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This article is a first attempt to systematically examine policy design and its influence on policy effectiveness in a comparative perspective. We begin by providing a novel concept and measure of policy design. Our Average Instrument Diversity (AID) index captures whether governments tend to reuse the same policy instruments and instrument combinations or produce policy solutions that are carefully tailored to the policy problem at hand. Second, we demonstrate that our AID index is a valid and reliable measure of policy design quality with a strong explanatory power for the outcome variables tested. Analyzing the composition of environmental policy portfolios in 21 OECD countries, we show that higher levels of AID are positively associated with a country’s policy effectiveness in environmental matters. Based on this finding, we analyze, in a third step, the factors that lead countries to adopt more or less diverse policy portfolios. We find that the policy design quality is significantly improved when policy makers are not bound by high institutional constraints and, more importantly, are backed by well-equipped bureaucracies.
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Studying Policy Design Quality in Comparative Perspective
This article is a first attempt to systematically examine policy design and its influence on policy
effectiveness in a comparative perspective. We begin by providing a novel concept and measure of
policy design. Our Average Instrument Diversity (AID) index captures whether governments tend
to reuse the same policy instruments and instrument combinations or produce policy solutions that are
carefully tailored to the policy problem at hand. Second, we demonstrate that our AID index is a valid and
reliable measure of policy design quality with a strong explanatory power for the outcome variables tested.
Analyzing the composition of environmental policy portfolios in 21 OECD countries, we show that higher
levels of AID are positively associated with a countrys policy effectiveness in environmental matters.
Based on this finding, we analyze, in a third step, the factors that lead countries to adopt more or less
diverse policy portfolios. We find that the policy design quality is significantly improved when policy
makers are not bound by high institutional constraints and, more importantly, are backed by well-
equipped bureaucracies.
Governments need to solve multiple issues at
the same time, even when it comes to individ-
ual policy areas such as environmental or
climate policy. Here, governments not only need to
deal with air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions
from both stationary and nonstationary sources; they
also need to curb water pollution, provide protection to
endangered plants and animals, and attend to other
relevant environmental concerns. To address these
diverse targets, governments must develop new policies
that specify concrete instruments for the different
issues at stake. What sounds obvious in theory, how-
ever, is difficult in practice, as the choice of suitable
instruments is far from self-evident. For instance,
whether command-and-control measures, economic
incentives, mere information provision, or a combin-
ation of these instruments will work more effectively in
a certain context is often subject to intense political and
academic debate. The fact that governments face many
such decisions only reinforces the underlying chal-
lenges of designing effective public policies.
In political science, the study of policy design seeks to
identify what makes public policies more or less effect-
ive and then, on the basis of these findings, to inform
and improve policy-making efforts and outcomes.
Crucial here are studies that focus on different types
of policy instruments, their advantages and disadvan-
tages, as well as on the processes involved in their
selection and implementation (Peters 2018). Through
these efforts, scholars have identified several abstract
principles characterizing well-designed policiesin
particular, the consistency, coherence, and congruence
of policy targets and instruments (Howlett and Rayner
Yet, despite these insights, the study of policy design
has remained largely focused on the analysis of only a
few or even single cases. Which instruments or instru-
ment combinations work more or less effectively in
practice is typically analyzed against the background
of issue-specific conditions, including peculiarities of
the policy problem, as well as the broader governance
context, which vary across countries and sectors. As a
result, we lack general principles in order to capture
policy design quality beyond merely case- or issue-based
assessments. It thus comes as no surprise that compara-
tive empirical studies that examine policy design quality
across a wide range of different temporal and spatial
contexts do not exist (Tosun and Treib 2018). Conse-
quently, we know little about whether governments
apply different basic principles when designing public
policies and to what extent such general design features
ultimately affect policy performance. Do some govern-
ments generally produce more effective policies than
other governments and, if so, why is this the case? Do
some political and institutional arrangements have a
stronger influence on policy design than others?
In this article, we explore these questions through the
following three steps. First, we propose a novel concept
and measure of policy design. Our Average Instrument
Diversity (AID) index captures whether governments
tend to reuse the same policy instruments and instru-
ment combinations or produce policies that are tailored
to the problem at hand. Second, we examine to what
Xavier Fernández-i-Marín , Senior Researcher, Geschwister
Scholl Institute of Political Science, LMU Munich, xavier.fernandez-
Christoph Knill , Full Professor, Geschwister Scholl Institute of
Political Science, LMU Munich,
Yves Steinebach , Assistant Professor, Geschwister Scholl Institute
of Political Science, LMU Munich, yves.steinebach@gsi.uni-
Received: July 31, 2020; revised: February 09, 2021; accepted:
March 11, 2021.
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extent the design of public policies matters for policy
performance. In this way, we demonstrate that AID is
not only a descriptive measure of policy design but also
a measure that enables prescriptive statements about
the extent to which the policies in a given sector are
effective in achieving their objectives. This way, AID
captures a central component of the quality of sectoral
policy design. Third, we develop and test several the-
oretical expectations that account for variation in AID.
We use the context of environmental policy to demon-
strate our argument. Our analysis builds on a large
dataset that covers the environmental policy portfolios
of 21 OECD countries over 30 years (19762005).
Our empirical analysis shows that (1) countries
systematically differ in policy design approaches in
terms of AID and that (2) higher levels of AID are
positively associated with countriesenvironmental
performanceeven when controlling for other pos-
sible influences on the policy impact dimension. This
essentially implies that the proposed AID index is a
valid and reliable proxy for the policy design quality in
a given sector, with a strong explanatory power for
cross-country variation in policy performance. More-
over, our examination of the determinants of AID
reveals that (3) policy makers facing fewer institutional
constraints tend to develop more diverse policy
responses to the different environmental problems they
must address. Fewer institutional restrictions seem to
allow more opportunities to depart from previous pol-
icy decisions and to apply new approaches and regula-
tory ideas, as opposed to constantly relying on more or
less standardized policy packages. In addition, we find
that (4) countries with higher administrative capacity
are better at coming up with such customized solutions
for the policy problems in question.
Taken together, the findings of our study contribute
to the literature on policy design in two ways: first, we
provide a novel measure of policy design that allows for
cross-country and cross-sectoral comparisons as well as
for statements about the design quality of the sectoral
policy portfolios under scrutiny; second, we provide a
dynamic analysis of the factors that explain the vari-
ation in policy design in different settings, in terms of
both administrations (countries) and time (years).
The remainder of the article is structured as follows:
We begin with a short overview of the policy design
literature and discuss the shortcomings of this research
strand. Second, we introduce our concept and meas-
urement of AID as a central policy design principle.
Third, we examine the link between AID and policy
performance. We show that the proposed assessment of
policy design is not merely a numbers game,but can
be systematically linked to varying levels of govern-
mental performancein other words, AID is a factor
that affects the design quality of public policies in terms
of goal attainment. This leads us to the question of
which factors account for variation in policy design
quality across different institutional and political set-
ups. To answer this question, we provide an empirical
test of several theoretical arguments derived from the
policy change literature. The final section concludes
and suggests avenues for further investigation.
The study of policy design has long been an important
strand of public policy research. Studies in this tradition
are motivated by the goal not only to better understand
why policies lookthe way they do but also to analyze
the influence of different design features on the proper
functioning of a policy and the achievement of policy
objectives (see, e.g., Boushey 2016; Lascoumes and Le
Galès 2007; Lieberman, Ingram, and Schneider 1995;
Linder and Peters 1984; Montpetit, Rothmayr, and
Varone 2005; Schneider and Ingram 1993).
The findings from different policy sectors allude to
different factors shaping what constitutes a good and
effective policy design. First, existing works on policy
mixes have highlighted design principles such as the
consistency, coherence, and congruence of policies and
policy mixes (Foxon and Pearson 2007; Rogge and
Reichardt 2016). Although the respective terms are
often defined quite ambiguously, they essentially imply
that the governmentsmultiple policy targets and
instruments should be logically connected and mutually
reinforce, rather than work against, one another
(Gunningham and Sinclair 1999). Second, besides the
principles related to the interactions between different
instruments and targets, policy design should match
with the dominant modes of governance in a country
or sector (Howlett 1991). Both administrators and
target groups become accustomed to a given policy or
administrative styleover time, so any deviation from
the usual mode of state intervention can have unex-
pected consequences (Bianculli, Fernández-i-Marín,
and Jordana 2012; Richardson 2013).
Despite the progress made so far, however, this
strand of research comes with several shortcomings.
First, it appears to be generally easier to identify fail-
ures rather than successes in policy designthat is,
constellations in which policy makers have violated
one or more of the above-mentioned policy design
principles. In short, the literature offers an analytical
toolboxto identify the extent to which policy makers
deviate from the rationalistic ideal of developing con-
sistent, coherent, and congruent policies. We still lack,
however, a more neutral understanding and conceptu-
alization of the design of public policy and its quality
that allows us to systematically assess, compare, and
rank different policy alternatives and mixes.
A second, related problem refers to the fact that the
abstract design principles identified with effective pol-
icy were never converted into rigorous and testable
criteria. As a result, empirical studies on policy design
often focus on rather narrow topics and are only rarely
pursued in a comparative perspective (for some valu-
able exceptions, see Schaffrin, Sewerin, and Seubert
2015; Schmidt and Sewerin 2019). These mostly quali-
tative studies typically offer a rich description of the
design of governing rules and how their peculiarities
matterfor better or worsefor the policy problem at
hand (Lieu et al. 2018; Rogge and Reichardt 2016). Yet,
it is difficult to draw generalizable conclusions or even
causal explanations from these mostly idiosyncratic
Xavier Fernández-i-Marín, Christoph Knill, and Yves Steinebach
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Third, existing studies on policy design suffer from
the problem that any assessment of policy instruments
or instrument combinations strongly depends on the
specific context in which the policy is applied. All policy
instruments have their own strengths and weaknesses
(Strassheim 2019; Weaver 2014). Accordingly, there is
hardly any policy instrument that is generally better
than others. The same applies to instrument combin-
ations. While the literature has been able to identify
some tools that constitute inherently (in)compatible
instrument combinations, there are others where it is
not possible to state in the abstract whether the overall
outcome will be either positive or negative
(Gunningham and Grabosky 1998; Gunningham and
Sinclair 1999; Yi and Feiock 2012). Moreover, the
effectiveness of public policies is heavily determined
by the contextual conditions under which they operate
such as the exact characteristics of the target group, the
nature of the problem at hand, or the specificities of the
local circumstances. Steinebach (2019), for instance,
shows that traditional forms of environmental regula-
tion are only effective in reducing air pollutant emis-
sions when governments put them into practice through
well-equipped and well-designed implementation
structures. In consequence, even the most ambitious
instruments and instrument combinations might
remain largely ineffective if the chosen policy instru-
ments do not match with the administrative capacities
In sum, a major problem of the existing literature is a
lack of concepts and measurements for assessing policy
design differences that would allow a straightforward
analysis and conclusion concerning the superiority
(or not) of one policy design over another. As high-
lighted by Capano and Howlett (2020, 5), this eventu-
ally leads to a mismatch between empiricism and
conceptualization,an under-theorization of the
causes of the variations between sectors and countries,
and an undermin[ing of] efforts at effective policy
None of the concepts discussed in the literature is
sufficiently developed to identify and compare national
or sectoral principles of policy design, because these
approaches inherently assume that policy designs vary
from issue to issue and context to context, without any
clear cross-cutting pattern. To overcome these analyt-
ical limitations, we rely on a more abstract concept that
cuts across existing design principles and allows us to
identify key policy design patterns at the sectoral level.
This way, we are able to answer the question of whether
there are systematic differences in national or sectoral
approaches to policy design.
To capture these differences, we concentrate on the
degree of instrument customizationas a crucial
design principle. With instrument customization, we
identify the extent to which policy makers generally
strive to develop tailor-made instruments and instru-
ments combinations for each problem or rely instead on
a standard repertoire of one-size-fits-allinstruments.
Put simply, public policies can be principally designed
as bespokeor off-the-racksolutions. If govern-
ments typically adhere to the former approach, the
diversity of policy problems will be reflected in corres-
pondingly diverse policy portfolios, including a broad
variety of instruments and instrument combinations.
In the latter case, by contrast, diverse problems are
tackled using a consistently unchanging set of instru-
The degree of instrument customization therefore
describes the general ambitions of policy makers in
their search for effective policy solutions. As such, it
captures a principle of policy design that can be
expected to have strong implications for policy per-
formance. By concentrating on customization, we do
not seek to question the relevance of existing concepts.
But we do claim that our approach not only captures
performance-relevant design featuresas do existing
conceptsbut also provides a systematic and relatively
easily computable measure to assess and compare the
degree of instrument customization across different
countries and policy sectors. With this concept, we
can engage in the systematic empirical study of the
relationship between policy design and policy perform-
Average Instrument Diversity: A Measure of
Policy Design
How can we capture conceptually whether govern-
ments tend to produce tailor-made solutions or apply
a standard package of policy measures for all prob-
lems? First, we must recognize that governments need
to manage broad policy portfolios (Adam, Knill, and
Fernández-i-Marín 2017). These portfolios are com-
posed of two dimensions: policy targets and policy
instruments. Policy targets are all issues addressed by
the government. In the area of environmental policy,
for instance, these targets cover aspects such as air
emissions from industrial plants and transport, the
pollution of rivers and lakes, or the protection of
endangered species and habitats. The second dimen-
sion, in turn, involves all policy instruments that gov-
ernments have at their disposal to address the
respective policy targets. Environmental policy instru-
ments can range from hierarchical forms of governing,
such as obligatory policy standards and technological
prescriptions, to economic incentives through taxes,
subsidies, and other forms of market intervention.
Due to the widespread use of policy mixes, a given
policy target is typically addressed by multiple instru-
ments at the same time.
These instruments and instrument combinations can
be either more or less the same across all policy targets
or can vary from one policy target to the other. In the
former case, governments tend to pick off-the-rack
solutions. In the latter case, governments can be
assumed to generally opt for more tailor-madeinter-
ventions. We propose and apply the concept of
Studying Policy Design Quality in Comparative Perspective
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Average Instrument Diversity (AID) to assess the
extent to which policy makers tend toward either of
these options. Put another way, the AID index essen-
tially indicates the probability that two policy instru-
ments addressing various policy targets are of different
kindswith a higher index value indicating a more
diversely composed policy portfolio and a lower index
value indicating a more uniform one.
This can be best illustrated with an example calcula-
tion. Figure 1 presents two simplified (and thus fic-
tional) policy portfolios as well as the corresponding
diversity values as measured by the AID index. Both
exemplary portfolios are composed of three policy
targets and four instrument types applied to these
targets. Yet, while both policy portfolios are of the
same size(number of target-instrument combin-
ations), one of them contains a more diverse set of
instruments and instrument combinations.
In portfolio 1, Targets A and B are addressed by the
exact same instrument type (IT 1). Target C, in turn, is
addressed by two policy instruments. One of these
instruments is of the same type as those instruments
applied to Targets A and B (IT1), while the other one is
different (IT2). In portfolio 2, both Targets A and B are
addressed by different instrument types (IT1 and IT2).
Target C is again addressed by two policy instruments
(IT3 and IT4). Yet, and in contrast to the example
above, these two instruments are different from both
one another and all other instrument types used in the
policy portfolio.
To calculate the AID index value for the first policy
portfolio example, we start by picking the first target-
instrument combinationthat is, Target A and an
instrument of Type 1and calculate the probability
that a randomly picked instrument from Target B is
from a different instrument category. In the given
example, this probability is 0. We now replicate the
calculation for Target C. For Target C, the probability
is 0.5, as the respective target is addressed by two
instrumentsof which one is of the same instrument
type as the one applied to Target A. Thus, the average
probability of drawing the same instrument type from
either Target B or C for the given target-instrument
combination is 0.25. To get the final AID index value,
we need to perform this calculation for all other
remaining target-instrument combinations in the port-
folio (Target B-Instrument 1, Target C-Instrument
1, Target C-Instrument 2), sum up these values, and,
finally, divide them by the total number of target-
instrument combinations. For the presented portfolio,
this is (0.25 + 0.25 + 0 + 1) / 4, leading to a value of 0.375
for the upper policy portfolio. The portfolio presented
at the bottom of Figure 1, in turn, achieves the highest
possible value of 1, given that each policy target is
addressed by a (combination of) different instrument
type(s). The calculation is thus (1 + 1 + 1 + 1) / 4. All in
all, the formula underlying the AID index can be
formalized as follows:
Tare the targets covered by at least one policy
Iare the instruments addressing at least one policy
target, and
Care the entirety of target-instrument constellations.
Our concept has some similarities with the Gini
Simpson index as used in ecology studies (or the Her-
findahlHirschman index as used in economics). In
ecology, the index is used to measure the biodiversity
of an ecosystem (Hill 1973; Simpson 1949). A high
biodiversity means that a given region supports a wide
variety of different species that are close in number.
FIGURE 1. Examples of Different (Fictional) Policy Portfolios and their AID Index Values
Xavier Fernández-i-Marín, Christoph Knill, and Yves Steinebach
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Low biodiversity, in turn, implies that there are only
few dominant species that are able to survive in a given
surrounding. The original Simpson index λequals the
probability that two entities taken at random from a
given population of interest (with replacement) repre-
sent the same type. Its 1λtransformation (the Gini
Simpson index) thus equals the probability that the two
entities represent two different types.
The central difference between the AID and the
GiniSimpson index, however, is that in case of the
AID we do not draw from the same but from different
populations.Imagine, for instance, a policy portfolio
in which the government uses the same policy instru-
ment across all targets but adds different instruments to
each target to fine-tune its policy response. In this case,
the GiniSimpson index would indicate a rather
nondiverseor imbalancedpolicy portfolio as the
government predominantly relies on a certain instru-
ment type. Our concept, by contrast, acknowledges the
fact that, despite the dominance of a distinct instrument
type, all policy targets are addressed by different com-
binations of policy instruments.
In the online appendix (section 2), we model how the
AID and other diversity indices relate to each other,
using randomly created policy portfolios of varying
size, and also show their behavior in the dataset
employed in this paper. The illustration shows that
the measurements converge for large policy portfolios
but show pronounced differences for smaller portfolio
Putting Average Instrument Diversity into
Until now, we have discussed the concept of AID in
abstract terms only. But how can we put the measure of
AID into practice? In the following, we operationalize
AID for the case of environmental policy. Here, we rely
on a large dataset that covers the environmental policy
portfolios of 21 OECD countries over a period of
30 years (19762005). The sample includes a diverse
set of industrialized democracies that differ in terms of
their institutional environments, economic power, and
government ideology.
We chose to focus on environmental policies for two
reasons. First, although policy design has been studied
in a range of different fields such as education (Capano
2018), energy (Schmidt and Sewerin 2019), and marine
policy (Howlett and Rayner 2004), environmental pol-
icy has been most extensively covered in previous
research on policy design. Given that our concept is
already novel,we chose to apply and test it in an area
that is well researched. Within the broader context of
environmental policy, we concentrate on the three
subfields of clean air, water protection, and nature
conservation policywhich, taken together, cover
major parts of environmental policy and thus give an
encompassing overview of policy activity in this area.
For each subfield, we identified the most commonly
addressed policy targets and instruments applied.
We distinguish between 48 environmental policy
targets that can potentially be regulated and 12 policy
instrument types that can potentially be used to address
these targets. The targets cover pollutants such ozone,
carbon dioxide, or sulfur dioxide in the air; substances
like lead content in gasoline, sulfur content in diesel,
nitrates, and phosphates in continental surface water;
and environmental objects like native forests, endan-
gered plants, or endangered species. Moreover, the
targets identified account for the fact that the different
pollutants can be emitted from different sources such as
industrial plants, passenger cars, or heavy-duty
vehicles. The instrument types range from traditional
command-and-controlinstruments, such as obliga-
tory policy standards, bans, and technological prescrip-
tions, to so-called newenvironmental policy
instruments such as environmental taxes, subsidies,
liability schemes, and information-based measures. In
the online appendix (section 1) we provide a full list of
all policy targets and instruments identified.
The empirical data needed for measuring policy
portfolios and instrument diversity were collected in
the CONSENSUS project
(Knill, Schulze, and Tosun
2012). In the project, we coded information on envir-
onmental policies for a 30-year period from 1976 to
2005. Despite the fact that an even longer and more
recent dataset would (as always) be even better, the
available data in no way hampers or restricts the empir-
ical examination of our theoretical arguments. Within
the CONSENSUS project, information regarding pol-
icy targets and instruments was extracted from legisla-
tive output in the form of national legislation,
regulations, decrees, and ordinances, as well as admin-
istrative circulars. Country experts for the respective
fields were hired to help identify the relevant legal acts
and to assist in the preparation of the coding of these
documents. The coding was conducted by trained mem-
bers of the project to ensure high levels of validity and
reliability (see section 1 in the online appendix for a
more detailed explanation).
A challenge for the study was how to process our data
given that existing software for data management and
statistical analysis do not include a predefined function
to calculate the AID index value. We thus created our
own R package named PolicyPortfolios that
allows for the analysis of (national) policy portfolios
and their characteristics. The package facilitates the
management, analysis, and visualization of policy port-
folio data and is published with this article.
For illustrative purposes, Figure 2 presents the com-
position of the environmental policy portfolios of
France and the United States (US) based on our col-
lected data. For France, it is easy to recognize that an
increase in the size of the policy portfolio between the
years 1976 and 2005 has come with the use of more
diversified instrument mixes (AID increase from 0.464
to 0.855). In the US, by contrast, the AID index value
has remained almost constant over the investigation
period. This implies that the US policy portfolio has
grown in size while the policy solutions have actually
Studying Policy Design Quality in Comparative Perspective
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FIGURE 2. The Policy Portfolios of the United States and France in Comparison
AID: 0.464
France : Environmental : 1976
AID: 0.839
United States : Environmental : 1976
AID: 0.855
France : Environmental : 2005
Ta r
AID: 0.85
United States : Environmental : 2005
Xavier Fernández-i-Marín, Christoph Knill, and Yves Steinebach
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not become (much) more customized to the targets
addressed (AID increase from 0.839 to 0.85).
These example portfolios highlight two important
points. First, our AID index provides a measurement
that it is different from the mere portfolio size. Second,
there is considerable variation in how policy portfolios
are designed across countries and change over time.
Figure 3 ranks all countries under study with respect to
their AID value, presenting the minimum, maximum,
and median values. In essence, the box plots show that
countries strongly differ with respect to the AID values
of their environmental policy portfolios and their
development over time.
In the previous section, we introduced the concept of
AID and showed that the proposed measure allows us
to engage in both cross-sectional and cross-temporal
comparisons of the design of sectoral policy portfolios.
AID thus provides a novel descriptive measure that
overcomes some of the analytical limitations of existing
approaches in the literature. We further argue in this
section that the measure of AID also allows for pre-
dictive statements about the actual quality of a coun-
trys (sectoral) policy design in terms of policy
Our conception of policy design quality therefore
captures the extent to which governments engage in
systematic efforts to optimize policy instruments and
instrument mixes in order to achieve stated policy
objectives. We consider this aspect as a central compo-
nent that characterizes policy design quality. Yet, next
to policy effectiveness, there are a range of other
aspects for evaluating the quality of policy design or
the quality of policies more broadly, such as the effi-
ciency or the legitimacy of the policy measures taken
(McConnell 2010; Stone 2012). In the context of this
paper, we focus on the aspect of policy effectiveness for
several reasons: First, we deem policy effectiveness
to be more relevant than efficiency: solving societal
problems is more important than the secondary con-
sideration of how to do so in the fastest or the most
cost-efficient way. Second, while it is possible to make
general statements about the effectiveness of different
policy designs, this is far more difficult when it comes to
their legitimacy. As Peters (1986) highlights, legitim-
acy is largely psychologicaland depends on the
majoritys acceptance of the rightness of government
(63). The majority,however, is not a single or mono-
lithic actor so that any legitimacy achievement must be
assessed across a wide range of groups and interests
(Wallner 2008). Third, legitimacy can refer to a range of
different aspects, including not only input legitimacy
capturing societal participation and equality in policy
formulation but also output legitimacy. In contrast to
input legitimacy, output legitimacy describes to the
extent to which the underlying policy goals and instru-
ment are generally perceived as justified and fair. Yet,
such assessments do strongly vary across context, ren-
dering comparative assessments a highly difficult
From a theoretical perspective, the link between
AID and policy effectiveness seems straightforward:
The more diversifiedthe policy responses, the higher
the chance that the policy design takes account of the
nature of the underlying policy problems. This, in turn,
makes it more likely that the chosen instruments and
instrument mixes match with and, in consequence,
solve the policy problems in question (Capano and
Howlett 2019; Peters et al. 2018). Moreover, it is
expected that only a tailor-madesolution can fully
leverage the synergies of combining different policy
FIGURE 3. Descriptive Values (Box Plots) for AID in Each of the Countries under Study (19762005)
 
&'&& &'() &')& &'*) +'&&
Studying Policy Design Quality in Comparative Perspective
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instruments. In their work on regulatory pluralism,
Gunningham and Sinclair (1999) state that govern-
ments should not only use multiple policy instruments
simultaneously but also make sure that these policy
mixes are tailored [emphasis added] to specific policy
goals(49). In a similar vein, Howlett and Mukherjee
(2018) highlight that customizing [emphasis added]
policy responses to complex policy problems as a prin-
ciple indicates a desirable type of [policy] formulation
and therefore the ideal end of the design-non-design
spectrum(308). From these theoretical arguments, it
essentially follows that it is less important which exact
instruments and instrument combinations are
employed by the government, as long as those tools
are sufficiently diverse across the wide range of policy
problems that need to be solved. The respective
hypothesis therefore reads as follows:
Hypothesis 1 The greater the AID, the higher the effect-
iveness of a given policy portfolio.
To assess the level of policy effectiveness, we exam-
ine whether the AID index values calculated in the
previous section can be systematically linked to varying
levels of governmental performance in the area of
environmental policy. A policy design can be con-
sidered effectiveif the adopted measures have a
positive influence on the environment (Ringquist and
Kostadinova 2005).
There are several indicators to assess a countrys
environmental performance (Fiorino 2011). For this
study, we use two broad indicators proposed by Jahn
(2016). The first indicator captures the general envir-
onmental performance with respect to key environ-
mental pollutants such as SOx,NOx,CO , waste, etc.
The second indicator refers to each sites country-
specific environmental performance (CSEP). This
measure rests on the assumption that environmental
performance is dependent on context-specific circum-
stances. In other words, what is considered a serious
environmental issue in one country might be of less
importance in another one. To allow for contextualized
comparison, Jahn (2016) assessesacross a wide range
of different potential policy issues (air and water pol-
lution, waste, excessive fertilizer use, etc.)where
countries had particular problems throughout the early
1980s and how these problems have developed over
time. For each country, Jahn (2016) uses the three
pollutants with the worst national score (in the 1980
1982 period) to construct the CSEP index. The data on
both indicators is readily available and can be down-
loaded online.
To control for potential confounders, we include a
battery of covariates into the analysis. More precisely,
we control for the absolute levels of economic devel-
opment, short-term changes in a countrys economic
productivity, demographic changes, and the structure
of national economy. The majority of these variables
can be derived from the OECD, the International
Energy Agency, and the World Bank databases. More-
over, we control for the sectoral portfolio size (total
number of target-instrument combinations) and EU
membership. EU membership matters for a countrys
environmental performance as oversight by the
European Commission forces member states to imple-
ment and enforce their environmental policies more
strictly (Börzel and Buzogány 2019).
We estimate the association between our AID index
and the dependent variables using a linear model in
which we control for unequal variances (heteroscedas-
ticity, clustered errors) by country and portfolio size.
To model time dynamics, we include an autoregressive
component of order one (AR1). Standards errors are
clustered by countries. All parameters are estimated
using Bayesian inference (Fernández-i-Marín 2016;
Plummer 2003). Based on this, the exact model descrip-
tion can be specified as
αdU0, 1ðÞ
βN0, 1ðÞ
λN0, 2ðÞ
γcN0, 1ðÞ
ρN1, 1ðÞ
Xmatrix of covariates for the explanatory variables,
Hmatrix of covariates for the heteroskedasticity
αpriors for intercepts by decade,
βpriors for explanatory variables,
λpriors for heteroskedasticity controls,
γcpriors for clustered errors, and
ρpriors for auto-regressive component.
Figure 4 presents the determinants of countriesenvir-
onmental performance for the two indicators under
scrutiny. The analysis reveals that higher instrument
diversity increases both a countrys general and specific
environmental performance, whereas the mere size of
the policy portfolios does not make a significant differ-
ence. In the online appendix (section 4), we check for the
combined effect of instrument diversity and portfolio
size. No significant interaction effects are found. More-
over, we run a full structural equation model to guard
against potential endogeneity bias (see again section 4 in
the online appendix). Again, our central findings hold.
Considering these findings, we can conclude that the
AID index value is actually the only policy-related
variable in our model that can be systematically related
to higher levels of environmental performance. This
finding is particularly remarkable as previous concep-
tions of environmental policy outputs could not be
unconditionally linked to changes in the impact vari-
able (Limberg et al. 2021; Steinebach 2019). As such,
our AID index can be considered a valid and reliable
measure of design quality of sectoral policy portfolios
Xavier Fernández-i-Marín, Christoph Knill, and Yves Steinebach
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that has a strong explanatory power for the outcome
variables tested.
Obviously, this does not imply that more
customizedpolicy portfolios are always and inevit-
ably better and more effective. It is easy to imagine a
quite diverse instrument mix that is still of low quality
(Howlett and Rayner 2004). Nonetheless, given our
findings, it is reasonable to expect that policy effective-
ness is on average higher if the governments tend to
develop tailoredpolicy solutions rather than follow-
ing a one-size-fits-allapproach.
In the previous section, we demonstrated empirically
that the AID not only provides a descriptive measure of
the policy design but also allows for reliable statements
on the actual design quality of the policy measures
taken. More diverse policy designs come with higher
policy effectiveness. But why do some governments
tend to produce betterdesigned policies than others?
Theoretical Determinants of Policy Design
Given our novel research approach, we can hardly rely
on established theoretical models when accounting for
varying levels of AIDbut this does not mean that our
theoretical considerations have to start from scratch.
There are some scholarly contributions on the deter-
minants of policy design quality as well as a developed
body of literature on the factors of policy change. We
combine these strands of literature to derive theoretical
expectations that account for variation in policy design
quality in a cross-country comparison. More precisely,
we expect that (1) a countrys institutional setup, (2) the
administrative capacities available, and (3) the govern-
ments policy preferences make a difference for design
of public policies. In the following, we develop our
theoretical expectations with reference to the area of
environmental policies. The underlying arguments,
however, should apply to any other policy sector.
Policy Design Quality and the Institutional Setup
Policy makers need some elbow roomto design
policies and policy mixes that provide the best fit for
the problem at hand (Christensen, Lægreid, and Wise
2002). By and large, there are two aspects that can
limit the policy makersleeway in making reasoned
policy decisions. First, most policy portfolios are not
designed from scratch but emerge from a gradual
process of policy layering (Thelen 2004)andaccumu-
lation (Adam et al. 2019). As a consequence, policy
makers are often bound by decisions made in the past
and must adhere to preexisting policy targets and
instrumentseven when the chosen solutions are
not the optimal ones (Pierson 2000). Second, policy
makers may not have the power to unilaterally decide
on policy but, rather, have to either convince other
political actors to support their proposal or find com-
promises to move forward. In this context, (Scharpf
1988) has argued that when multiple actors from
different ideological backgrounds must agree on a
given policy, the tendency is to produce decisions that
reflect the lowest common denominator. As a result,
policy makers might need to drop policy instruments
that are actually necessary in order to effectively
address a given issue but do not find common support.
Likewise, it might be necessary to integrate redundant
or even counterproductivetools into the policy mix
in order to ensure the support for the overall policy
While both prior policy decisions and the need for
political compromise must be considered major chal-
lenges for producing tailor-made policies, the extent to
which they reduce the policy makersdesign space is
not always and everywhere the same but varies from
FIGURE 4. Determinants of Environmental Performance in 21 OECD Countries (19762005)
 -+./&
0+'& 0&') &'& &') +'& 0+'& 0&') &'& &') +'&
Note: Highest posterior densities (HPD) of the parameters that control the time series variation (95% credible interval).
Studying Policy Design Quality in Comparative Perspective
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one context to the other. More precisely, domestic
political institutions determine how difficult it is for
policy makers to bring about policy change as they
define how many actors have to agree on a given option
so that a policy can be passed (Tsebelis 2002). Does the
government comprise only one party? Or are there
multiple parties in government that must reach consen-
sus? And does the government require the support of a
second chamber when passing a policy? In the case of
high institutional hurdles, policy makers will find it
more difficult to reverse or dismantle established policy
targets and instruments (Bauer et al. 2012; Gravey and
Jordan 2016) and to push through their ideas without
making concessions to other political parties and
powerful interest groups (Angelova et al. 2018). Gov-
ernments facing low requirements for consensus, in
turn, should find it generally easier to engage in more
encompassing planning and design processes and thus
to produce more customizedand comprehensive
policy solutions. Based on these considerations, our
hypothesis reads as follows:
Hypothesis 2 The lower the institutional constraints pol-
icy makers face, the higher the policy design qualitythat
is, the more tailor-made policy solutions are adopted.
It is important to emphasize that the argument
developed here refers primarily to democratic sys-
tems. In democratic systems, party competition con-
stitutes a central driver of political responsiveness
(Adam et al. 2019). It is only under such conditions
that governments face multiple societal demands and
must deal with the constant challenge of combining
multiple instruments to effectively tackle a broad
array of issues simultaneously. Such pressures emer-
ging from political competition and responsiveness
are much lower in autocratic systems (Genschel,
Lierse, and Seelkopf 2016). Autocratic governments
and the policy design challenges they face can there-
fore hardly be compared with those of democratic
governments. Against this backdrop, the de facto
absence of institutional constraints in autocratic sys-
tems should not be equated with overall better policy
design processes.
Policy Design Quality and Bureaucratic Capacities
Another aspect that matters for the policy design qual-
ity is the capacity of the bureaucracy to come up with
well-thought policy proposals. Our argument builds on
the insight that bureaucracies not only are important
when it comes to the effective implementation of public
policies (Huber and McCarty 2004) but also matter for
policy making and, in consequence, the design of policy
outputs (Nicholson-Crotty and Miller 2012; Park and
Sapotichne 2020; Picard 1980; Schnose 2017). In this
context, bureaucratic capacity essentially refers to two
aspects. On one hand, there are bureaucracies, typically
at the ministerial level, that are primarily responsible
for the drafting of policies in response to new or
unsolved policy problems. These bureaucracies must
possess substantial analytical capabilities as they need
to identify and select the best policy instruments and
instrument combinations to solve a certain problem
based on logic, cogitation, and the scientific evidence
available (Bali, Capano, and Ramesh 2019; Mukherjee
and Bali 2019). On the other hand, the administrative
apparatus of the state also involves the implementing
authorities that are responsible for translating policy
outputs into practice. For a forceful policy design, it is
necessary that these implementation bodies are able to
inform the policy-making level about how certain
instruments and instrument combinations function in
practice and where further work is needed (Ozymy and
Rey 2013). This, in turn, depends on their capacity to
organize themselves as well as on the presence of
institutionalized channels of intrabureaucratic coordin-
ation that stimulate and facilitate processes of policy
learning from the bottom up(Knill, Steinbacher, and
Steinebach 2020). In short, in the absence of both
analytical capabilities and effective coordination struc-
tures, there is a higher risk that the policy design will be
deficient. We should thus expect that policy makers
being backed up by effective administrations are over-
all better in producing well-designed policies than those
that cannot rely on (competent) preparatory work done
by the bureaucracy.
Hypothesis 3 The higher the bureaucratic capacity, the
higher the policy design qualitythat is, the more tailor-
made policy solutions are adopted.
Policy Design Quality and Political Preferences
A third factor that can affect the quality of the policy
design refers to the specific preferences of the political
actors involved. Yet we still lack a clear picture of the
role political actors and their preferences play when the
focus is not on general policy goals (more social pro-
tection, less environmental degradation, etc.) but on
how best to achieve these objectives (but see Voß and
Simons [2014]). In this context, Haelg, Sewerin, and
Schmidt (2019) provide a valuable exception. The
authors show that parties are willing to sacrifice their
preferred instrument choices when this is how they can
best pursue their broader policy goals. And yet, despite
this occasional decouplingof policy ends and means,
we can expect that political parties have a special
interest to come up with potent policy designs in areas
they consider particularly important. In other words, if
a policy issue is genuinely salient for a given party, this
party should also invest considerable efforts in devel-
oping adequate and innovative policy solutions to the
problem at hand. This is either due to intrinsic motiv-
ations of the individuals joining a certain party
(Sieberer and Hermann 2019) or because some parties
and politicians are considered particularly competent
in solving a given policy issue and thus, once in power,
must deliver effective solutions so as not to disappoint
their electorate (Walgrave, Lefevere, and Tresch
2020). In this paper, our empirical focus is on the design
quality in the area of environmental policy. Accord-
ingly, we should expect that parties putting a strong
emphasis on their commitment to protect the
Xavier Fernández-i-Marín, Christoph Knill, and Yves Steinebach
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environment should strongly contribute to the policy
design quality in the area of environmental policy.
Hypothesis 4 The more salient a policy issue is for the
government, the higher the policy design qualitythat is,
the more tailor-made policies are adopted.
Empirical Analysis
Our key dependent variable is the AID index of
21 OECD countries in the area of environmental port-
folio we already introduced and used in the previous
sections. For the explanatory variables, in turn, we have
to rely on data provided and collected by other
researchers. First, to assess the institutional hurdles
for policy change in different national political systems,
we rely on the degree of institutional constraints as
provided by Henisz (2000). The indicator essentially
captures the number of independent veto points over
policy outcomes and the distribution of preferences of
the actors that inhabit them(Henisz 2000, 7). The
initial measurement of political constraint is based
purely on the number of veto points derived from the
constitutional setup in a given polity. The second
aspect, in turn, captures whether the various actors
possessing veto power have the same or different policy
preferences. Higher values represent systems with
higher institutional constraints.
Second, to capture the capacity of national bureau-
cracies, we use the World Banks Worldwide Govern-
ance Indicators (WGI). This indicator is based on
expert interviews with respondents from general
households and firms, commercial business informa-
tion providers, nongovernmental organizations, and
public-sector organizations (Kaufmann, Kraay, and
Mastruzzi 2011;2013). The WGI essentially captures
the perceptions of the quality of public services, the
quality of the civil service and the degree of its inde-
pendence from political pressures, (...) and the cred-
ibility of governmentscommitment to such policies
(Kaufmann, Kraay, and Mastruzzi 2011, 4). It therefore
ideally reflects our considerations of bureaucratic
A weakness of the WGI is that the indicated values
are yearly normalized with zero mean and unit stand-
ard deviation. This leads to a global mean of zero for
government effectiveness for each period across all
countries in the sample. In other words, the WGI is
theoretically only able to capture relative differences
between countries but does not allow for statements as
to whether all counties (simultaneously) increased their
bureaucratic capacity over time. To compensate for this
problem, we depict these potential general capacity
advances by a time trend variablethat is, a dummy
variable for each decade of our investigation period.
This way, we are able to capture both dynamics, a
potential general upward (or downward) trend in cap-
acities and changes in the relative differences/position
of the countries to each other. In fact, in our concrete
sample, we observe several cases of countries with clear
tendencies to increase/decrease their effectiveness over
time. For instance, Denmark, Finland, and Japan
clearly and sustainably increase it, while Italy and
Portugal decrease it. The overall standard deviation
of the countries considered in our sample also increases
from 0.44 in the first year recorded to 0.51 in the last,
showing a de facto diversification of the countries
values. Moreover, we provide a further robustness
check for our measure of bureaucratic capacity in the
online appendix (section 6). Here, we rely on a novel
measure of policy feedback that specifically measures
policy design capacities by focusing on the extent to
which administrative bodies in charge of policy design
actually rely upon and consider specific information
and policy experience gathered by the administrative
bodies in charge of implementation (Knill, Steinbacher,
and Steinebach 2020).
Our third theoretical expectation is that the import-
ance of the policy issue for the parties in power makes a
difference for the effort they invest in coming up with
thoughtful policy proposals. The information on the
salience of environmental matters for parties is pro-
vided by the Comparative Manifesto Project (Volkens
et al. 2017). Here, item per501represents all pro-
environment statements. When there is more than one
party in government, the overall issue salience is cal-
culated by weighting the individual salience values by
the share of cabinet seats of the respective parties.
In addition to these aspects, there are several other
factors that can affect a countrys instrument diversity.
First, it is well acknowledged in the existing literature
that governments not only make their own independent
decisions but also draw on the lessons made by other
governments (Rose 1993; Stone 1999). Here, we expect
that governments are more prone to learnfrom one
another when they are geographically close or con-
nected via trade ties (Holzinger and Knill 2005; Marsh
and Sharman 2009). We control for these aspects by
checking whether countries have a common border and
by examining the share of goods being exported from
one country to the other. Second, governments are
constantly confronted with new societal demands and
will respond to these demands by adopting new policy
targets and instruments. At the same time, research on
policy dismantling has shown that the adoption of new
policies typically follows a pattern of addition rather
than substitutionthat is, existing policies are termin-
ated only rarely (Bauer et al. 2012). The size of policy
portfolio can therefore be expected to steadily increase
over time. While we have shown above that increases in
the portfolio size can but do not necessarily lead to
more diverse instrument combinations, producing
ever-more policies (still) increases the chance that, at
some point, the instruments applied will differ from one
another. For instance, once all targets in a given policy
portfolio are addressed by a given instrument type,
policy makers inevitably have to look for new solutions
if the respective problems keep existing. In the area of
environmental policy, the rise of so-called newenvir-
onmental policy instruments reflects exactly this pro-
cess (Jordan, Wurzel, and Zito 2013; Tews, Busch, and
Jörgens 2003). In line with the discussion above, we
take account of the environmental portfolio size by
Studying Policy Design Quality in Comparative Perspective
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counting the total number of target-instrument com-
binations addressed.
In addition, we take account of macroeconomic fac-
tors such as the GDP per capita and the trade intensity
(World Bank 2017). The functionalist view on public
policy making posits that higher levels of economic
prosperity and a greater exposure to global markets
come with more complexity that needs to be addressed
by a broader set of different policy instruments (Obinger
2015;Vogel1995). Also, the membership in the
European Union (EU) might make a difference. Given
the strong influence of the EU in regulatory matters
(Majone 1994), member statesgovernments are often
restricted to the use of alternative instruments, such as
information campaigns and subsidies that are not in
conflict with the provisions from the supranational level.
EU membership is captured by a simple dummy vari-
able. We standardize all our continuous variables to half
a standard deviation so that we can compare their
relative importance with binary ones (Gelman 2008).
We estimate the association between our AID index
and the independent variables using a methodological
approach similarly to how we examine the relationship
between the AID and the countriesenvironmental
performancethat is, by a time-series cross-section
linear model with an autoregressive (AR1) component.
Figure 5 presents our key results. In total, we are able to
explain about a third of the variation in instrument
diversity in the 21 countries and the 30 years under
analysis. The countries for which our predictions are
least accurate are Greece (on average, we overestimate
the level of instrument diversity by 12.6 points) and
Canada (we underestimate it by 15.5 points)
Our empirical analysis reveals that more institutional
constraints have a negative effect on policy design
quality. The more difficult it is for governments to push
through their ideas without making concessions to
other political actors, the less they tend to develop
different policy solutions to the various targets they
address. This finding is perfectly in line with our first
theoretical expectation regarding the determinants of
the policy design (Hypothesis 2).
Likewise, the analysis shows that countries with
higher bureaucratic capacities tend to produce better
conceptualized policies. Instead of applying the same
instrument mixes to different policy targets, effective
bureaucracies are more creative in dealing with differ-
ent environmental problems. This can be due either to
the greater analytical capabilities of the bureaucracies
responsible for the drafting of public policies, intrabur-
eaucratic coordination structures linking policy formu-
lators and implementers, or some combination of both.
This confirms our second hypothesis regarding the
determinants of the policy design (Hypothesis 3).
Regarding our preference-based argument, the
empirical analysis gives no support to the hypothesis
concerning the influence of governmentsideological
orientation (Hypothesis 4). Quite the contrary, it seems
that pro-environmental parties in power produce
slightly less diversified instrument mixes. A potential
explanation is that pro-environmental parties do pri-
marily push for new policy targets than for new policy
instruments. As a result, Hypothesis 4 cannot be con-
firmed on the basis of the empirical analysis.
In Figure 6, we provide a more detailed assessment
of the magnitude of the main effects that are of
particular analytical interest. We model the expected
change in AID when (a) portfolio size, (b) govern-
ment effectiveness, or (c) political constraints move
from the minimum to the maximum values observed in
their natural scales. In all cases, the remaining vari-
ables are fixed at their means. As depicted in Figure 6,
changes in government effectiveness have the stron-
gest effect on the expected changes. Moving from the
country with the lowest to the country with the highest
level of government effectiveness triples the expected
AID value from around 0.25 to 0.75. While increases
in bureaucratic capacities have a very pronounced
positive effect on AID, the size of the effect of political
constraints is much lower. Moreover, the effect of the
portfolio size is characterized by an asymptotic trend;
the larger the size of a portfolio, the smaller are the
effects on AID of further increases in the portfolio
FIGURE 5. Determinants of Average Instrument Diversity in 21 OECD Countries (19762005)
0&'+ &'& &'+ &'( &'7 &'8
Note: Highest posterior densities (HPD) of the main parameters of interest ( β). For the remaining parameters in the model (αfor decade, λ
and γfor the error, and ρfor the autoregressive component, see the online appendix section 3). Recall that all parameters are standardized
to two standard deviations and, therefore, can be roughly interpreted as the effect of an increase in one interquartile range; binary and
continuous variables are directly comparable.
Xavier Fernández-i-Marín, Christoph Knill, and Yves Steinebach
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A caveat of our analysis might be that we do wrong
to pro-environmental parties as they might not have a
direct but only an indirect (positive) effect on the
diversity of the policy instruments applied. More pre-
cisely, it is well possible that green partiesdue to their
stronger commitment to environmental mattersare
more prolific producers of environmental policies,
thus affecting the instrument diversity through the
portfolio size. As a result, the quite strong and positive
effect of the portfolio size variable on the AID index
could obfuscate the actual influence of green parties.
To control for this aspect, we have incorporated an
indirect component in our model to test for the medi-
ated effects of our key explanatory variables through
the portfolio size. As shown in Figure 11 in section 5 of
the online appendix, none of these variables has an
indirect and significant effect on our outcome variable.
Our analysis reveals that policy design varies across the
countries under study and that this variance is strongly
associated with two factors. On the one hand, fewer
institutional constraints provide governments with more
leeway to deviate from established paths when designing
new policies. Fewer institutional constraints seem to
facilitate the development of innovative instruments in
other hand, policy makers tend to produce better pol-
icies when they can rely on effective bureaucracies that
are capable of (pre-)selecting the best policy solutions
available and, in this context, integrate the experience
of the policy implementers at the ground level. Pro-
environmental parties, in turn, were not found to make
a significant contribution to the policy design quality in
the area of environmental protection. Moreover, we also
found that the instrument diversity does matter for
policy effectiveness. Governments that rely on a more
diverse set of instruments are generally better at
addressing environmental problems. Analysis of instru-
ment diversity as a crucial element of policy design
quality is thus an important factor determining the
effectiveness of governmental intervention.
Our findings partially challenge arguments that dem-
ocracies with a strong emphasis on consensual elements
generally perform better in addressing environmental
problems than majoritarian systems (Lijphart 2012;
Poloni-Staudinger 2008). We found that fewer institu-
tional constraintsand thus less need to compromise
with a wide range of actorscome along with a more
diverse set of instruments applied. Higher diversity, in
turn, is associated with higher policy effectiveness. The
well-known benefits of consensual systems thus seem to
primarily unfold via the second and much stronger
driver of instrument diversitynamely, administrative
capacities and, in particular, the institutionalized inter-
action of actors operating at different administrative
levels. This aspect compensates for potential restric-
tions on policy design options that emerge from the
consensual patterns of decision making.
So far, we have tested for different theoretical deter-
minants of policy design quality with an empirical focus
on the area of environmental policy. A remaining ques-
tion is, however, whether the theoretical insights gained
can be transferred to other policy areas. To provide a
systematic answer to this question that goes beyond
merely speculation, we replicated our analysis using
data on social policy (unemployment, pension, and
child care) provided by Steinebach, Knill, and Jordana
(2019). This dataset is particularly suitable for our
purpose because it systematically distinguishes between
policy targets and policy instruments. The results are
presented in the online appendix (section 7). The com-
parison across the two policy areas reveals three crucial
insights. First, the findings impressively support our
claim that both bureaucratic capacity and political con-
straints provide powerful explanations for variation in
AID. Second, this claim also holds with respect to the
differences in the magnitude of the effects observed.
FIGURE 6. Magnitude of the Main Effects of Interest and Expected Change in Diversity
&'&) &'+& &'+) &'(&
0+'& 0&') &'& &')
&'& &'( &'8 &':
Studying Policy Design Quality in Comparative Perspective
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Third, there are slight differences in the effect size that
emerge from the fact that environmental and social
policy reflect different policy types (regulatory versus
redistributive). The negative effect of political con-
straints on AID is more pronounced for redistributive
policies. This result seems to be straightforward, as
political constraints are of higher relevance if policies
center on the reallocation of costs and benefits among
social groups rather than the design of regulatory issues.
Equally plausible is the finding that bureaucratic cap-
acities matter slightly more for the AID in environmen-
tal than in social policy. The resolution of societal
distribution conflicts is more of a power game, in which
administrative capacities for designing differentiated
and tailor-made policies seem to be of relatively minor
importance. For environmental policy, this pattern is
somewhat reversed, with bureaucratic capacities play-
ing a slightly more important role in order to design
regulatory solutions for a range of technically and
scientifically complex problems.
For a long time, students of public policy have been
concerned with questions of policy design. Their main
focus has been on analyzing the strengths and weak-
nesses of different policy instruments and the positive
and negative interactions between different instrument
types. Yet, notwithstanding the progress made, this
literature has not been able to offer systematic and
generalizable accounts of policy design and its quality
beyond individual cases and specific conditions. In
short, the current state of the art does not allow us to
investigate whether and why some governments sys-
tematically produce betterdesigned policy outputs
than others and to what extent this variation matters for
policy effectiveness.
To overcome this research gap, we developed a novel
concept that overcomes the context-bound assessment
of policy design quality. In so doing, we started from the
assumption that it makes a crucial difference for the
design of public policies whether governments are typ-
ically oriented toward the development of tailor-made
policy solutions that respond to the specific character-
istics of the policy target or whether they predominantly
apply oldand the ever-same policy tools to resolve
the underlying policy problems. To capture these orien-
tations, we proposed an index that measures the aver-
age instrument diversity (AID) across different policy
portfolios. We applied this approach to compare the
design of the environmental policy portfolios of
21 OECD countries. We found that higher levels of
AID are positively associated with countriesenviron-
mental performance and that policy makers that face
fewer political constraints and that are backed by well-
equipped bureaucracies tend to develop more diverse
(and thus better) policy responses to the different
environmental problems they confront. We also saw
that the essential way through which government can
improve their policy design quality is to increase their
bureaucratic capacities. The latter are not only easier to
change than may be the case for political constraints;
they also exert a far a stronger effect on changes in the
AID. In line with previous, more qualitative studies,
these findings highlight that the division of labor
between the bureaucracy and legislature in policy for-
mulation is a critical source of state capacity in the
provision of public goods, including environmental pro-
tection (Meckling and Nahm 2018).
An interesting avenue for future research is to check
how the AID index performs with respect to other
quality aspectsof public policies such as their efficiency
or legitimacy. For both aspects, the expected effects of
AID are less straightforward than for policy effective-
ness. With regard to the legitimacy aspect, carefully
considered combinations of policy instruments might
receive more support by both citizens and the target
group (Fesenfeld 2020). At the same time, however,
the societal acceptance of policies might be higher when
governments rely on established policy instruments and
thus on measures that the citizens already know. Lower
levels of AID might thus result in a higher legitimacy of
the policies adopted. A similarly ambiguous pattern can
be expected for the link between AID and efficiency. On
one hand, the implementation of more tailor-made solu-
tions can be expected to be costlier.The more imple-
menting authorities have to enforce highly diverse policy
measures, the less they might be able to benefit from
economies of scale and learning when performing their
tasks. On the other hand, the higher effectiveness of
tailor-made solutions has the advantage that govern-
ments need fewer policies to achieve given policy object-
ives. This implies that investing more efforts and
resources during the formulation and implementation
process might pay off on the long term. Whether the
positive or the negative effects ultimately prevail in
practice is ultimately an empirical rather than a theoret-
ical question and requires further analysis.
In sum, we deem the proposed AID index a very
promising concept and measure on which other
researchers can build. More precisely, we expect that
whenever scholars have information on the objectives
and instruments of government policy in their area of
expertise, they can use the AID index to assess the
tailorednessof the respective policy mixes. The R
package PolicyPortfolios that we developed and
used in the context of the paper may help other
researchers to readily analyze their data once organ-
ized in the required form (by policy targets and instru-
ments) (Fernández-i-Marín 2020).
To view supplementary material for this article, please
Replication files are available at the American Political
Science Review Dataverse:
DVN/M5SDCH. The original dataset is released with
the Rpackage PolicyPortfolios.
Xavier Fernández-i-Marín, Christoph Knill, and Yves Steinebach
Downloaded from IP address:, on 13 Apr 2021 at 11:48:39, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, available at
We wish to thank Christian Adam, Vytautas Jankaus-
kas, the three anonymous American Political Science
Review referees, and the editors for their very helpful
suggestions in improving our manuscript.
This work was supported by the European Research
Council (ACCUPOL Project, Grant. No. 788941) and
the European Commission (CONSENSUS project,
Grant No. 217239).
The authors declare no ethical issues or conflicts of
interest in this research.
The authors affirm that this research did not involve
human participants.
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Studying Policy Design Quality in Comparative Perspective
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... The overlaps and lacuna in the policy design field today are more pronounced than ever before because instrument combinations form the mainstay of current policy solutions for numerous complex policy problems, and synergistic instrument mixes are preferred in policy mixes for many policy problems. It is time to deepen our knowledge of both synergistic and counter-productive and other kinds of instrument interactions which are a feature of numerous policy mixes (e.g., Del Río 2010;Fernández-i-Marín, Knill, and Steinebach 2021;Grabosky 1995;Justen, Schippl, Lenz, and Fleischer 2013;Leplay and Thoyer 2011;Trencher and van der Heijden 2019). ...
... And this analysis should be undertaken beyond case-or issue-based assessments (Fernández-i-Marín, Knill, and Steinebach 2021). This is especially the case surrounding additive effects and synergistic or counter-productive interactions. ...
... However, it can be done in ongoing, slow-moving areas such as housing or the regulation of drug abuse where partial measures may be introduced on an experimental or trial basis. A recent advance, in the form of an index that captures whether governments tend to reuse the same policy instruments and instrument combinations or produce policies that are tailored to the problem at hand, can assist effect-based evaluations by providing prescriptive statements about the extent to which the policies in a given sector are effective in achieving their objectives (Fernández-i-Marín, Knill, and Steinebach 2021). ...
... Second, we measure policy complexity by the diversity of the policy instruments used. We assess the level of complexity by making random draws from the policy portfolio and by calculating the average probability that two instruments picked across two targets are of different kind (Fern andez-I- Marín et al., 2021). This measurement approach corresponds to the abovementioned conceptions of policy complexity in three ways. 1 First, the more diverse the used instruments are, the higher the number of potential interactions. ...
... This should in turn lead to more complex policies. In social policy, however, patterns are likely to look different as more leftist parties often tend to support broad, universalists welfare state policies (Esping-Andersen, 1990). The universalist Scandinavian welfare states, which have been crucially shaped by social-democratic parties in power (Esping-Andersen, 1985;Manow, 2009), serve as a prime example as they provide high levels of social-security with hardly any needs-testing. ...
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... Type of policy instruments for selected missions of the HTS 2025Source: own elaboration based on insights ofWittmann et al. (2021d), classification according to Hufnagl 2010; for missions on CO2 emissions in industry/circular economy the data contains policy strategies as well as single instruments. Cases presented in the order A1, A2, T1, T2.In general, the policy instruments in place display a seemingly high specificity with the mission goals of the four mission cases studied, as indicated by the calculation of the Average Instrument Diversity (AID) index(Fernández-i-Marín et al. 2021) that is presented infigure 9. The AID has been proposed for the systemic study and comparison of policy portfolios, exploring to what degree governments address goals repeatedly with the same instrument or rely on specifically-targeted instruments for different problems. ...
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Many important policy challenges like climate change, pandemics or digitalization require transformative policy responses that take the form of complex policy packages. Nevertheless, most public opinion research has studied public support for single policy instruments, while it remains unclear to what extent citizens evaluate isolated and combined policies differently. In this study, I argue that both the increased complexity of policy designs and the packaging of costly and compensatory measures can substantially affect public opinion. I employ a novel two-stage conjoint-based experimental approach in the United States and Germany to test this argument. In contrast to my expectations based on framing theory, the results show that policy packaging can increase support for climate policies, but that the complexity of policy designs per se does not substantially shift public opinion. Facing complex policy packages, respondents still make rational choices and compensatory policy designs are key to explaining shifts in public support.
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In modern democracies, policy stocks pile up over time. In many ways policy accumulation reflects societal modernization and progress. However, if policy accumulation is not matched by corresponding expansions in administrative capacities necessary for policy implementation, a negative trade‐off between responsiveness and policy effectiveness evolves. We argue that aligning policy formulation and implementation activities through vertical policy‐process integration (VPI) may curb policy accumulation towards a more sustainable level. Our conceptualization of VPI builds upon the distinction of two dimensions: (1) Bottom‐up integration affecting policy design and improving policies’ effectiveness and (2) top‐down integration concerning the allocation of implementation costs and, hence, constraining responsiveness incentives. It is the central aim of this view point to raise awareness about the importance of VPI as a potential way out of the responsiveness trap that threatens modern democracies. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
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Do more rules improve overall policy performance? To answer this question, we look at rule growth in the area of environmental policy from an aggregate perspective. We argue that impactful growth in rules crucially depends on implementation capacities. If such capacities are limited, countries are at risk of 'empty' rule growth where they lack the ability to implement their ever-growing stock of policies. Hence, rules are a necessary, yet not sufficient condition for achieving sectoral policy objectives. We underpin our argument with an analysis of the impact of a new, encompassing measure of environmental rule growth covering 13 countries from 1980 to 2010. These findings call for 'sustainable statehood' where the growth in rules should not outpace the expansion in administrative capacities.
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Policies are made and pursue their goals through policy instruments. Furthermore, policy instruments have become a relevant topic in many policy fields due to their theoretical and empirical relevance. The study of this field dates back to Lowi and others who developed many typologies and theories in classic works by authors such as Hood, Salamon, Linder and Peters, Peters and van Nispen, Schneider and Ingram, Lascomes and Le Galès, among others. This is important work that is linked closely to current research on policy design but, despite much effort, many fundamental issues remain unknown or understudied with respect to the topic. It is time to take inventory of the knowns and unknowns about policy tools. The current article examines four clusters of basic issues in the field which require further research.
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While both the economics and political science literature have gained considerable knowledge on why some environmental policies work better than others, we still lack a clear and consistent picture on the determinants of environmental policy effectiveness. This is primarily because influences of the policy design and the implementation process have often been studied in isolation from one another. This article intends to close this gap by systematically examining how different instrument types and the implementation structures interact. By analyzing the air pollutant emissions of 14 OECD countries over a period of 25 years (1990 to 2014), it is revealed that only command-and-control (C&C) regulations that are put into practice through well-equipped and -designed implementation structures can be associated systematically with reductions in air pollutant emissions. Softer, so-called new environmental policy instruments (NEPIs), in turn, are found to have no significant influence on the outcome variable and this regardless of how they are executed and enforced. In essence, these findings indicate that (i) market- and information-based policy instruments seem to be not as self-implementing as often argued in the existing literature and that; (ii) C&C regulations and market- and information-based instruments need quite different prerequisites to function properly.
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Despite a renaissance of policy design thinking in public policy literature and a renewed interest in agency in the policy process literature, agency in the policy design process has, so far, not received systematic attention. Understanding the agency at play when designing policy, however, is crucial for better comprehension of policy design choices and variation in policy design across cases. Here, we build on the hierarchical structure of design elements that constitute each policy and analyse how actors position themselves during a policy design process in relation to individual design elements. Our aim is to establish different actors’ roles in shaping the policy output in an inductive, single-case study using the empirical case of the Swiss renewable energy feed-in tariff. Notably, we find agency in the form of coalitions which emerge around particular design elements. Based on our representative analysis, we derive the generalisable concept of design coalitions that we define as relational structures of actors who gather around and advocate for specific policy design elements during the policy design process. Policy design coalitions are dynamic throughout the design process and strategic and constitute the determinants in translating policy problems into final policy designs during policy designing. Our approach allows us to shed light on the role of agency in the policy design process in general.
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Policy capacity and effectiveness are two themes that have opened new pathways for academic and empirical enquiry throughout the policy sciences. In the contemporary discourse of policy design, effectiveness has taken on a more foundational meaning that goes beyond what is understood as only the attainment of specific policy goals. Rather, it has come to occupy a central position in the study of policy design, signifying the broader logic of deliberate policy action used to articulate policy problems and present alternative ways of addressing them. Effectiveness thus signals both effectual processes as well as successful policy outcomes. However, what constitutes effective design is a question that still reflects a largely dispersed body of research within the policy sciences. This article and others in this special issue, aim to address the topic of effective design from the perspective of capacity, defined as the inherent analytical, managerial and political capabilities of policymakers to bring about effective policy solutions.
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en Several recent applications of Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (PET) have yielded compelling findings linking institutional design and change distributions, yet, much more work needs to be done to understand institutional arrangements that make punctuated processes more or less likely. In responding to the recent call for more research on unraveling particular mechanisms through which bureaucracy moderates the odds of policy punctuations, this research explores the potential of bureaucratic expertise and professionalism in fostering rational decision making, and thus the stability in change dynamics. One important feature of urban government receives close attention: the position by professionalized, trained bureaucrats in municipalities (city manager and chief administrative officer) and the effects of their discretion on altering municipal budgetary change distributions. Analysis of a novel dataset of fiscal policy changes, charter and census information of city governments in the State of Michigan, 2005–11, suggests city governments, on average, produce change patterns that conform to the expectations of PET; more importantly, it reveals that heightened levels of managerial discretion can have a significant implication for helping cities experience less abrupt, punctuated budget changes. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of these results for PET, policy change dynamics, and the design of city‐governing institutions. Abstract zh 近年来对间断均衡理论(PET)的若干应用取得了令人信服的研究结果,这些研究将制度设计和变化分布联系起来。然而,我们仍需做许多工作才能得以理解制度安排如何使间断过程更可能或更不可能发生。近来,研究者们呼吁去了解官僚体制是利用何种机制来调节政策间断发生的可能性的。为此,本研究探讨了官员的专业知识和专业素质在促进理性决策以及改革稳定性方面的潜力。我们密切关注市政府的一个重要特征,即市政当局的职位(城市经理,行政官员)都由专业且训练有素的官员担任;同时,我们也关注了这些官员自主改变市政预算分布所带来的影响。我们对密歇根州市政府自2005年至2011年间财政政策变化、法案以及人口普查信息的数据进行分析,结果表明,平均来说,市政府的政策变化模式符合PET的预期;更重要的是,我们的分析发现,管理自主权的提高可以减轻城市预算变化的突然性和间断性。本文最后讨论了这些结果对PET、政策变化动态以及城市管理制度设计的影响。
We investigate the impact of three issue-related party perceptions on people's vote choices. The positional dimension of issue voting holds that voters are more likely to prefer parties whose policy positions on issues come close to their own policy preferences. The competence dimension of issue voting implies that voters are more inclined to cast their ballot for parties that they see as more competent to tackle policy issues. The commitment dimension means that voters are more likely to prefer parties that they perceive as more committed to specific issues. Leveraging data from Belgium's two largest regions (Flanders and Wallonia), we find that all dimensions exert an effect on electoral choice: position has the strongest effect, followed by competence and commitment.