Imagine that you look down and realise that you are wearing what appears to be a Union Jack disguised as a shirt. You then get all self conscious about what you should wear to demonstrate your indyref credentials. Here are the main possibilities:
1. Classy Unionist
2. If you yell ‘freedom!’ at the same time, Dramatic Nationalist
3. If you favour Devolution wrapped warmly within the Union:
4. If you mutter ‘freedom’ under your breath, Cautious Nationalist
5. If you want to abolish the Scottish Parliament in favour of tartanised UK policy
6. If you want to look sort of Scottishy but don’t want to give anything away
The combination of multiple theories in policy studies is like a valence issue in politics: few would disagree with the idea, largely because the sentiment is rather vague. Who would not want to combine the insights of a wide range of theories and studies to advance our knowledge? The more problematic and debatable part of this task relates to the details: how do we do it? I outline three main ways in which scholars address this issue and highlight the problems that may arise in each case:
Synthesis. We combine the insights of multiple theories, concepts or models to produce a single theory. One key problem is that when we produce a synthetic theory, from a range of other theories or concepts, we have to assume that the component parts of this new hybrid are consistent with each other. Yet, if you scratch the surface of many concepts – such as ‘new institutionalism’ or ‘policy networks’ – you find all sorts of disagreement about the nature of the world, how our concepts relate to it and how we gather knowledge of it. There are also practical problems regarding our assumption that the authors of these concepts have the same thing in mind when they describe things like ‘punctuated equilibrium’. In other words, imagine that you have constructed a new theory based on the wisdom of five other people. Then, get those people in the same room and you will find that they will share all sorts of – often intractable – disagreements with each other. In that scenario, could you honestly state that your theory was based on accumulated knowledge?
The ‘Complementary’ Approach. In this case, you accept that people have these differences and so you accommodate them – you entertain a range of theories/ concepts and explore the extent to which they explain the same thing in different ways. This is a popular approach associated with people like Allison) and used by several others to compare policy events. One key problem with this approach is that it is difficult to do full justice to each theory. Most theories have associated methods which are labour intensive and costly, putting few in the position to make meaningful comparisons. Instead, the comparisons tend to be desktop exercises based on a case study and the authors’ ability to consider how each theory would explain it.
The ‘Contradictory’ Approach. In that context, another option is to encourage the independence of such theories. You watch as different research teams produce their own studies and you try to find some way to compare and combine their insights. Of course, it is impossible to entertain an infinite number of theories, so we also need some way to compare them; to select some and reject others. This is the approach that we may be most familiar with, since it involves a set of rules or criteria to make sure that each theory can be accepted by the scientific community. You may see such rules described as follows:
A theory’s methods should be explained so that they can be replicated by others.
Its concepts should be clearly defined, logically consistent, and give rise to empirically falsifiable hypotheses.
Its propositions should be as general as possible.
It should set out clearly what the causal processes are.
It should be subject to empirical testing and revision.
Most of us will find these aims to be intuitively appealing – but they are problematic for the following reasons:
Few, if any, theories or research projects live up to these expectations.
The principles give a misleading impression of most social scientific research which is largely built on trust rather than constant replication by others.
Many of the most famous proponents of this approach do something a bit different – such as when they subject their ‘secondary hypotheses’ to rigorous testing but insulate their ‘hard core’ from falsification.
The study of complex phenomenon may not allow us to falsify, since we can interpret our findings in very different ways.
Few theories are currently popular simply because they adhere to these principles. In fact, science is much more of a social enterprise than the principles suggest.
This argument may sound ‘postpositivist’. However, it does not need to be taken this way. It is OK to highlight problems with scientific principles and admit that science is about the methods and beliefs accepted by a particular scientific community because, if you like, you can still assert that those principles and beliefs are correct. Many people do. In fact, perhaps we all do it, because we have to find a way to accept some theories, approaches and evidence and reject others. We seek a way to produce some knowledge ourselves and find a common language and set of principles to make sure that we can compare our knowledge with the knowledge of others. That task requires rules which are problematic but necessary.
All I suggest is that we reject the unthinking and too-rigid application of rules that hold us all up to a standard that no-one will meet. Rather, people in different disciplines might discuss and negotiate those rules with each other. I also argue that (a) if we are serious about these rules, and the need to submit theories and evidence to rigorous testing; but (b) we accept that most of this is done on trust rather than replication; then (c) we should take on some of that burden ourselves by subjecting our own evidence to a form of testing, in which we consider the extent to which our findings can be interpreted in different, and equally plausible, ways. This is more of an art than a science.
See ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How Do We Combine the Insights of Multiple Theories in Public Policy Studies?’ Paywall Green Grey
Policy theory is about the relationship between power and ideas. These terms are difficult to disentangle, even analytically, because people often exercise power by influencing the beliefs of others. A good rule of thumb, from classic studies, is that the more profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe.
Dahl argued that elitism was unobservable; that it was ‘virtually impossible to disprove’ the idea that inequalities in society translate into systematic advantages across the political system. Dahl’s classic statement is that, ‘A has power over B to the extent that he can [or does] get B to do something that B would not otherwise do’. To demonstrate this power requires the identification of A’s: resources, means to exploit those resources, willingness to engage in political action; the amount of power exerted (or threatened) by A and the effect of A’s action on B. Dahl identified ‘key political choices’ involving a significant conflict of preferences – suggesting that the powerful are those that benefit from ‘concrete outcomes’. He identified inequalities in many areas but no overall, coordinated, control of the policy process. His work is often described as ‘pluralist’.
Subsequent debates were based on a critique of pluralist methods. Bachrach and Baratz argued that the ‘second face’ of power is exercised before Dahl’s ‘key political choices’. Power is not simply about visible conflicts. It can relate to two barriers to engagement. First, groups may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. In such cases, power and powerlessness relates to the inability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved. Second, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, groups may exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others. Issues on the agenda may be ‘safe’ – more attention to them means less attention to the imbalances of power within society. Schattschneider argues (in A Realist’s View of Democracy) that the structures of government, such as legislative procedures controlling debate, reinforce this problem when determining which conflicts receive attention and which are ignored.
The ‘third dimension’ of power suggests that people or organizations can be powerful without appearing to act. For example, Crenson’s study of US air pollution found that regulations were relatively low in a town (Gary, Indiana) dependent on US steel. Using pluralist methods, we would witness inactivity, or overt agreement on minimal regulations. This would disguise a power relationship in which one group (US Steel) benefited at another’s (Gary’s ill population) expense. US Steel was powerful without having to act, and the town’s public was powerless because it felt unable to act. Lukes takes the idea of a false consensus further, drawing on Marxist descriptions of the exploitation of the working classes within a capitalist system: if only they knew the full facts – that capitalism worked against their real interests – they would rise up and overthrow it. In this scenario, they do not object because they are manipulated into thinking that capitalism is their best chance of increasing their standard of living. We observe a consensus between capitalists and workers, but one benefits at the expense of the other.
Foucault describes a further dimension of power, drawing on the idea of society modelled on a prison. The power of the state to monitor and punish may reach the point in which its subjects assume that they are always visible. This ‘perfection of power’ – associated with the all-seeing ‘Panopticon’ – renders the visible exercise of power unnecessary. Individuals accept that discipline is a fact of life, anticipate the consequences of their actions and regulate their own behaviour. Control may be so embedded in our psyches, knowledge and language, that it is ‘normalized’ and invisible. We ‘know’ which forms of behaviour are deviant and should be regulated or punished. Therefore, power is exercised not merely by the state, but also individuals who control their behaviour and that of others.
These arguments rely as much on the role of ideas as power. Discussions of agenda setting focus on the ability of groups to ‘frame’ issues as inoocuous or specialist, to limit the number of participants in the policy process. Bachrach and Baratz’s first barrier to engagement is the dominant set of beliefs held within society. Luke’s third dimension of power focuses on what people believe to be their real interests and the extent to which those perceptions can be manipulated. He describes Gramscian ‘hegemony’ in which the most powerful dominate state institutions and the intellectual and moral world in which we decide which actions are most worthy of attention and which are right or wrong. Foucault’s social control is based on common beliefs/ knowledge of normality and deviance.
In this context, ideas may be used:
To limit policy change by excluding participants who hold beliefs that challenge current arrangements.
By excluded groups to challenge barriers to policymaking engagement. While some studies might suggest that elite or state dominance may never be challenged, others treat established ideas as barriers to engagement which can be overcome (as in the studies by Bachrach & Baratz and Crenson).
This has been a whistle-stop tour of power and ideas. Other discussions are available, including:
We used to talk more about structural power carried out by individuals, with no autonomy or choice, on behalf of certain classes. Now, we talk about a combination of individual action and the rules they follow (see forthcoming post on institutions).
Luck. Power may be measured according to outcomes – the powerful benefit from decisions, and the powerless lose out. If so, people may be ‘lucky’ as well as powerful. They may benefit from outcomes secured by the actions of others (see forthcoming post on rational choice).
There is an unnecessary tendency for proponents of complexity theory to say that it is radically new; a scientific revolution; that it will change the way we think about, and study, the natural and social world. It suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic behaviour that cannot be broken down merely into the actions of its constituent parts. The metaphor of a microscope or telescope, in which we zoom in to analyse individual components or zoom out to see the system as a whole, sums up this alleged shift of approach.
Complexity theory has been applied to a wide range of activity, from the swarming behaviour of bees, the weather and the function of the brain, to social and political systems. The argument is that all such systems have common properties, including:
A complex system is greater than the sum of its parts; those parts are interdependent – elements interact with each other, share information and combine to produce systemic behaviour.
Some attempts to influence complex systems are dampened (negative feedback) while others are ampliﬁed (positive feedback). Small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects.
Complex systems are particularly sensitive to initial conditions that produce a long-term momentum or ‘path dependence’.
They exhibit ‘emergence’, or behaviour that results from the interaction between elements at a local level rather than central direction.
They may contain ‘strange attractors’ or demonstrate extended regularities of behaviour which may be interrupted by short bursts of change.
As you might expect from a theory of many things, the language is vague and needs some interpretation in each field. In the policymaking field, the identification of a complex system is often used to make the following suggestions:
Law-like behaviour is difﬁcult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
Policymaking systems are difﬁcult to control; policy makers should not be surprised when their policy interventions do not have the desired effect.
Policy makers in the UK have been too driven by the idea of order, maintaining rigid hierarchies and producing top-down, centrally driven policy strategies. An attachment to performance indicators, to monitor and control local actors, may simply result in policy failure and demoralised policymakers.
Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy.
On this basis, there is a tendency in the literature to encourage the delegation of decision-making to local actors:
Rely less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.
To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly.
Encourage better ways to deal with alleged failure by treating ‘errors’ as sources of learning (rather than a means to punish organisations) or setting more realistic parameters for success/ failure.
Encourage a greater understanding, within the public sector, of the implications of complex systems and terms such as ‘emergence’ or ‘feedback loops’.
In other words, this literature, when applied to policymaking, tends to encourage a movement from centrally driven targets and performance indicators towards a more flexible understanding of rules and targets by local actors who are more able to understand and adapt to rapidly-changing local circumstances.
Lipsky’s idea of ‘street level bureaucracy’. He suggests that there are so many targets, rules and laws that no public agency or official can be reasonably expected to fulfil them all. In fact, many may be too vague or even contradictory, requiring ‘street level bureaucrats’ to choose some over others. The potential irony is that the cumulative pressure from more central government rules and targets effectively provides implementers with a greater degree of freedom to manage their budgets and day-to-day activities. Alternatively, central governments must effectively reduce their expectations by introducing performance measures which relate to a small part of government business (see this discussion of Street Level Organizations https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/street-level-bureacrats/).
Hjern’s focus on intra-departmental conflict, when central government departments pursue programmes with competing aims, and interdependence, when policies are implemented by multiple organizations. Programmes are implemented through ‘implementation structures’ where ‘parts of many public and private organizations cooperate in the implementation of a programme’. Although national governments create the overall framework of regulations and resources, and there are ‘administrative imperatives’ behind the legislation authorizing a programme, the main shaping of policy takes place at local levels.
Governance. A lack of central control has prompted governments in the past to embrace New Public Management (NPM) and seek to impose order through hierarchy and targeting. However, local implementation networks (with members from the public, third and private sectors) have often proved not be amenable to such direct control.
Lindblom’s discussion of incrementalism in 1959: ‘Making policy is at best a very rough process. Neither social scientists, nor politicians, nor public administrators yet know enough about the social world to avoid repeated error in predicting the consequences of policy moves. A wise policy-maker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes and at the same time will produce unanticipated consequences he would have preferred to avoid. If he proceeds through a succession of incremental changes, he avoids serious lasting mistakes’ (or she/ her).
Consequently, we should reject the idea of theoretical novelty for novelty’s sake. The value of complexity theory is not that it is trendy – it is that it allows us to use our knowledge of the natural and social world to understand and influence real world problems.
Evolutionary theory is prevalent in policymaking studies and it can be useful if we overcome some initial barriers. First, ‘evolution’ comes with a lot of baggage when we move from a discussion of animals to people. We can blame ‘social-Darwinism’ for the racist/ sexist idea that some people are more evolved than others.
Second, the word ‘evolution’ is used frequently in daily life, and academic studies, without a clear sense of its meaning. When it is used loosely in everyday language, it refers to a long term, gradual process of change. However, evolution can also refer to quick, dramatic change; the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ is that long spells of stability and gradual change are interrupted by relatively short but profound bursts of instability. When we get into the details of studies, there are other sources of potential confusion about, for example, the nature of evolution (does it refer to advancement as well as change?) and the nature of ‘selection’ (do species simply respond blindly to their environments or help create them?).
This sort of confusion can be found in the study of public policy where evolution can refer to a wide range of things, including:
the cumulative, long-term development of policy solutions;
major disruptions in the way that policy makers think about, and try to solve, policy problems;
the maintenance or radical reform of policy-making institutions;
‘emergent’ behaviour within complex systems
the trial-and-error strategies adopted by actors, such as policy entrepreneurs, when adapting to their environment;
the coming together of multiple factors to create the conditions for major policy change (which can be a creative, ‘window of opportunity’ style process, or a destructive, failure-related ‘perfect storm’ style process).
The most prominent theories of politics and policymaking draw on references to evolution in different ways. For example:
Multiple Streams Analysis (Kingdon). Although policymaker attention may lurch from one problem to another, problems will not be addressed until policy solutions have evolved sufficiently within a policy community and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt them. ‘Evolution’ and the ‘policy primeval soup’ describe the slow progress of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community.
Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (Baumgartner and Jones). ‘Incremental’ policy change in most cases is accompanied by ‘seismic’ change in a small number of cases – an outcome consistent with ‘power laws’ found in the natural and social worlds. Kingdon’s picture of slow progress producing partial mutations is replaced by Baumgartner and Jones’ fast, disruptive, pure mutation.
Complexity theory. People, institutions and their environments are interacting constantly to produce rather unpredictable outcomes (or outcomes that may ‘emerge’ locally, in the absence of central control). This might be broken down into three steps:
Institutions, as sets of rules and norms, represent ways for people to retain certain ideas and encourage particular forms of behaviours.
Complex systems represent (partly) a large number of overlapping and often interdependent institutions.
New behaviours and rules arise from the interaction between multiple institutions and the actors involved.
In other words, different ‘worlds’ are in constant collision, producing new ways of thinking and behaviour that ‘emerge’ from these interactions. They are then passed down through the generations, but in an imperfect way, allowing new forms of thinking and behaviour to emerge.
To describe these processes as ‘evolutionary’, we should use the language of evolution – variation, selection and retention – to describe and explain outcomes. The idea in the natural world is that certain beings (including humans) want to do at least two things: (1) pass on their genes; (2) cooperate with others to secure resources and share them out to their kith and kin. In the political world, the equivalent is passing on ‘memes’ (as described in the 70s by Richard Dawkins) – the ideas (beliefs, ways of thinking) that we use to understand the world and act within it:
‘Variation’ refers to the different rules adopted by different social groups to foster the collective action required to survive.
‘Selection’ describes the interaction between people and their environments; particular environments may provide an advantage to some groups over others and encourage certain behaviours (or, at least, some groups may respond by adapting their behaviour to their environment).
‘Retention’ describes the ways in which people pass on their genes (memes) to ensure the reproduction of their established rules (we might call them ‘institutions’).
The distinctive aspect of applying evolutionary theory to policymaking relates to the idea of passing on memes through the generations. In nature, we think of passing on genes through the generations as a process that takes hundreds, thousands or millions of years. Passing on memes through the ‘policy generations’ is more like the study of fruit flies (months), viruses or bacteria (days or weeks). Ways of thinking, and emerging behaviour, change constantly as people interact with each other, articulating different beliefs and rules and producing new forms of thinking, rules and behaviour. Big jumps in ways of thinking may be associated with generational shifts, but that can take place, for example, as one generation of scientists retires (as described by Kuhn) or, more quickly still, one generation of experts is replaced (within government circles) by another (as described by Hall).
I have discussed in other ‘1000 words’ posts what happens when theories, derived from cases studies of US politics, are applied to other countries and cases. ‘Evolutionary theory’ is more difficult to track, because it is a body of disparate work, loosely related to work in natural science, applied in a non-coordinated way. The same can be said for studies of complexity theory.
To read more, see ‘What is evolutionary theory and how does it inform policy studies?’ PDF, weblink or Green.
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.