Can A Government Really Take Control Of Public Policy?

This post first appeared on the MIHE blog to help sell my book.

During elections, many future leaders give the impression that they will take control of public policy. They promise major policy change and give little indication that anything might stand in their way.

This image has been a major feature of Donald Trump’s rhetoric on his US Presidency. It has also been a feature of campaigns for the UK withdrawal from the European Union (‘Brexit’) to allow its leaders to take back control of policy and policymaking. According to this narrative, Brexit would allow (a) the UK government to make profound changes to immigration and spending, and (b) Parliament and the public to hold the UK government directly to account, in contrast to a distant EU policy process less subject to direct British scrutiny.

Such promises are built on the false image of a single ‘centre’ of government, in which a small number of elected policymakers take responsibility for policy outcomes. This way of thinking is rejected continuously in the modern literature. Instead, policymaking is ‘multi-centric’: responsibility for policy outcomes is spread across many levels and types of government (‘centres’), and shared with organisations outside of government, to the extent that it is not possible to simply know who is in charge and to blame. This arrangement helps explain why leaders promise major policy change but most outcomes represent a minor departure from the status quo.

Some studies of politics relate this arrangement to the choice to share power across many centres. In the US, a written constitution ensures power sharing across different branches (executive, legislative, judicial) and between federal and state or local jurisdictions. In the UK, central government has long shared power with EU, devolved, and local policymaking organisations.

However, policy theories show that most aspects of multi-centric governance are necessary. The public policy literature provides many ways to describe such policy processes, but two are particularly useful.

The first approach is to explain the diffusion of power with reference to an enduring logic of policymaking, as follows:

  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is always in danger of becoming unmanageable. Policymakers 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. They pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. 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.
  • 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 suggests that senior elected politicians are less important than people think, their impact on policy is questionable, and elections may not provide major changes in policy. Most decisions are taken in their name but without their intervention.

A second, more general, approach is to show that elected politicians deal with such limitations by combining cognition and emotion to make choices quickly. Although such action allows them to be decisive, they occur within a policymaking environment over which governments have limited control. Government bureaucracies only have the coordinative capacity to direct policy outcomes in a small number of high priority areas. In most other cases, policymaking is spread across many venues, each with their own rules, networks, ways of seeing the world, and ways of responding to socio-economic factors and events.

In that context, we should always be sceptical when election candidates and referendum campaigners (or, in many cases, leaders of authoritarian governments) make such promises about political leadership and government control.

A more sophisticated knowledge of policy processes allows us to identify the limits to the actions of elected policymakers, and develop a healthier sense of pragmatism about the likely impact of government policy. The question of our age is not: how can governments take back control? Rather, it is: how can we hold policymakers to account in a complex system over which they have limited knowledge and even less control?

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Filed under public policy, UK politics and policy

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