Daily Archives: March 28, 2014

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Institutions and New Institutionalism

box 5.1 2nd ed UPP

(podcast download)

The study of public policy would be incomplete without an understanding of policymaking institutions. The study of political science would also be incomplete without turning our understanding of terms such as ‘institutions’ upside down. ‘Institution’ may in the past have referred to organizations such as legislatures, courts and executives. With ‘new institutionalism’, it refers to two factors: regular patterns of behaviour; and the rules, norms, practices and relationships that influence such behaviour.

These rules can be formal, or enshrined in a constitution, legislation or regulations:

  • The constitutional nature of political systems – such as confederal or federal; federal or unitary; presidential, parliamentary or semi-presidential; unicameral or bicameral; containing constitutional courts; or holding procedures for regular referendums.
  • Their operating procedures – including electoral systems, party systems, rules of government formation and executive–legislative relations, the role of public bureaucracies, and the extent to which group-government relations are ‘institutionalised’ (such as in formal corporatist arrangements).
  • Their regulatory frameworks – including the rules governing the operation of economic organizations, interest groups, and public organizations, and the rules governing the provision of public services.

Rules can also be informal, and are described variously as habits, norms, practices or rules that develop without a grand plan. As such, they are often unwritten and difficult to identify or understand by people outside of an organisation.

In practice, we may identify a mix of formality and informality – the combination of written regulations and unwritten understandings of how organisations are expected to operate. This helps explain why political systems often operate rather similarly in practice despite having different constitutional arrangements. For example, the commonly perceived logic or benefit of subsystem/ policy community arrangements helps explain why they are central to most systems.

So far, so good. The problems begin when we try to move from this rather intuitive and broad discussion, to produce concrete studies and detailed approaches. There are three main problems to look out for:

1. We may not know what an institution is. Instead, we often use the ‘I know it when I see it’ approach. For example, the Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions dedicates at least one chapter to: the state, civil society, economic institutions, constitutions, federal and territorial institutions, executives, legislatures, courts, bicameral structures, public bureaucracies, the welfare state, regulations, local government, political parties, electoral systems, direct democracy, international and non-governmental institutions. This is a wide range of activity, brought together largely because definition of institution is vague.

2. We may not agree what new institutionalism is. Instead, Lowndes identifies many variants, including normative, rational choice, historical, empirical, international, sociological, network, constructivist and feminist institutionalism. This suggests that ‘institutionalism’ represents a loose collection of approaches rather than a coherent theory.

3. We may not agree what institutions do. Most discussions tread a fine line between saying that rules influence or determine the behaviour of individuals but there is no common agreement on how to balance the two. It presents us with a classic structure/ agency problem. On the one hand, an institution can be treated effectively as a structure because many rules often endure in the same basic form regardless of the individuals involved. On the other, these rules may only endure because they are passed on, as part of a process of training or socialisation. If so, a rule becomes akin to a language: it only survives if there are enough individuals committed to its survival. It is not inevitable that institutions endure over time, and we may question the extent to which institutions represent shared meanings and practices. Instead, they may be reproduced in different ways by individuals who understand those rules, and act, differently. This makes the identification of institutions very tricky indeed, particularly if rules exist largely in the minds of actors, they are reproduced in implicit or unwritten ways, and implicit rules contradict the rules that are written down.

The first edition of  Understanding Public Policy only outlined four main approaches:

  1. Historical. Historical contingency refers to the extent to which events and decisions made in the past contributed to the formation of institutions that influence current practices. Path dependence suggests that when a commitment to an institution has been established and resources devoted to it, it becomes increasingly costly to choose a different path. Therefore, institutions, and the practices they encourage, may remain stable for long periods of time. A ‘critical juncture’ is the point at which certain events and decisions were made which led to the development of an institution. The timing of these decisions is crucial, because it may be the order of events that sets institutional development on a particular path (note the term ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ which also appears in complexity theory).
  2. Rational Choice. One aim of rational choice theory is to establish what proportion of political outcomes one can explain with reference to the choices of individuals pursuing their preferences under particular conditions. Institutions represent those conditions, providing incentives to act or punishments to deter action. Institutions represent sets of rules that influence choices, often producing regular patterns of behaviour. This regularity can be expressed in terms of equilibrium when we identify a stable point at which there is no incentive to divert from these patterns of behaviour.
  3. Normative and Sociological. Norms and values within organisations influence behaviour. They matter when members understand and are expected to follow rules. March and Olson describe the ‘rules of appropriateness’ which are ‘transmitted through socialization’ and ‘followed because they are seen as natural, rightful, expected and legitimate’.
  4. Constructivist. Institutions represent shared beliefs which give people a common aim and a reason to believe that they have shared interests. In some cases, ideas or beliefs become institutionalized; they are often taken for granted and rarely questioned. In other cases, they are subject to often-radical change, as beliefs are challenged or the understanding of rules change as they are communicated or debated.
  5. The second edition now includes feminist institutionalism, which now has its own 500 words post.

One task, with these accounts, is to consider if their insights are complementary or contradictory. They are not mutually exclusive, and ideational accounts may provide important qualifications to the idea that institutions represent relatively-fixed structures. However, note the level of debate on these points, and consider our ability to reconcile these approaches.

Another task is to consider institutions as part of a wider explanation. For example, Social Construction and Policy Design links this discussion to power and agenda setting. Compare with Punctuated Equilibrium Theory, which is one of the few to define institutions primarily as organisations or venues rather than their rules.

See also the more up-to-date:

Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons



Filed under 1000 words, public policy

What is the Future of Scotland’s Political System?

Referendums on constitutional change in Scotland produce ‘windows of opportunity’ to discuss the future of Scottish politics and policymaking. For example, the Scottish Constitutional Convention – an organization comprising political parties, interest groups, civic and religious leaders – formed in 1989 to promote the principle, and operation, of devolved government. It set much of the agenda during the devolution debates in the 1990s, promoting ‘new politics’, or widespread reform based on a rejection of political practices in ‘old Westminster’. Some of the SCC’s broad aims were met, including a mixed-member proportional system designed to reduce the chance of single party majorities, and encourage some bargaining between parties.

However, the Scottish political system is still part of the ‘Westminster family’, producing a Scottish Government which processes the vast majority of policy, a Scottish Parliament that is generally peripheral to that day-to-day policy process, and a public with limited opportunities for direct influence. As in most countries, most policy is processed in ‘policy communities’ or ‘subsystems’, which bring together civil servants, interest groups, and representatives of an extensive public sector landscape, including local, health, police, fire service and other service-specific bodies. This generally takes place out of the public spotlight and often with minimal parliamentary involvement. Indeed, few non-specialists could describe how these bodies interact and where key decisions on Scottish policy are being made.

Further, the Scottish public sector landscape is changing. The Scottish Government has, since 2007, produced a National Performance Framework and rejected the idea that it can, or should, micromanage public sector bodies using performance measures combined with short term targets. Instead, it encourages them to cooperate to produce long term outcomes consistent with the Framework, through vehicles such as Community Planning Partnerships. Further, following its commitment to a ‘decisive shift to prevention’, it has begun to encourage reforms designed to harness greater community and service-user design of public services.

This is important background which should inform the current independence debate, most of which focuses on external relations and neglects Scotland’s internal dynamics. The independence agenda gives us a chance to evaluate the devolution experience so far, and consider what might change if there is independence or further devolution. As far as possible, we should focus on the Scottish political system as a whole, including the relationship between the Scottish Parliament, public participation, the Scottish Government, and a wide range of public sector bodies, most of which are unelected.

Consider, for example, if the system follows its current trajectory, towards a greater reliance on local governance. This development has great potential to undermine traditional forms of parliamentary scrutiny. The Scottish Parliament already lacks the ability to gather information independently – it tends to rely on bodies such as the Scottish Government to provide that information. It does not get enough information from the Scottish Government about what is going on locally. Scotland lacks the top-down performance management system that we associate with the UK Government, and a greater focus on long term outcomes removes an important and regular source of information on public sector performance. Local and health authorities also push back against calls for detailed information. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability.

Local decision-making also has the potential to change the ‘subsystem’ landscape. Currently, most Scottish policy is processed by civil servants who consult regularly with pressure participants. Most ‘lobbying’ to the Scottish Government is done by (a) other parts or types of Government and (b) professional and interest groups. Civil servants rely on groups for information and advice, and they often form long term, efficient and productive relationships based on trust and regular exchange. When policy is made at the Scottish level, those groups organise at the Scottish level. The Scottish Government is a key hub for policy relationships; it coordinates networks, referees disputes, and gathers information and advice at a central level.

One consequence of devolving more power locally is that these groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. Such a shift would produce new winners and losers. The well-resourced professional groups can adapt their multi-level lobbying strategies, while the groups working on a small budget, only able to lobby the Scottish Government, will struggle.

Such developments may prompt discussions about three types of reform. The first relates to a greater need to develop local participatory capacity, to take on the functions performed less by these national organisations. For example, the ERS Scotland’s suggestion is that more local devolution could produce a more active local population. Even so, we still need to know more about how and why people organise. For example, local communities may organise in an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area as they arise; to engage in a small part of the policy process at a particular time. They do not have the resources to engage in a more meaningful way, compared to a Parliament and collection of established groups which maintain a constant presence and develop knowledge of the details of policies over time.

The second relates to governance reforms which focus primarily on the relationship between elected local authorities, a wide range of unelected public bodies, and service users. There is some potential to establish a form of legitimacy through local elections but, as things stand, local authorities are expected to work in partnership with unelected bodies – not hold them to account. There is also some scope to develop a form of user-driven public service accountability, but separate from the electoral process and with an uncertain focus on how that process fits into the wider picture.

The third relates to parliamentary reform. So far, the Scottish Parliament has not responded significantly to governance trends and a shift to outcomes focused policymaking. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees devote two to three months per year to the scrutiny of the annual budget bill. In general, this scrutiny has a very narrow focus, with a limited emphasis on pre- or post-legislative scrutiny, and its value is unclear. It has the potential to change its role. It can shift its activities towards a focus on Scottish Government policy in broader terms, through the work of inquiries in general and its finance and audit functions in particular.

Yet, while there are many issues still to be resolved, they are unlikely to be addressed before the referendum in September. Proposals for political reform only make sporadic appearances on the referendum agenda, and developments in governance tend to take place beyond the public spotlight. Scotland has its own political system, but it is one which is developing in a piecemeal way. A Yes vote in September may mark a radical shift in constitutional politics, but not in the way Scotland does politics.

Full paper: Cairney 2015 Political Quarterly Scotland Future


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Scottish politics