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/


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

4 responses to “Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Context, Events, Structural and Socioeconomic Factors

  1. Pingback: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Institutions and New Institutionalism | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Key theories in policymaking: how to explain what is going on in Scotland | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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

  4. Pingback: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Framing | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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