Before a policy choice can be made, the existence of a problem must be acknowledged, it must be accepted as a legitimate concern of government, and it must be placed on the public agenda. The definition of the agenda is affected by prevailing economic, social, and ideological values; by the nature and extent of government authority; and by changing levels of public and political interest. Some issues are almost perpetually on the agenda, some never make it to the agenda at all, some appear for a brief period of time then disappear, and yet others come and go.

One key difference between agenda setting at the national and European levels lies in the relative roles of public accountability. Elected leaders at the national level often push issues onto the policy agenda in response to public opinion, ostensibly because they want to represent the public will but also because they want to be reelected. In that sense, agenda setting is voter driven. In the EU, however, most authority for agenda setting rests with the European Council and the Commission, neither which is elected or directly accountable to an EU-wide constituency and thus is less subject to national voter influence. But mixed public opinion about European integration has combined with negative votes on key European initiatives (the Danish rejection of Maastricht in 1992, the Irish rejection of Nice in 2001, the Dutch and French rejection of the constitutional treaty in 2005) to encourage both bodies to pay more attention to public opinion.

Formulation Once a problem or a need has been recognized, a response must be formulated. This will typically involve the development of a plan or program, which may include agreeing on new laws and new spending, issuing instructions to bureaucrats, making a series of public statements designed to draw attention to a problem, or encouraging changes in patterns of behavior. On the other hand, policy makers might decide to ignore a problem or to deliberately take no action, perhaps because it is too complex, or because there is doubt about its causes and about the best response, or simply because it is politically expedient to push it aside. A deliberate lack of action is just as much a part of public policy as a decision to act.

In an ideal world, some kind of methodical and rational policy analysis should be conducted in which the causes and dimensions of a problem are studied and all possible options and their relative costs and benefits considered before taking action. But this rarely happens; policy is often driven by incrementalism, intuition, opportunism, or responses to emergencies or changes in public opinion. One famous study by the American scholar Charles Lindblom argues that policy making is often simply a matter of “muddling through”. Several obstacles interfere with the orderly formulation of policy.


  • People disagree over problems, their causes, and their urgency. What may seem logical, moral, or reasonable to one person may seem illogical, immoral, or unreasonable to another. …
  • Policy makers may not always have enough information to give them a clear understanding of a problem or its causes, an even when they do, they may not always agree on its interpretation. What, for example, causes poverty? Are people poor because they lack the will or ambition to improve their lives, because of their social environment, because they are lazy, or because political and economic barriers make it impossible for them to improve their lives? …
  • Responses to problems are affected by personal, social, and ideological biases. A conservative Czech prime minister will see policy issues in a different light than his or her Spanish socialist or Swedish social democrat counterpart, because of different ideological values, different worldviews, and the often different needs of their constituencies.
  • It is frequently difficult or impossible to be sure about the outcomes of a policy or how that policy will work in practise. Even with the best intentions and the finest research and planning, policies can have unintended or unanticipated consequences.
  • The distribution of power in any system of government is often ambiguous, partly because constitutions are subject to different interpretations and partly because the process of government is determined by implied powers, by the values and personalities of officeholders, and by the varied ways in which officeholders use the powers of the same office. For example, the role of the European Commission in the policy process has depended less on its president’s terms of reference than on the president’s personality.

from John McCormick’s book “The European Union: Politics and Policies“.

See also some old posts about policy making.

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