One of the most important things that government does in a democracy is to develop public policies in response to societal problems. Indeed the open and deliberate process of policymaking is a hallmark of a democratic society. Yet we have questions about how government responds, how it is that a decision is made to pursue one purposive course of action over another. Part of the answer to such questions is that what government decides to do, which purposive course of action it decides to pursue, is in part a function of how a particular problem gets defined. This factor is more significant than one might assume. As the chapters in this book reveal, in policyrnaking there is little about the process of problem definition that is self-evident, automatic, or eminently rational. Problems lend themselves to diverse definitions, only some of which are compelling enough to evoke formal policy responses.
This book is about how policy gets made and the role of policy ideas in the policymaking process. A policy idea is a concept designed to capture the essence of both a general definition of a problem and a preferred policy response. A policy idea captures that critical nexus between the definition of a problem and the formulation of a policy response which anticipates resolution of the problem via its implementation. When proffered in a policy debate, policy ideas capture the policymaking process whole -- from identification of a societal problem to its resolution -- and frame that process ( Reich 1988).
Questions regarding the utility and fate of policy ideas are only part of the focus in this book. The assessments in the two case studies are intended to illuminate other questions pertinent to policy formulation, such as (1) how problems or issues get defined in the policy debate; (2) how policy responses emerge as solutions to specific definitions of problems; (3) how specific policy ideas structure the policy debate and under what circumstances; and (4) how bias mobilizes in favor of or against a particular policy idea.