improve certain social conditions. The craft of policy design is an increasingly collaborative process between policymakers and citizens. Program and policy design is part of a three-stage policy analysis process including problem definition, policy design, and policy evaluation. The study of program and policy design cannot be separated from the related acts of problem definition and policy evaluation (Weimer, 1993).

Program and policy design is an act reflecting specific values and interests. Public issues, problems, and favored solutions are socially constructed entities. Program and policy design incorporates policy targets (socially constructed ideas about who will benefit from or be punished by the policy) and policy knowledge (socially constructed interpretations of reality) to solve public problems (Cahn, 1998). Policy makers use social constructions, constituted by values, symbols, images, and beliefs about the characteristics of the group, to determine the policy agenda and the actual design of the policy itself (Schneider & Ingram, 1993).

Ideas for program and policy design come from several sources including backward mapping, lateral borrowing and policy recycling. Backward mapping refers to the process of taking the ultimate targets of policy as the starting point. Lateral borrowing refers to modeling policies based on the policies developed in other jurisdictions facing similar problems. Policy recycling, also referred to as policy tinkering, refers to the idea of seeking better policy designs within the framework of a basic model such as the status quo policy (Weimer, 1993).

The following sections describe and analyze the main types of program and policy design, the program and policy design process, and the rising trend in participatory program and policy design. These sections will serve as the foundation for later discussion of the issues surrounding target populations and program and policy design.

Types of Program

Public administrators, in their capacity as policy makers, manage the public sector's problem solving and change process. Public administrators have the responsibility for designing the policies, processes, structures, and functions of public programs. Public administrators are policy designers who experiment with design in an effort to maximize results. Design refers to rational human action in which activity is aimed at realizing certain prescribed goals defined by a rational designer and for which a set of behaviors and actions are needed to implement them. Program and policy design, undertaken and overseen by public administrators, serves as a framework for solving problems through interactive processes. The effectiveness of program and policy design depends on how successfully the design solved the public problem.

There are four main approaches to program and policy design including crisis design, social design, incremental design, and rational design.

  • Crisis design: The crisis approach to program and policy design refers to the effort of public administrators to design programs and policies that promote organizational survival during turbulent times. Organizational crises include increasing social demands, budget deficits, tax cuts, confusing policy directions, declining productivity, client anger, and depressed economy. Public administrators, engaging in crisis design, tend to emphasize rules, regulations, and standard operating procedure.
  • Incremental design: The incremental approach to program and policy design refers to efforts by public administrators to design programs and policies that accommodate the economic, social, and political environment that actually exists rather than an idealized view of society. Incremental design refers to administration as art. Incremental design uses the tools and skills of negotiation, bargaining, trade-offs, and cooperation to achieve its program and policy goals and objectives. Public administrators engaged in the work of incremental design use knowledge, skill, creativity, and craft to design their policies and programs. Incremental designers acknowledge that and accommodate the diversity of values, special interests, and power fields that usually surround policy issues.
  • Rational design: The rational approach to program and policy design refers to the effort of public administrators to use professional knowledge to design knowledge-based procedures that achieve prescribed goals. Rational design refers to administration as science. Rational design is used to promote administrative efficiency within organizations and society. Rational design is built upon the notions that public administrators can control the organizational environment and that behavior is predictable. Rational program and policy design is design for ideal systems and does not account for variation and unpredictability in political, economic, and social spheres. Examples of rational or scientific design include systems analysis and cost benefit analyses.
  • Social design: The social design approach to program and policy design refers to the efforts of public administrators to use phenomenological and social considerations to solve public problems. The phenomenological perspective incorporates the shared experiences of multiple stakeholders. Social design incorporates an appreciation for competing policy agendas of actors and a practice approach to public problem solving and values citizen participation. Expert knowledge is appreciated but not necessarily valued or prioritized about the experiential knowledge of other design participants. Social design incorporates the tools of incremental design, such as negotiation, bargaining, and trade-offs, with the scope and clarity of rational design. Social design, more so than the other three design approaches, includes multiple design participants. Social design, developed through interaction between public administrators, experts, politicians, social groups, clients, and citizens, often produces multiple program and policy scenarios and options from which to choose. In the social design process, program and policy objectives and goals are developed from stakeholder interaction, dialogue, and mutual learning. The goal of social design is not consensus so much as the understanding of different positions and developing shared responsibility. Social design is a form of collective public problem solving.

These four approaches vary in their consideration for the values of relevant actors and their orientation toward problem solving and change (Jun, 1990).


The Program

Public programs and policies, of all kinds, are designed to solve particular public problems. Public problems such as poverty, child abuse, smoking, crime, aging, and terrorism, are characterized as undesirable conditions that impinge on a society. All undesirable conditions within society do not become classified as public problems. Citizens and their elected officials establish their public problem agendas based on their levels of tolerance for specific adverse conditions. Theoreticians use decision or choice theory, which studies how real or ideal decision-makers make decisions and how optimal decisions can be reached, to explain how public problems are solved in ideal circumstances. In reality, historical, social, and economic variables make many public problems difficult to solve if not intractable. Problem definition involves three main steps (Weimer, 1993):

  • Exploring the characteristics, prevalence, and logical causes of the situation seen as inimical to society.
  • Setting the situation up as a policy problem conceivably open to public intervention.
  • Outlining pertinent goals for assessing candidate policy suggestions.

The U.S. government addresses and solves public problems through multiple means and strategies. In government, public administrators and politicians are responsible for solving many types of public problems. A common, generally applied problem-solving or decision-making model includes the following steps:

  • Determine whether a problem exists.
  • State decisional objectives, alleviations, or solutions.
  • Identify the decision apparatus and possible action options.
  • Specify alternatives.
  • State recommendations.
  • Ascertain ways to implement recommendations....

(The entire section is 4114 words.)