Notes From a Conference Part 3: The International Conference on Public Policy

The ICPP (Grenoble) symbolised both the best and worst aspects of scholarship. The best bits include:

  • The unexpected levels of attendance (900) – which showed many of us (perhaps used to the limited focus on policymaking at general conferences) that we had many international colleagues engaged in similar research.
  • The ability to see beyond your specialism and listen to plenary discussions and panels on topics you may not consider in your day-to-day research.
  • The opportunities to meet people, exchange ideas and make research plans.
But, being a tired, dour Scot, I was struck mostly by the problems symbolised by the conference:
1.Are we talking *to* or *past* each other?
The plenary on the so called ‘tribes’ of policymaking (IAD, new institutionalism, ACF, etc.) involved a brief discussion, by each representative of a ‘tribe’, of the first principles of each approach – without giving much information about how they relate to each other. This is characteristic of much of the literature which involves specialisation. Such specialisation is often valuable and necessary – it is perhaps only when we immerse ourselves in, and fully understand, an approach that we can assess its merits and relate it to other approaches. However, it also seems parochial if there is a limited level of self-awareness and a tendency to ignore other approaches. Watching the event, you would struggle to identify a sense of *general purpose*. For me, the idea behind specialisation is that we are boundedly rational – we cannot produce all research ourselves. So, we produce some work and rely on others to produce the rest. Then we try to compare our experiences and: (a) explore or ability to generalise from those combined experiences; and (b) explore our ability to accumulate knowledge from a range of studies. This exchange of ideas and information will not be effective if we are all talking a different language; if we don’t know how to communicate our findings (and their significance) to each other in a meaningful way. Maybe the plenary served that purpose by reminding us of the wider world out there, but you would have to be a super-positive person to come to that conclusion.
2.Are we even talking about the same thing?
I was often struck by the relative lack of cohesion of many panels even when they came under a common banner. So, they were not only describing very different case studies but also very different ways to understand them. Again, this can produce a degree of innovative thinking when we consider new possibilities. However, it can also make you wonder if you can slip out of the room when no-one is watching.
3. Self-contradictory case study approaches.
The papers were either mainly-theoretical or contained a theoretical and case-study-based empirical section. What follows is a caricature of some presentations to make a broad point:
  • First, they say that existing theories cannot fully explain their case study.
  • So, they propose a ‘new’ theory which it explains it better.
  • Then, they might imply that this new theory has a more general application.
The overall effect can appear to be contradictory: no theory can explain my case because it is (a) more complicated than theory suggests; and/ or (b) the case has some unusual elements that are difficult to explain. If so, such papers perpetuate the problem – we are forever seeking novel and parsimonious theories to explain many cases, only to be faced with complexity and a significant level of non-comparability when we try to apply them in different cases.
In that light, my preference is for a problem-focused approach to presentation:
  • Talk about a real research problem – what do you want to explain?
  • Talk about the insights that one or more theories can give you when you seek explanation.
  • Accept that theories are simplifications to aid general explanation; don’t express mock surprise when they fail to explain everything. This is just not possible.
  • If a key tenet of public policy studies is that politics and policymaking vary from issue to issue (and country), we should not be surprised that a theory based on some issues and countries does not map directly onto others. The same can be said for the case study – don’t just assume that the usefulness of a new or old theory in one case applies to another. Instead, reflect on the ways in which your case compares to the cases described by other studies.
We might then want to talk about the research outcomes. Such conversations require a common language – a requirement that is not served well by the constant pursuit of new theories and a rejection of the old. If we are constantly claiming to be reinterpreting the fundamental nature of policymaking, how can we communicate our findings to each other?
Instead, we can pursue a common language by focusing on what Peter John describes as the five ‘core causal processes’ in public policy. We may say that policymakers operate within the following context:
  1. Institutional – they are influenced by the (written and unwritten; formal/ statutory and informal) rules and norms within systems and organisations.
  2. Agenda-setting – policymakers are ‘boundedly rational’, prompting them to (a) pay more attention to some issues and solutions at the expense of most others; (b) understand issues in a biased way. So, the way in which they act follows from the way in which they understand, interpret, define or frame their problems and actions.
  3. Networks/ Subsystem – policy is devolved from elected policymakers to bureaucrats who consult with groups to gather information and advice. This low level of government may be where most policy work is processed. Some groups are more powerful than others; they are considered more worthy of attention than others. Relationships develop between some groups and civil servants and these networks often represent the main arena in which information is exchanged, then given to elected policymakers (or, choices are made on their behalf by civil servants operating in these networks).
  4. Socio-economic – for example, some problems may appear more pressing than others, and some solutions may be more or less attractive, because they are linked closely to the economic environment. Or, demographic change presents new problems. Or, a policymaker’s understanding of social attitudes may underpin their policy strategy. In each case, policymakers interpret a range of policy conditions, or operate in policy environments, that appear to present obstacles to, or opportunities for, action.
  5. The role of ideas – policymaking is underpinned by the beliefs present within political systems, such as the world views of policymakers or the actors most influential in that system. We talk of ‘core beliefs’, ‘paradigms’ and ‘policy monopolies’ to describe the fundamental importance of a common understanding of the world that may be so dominant that it is taken for granted. We also talk about ideas as new ways of thinking about problems, and solutions, which challenge such fundamental beliefs (often following a period of ‘learning’ from the past, other issues or other political systems)..
We may have different interpretations of these concepts and they all overlap (the links between 2 and 5 may seem most obvious; we may also say that institutions are shared beliefs; that close networks are based on common understandings; that people interpret socioeconomic conditions and new ideas; and so on). Of course they do – these are analytical simplifications not present in the ‘real world’. Further, we may say that some issues transcend these factors – such as the role of gender inequalities which may be present in institutions, shape the way that people understand problems, influence the consultation process, and underpin belief systems.
However, at least they give us the chance for a common starting point for discussion and explanation. We might even say that our reference to these factors represents the product of our accumulation of knowledge in the field (or not).
4. What is a satisfactory explanation? Can we ever agree?
In a broader sense, we are talking about our ability to agree about what constitutes a satisfactory explanation. In my opinion, a convincing explanation comes from a detailed account of policymaking (stability and instability; policy continuity and change) with reference to all five of these causal factors. We discuss their individual importance – as an analytical device to aid the simplification of complex issues – and discuss the extent which outcomes are caused by the interplay between all five. So, for example, institutions alone do not explain behaviour (unless we use a ridiculously broad definition of an institution) and neither does the socioeconomic context (however pressing), the ideational context, or the strong relationships between some groups and government – but a combination of such factors may help explain why policymakers act in certain ways (and perhaps why their actions are more or less acceptable or successful).
The alternative is to specialise; to focus on certain aspects of this process to gain a better understanding of them. This is good too, but not if it comes at the expense of the bigger picture (or, if we simply try to quantify the relative effect of one factor in a naïve way – which, in many cases, misses the point of complex explanation). It would be good for presenters on particular topics to reflect, however briefly, on how these topics relate to the concerns of others – to recognise that they know a lot about the foot but that the heart might be important too.
5. Are we really talking to each other? How do we exchange information in a meaningful way?
I attended every possible session in the ICPP and so I received a concentrated dose of the tendency of presenters to give out information in an unsatisfactory way. My pet peeve is slides of very small numbers which are presented for a few seconds without explanation; without the presenter taking the time to give them meaning. For me, this tops the presenter-reads-every-word-on-the-powerpoint approach (because at least, in that case, you can close your eyes to listen). This is not good.
It is perhaps a symptom if the wider tendency to cram a ridiculous amount of presentations into short slots – either the 4 papers/ 2 discussant approach (90 minutes) of APSA or the 5 papers (2 hours) at the ICPP. Who can possibly sit through all of those presentations without daydreaming or nodding off?  It is also a symptom of the lack of awareness of the needs of an audience. If we are there to talk to each other (and not simply represent an awake audience), we need the time to discuss papers rather than just listen to them. Only then will we know if the information we present is useful, or if the round of applause is really just a symbol of audience relief.
6. Last but not least – too many men.
Even I (a male, white, middle class and increasingly privilege professor who benefits from these inequalities) am getting tired of seeing panels that are all, or predominantly, male. Most plenary sessions were embarrassingly male and, when the photos go on the web, will not serve as a good advertisement for the profession (although we cannot simply blame the organisers –

See also Part 1
See also Part 2

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Uncategorized

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