Monthly Archives: August 2019

Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism

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New institutionalism’ describes regular patterns of behaviour and the rules, norms, practices, and relationships that influence such behaviour. This influence can range from direct enforcement by the state to an individual’s perception of a need to conform to norms.

Institutions can be formal, well understood, and written down (such as when enshrined in a constitution, legislation, or regulations).

They can also be informal, unwritten, and difficult to identify or understand by people outside of an organisation. They ‘exist in the minds of the participants and sometimes are shared as implicit knowledge rather than in an explicit and written form’ (Ostrom, 2007: 23). Therefore, the rules followed implicitly may contradict the rules described explicitly.

Feminist research helps us understand the relationship between such institutions and power, to advance ‘the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research’.

If we understand institutions broadly as formal rules and informal norms, we can find many ways in which to explore the existence and enforcement of inequalities, such as by:

In other words, such action can involve the direct and visible exercise of power, often reflected in the formal rules of political systems. Or, it can be part of the ‘hidden life of institutions’ that requires much more analysis and effort to see and challenge.

Such insights help to advance other common variants of new institutionalism, including:

  • Historical. The well-established dominance of elected positions by men is maintained via ‘path dependent’ processes (such as the incumbency effect).
  • Rational choice. Men and women may adopt the same ‘calculus’ approach to action, but face very different rewards and punishments.
  • Discursive. The use of discourse to reinforce ‘racial or gendered stereotypes’ may help maintain social inequalities.
  • Network. The ‘velvet triangle’ describes the policy networks of ‘feminist bureaucrats, trusted academics, and organized voices in the women’s movement’ that develop partly because women are excluded routinely from the positions of power.

Crucially, these insights also help us understand the expectations- or implementation-gaps that arise when people try to reform political practices and policymaking in complex or multi-centric systems.  A policy change such as gender mainstreaming may seem straightforward and instant when viewed in relation to formal institutions, such as a statutory duty combined with a strategic plan adopted across government. However, it also represents the first step in a highly uncertain and problematic process to address the informal, unwritten, ill-understood, everyday, taken-for-granted (and often fiercely guarded) sources of inequality that are reflected in policy and practice as a whole.

Note: this post summarizes a new section in Chapter 5 of Understanding Public Policy 2nd edition (compare with Lowndes). I benefited greatly from advice by Professor Fiona Mackay during its writing.

See also Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies

 

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: how do policy theories describe policy change?

The 1000 words and 500 words series already show how important but difficult it is to define and measure policy change. In this post, Leanne Giordono and I dig deeper into the – often confusingly different – ways in which different researchers conceptualise this process. We show why there is such variation and provide a checklist of questions to ask of any description of policy change.

Measuring policy change is more difficult than it looks

The measurement of policy change is important. Most ‘what is policy?’ discussions remind us that there can be a huge difference between policy as a (a)  statement of intent, (b) strategy, (c) collection of tools/ instruments and (d) contributor to policy outcomes.

Policy theories remind us that, while politicians and political parties often promise to sweep into office and produce radical departures from the past, most policy change is minor. There is a major gap between stated intention and actual outcomes, partly because policymakers do not control the policy process for which they are responsible. Instead, they inherit the commitments of their predecessors and make changes at the margins.

The 1000 words and 500 words posts suggest that we address this problem of measurement by identifying the use of a potentially large number of policy instruments or policy tools such as regulation (including legislation) and resources (money and staffing) to accentuate the power at policymaker’s disposal.

Then, they suggest that we tell a story of policy change, focusing on (a) what problem policymakers were trying to solve, and the size of their response in relation to the size of the problem, and (b) the precise nature of specific changes, or how each change contributes to the ‘big picture’.

This recommendation highlights a potentially major problem: as researchers, we can produce very different narratives of policy change from the same pool of evidence, by accentuating some measures and ignoring others, or putting more faith in some data than others.

Three ways to navigate different approaches to imagining and measuring change

Researchers use many different concepts and measures to define and identify policy change. It would be unrealistic – and perhaps unimaginative – to solve this problem with a call for one uniform approach.

Rather, our aim is to help you (a) navigate this diverse field by (b) identifying the issues and concepts that will help you interpret and compare different ways to measure change.

  1. Check if people are ‘showing their work’

Pay close attention to how scholars are defining their terms. For example, be careful with incomplete definitions that rely on a reference to evolutionary change (which can mean so many different things) or incremental change (e.g. does an increment mean small or non-radical)? Or, note that frequent distinctions between minor versus major change seem useful, but we are often trying to capture and explain a confusing mixture of both.

  1. Look out for different questions

Multiple typologies of change often arise because different theories ask and answer different questions:

  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework distinguishes between minor and major change, associating the former with routine ‘policy-oriented learning’, and the latter with changes in core policy beliefs, often caused by a ‘shock’ associated with policy failure or external events.
  • Innovation and Diffusion models examine the adoption and non-adoption of a specific policy solution over a specific period of time in multiple jurisdictions as a result of learning, imitation, competition or coercion.
  • Classic studies of public expenditure generated four categories to ask if the ‘budgetary process of the United States government is equivalent to a set of temporally stable linear decision rules’. They describe policy change as minor and predictable and explain outliers as deviations from the norm.
  • Punctuated Equilibrium Theory identifies a combination of (a) huge numbers of small policy change and (b) small numbers of huge change as the norm, in budgetary and other policy changes.
  • Hall distinguishes between (a) routine adjustments to policy instruments, (b) changes in instruments to achieve existing goals, and (c) complete shifts in goals. He compares long periods in which (1) some ideas dominate and institutions do not change, with (2) ‘third order’ change in which a profound sense of failure contributes to a radical shift of beliefs and rules.
  • More recent scholarship identifies a range of concepts – including layering, drift, conversion, and displacement – to explain more gradual causes of profound changes to institutions.

These approaches identify a range of possible sources of measures:

  1. a combination of policy instruments that add up to overall change
  2. the same single change in many places
  3. change in relation to one measure, such as budgets
  4. a change in ideas, policy instruments and/ or rules.

As such, the potential for confusion is high when we include all such measures under the single banner of ‘policy change’.

  1. Look out for different measures

Spot the different ways in which scholars try to ‘operationalize’ and measure policy change, quantitatively and/ or qualitatively, with reference to four main categories.

  1. Size can be measured with reference to:
  • A comparison of old and new policy positions.
  • A change observed in a sample or whole population (using, for example, standard deviations from the mean).
  • An ‘ideal’ state, such as an industry or ‘best practice’ standard.
  1. Speed describes the amount of change that occurs over a specific interval of time, such as:
  • How long it takes for policy to change after a specific event or under specific conditions.
  • The duration of time between commencement and completion (often described as ‘sudden’ or ‘gradual’).
  • How this speed compares with comparable policy changes in other jurisdictions (often described with reference to ‘leaders’ and ‘laggards’).
  1. Direction describes the course of the path from one policy state to another. It is often described in comparison to:
  • An initial position in one jurisdiction (such as an expansion or contraction).
  • Policy or policy change in other jurisdictions (such as via ‘benchmarking’ or ‘league tables’)
  • An ‘ideal’ state (such as with reference to left or right wing aims).
  1. Substance relates to policy change in relations to:
  • Relatively tangible instruments such as legislation, regulation, or public expenditure.
  • More abstract concepts such as in relation to beliefs or goals.

Take home points for students

Be thoughtful when drawing comparisons between applications, drawn from many theoretical traditions, and addressing different research questions.  You can seek clarity by posing three questions:

  1. How clearly has the author defined the concept of policy change?
  2. How are the chosen theories and research questions likely to influence the author’s operationalization of policy change?
  3. How does the author operationalize policy change with respect to size, speed, direction, and/or substance?

However, you should also note that the choice of definition and theory may affect the meaning of measures such as size, speed, direction, and/or substance.

 

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The Scottish Parliament is essential to Scottish democracy, but what kind of democracy is it?

This post first appeared in the Scottish Left Review and Centre on Constitutional Change blog.

The Scottish Parliament is of fundamental importance to Scottish democracy. A well-functioning and effective parliamentary system underpins a well-functioning democratic system.
However, there is no point in pretending that a single body can foster every kind of democracy. Instead, we make choices about the type of democracy we would like to see. More realistically still, we reflect on the type of system that already exists, why it endures, and if there is a realistic chance of reforming it.
To my mind, Scottish devolution reinforced representative and pluralist forms of democracy, with minimal scope for more participatory or deliberative innovations. Further, the Scottish Parliament represents a profoundly important legitimising role even though, in practice, cannot pay attention to more than a tiny proportion of government decisions made ostensibly with its blessing. In this post, I use this argument to provide context for future debates on parliamentary and democratic reforms.
From the establishment of Scottish devolution, a key problem with the idea of a Scottish Parliament has been that it represents all things to all people without a clear sense of the trade-offs or tensions between different aims. New Scottish Parliament elections foster representative democracy and the hope for a more representative body of MSPs. A petitions process, and experimentation with a civic forum and mini-publics, fosters participatory and deliberative democracy. New styles of consultation and cooperation with policy participants, such as interest groups or third sector groups, foster pluralist democracy.
Yet, these activities do not simply come together to produce a marvellous harmony of voices. Rather, democracy is frequently – if not primarily – about people competing to be heard at the others’ expense. Or, one forum competes with another to represent the main hub for democratic expression.
For me, the main tension is between two very different models. The first was summed up by the vague phrase ‘new politics’. The Scottish Parliament would foster participation by coordinating a petitions process, sponsoring the Scottish Civic Forum (SCF) and, perhaps, experimenting with initiatives – such as mini-publics and citizen juries – to explore the extent to which the deliberations of a small group of people could inform wider public and parliamentary debate.
Neil McGarvey and I devoted a full chapter to such topics in the first edition of Scottish Politics in 2008. We wrote largely about the gaps between some people’s expectations and actual practices. The SCF closed after receiving minimal Scottish Parliament and Government support (and interest groups preferred to approach those bodies directly). The petitions process encouraged self-selecting participation – and the chance for small groups of people to set the agenda of a committee for a brief period – but offered little hope for influencing government policy.
Further, almost no other initiatives got off the ground. By 2013, we removed this chapter altogether, simply because there was nothing new to say. The idea of democratic innovations had a new lease of life when the Commission on Parliamentary Reform recommended their greater use, but we should manage our expectations based on the Scottish experience to date.
The second model was a much more traditional and enduring form of representative democracy coupled with the assumption that the government would govern. In this model, the Scottish Parliament plays two profoundly important roles.
First, it provides a forum for representation. In particular, there were explicitly high – and partly fulfilled – hopes that the Scottish Parliament would be more representative of women, coupled with far vaguer and unfulfilled hopes for representationaccording to race or ethnicity, class, age, and disability.
Second, it legitimises Scottish Government policy. To all intents and purposes, it delegates policymaking responsibility to the Scottish Government then holds minsters to account for the ways in which they carry that responsibility. In many cases, the policy is humdrum and routine, with little partisan competition or committee interest. In some, the policy is high salience, with party competition infusing committee attention.
Focusing on the second model allows us to highlight the ways, and extent, to which the Scottish Parliament matters. Consider two descriptions that appear to highlight minimal versus maximal importance.
The first is the classic ‘policy communities’ description of pluralist democracy, inspired by Grant Jordan and Jeremy Richardson’s highly provocative description of a policy process in a post-parliamentary democracy. In many ways, this description highlights the limited role of Parliament by describing the limited role of ministers:
  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is always in danger of becoming unmanageable. There is a highly crowded policymaking environment, in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, ministers manage complexity by breaking the state’s component parts into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across many parts of 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 civil servants, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, civil servants 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.
  • 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.
This description of ‘policy communities’ suggests that senior elected politicians are less important than people think, their impact on policy is questionable, and elections and changes of government may not provide the changes in policy that many expect.
Further, it calls into question the importance of MSPs questioning ministers in plenary and committee: they will receive often-minimal information about a small proportion of government business.
This description reinforces practical concerns about the feasibility of parliamentary scrutiny. Scottish Parliament committees have limited resources to scrutinise policy and question ministers effectively; they rarely engage in meaningful or direct contact with civil servants; they struggle to gather information on the work of public bodies; and, local authorities generally argue that they are accountable to their electorates, not Parliament. Periods of coalition majority (1999-2007), minority (2007-11; 2016-) and single party majority (2011-6) government have reinforced this image of a peripheral-looking body. The Scottish Parliament is a powerful body at the heart of accountability on paper, but not in practice.
The second description comes from another classic: David Judge’s The Parliamentary State. He argues that the importance of Parliament is not found in the observance of its ‘powers’ as such, but in examination of, ‘the very process of representation and the legitimation of governmental outputs flowing from that process’.  Any exercise of power by a government is dependent on Parliament granting its consent and legitimacy. Otherwise, policy communities would suffer from a legitimation gap and would be unable to operate to describe their outputs as ‘authoritative’ or ‘binding’.
Thus, for example, government bill teams take great care to anticipate parliamentary reaction, and produce draft legislation accordingly. If so, parliamentary influence exists in the minds and practices of ministers and civil servants, and is not as visible as, say, First Minister’s Questions.
For me, these arguments essentially represent two sides of the same coin.
On one side is intense parliamentary activity that matters. In some cases, MSPs become engaged intensely in plenary and committee discussions, and ministers and civil servants built their expectation of this response into their policy design.
On the other side is the logical consequence to this activity: if MSPs are paying attention to those issues, they have to ignore the rest. The scope of state intervention in our lives, and size of the public sector, is immense, and the Scottish Parliament only has the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of that activity. The anticipated reactions argument can only take us so far when there is so much policy activity that is legitimised by the Scottish Parliament out of awareness.
These insights should inform debates on how we might reform the Scottish Parliament
In that context, other recommendations by the Commission on Parliamentary Reform seem more relevant to Scottish democracy. Discussions of participatory and deliberative democracy are interesting, but they describe a tiny proportion of government business. Representative and pluralist democracy is where the action is.
Some recommendations describe the prospect of a more organised process for scrutiny of ministers. However, others recognise the need to enhance meaningful relationships with other parts of the policy process, including local government and government agencies.
The latter suggestion is crucial to the ways in which Scottish Government has changed over the last decade, to set a broad strategy and invite a large number of public bodies to carry it out, often aided by long term outcomes measures rather than the kinds of short term targets more conducive to straightforward parliamentary scrutiny.
The Scottish Government makes these reforms partly via the choice to share power across the public sector, and partly because it lacks the capacity to control, coordinate, or even understand most of the decisions made in its name. The policy communities argument now extends to the public sector as a whole, rather than central government departments.
If so, the most important democratic reform would be to shift parliamentary attention (somewhat) from high salience set piece debates towards the more routine and humdrum monitoring of the public sector as a whole.
This would be in keeping with the acknowledgement that most decisions made in the name of Scottish ministers, and legitimised by the Scottish Parliament, take place despite minimal ministerial and parliamentary attention.
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