Daily Archives: March 25, 2014

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Context, Events, Structural and Socioeconomic Factors

(podcast download)

We need a way to describe the things that policymakers take into account when they make decisions. We also need a way to categorise these things in order of importance, from factors that simply catch their eye, to factors that seem to be out of their control and/ or force them into making particular choices.

For example, ‘policy context’ or ‘structural factors’ may be used to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s ‘environment’ is in her control. It can refer to the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems and deciding how to address them, such as a political system’s: geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass social attitudes and behaviour.

box 6.1 structural

Or, we might refer to‘events’, which can be: routine, such as the elections, or unanticipated incidents, including social or natural crises, major scientific breakthroughs and technological change (see Weible).

Or, we might refer to policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs (Rose, 1990). The first thing that a new government does is accept responsibility for the decisions made in its name in the past. New policymakers also realise that they are engaging in governing organisations which often have well-established rules, to which they either have to adapt or expend energy to challenge.

Structure and agency

Our challenge is to find a way to incorporate these factors into a convincing account of policymaking. The policy sciences face the same problem as the social sciences: how to conceptualise the relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’. Or, how much do policymakers shape, and how much of their behaviour is shaped by, their policy environment?

The term ‘structure’ refers vaguely to a set of parts put together to form a whole. In social science, we attribute two key properties to structures: they are relatively fixed and difficult but not impossible to break down; and, they influence the decisions that actors (‘agents’) make. For example, it is common to describe the structure of the economy, rules within institutions, government, and even some ideas.

From this starting point, we can identify agency-heavy and structural-heavy explanations. For the latter, one common solution is to focus on how actors interpret and respond to context and events. If so, we might consider if an event is only significant if actors within political systems pay attention to it.

This approach may contrast with socioeconomic-driven accounts which suggest that demographic, economic and other factors determine: which issues reach the policymaking agenda; which solutions seem feasible; the actors that policymakers try most to please; and, the likely success of any action.

For example, some studies from the 1960s examined the extent to which variations in policies across US states were explained by the socio-economic composition of each state. Similarly, Hofferbert’s (1974) ‘funnel of causality’ gives the impression that historic-geographic conditions contribute to the socio-economic composition of a region, which contributes to mass political behavior which determines the fortunes of parties – and all three combine with government institutions to influence elite behaviour.

Perhaps the most recent exposition of a structure-heavy account is summed up in the phrase ‘globalisation’ which describes the diminished ability of governments to control their own economic and monetary policies. Governments appear to be forced to ‘race to the bottom’; to compete economically, react to widespread shifts and crises in international financial conditions and change to attract business from multi-national corporations (often by reducing corporation taxes and labour regulations).

Structural versus comprehensive rationality based explanations?

This discussion prompts us to consider a different perspective to comprehensively rational decision making, or the idea that the policy process begins with the decision by a policymaker to identify a problem to solve. Instead, we may envisage a world in which policies are already in place and the ability of policymakers to replace them are limited. This decision-making process takes place within the context of existing government policy and a huge infrastructure devoted to carrying it out. Further, policymakers often define problems after events have taken place; those events may be out of the control of policymakers and often appear to give them very little choice about how, if it is possible, to solve them.

One way to describe this process is to suggest that policymakers represent one small part of a large complex system. Complexity theory suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a political 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 into the actions of its constituent parts. This idea of a system captures the difficulty of policymaking and serves as a corrective to accounts that focus too much on the importance of individual policymakers and which exaggerate their ability to single-handedly change policy.

A structure-agency mix

Of course, we do not want to go too far; to suggest that people don’t matter. So, a sensible approach is to think in terms of a structure–agency mix:

  • An ageing population may give governments little choice but to plan for the consequences, but they can do so in a variety of ways.
  • Technology-driven healthcare is not irresistible, particularly if expenditure is limited and cost-effective public health policies are available.
  • Coastal conditions may force us to build protective barriers, but policymakers have shown that they can ignore the issue for some time, until the environmental conditions cause a human crisis.
  • The appearance of globalisation, crises and economically-driven policies may be convenient for policymakers attempting to introduce unpopular policies or avoid responsibility for poor results. Yet, the ‘race to the bottom’ has also been resisted by many governments, often with reference to competing structural factors such as historical legacies and national values.

A final sensible solution is to not worry too much about what we call the solution. In my day, there was a lot of humming and hawing about Gidden’s ‘two sides of the same coin’ description of actors and structures, but I don’t remember anything being resolved.

See also: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Networks, sub-government and communities

(podcast download)

‘Policy networks’ or ‘policy communities’ represent the building blocks of policy studies. Most policy theories situate them at the heart of the policy process. The concept also travels well and, for example, there is a common focus in many countries, such as the US and UK, on ‘sub-government’. Yet, as box 9.1 suggests, there has been a proliferation of terms to describe the nature of relationships between policymakers, in formal positions of power, and the pressure participants* who seek to influence them.

box 9.1

We should also remember that some descriptions may relate to specific places and/ or eras and often have different target audiences.

Let’s explore this potentially-confusing combination of ‘universal’ and specific meanings by beginning with the ‘logic’ of policy communities:

  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is in danger of becoming unmanageable. The same can be said of the crowded environment in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, the state’s component parts are broken down into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across government.
  • Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. In effect, they delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as bureaucrats, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, bureaucrats rely on specialist organisations for information and advice.
  • Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government (other resources may relate to who groups represent – such as a large, paying membership, an important profession, or a high status donor or corporation).
  • Therefore, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist policy communities that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.

Broadly speaking, this logic is likely to hold in many countries and eras (including the current ‘age of austerity’), but this level of abstraction also masks important variations over time and in different countries. For example, my bullet-point description derives largely from studies of the UK from the late 1970s. Their main targets were studies of Westminster politics, ‘centring on an adversarial parliamentary arena where successive changes of government would lead to major changes in policy imposed from the top down’ (Jordan and Cairney, 2013: 236). Instead, policy communities are pervasive and most decisions are beyond the reach, or attention, of ministers.

Over time, and as networks research was at its peak in the 1980s and 90s, those targets shifted and the meaning of community changed:

Jordan Cairney 2013 meaning of policy community

As you can see from this excerpt (p238), my colleague Grant Jordan was not happy with the redefinition of ‘policy community’ over the years, but it helped accentuate a key point regarding the logic described above: it could produce a small and exclusive club mentality, as civil servants rely on a select number of groups and together they exclude most other actors, or a much messier, open, and/ or unpredictable process in which many actors could gain entry.

The latter is generally called an ‘issue network’ and associated with Heclo’s (1978) famous desire to conceptualise the changing world of US politics, as the simple ‘clubby days of Washington politics’ (and ‘cozy’ or ‘iron triangles’) was replaced by ‘complex relationships’ among a huge, politically active population. Issues which were once ‘quietly managed by a small group of insiders’ have now become ‘controversial and politicized’.

This is the main focus of several of the policy theories described in the 1000 words series, including:

  • Punctuated Equilibrium Theory – it seeks to measure and explain long periods of policymaking stability, and policy continuity, disrupted by short but intense periods of instability and change. A key focus is on the maintenance or breakdown on subsystem-level ‘policy monopolies’.
  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework – its focus is on actors with similar beliefs forming coalitions which compete with other coalitions in subsystems. It focuses on relatively open subsystems with a wide range of actors.
  • Multi-level Governance – it draws on the policy communities/ networks literature to track the diffusion of power, from the ‘centre’ to a wide range of organisations, and how it is shared between the actors formally responsible for policymaking and the actors seeking to inform and influence their decisions.

*Grant Jordan and colleagues prefer ‘pressure participant’ because they worry about ‘pressure group’ or ‘interest group’ being used as default terms whenever we are not quite sure how to describe lobbying activity. They argue that ‘pressure group’ can be misleading in two main ways. First, it conjures up a particular image of a group which may not be accurate. We may think of subscription-based unions or large membership groups like Greenpeace, even though many groups (and ‘think tanks’) are funded by single patrons. Second, the organisations most likely to lobby governments are not pressure groups. Instead, they are businesses, public sector organisations such as universities and other types of government.

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How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?

Paul Cairney (2015) ‘How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?’ Teaching Public Administration, 33, 1, 22-39 PDF

Policymakers and academics often hold different assumptions about the policymaking world based on their different experiences. Academics may enjoy enough distance from the policy process to develop a breadth of knowledge and produce generalisable conclusions across governments, while policymakers/ practitioners such as civil servants may develop in-depth expertise when developing policy for a number of years. In turn, both may learn from each other about how to understand the policymaking world.

Academic-practitioner seminars and short training courses can help further that aim. Yet, there is a major barrier to such conversations: academics and practitioners may have their own language to understand policymaking, and a meaningful conversation may require considerable translation.

To examine these issues, this article relates my attempts, in a series of steps, to turn abstract policy theory into something useful for practitioners.

The first step is to identify a potential disconnect between the starting points for academic-practitioner discussions and policy theories. In the former, we may still use concepts developed to aid policymaking – such as the policy cycle, the ideal of ‘comprehensive rationality’ and the ‘top-down approach’ to implementation – because they aid discussion. In the latter, we have generally moved on from these descriptions of the world, to reflect the policy process’ complexity and our need for new theories to help explain it.

The second is to consider how to make those more realistic, but specialist, scientific concepts as meaningful to practitioners. The article considers the extent to which modern theories can provide straightforward insights to policy practitioners by condensing and articulating its ‘key tenets’.

The third is to consider how insights from those tenets, based largely on what governments do, can be used to recommend what they should do. The article contrasts how they might be used by a ‘top down minded’ government with how they might be used by scholars to recommend action. It focuses in particular on ‘complexity theory’ as an approach which combines policy theory with practical recommendations.

A final step is to consider how we can engage with policymakers to discuss those insights. The article draws on my experience of teaching civil servants in policy training seminars, using these theories to identify complex policymaking systems and encourage ‘reflexivity’ about how to adapt to, and operate within, them.

The article performs a dual role: as a way to explain the policy process in a straightforward way, and as a resource for civil servants engaged in policy training seminars.

Green version

See also: Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking?

and/ or

Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy