Monthly Archives: May 2019

A general theory of public policy

This is a placeholder for future work and discussion. It tails off at the end.

People sometimes talk about a ‘general theory’ of public policy to put in our minds a comparison with the physical sciences. Usually, the punchline is that there are ‘no general theories of public policy that are not bounded by space or time’ (p21). There may be some reference to the accumulation of knowledge or wisdom in policy studies, but based rarely on the understanding that policy studies contain the equivalent of general laws (I can only think of one possible exception).

This outcome is not too surprising in the social sciences, in which context really matters and we would expect a lot of variation in policy, policymaking, and outcomes.

On the other hand, we still need a way to communicate our findings, relate them to other studies, compare them, and wonder what it all adds up to. Few people go as far as expressing the sense that every study is unique (to the point of non-comparability) and that every description of policymaking does not compare to another.

In other words, we may be looking for a happy medium, to reject the idea of general laws but encourage – when appropriate or necessary – enough of a sense of common outlook and experience to help us communicate with each other (without descending too quickly into heated debate on our cross-purposes). Or, we can at least tell a story of policy studies and invite others to learn from, or challenge, its insights.

In my case, there are two examples in which it is necessary to project some sense of a common and initially-not-too-complicated story:

  1. When describing policy theory insights to students, on the assumption that it may be their gateway to more reading.

It is possible to choose how many words to devote to each topic, including 500 Words, 1000 Words, a 9000 word Understanding Public Policy chapter, more in the source material, and even more if students start to ‘snowball’.

It is also possible, if you have a clearly defined audience, to introduce some level of uncertainty about these descriptions and their limitations.

For example, I try to describe ‘the policy process’ in 500 words and 1000 words, but in the context of a wider discussion of images of the policy process.

Circle image policy process 24.10.18

It is also possible to provide more context, such as in this kind of introductory box, coupled with 12 things to know about studying public policy

Introduction box

(from Chapter 1)

You can also get into the idea that my story is one of many, particularly after students have invested in many versions of that story by the end of an introductory book

conclusion box

(from Chapter 13)

  1. When describing these insights to people – from other disciplines or professions – who do not have the time, inclination, or frame of reference to put in that kind of work.

In this case, one presentation or article may be the limit. People may want to know the answer to a question – e.g. Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?rather than hear all about the explanation for the answer.

You do your best, and then – if there is time – you talk about what you missed out.

For example, in this talk, the first question was: why didn’t you mention the role of power?


A general theory or a general understanding? Two key issues

That was a long-winded introduction to a more philosophical point about what we might want from general theories. My impression is that you might be seeking one of these two possibilities:

  1. To use theories and concepts to describe material reality. In producing a general theory, we seek a general understanding of the ways in which the real world works. If so, we may focus primarily on how well these concepts describe the world, and the extent to which we can produce methods to produce systematic and consistent findings. The lack of a general theory denotes too much complexity and context.
  2. To use theories and concepts to represent a useful story. In producing a general understanding, we focus on the ways in which people generate and communicate their understanding. If so, we may focus more on how people come together to produce and share meaning through concepts. The lack of a general theory could reflect the lack of agreement on how to study policymaking. Or, the presence of a general understanding could represent the exercise of power, to set the agenda and limit scholarly attention to a small number of theories.

I describe this distinction in the following audio clip, produced halfway through a run with the dogs, while jetlagged. The large gap in the middle happens when I am trying to see if the voice to text is working well enough for me to copy/paste it here (no).

Key examples of the exercise of power include:

  1. The act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge (discussed in power and knowledge and Chapter 3).
  2. Ongoing discussions about how we deal with (a) a relatively new focus (among the most-established policy theories) on policy studies in countries in the Global South, given that (b) the dominant interpretations of policymaking come from experiences in the Global North.

box 13.4 part 1box 13.4 part 2

So, if you read these posts or Chapter 13 you will find a story of a general understanding of policy followed, almost immediately, by a list of reasons for why you should engage with it critically and perhaps not accept it. I’m setting your agenda but also reminding you that I’m doing it.

That’s it really. To be continued.

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Filed under 1000 words, Academic innovation or navel gazing, agenda setting, public policy, Storytelling