There are so many institutions and authorities, at home and abroad, these days engaging with policy making as a public discourse that it may appear as superfluous, even presumptuous to offer any introduction on the subject. On the face of it, there is nothing or very little complex or confusing about this. In recent years a substantial literature and empirical exercises have grown making it a commonplace subject. But it is also true that in most cases both the literature and the empirical studies tend to assume the subject-matter. A kind of one-size-fits-all mentality and attitude pervades all such exercises ignoring the reality that analysis on policy making, particularly in the public domain, while sharing some commonality, differ from subject to subject. As a generic term policy making shares some common characteristics irrespective of the content. But in some other respects it also differs with regard to prescriptions made or critiques to already existing policies. Without a clear knowledge and perception about the context of each policy, analysis or criticism of the same may suffer a disconnect with reality.
The first thing to remember about policy making is that it is not an independent variable and does not exist in isolation as a stand-alone analytical exercise without reference to context. The context of a policy is embodied in a hierarchy of steps of activities already undertaken or waiting to be formulated. At the top is the statement of goal in a particular case e.g. attaining self-sufficiency in foodgrains production. At the tier below appears objective(s), the quantification of the goal e.g. so many metric tonnes of rice or wheat. It is followed by a plan/programme/project delineating the strategy in details e.g. a 5-year plan or programme for attaining food self-sufficiency by producing the required quantity of foodgrains. The plan or programme has a time frame for different components comprising it to be relevant to the objectives. The components with time frame are the cutting-edge of the plan and are shown in disaggregated form because of their different nature and requirements for fulfilment.
Policy making starts with planning but in effect comes at the next stage for operational purposes i.e. before implementation of the programme or project. Issues like providing subsidies to inputs, fixing minimum price for output to give incentive to producers, making procurement and marketing arrangements in tandem with the private sector operations in the market, institutional arrangements for supply of inputs, choice of technology to be used, repair and maintenance facilities for equipment representing new technology (state-of-the art or intermediate), training of field staff and other stakeholders, linkages and co-ordination with relevant departments or agencies. After policy decisions on these components of the plan or programme have been taken implementation starts. The quality or success of the implementation of plan/programme/projects depend to a great extent on whether correct (meaning realistic and relevant) policy decisions have been made.
Policy making in the hypothetical case mentioned above may also include monitoring or evaluation or these can be left to field-level practitioners. But there has to be regular feedback on the basis of monitoring from below to policy-makers to judge whether modifications of some decisions are required.
Once the policy decisions are made on the basis of objectives and plan/programme/projects, resource allocations become crucial. Before decisions on allocations take place, cost estimates and alternative way of financing have to be finalised. Revision of cost estimates may be necessary if there is cost and time over-run. Identifying sources of funding is also part of policy making as they determine the overall cost of the plan or programme. Should it be from internal sources or from aid or loan for suppliers credit, are questions that have to be addressed by policy makers. Each of these alternative methods of financing has opportunity cost. Balancing the cost and benefit and arriving at the optimum choice is a task that may be daunting to the policy makers if there are competing claims on resources, domestic and external. Involved in this part of policy making is the issue of resource mobilisation through taxes where political as much as economic considerations take part.
Evaluation is built-in in the plan/programme/project and its report help policy makers to find out if correct decisions were made and targets have been fulfilled. If the shortfall is major, another attempt may have to be made to realise the overall goal and the specific objectives. Based on experience, policy making in such a case becomes relatively simpler, if not easier.
It is apparent from above that analysis of policy making cannot take place in isolation, ignoring its place in the hierarchy of decisions. The hierarchy will not be the same in all cases of socio-economic development undertaken by the government. But with variation a hierarchy will prevail where policy making takes its crucial place at the appropriate stage. When analysis is made of public policy making by outsiders i.e. other than those directly involved in the process, the hierarchical context has to be kept in view. Critiquing a budget or a monetary policy without looking at their goals and objectives will be myopic and of academic significance only.
To be useful involvement of outsiders in policy making should start from the third stage of the hierarchy mentioned above i.e. from planning and programming. If the planning or programming is not realistic, the participation of outsiders with policy making at the next stage will be handicapped. While goal and target-setting (objectives) is a matter of political decisions, input from experts (within and outside of government) to fix the objectives (target-setting) can be helpful. Often this part is taken care of by technocrat/bureaucrats working in the government.
Planning has been shown above policy making stage in the hierarchy. In fact it is the mother of all policy making, particularly in a planned economy. Even in a mixed economy where government retains its stake or role in strategic areas of development planning underpins the programme making policy decisions crucial. Where ever government interventions are of multi-sectoral in nature policy making becomes essential. Input from stake-holders and external experts can provide a useful backdrop of policy making even in such limited cases of planning. Planning and programming can then be made not only participatory but their prospects of successful implementation improves because of inclusive policy making.
So, what is implied when it is said that policy dialogue should be held or policy research is warranted before and during policy making? It is not obvious from current practice that the hierarchical context is kept in view in either case. This introduction has been written in very general terms because of the presumption that instead of a broader perspective, activities under policy dialogue and policy research may continue to take place using the present tunnel vision. As a result, painstaking and sincere efforts will continue to fall flat on policy makers within the inner sanctum of the government. Participatory policy making not only requires a clear understanding of the hierarchy in policy but also a united role of the public and private sector protagonists rather than a binary one. Needless to say, the initiative for this has to come from the government to replace the often confrontational relationship. Based on this a consensus on the modus operandi can be worked out mutually.