Policy formation is a crucial part of a government’s regulatory activity. Well-implemented public policy can create opportunities for individuals, promote cultural growth, and even save lives by regulating certain industries. Policymaking is an involved and complicated process that has many variables from nation to nation. This essay will discuss some of the differences between specific systems regarding policymaking and discuss factors that influence it.
Parliamentary System vs. Presidential System
The determinates of policy formulation are the actors, the venues, and the processes of policymaking. Naturally, they differ from system to system, as different power structures create different actors and modes for their communication. The main distinctions between the parliamentary system and the presidential system in this regard are the distribution of so-called veto players with the authority to create or reject legislation, the visibility of conflict, and the accountability of stakeholders.
According to Eaton (2000), in presidential systems, there is a more significant amount of veto players, and there is a higher chance of different branches of government under different political parties to have “irreconcilable policy disagreements […that] cannot be institutionally resolved” (p. 359). They make it difficult to pass legislation, and what does get passed is difficult to reverse later. The parliamentary system is formed by the majority, which makes for a smaller amount of veto players, usually making legislation easier, but the multi-party parliament can have just as many veto players as the presidential system.
Another key difference is the visibility of policy to voters, which is higher in presidential systems with conflicting parties and branches. They publicize their conflicts to a higher degree, using transparency against opponents, which has led to fewer backroom deals and less corruption. The single-party parliamentary systems, however, have a higher propensity to make decisions behind closed doors, which may lead to corruption and policy bargains that may unravel if exposed (Eaton, 2000). The inverse is true for accountability: in the presidential system, there are so many competing stakeholders that it becomes difficult for the public to cast blame. In parliamentary systems, however, the power is more centralized, so it is easier to find the guilty party if policy backfires.
Problem-Definition and Agenda-Setting
The problem-definition and agenda-setting are key stages in policy formation. Problem definition is the first step in creating policy, as it outlines the problem, explains the ramifications of it, and explains how the government is responsible for solving it. According to Knill and Tosun (2012), to pass this stage, a problem needs to be solvable, or, at least, partly addressable by potential policy changes. It is better if the problem implies some conflict, as it is easier then to involve the public.
The second step is agenda-setting, and not every problem arrives at that stage. Some policy gets on the agenda by being beneficial to the party or select politicians, but often obscure to the public. Another way is through the pressure put on the policymakers by citizens, interest groups, or mass media. A third path into the agenda is inside access: the key stakeholders negotiate with the legislators for the initiation of some policy that they would directly benefit from (Knill & Tosun, 2012). There are other paths, but these three are the primary ones for this essay.
The framing and definition of a problem are contingent on which path it takes to become policy. For example, the problem of gun control may be shaped like an epidemic of murders across the nation by the party seeking to restrict firearm access, and would most likely appeal to compassion and emphasize generalized firearm death statistics. The opposing party would frame the problem of gun control as a violation of constitutional rights to bear arms, dispute the firearm death statistics, and appeal to the desire for freedom and independence. There are countless examples of such issues, and the outcome often depends on which policymakers happen to be in office.
The bureaucrats are the appointed officials and public servants that are responsible for the implementation of the formulated policy. They may also be involved in policy creation, as they possess procedural knowledge, legal expertise, and a unique perspective. There are two systems by which bureaucrats are appointed: the spoils system and the meritocratic system. Knill and Tosun (2012) write: “[w]ith the ‘spoils’ system, individuals are appointed based on their political loyalty, which they are expected to demonstrate in all aspects of their work” (p. 60). This model is prevalent in more authoritarian regimes, where favor and loyalty overshadow justice and due process. In the meritocratic system, in contrast, “bureaucrats are appointed because of their expertise and experience” (Knill and Tosun, 2012, p. 60). This approach is now prevalent in developed democratic nations. In the spoils system, the officials have less autonomy, which leads to diminished technical capacities, while the meritocratic system favors high technical capacities and grants increased autonomy.
Policy formation is a vital part of any government activity, and it may follow a multitude of paths. For example, the presidential systems are more transparent, but also more impenetrable for legislation than parliamentary systems. The problem-definition and agenda-setting are crucial stages for policymaking, as they process an existing social problem into an item on the government’s agenda through various means. After the policy is created, it falls to the bureaucracy to uphold it, which can also follow multiple different paths depending on the system of governance. The possibilities at each step of the way make public policy analysis an infinitely complex and infinitely fascinating topic.
- Eaton, K. (2000). Parliamentarism versus presidentialism in the policy arena. Comparative Politics, 32(3), 355-376. doi:10.2307/422371
- Knill, C, & Tosun J. (2012). Public policy. London: Macmillan Education UK.