The Role of Ideas in Policymaking

… a core concept in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below) discusses the role of ideas in in policy design and implementation.

Pal (p. 355-356) writes:

“The stream of work in the policy sciences that emphasizes the role of ideas … does not claim that there are no such things as “facts” or “reality” (see post-positivism below), [but] it does assume that our appreciation of facts and reality is heavily filtered and mediated by ideas. These ideas are not merely individual biases, but collective ideational frameworks that help policy analysts, decisionmakers, and other actors make sense of the world. Depending on how deep these ideas are buried, and how fundamental they are for our interpretation of the world, they may not even be noticed – they are simply taken as “given.” Since they are taken as given only by subsets of the population, however, and opposing ideas might animate others, inevitably the policy process becomes one of a clash of these ideas or frameworks, and so they do not remain unarticulated or unconscious for long. A good example is the model of the family that underpinned both labour and social policies a generation ago. That model was premised on a single (male) breadwinner, with a stay-at-home spouse (female), and 2.5 children. It assumed that the breadwinner would have a single career or occupation throughout his life and that the marriage (a formal marriage) would be generally stable. Even as the reality began to change as women entered the permanent labour force in the 1970s, as family patterns changed, as labour markets evolved, the traditional model continued to inform public policy.”

Pal states that the two best examples of this approach are advocacy coalitions [see Advocacy Coalitions] and policy paradigms.

Policy paradigms

Pal describes the policy paradigms approach, first proposed in a seminal article by Peter Hall (1993), where Hall defined a policy paradigm as:

“a framework of ideas and standards that specifies not only the goals of policy and the kind of instruments that can be used to attain them, but also the very nature of the problems they are meant to be addressing…. this framework is embedded in the very terminology through which policymakers communicate about their work, and it is influential precisely because so much of it is taken for granted and unamenable to scrutiny as a whole” (Hall, 1993, p. 279).

Pal writes (pages 356-357):

“Challenging the notion that governments are motivated only by power and interests, Hall argued for a social learning model in which governments face puzzles, uncertainties, and anomalies and strive to find solutions through the development of consistent ideational frameworks. Somewhat like Sabatier, Hall also discerned three kinds of changes in policy (his case study was British macroeconomic policy between 1970 and 1989). The first order of change was the levels or settings of basic macroeconomic policy instruments such as minimum lending rates – they could be increased or decreased, but the instrument remained the same. These happened frequently, even as the broader goals and objectives of policy remained the same. Second-order change occurred less frequently and involved the choice of new basic techniques or instruments, based on dissatisfaction with previous experience. Hall’s example was the introduction of a new monetary control system in 1971. Finally, third-order change involves “simultaneous changes in all three components of policy: the instrument settings, the instruments themselves, and the hierarchy of goals behind policy” (Hall, 1993, p. 279). This kind of change qualified as a “paradigm shift,” in this case, from Keynesian to monetarist macroeconomic policy. … Hall was at pains to emphasize that the paradigm shift from Keynesianism to monetarism was, in large part, a function of a wider political debate during the 1979 British election as well as policy arguments led by influential journalists.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Ideas and the Policy Process (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

Hall, P. A. (1993). Policy paradigms, social learning, and the state: The case of economic policymaking in Britain. Comparative Politics 25(3): 275–296.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 3 September 2018.

Image: Ari, Voices for Reason, at, accessed 8 April 2017.