The Rational Model of Policy & Decision Making

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Selected Essays by Lefoko O. Molebatsi (2001) --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Public Policy and Policy Analysis: The Rational Model Question: The rational model of public policy making, though heavily criticized, is the most widely used and or talked about model. Discuss why. By Lefoko O. Molebatsi (University of Botswana) Instructor: Prof G. S Maipose 2001


Selected Essays by Lefoko O. Molebatsi (2001) --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Introduction

According to Dunn (1994:330), rationality is a self conscious process of using explicit reasoned arguments to make and defend knowledge claims. The rational model of policy and decision making, although heavily criticized, is the most widely used and/or discussed model. The purpose of this short essay is to explore the reasons. It starts the discussion with the definition of the rational model, and then the rational comprehensive theory, and thereafter the concept of bounded rationality. Just before the conclusion, the paper discusses some criticisms of the rational model.

Definition Of The Rational Model

According to Owen E. Hughes, the rational model was well defined by Lindblom (1968, p.12) as: 1. faced with a given problem 2. a rational man first clarifies his goals, values or objectives and then ranks or otherwise organizes them in his mind; 3. he then lists all important possible ways of policies for-achieving his goals 4. and investigates all the important consequences that would follow from each of the alternative policies; 5. at which point he is in a position to compare consequences of each policy with goals 6. and so choose a policy with consequences most closely matching his goals1.

This is distinctly what policy models endeavor to do. As is well known following the work of Simon (1957), a completely rational decision making process demands too much of those making the decision2.


Selected Essays by Lefoko O. Molebatsi (2001) --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Instead of making an ideal decision individuals will break large complex problems into small, understandable parts; choose the first alternative that is satisfactory; avoid unnecessary uncertainty; and behave in accordance with repertoires of appropriate and useful behavior3.

This however denotes that in spite of the fact that individuals aspire to be rational, their rationality is bounded by circumscribed cognitive and romantic competence. A rational policy is one that achieves “maximum social” gain; that is, governments should choose policies resulting in gains to society that exceed costs by greatest amount, and government should refrain from policies if costs are not exceeded by gains4. It is worth noting that there are two salient tips in this elucidation of maximum social gain. First, no policy should be adopted if its costs exceed its benefits. Second, among policy alternatives, decision makers should choose the policy that produces the greatest benefit over cost. In other words, a policy is rational when the difference between the values it achieves and the values it sacrifices is positive and greater than any other policy alternative5.

However, one should not view rationalism in a narrow Pula-and-Thebe framework, in which basic social values are sacrificed for Pula savings. Rationalism incorporates the assessment of all social, political, and economic values sacrificed or achieved by a public policy, not just those that can be calculated in monetary terms. To select a rational policy, policy makers must: (1) know all the social value preferences and their relative weights, (2) know all the policy alternatives available, (3) know all the consequences of each policy alternative, and (4) calculate the ratio of benefits to costs...
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