Where are the Political Parties in Policy Theory?

I was giving a rundown of policy theories to a postgraduate seminar – Comparing Theories of the Policy Process: A Brief Guide for Postgraduates – and my colleague Donley Studlar asked me: where are political parties in this analysis? It prompted us to discuss the general tendency for abstract policy theory to focus on processes or concepts – actors, institutions, networks/ subsystems, ideas, context, events – and for the possibility that parties would not necessarily come up as part of the explanation. Let me give you two reasons for this:

  1. (Donley) Policy theory is interdisciplinary and many contributing disciplines are not political science.
  2. To some extent, policy theory in political science has developed in response to a fixation on elections and political parties. It is a corrective measure, to point out that elections may produce a change in the governing party but not produce major changes in policy and policymaking. Most policy is processed at a level of government that receives very little attention from ministers and parties. When we go too far, it looks like we are saying that elections and parties don’t matter, when we really want to say, less strongly, that they are not the centre of the universe.

Consequently, political parties are there if you look hard enough. Let me give you two examples:

  1. What if we described a political party, in part, as a vehicle for the beliefs of its members and leaders? In part, a party is there to help people translate their beliefs/ ideology into policy choices. If so, we are effectively describing the same process outlined in the advocacy coalition framework. People engage in politics to translate their beliefs into policy. They form coalitions with like-minded people and demonise their opponents. In that sense, parties are one part of that discussion.
  2. What if we used punctuated equilibrium theory to explain a key part of the policy process: long periods of policymaking stability and policy continuity disrupted by instability and change. We would focus on the ability of the ‘macropolitical’ system only to serial process (to consider one issue at a time) but the ability of subsystems to parallel process (many subsystems considering different issues at the same time). We would focus on the tendency of macropolitical attention to lurch from issue to issue, disrupting some subsystems but leaving the rest intact. Parties would be part of that analysis, as key groups often leading debate at the macropolitical level and, in some discussions, as elected members playing roles in particular subsystems.

Parties may also be treated in some analyses as institutions, or sets of rules and norms that guide individual behaviour, as the vehicles for policy ‘narratives’ identifying problems and assigning blame, and/ or as part of the discussion of routine events (elections producing new parties of government). So, if you have a particular interest in political parties, you can find a way to explore their role in the policy process using existing theories and concepts. They just don’t always get special attention. See also https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/

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Filed under public policy, UK politics and policy

One response to “Where are the Political Parties in Policy Theory?

  1. Pingback: 12 things to know about studying public policy | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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