What makes a policy work and how can think tanks support this?

12 October 2021

This is an important question given that policymaking is a critical activity of governments and impacts the lives of all people across the globe. Think tanks play an important role in supporting policymaking processes to be informed by the best available scientific evidence.

What is policy?

Typically, policy is a measured set of guidelines to benchmark decisions and help achieve outcomes in a coherent and reasonable manner. A policy is a statement of intent, and is implemented as a procedure or protocol.

Ideally, policies provide guidance/a roadmap to solve a problem, bring in a systematic approach to activities and proposed plans, ensure accountability, and make systems more efficient by bringing in clarity and robustness. They are decision-making frameworks designed to achieve a desired effect or change.

One should not be in doubt that policies are different from procedures and processes. Ideally, policies are broad guidelines with a set direction. They are guided by principles to achieve stated and intended outcomes.

There are four main types of policy: distributive, redistributive, regulatory and constituent.

Distributive policies: target a specific segment of society or community. They aim at improving uniformity of goods, services opportunities. The areas of education, public welfare, safety and utilities align with this type of policy.

Redistributive policies: refers to the redistribution of resources. Policies should not be static; they need to be regularly re-evaluated and rearranged to achieve the desired outcomes.

Regulatory policies: deal with the regulation of trade, business, safety measures and so on, and safeguarding constitutional rights.

Constituent policies: involve the establishment of government structures, or of rules or procedures for the conduct of government. Typically, these rules include distribution or division of power and jurisdiction within present and future government policy.

Policymaking cycle

The policymaking cycle typically involves the following stages:

  • Setting an agenda: identify challenges, encourage and invite solutions from government agencies, research organisations, and think tanks.
  • Formulate policies: develop policy options based on the possible choices; invite and discuss inputs.
  • Decision-making: identify the course of action.
  • Implement policies: put into effect the chosen public policy, ensure that the changes implemented help the community and affected parties.
  • Evaluating:  monitor the impact of the policy and determine whether it is achieving the intended goal.

Although it should be noted that in practice, policymaking cycles are not always linear and not always informed by the best available evidence.

How think tanks in India can support policymaking

In India the central government develops and implements policies nationwide. Think tanks contribute to the policymaking process using their evidence-based research experiences and providing actionable recommendations. They engage with policymakers to advocate solutions by producing policy briefs and opinion pieces (both print and online).

Recommendations become useful if they are presented in such a way that a government can understand and take action immediately. Broadly, they should include findings and recommendations that are:

  • Focused – make it relevant for policymakers; of possible involve key stakeholders in formulating the recommendations to increase the relevance and increase chances of uptake.
  • Actionable and specific – avoid sweeping statement like ‘Poverty should be addressed’ and instead present granular recommendations.
  • Be clear who the recommendations are targeting – for example, does it address only one department or several?
  • Rigorous – comprehensive and not biased, using data to evidence the theory/findings and recommendations.
  • Clear – communicate complexities in a simple manner, showcase limitations and challenges, and be accessible and easy to understand.