Deep Policy Reform vs. Normal Policy Making

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

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Concept description

In their 2015 Policy and Society (reference below, link on right), Pal and Clark contrast the characteristics of “deep policy reform” with those of “normal policy making.” They compare 10 characteristics, grouped into three sub-categories: (1) the nature of the policy problem, (2) the policy response, and (3) policy skills or capacity. The differences are set out in the table below.

Pal and Clark argue that deep policy reforms require more advanced analytical skills and more sophisticated political skills than do normal policy making. Deep policy reform requires analysis of matters such as how best to compensate losers for their material losses, the extent to which the losses can be spread over time, and the extent of grandparenting current beneficiaries of the status quo. Making deep policy reforms stick requires political strategies such as developing a mandate for change (typically through elections or some form decisive public consultation like a referendum), coalition-building; and heresthetics (the ability to shape the terms of policy debate in order to build winning coalitions, such as taking advantage of a crisis).

Characteristics of policy change
  Normal Policy-making Deep Policy Reform
1 – Time Unhurried Immediate






Nature of Policy Problem

2 – Problem Dimension Small Large
3 – Problem Scale Sub-system Systemic
4 – Losses from Reform (costs) Small

Spread widely

Large, concentrated


5 – Policy Design Settings (on the instrument dial) Instrument

Goal hierarchy




Policy Response

6 – Institutional Change Small, none Large
7 – Compensatory Strategies Low High
8 – Stickiness High Low
9 – Analytical Skills Basic Advanced Skills and Capacities
10 – Political Skills Basic Sophisticated
Nature of Policy Problem

1 – Time: Normal policy-making takes place over a measured cadence of time. Whatever that cadence might be, it certainly is unhurried, leaving time for analysis, reflection, discussion, consultation, compromise, and careful implementation. Policy reform operates with a qualitatively different cadence. It feels hurried, pressured, even if it is not rapid. There is a sense that “something must be done,” either because of the problem’s immediacy (e.g., refugee claimants appearing offshore), impending catastrophe (“unless something is done…”), or its depth/extent. Interestingly, these can coincide. Climate change, for example, combines a sense of immediate manifestation (extreme weather phenomena), impending menace (much worse to come), and depth/extent (affecting the entire planet).

2 – Problem Dimension: Normal is about small. Reform is about big. Again, these categories are perceptual and not easily defined a priori. And it is true that sometimes what seems “small” can be a tipping point and lead to big changes. But what we have in mind here is a sense that change is far-reaching or multi-dimensional.

3 – Problem Scale: Scale refers to the extent of the policy field being addressed, and links to the point below about design. Reforming the welfare state, or the pension system, or health care, is qualitatively different from raising pension contributions or re-jigging the professional qualifications of health care providers. Obamacare is a good example of policy reform on a massive scale.

4 – Losses from Reform: The political dimension of policy reform manifests itself in resistance, and that resistance is often sparked by loss. As we mentioned above, the type of policy reform we are discussing here is the painful variety, the type that imposes losses as opposed to providing benefits. Giving people a large tax break or providing an apparently costless new benefit or serve is not difficult. Doing the opposite is. But costs and losses come in different forms. Briefly, small losses that are spread out over a large group usually go unnoticed and are easier to implement. Material losses that are large and visible, as well as concentrated, ceteris paribus, are more difficult to impose. Symbolic losses are an important category as well. These are losses that affect group identities or core values.

Policy Response

5 – Policy Design: Policy reform on a broad, systemic scale requires interventions or responses that are themselves broad and systemic – beyond what Hall termed “settings.”

6 – Institutional Change: This is consistent with the problem dimension, scale, and response. Deep policy reform usually involves some major institutional change, and by “institution” we mean enduring, authoritative patterns of rules that govern important subsets of societal behaviour.

7 – Compensatory Strategies: In one respect this is a subset of point 4 above and point 10 below on losses and political skills, but deserves separate mention. Losers get angry, and can often block reform or water it down beyond recognition. Absent simple repression, policy reformers have to consider compensatory strategies to “buy off” or fool the losers in the reform process.

8 – Stickiness: Ultimately, policy reforms that are soon reversed are policy failures in their own terms. Hence, a key objective in deep policy reform is to make it stick, at least over a reasonable period.

Skills and Capacities

9 – Analytical Skills: Policy analytic skills are usually defined in terms of problem definition, design, implementation and evaluation. Even small changes, like raising the minimum wage by a few cents, can pose analytical challenges in terms of their ultimate effects on labour markets and economic growth. But something on the scale of Obamacare or the introduction of a new contributory pension scheme demand much more complex analyses and modeling to gauge their ultimate effects. These are typically the province of policy advisors and analysts in government.

10 – Political Skills: Normal policy-making does not require a Machiavelli or a Roosevelt. Neither does the brute imposition of reform. Dictators do not need to be diplomats. However, in political systems with any modicum of feedback that might threaten the position of reformers, there is indeed a demand for political skills of a higher order, both to sell the reforms and to make them stick.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Promoting Innovation and Driving Change (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107


Leslie Pal and Ian Clark (2015), Making reform stick: Political acumen as an element of political capacity for policy change and innovation, Policy and Society, Volume 34, Issues 3-4, September – December 2015, pp 247-257.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 22 November 2019.