Some notes for my guest appearance on @urbaneprofessor ‘s module
Paul comes from a Political Science background and started off his project trying to understand why politicians don’t make good policy. He uses a lot of Political Science theory to understand the policy process (what MPP students have been learning) and theory from Public Policy about how to make the policy process better.
I come from a Social Policy background. I presume policy will be bad, and approach policy analysis from a normative position, analysing and criticising it from theoretical and critical perspectives.
I specialize in the study of public policy and policymaking. I ‘synthesise’ and use policy concepts and theories to ask: how do policy processes work, and why?
Most theories and concepts – summarized in 1000 and 500 words – engage with that question in some way.
As such, I primarily seek to describe and explain policymaking, without spending much time thinking about making it better (unless asked to do so, or unless I feel very energetic).
In particular, I can give you a decent account of how all of these policy theories relate to each other, which is more important that it first seems.
A story of complex government
This ‘synthesis’ relates to my story about key elements of policy theories, with a different context influencing how I tell it. For example, I tend to describe ‘The Policy Process’ in 500 or 1000 words with the ‘Westminster Model’ versus ‘policy communities’ stories in mind (and a US scholar might tell this story in a different way):
Bounded rationality (500, 1000):
- Individual policymakers can only pay attention to and understand a tiny proportion of (a) available information (b) the policy problems of which they are ostensibly responsible
- So, they find cognitive shortcuts to pay attention to some issues/ information and ignore the rest (goal setting, relying on trusted advisors, belief translation, gut instinct, etc.)
- Governmental organisations have more capacity, but also develop ‘standard operating procedures’ to limit their attention, and rely on many other actors for information and advice
Complex Policymaking Environments consisting of:
- Many actors in many venues
- Institutions (formal and informal rules)
- Networks (relationships between policymakers and influencers)
- Ideas (dominant beliefs, influencing the interpretation of problems and solutions)
- Socioeconomic context and events
As such, the story of, say, multi-centric policymaking (or MLG, or complexity theory) contrasts with the idea of highly centralized control in the UK government.
A story of ‘evidence based policymaking’
That story provides context for applications to the agendas taken forward by other disciplines or professions.
- The most obvious example is ‘evidence based policymaking’: my role is to explain why it is little more than a political slogan, and why people should not expect (or indeed want) it to exist, not to lobby for its existence
- Also working on similar stories in relation to policy learning and policy design: my role is to highlight dilemmas and cautionary tales, not be a policy designer.
The politics of policymaking research
Most of the theories I describe relate to theory-informed empirical projects, generally originating from the US, and generally described as ‘positivist’ in contrast to (say) ‘interpretive’ (or, say, ‘constructivist’).
However, there are some interesting qualifications:
- Some argue that these distinctions are overcooked (or, I suppose, overboiled)
- Some try to bring in postpositivist ideas to positivist networks (NPF)
- Some emerged from ‘critical policy analysis’ (SCPD)
The politics of policy analysis
This context helps understand my most recent book: The Politics of Policy Analysis
The initial podcast tells a story about MPP development, in which I used to ask students to write policy analyses (1st semester) without explaining what policy analysis was, or how to do it. My excuse is that the punchline of the module was: your account of the policy theories/ policy context is more important than your actual analysis (see the Annex to the book).
Since then, I have produced a webpage – 750 – which:
- summarises the stories of the most-used policy analysis texts (e.g. Bardach) which identify steps including: define the problem; identify solutions; use values to compare trade-offs between solutions; predict their effects; make a recommendation
- relates those texts to policy theories, to identify how bounded rationality and complexity change that story (and the story of the policy cycle)
- relates both to ‘critical’ policy analysis and social science texts (some engage directly – like Stone, like Bacchi – while some provide insights – such as on critical race theory – without necessarily describing ‘policy analysis’)
A description of ‘critical’ approaches is fairly broad, but I think they tend to have key elements in common:
- a commitment to use research to improve policy for marginalized populations (described by Bacchi as siding with the powerless against the powerful, usually in relation to class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability)
- analysing policy to identify: who is portrayed positively/negatively; who benefits or suffers as a result
- analysing policymaking to identify: whose knowledge counts (e.g. as high quality and policy relevant), who is included or excluded
- identifying ways to challenge (a) dominant and damaging policy frames and (b) insulated/ exclusive versus participatory/ inclusive forms of policymaking
If so, I would see these three approaches as ways to understand and engage with policymaking that could be complementary or contradictory. In other words, I would warn against assuming one or the other.
One response to “I am not Peter Matthews”
I don’t agree that politicians are not capable of, nor do, make good public policy, as what constitutes ‘good’ is subjective, which you appear to realize based upon your discussion of the various models and complexities associated with making public policy. As a former elected official, public administrator and now professor of political science, I can argue that I did help make good public policy on occasion, but my bias is clear, and it might be argued that the policy I helped set only advanced some interests over others. However, this is the core element of democracy and pluralism, no one is truly fulfilling the totality of their self-interests, we are simply developing public policy in a way that expresses our best effort to achieve some degree of progress on an issue and maintain social stability. So maybe the question is what should we expect politicians to do about public policy when they are representing a public with a diversity of views as to what represents good public policy? The reality of a democratic political system can be frustrating, but I think that frustration is, itself, a key element of a healthy democracy.