Policymaking Fundamentals and Principles

Policymaking Fundamentals and Principles | Karam Al Ahmar | Lebanon Law Review

Why Policymaking

Policymaking seems to have lost its principles in this age where every threat seems immediate. This is only aggravated by the mass media, who negatively dramatize every problem and unforeseen occurrence. Policymakers are now overtaken by the contests of approval ratings, mass appeasement, and reelection securement. As a result, most leaders and policymakers have shifted their priorities. They no longer try for long-term, permanent fixes; they instead apply short-term fixes that might even aggravate the problem in the long run. The science of policymaking has been shelved, or at best wrongly applied. Policymakers need to return to healthy governance – this begins by shedding light on the subject of policymaking. Accordingly, here are some of the most important principles and maybe tips to keep in mind for interested and aspiring policymakers.

Policymaking Essentials – Questions to Ask

To start with, the policymaker must ask himself these essential questions:

  • How do we achieve our long-term and short-term objectives?
  • How do we prioritize resource management?
  • What is the nature of the problem or crisis that we are finding a solution to?
  • What are we trying to prevent?
  • What should we avoid when applying policy?

Framework for Policymaking – Principles and Guidelines

Fact-check information

In taking any decision, it is always important to start by assessing your surrounding circle and the sources of your information.

Fact-checking and analyzing information is critical before any action is taken. Action is taken based on information; wrong information results in wrong actions. Any advice offered must be built on solid information and as much data analysis as possible.

Next, be sure of the competence of your surrounding circle. Take the time to debate with them if time is on your side. Humans are fallible, no matter how skilled or important they may be. They also have diverse perspectives – listen to their point of view, think, and reach the best possible solution. Avoid preconceptions and welcome skepticism as long as it helps in reaching the objective.

Plan step-by-step

Any policy in genesis is a plan – and planning is crucial to assuring the clarity of the actions being taken. While planning, the policymaker must recognize the difference between strategy and tactics. That means that there must be a differentiation between the general objective to be reached and the small tasks to be done along the way (which are only done for the strategic benefit). The general objective represents a sense of direction and value to the people and to the policymaker and so to alter that sense means a change in established values. This is almost always unwanted. Planning step by step helps ensure a fail-safe or fail-stop to the applied plan. Stopping at each step, and evaluating on the progress and results of the plan, allows for tactical flexibility. This allows for greater efficiency in achieving strategic goals.

Wise policymakers are always prepared and expect the unexpected. Things may change at a moment’s notice, requiring the entire plan to change. This highlights the importance of contingency planning, as it increases reaction time and decreases deliberation. Contingency planning can be life-saving, as is a comprehensive defense strategy.


Great policymakers ensure that the state stays its course despite changes in administration. Revoking or reversing policies represent a waste of valuable and finite time and resources. This issue arises most notably in democracies where elections lead to a constant change of administration. Sustainable policymaking then becomes the policymakers’ duty, as they must ensure the longevity of their work, sometimes by navigating party politics. This navigation is achieved by the art of compromise. Despite being unwanted, compromise is usually the only method for achieving minimum objectives. Incremental advancements reap exponential long-term rewards, a concept that the wise policymaker thrives on. Sustainability is also found in application methods, i.e., in choosing policy tools. Policymakers must avoid single policy use as much as possible and instead try to use multi-application tools that can be applied to other policies. This maximizes resource benefit; spending on tools becomes a reusable investment.

An example on this subject.

Lebanon has endemic power shortages. The Lebanese government rented Turkish power-generating ships for about a decade or so. This is a short-term policy that has no sustainability. The money spent on renting the ships could have been better invested in creating the means for sustainable power generation within the country itself, whereby many jobs would have been created. More importantly, Lebanon would not have been hostage to Turkish contractors, as they would have maintained control over greater aspects of the power production cycle. Furthermore, it would have been less costly by now to build another power plant than to simply rent out ships. This is an example of poor policymaking and visionary planning.

Resource Management and Policy Prioritization

Policymaking’s Golden Rule: resources are finite – spending resources must be prioritized by value. When allocating resources to the application of an intended policy the policymaker must always be certain of the availability of resources in a complete manner. This process should be done while planning and not afterward so as to plan as realistically as possible and avoid miscalculation and problems in execution.  

One of the most unfavorable experiences of policymaking is the issue of prioritizing policies. Due to the limitedness of resources, policymakers are often faced with the dilemma of choosing between policies. Despite the significance of many policies, resources always dictate choices. Therefore, the policymaker must balance between needs and choose the moment’s most suitable and right policy and work to accumulate or allocate new resources for other policies.

Beware the mood of the moment

This is the age of instantaneous communication. Enabled by modern technology, we’ve been able to spread ideas and news on events at the click of a button. This has practically all but eradicated the distinctive line between domestic and international affairs.

Our concern here is not to evaluate these technologies but to point out the negative impact of fast communication on the process of policymaking particularly in the area of reflective thinking where increasingly fast communication leads to the creation of a “mood of the moment” on the level of the people insisting on instantaneous action and so obstructs the process of planning and reflective thinking on the part of leaders and policymakers.

 In the words of the former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: “Policymakers are expected to have formulated a position within several hours to interject it into the course of events – where its effects will be broadcast globally by the same instantaneous networks. The temptation to cater to the demands of the digitally reflected multitude may override the judgment required to chart a complex course in harmony with long-term purposes. The distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom is weakened.”.

History judges harshly and tarries not in passing the sentence. Policymakers – beware of the judgment of history! You hold in your hands the fate of many, and history itself will prove or disprove your wisdom.

Karam Al Ahmar
Karam Al Ahmar

Political Director.