It would be a mistake to equate public policy with whatever a government says it is doing (or wants to do).
The most obvious, but often unhelpful, explanation for this statement is that politicians are not sincere when making policy promises, or not competent enough to see them through.
This focus on sincerity and ‘political will’ can be useful, but only scratches the surface of explanation.
The bigger source of explanation comes from the routine, pervasive, and inevitable contradictions of policy and policymaking.
The basic idea of contradictory aims and necessary trade-offs
I want to eat crisps and lose weight, but making a commitment to both does not achieve both. Rather, I cycle between each aim, often unpredictably, producing what might appear to be an inconsistent approach to my wellbeing.
These problems only get worse when more people and aims are involved. Indeed, a general description of ‘politics’ regards trying to find ways to resolve the many different preferences of many people in the same society. These preferences are intransitive, prompting policy actors to try to manipulate choice situations, or produce effective stories or narratives, to encourage one choice over another. Even if successful in once case, the overall impact of political action is not consistent.
The inevitable result of politics is that policymakers want to prioritise many policy aims and the aims that undermine them. When they pursue many contradictory aims, they have to make trade-offs and prioritise some aims over others. Sometimes, this choice is explicit. Sometimes, you have to work out what a government’s real priorities are when they seem sincerely committed to so many things. If so, we should not deduce government policy overall from specific statements and policies.
This basic idea plays out in many different ways, including:
- Policymakers need to address many contradictory demands
Contradictions are inevitable when policymakers seek to offer policy benefits to many different groups for different reasons. Some benefits are largely rhetorical, others more substantive.
- Ambiguity allows policy actors to downplay contradictions (temporarily) when generating support.
Contradictions are masked by ambiguity, such as when many different actors support the same vague ambition for very different reasons.
- Policy silos contribute to contradictory action
Contradictions are exacerbated by inevitable and pervasive policy silos or ‘communities’ that seem immune to ‘holistic’ government. They multiply when governments have many departments pursuing many different aims. There may be a vague hope for joined-up policy, but a strong rationale for policy communities to specialise and become insulated.
- Multi-level or multi-centric policymaking creates a contradiction challenge
The power to make policies – or create or amend policy instruments – is spread across many different venues of authority. If so, a key aim – stated often – is to find ways to cooperate to avoid contradictory policies and practices. The logical consequence of this distribution of powers, and the continuous search for meaningful cooperation, is that such contradictions are routine features, not bugs, of political systems.
- Institutions contain contradictory rules and expectations
Contradictions are a feature of organisational and systemic rules and norms, in which the rules on paper are not the rules in use.
- Policymaking systems exacerbate contradictions
Contradictions emerge from complex policymaking systems, in which unexpected outcomes emerge despite central government action.
Some of these outcomes simply emerge from routine policy delivery, when the actors carrying out policy have different ideas than the actors sending them instructions. Or, implementing actors do not have the resources or clarity to do what they think they are being told.
Examples of contradictions in policy and policymaking
Most governments are committed rhetorically (and often sincerely) to the public health agenda ‘Health in All Policies’ but also the social and economic policies that undermine it. The same goes for the more general aim of ‘prevention’.
Governments and organisations promote anti-racist policies (or softer-sounding equality, diversity, and inclusion policies) while reproducing racist institutions and practices.
In these kinds of cases, it is tempting to conclude that governments make promises energetically as a substitute for – not a signal of – action.
Levin et al note that the governments seeking to reduce climate change are also responsible for its inevitability.
The US and EU have subsidised the production and/or encouraged the sale of tobacco (to foster economic aims) at the same time as seeking tobacco control and discouraging smoking (to foster public health aims).
Few theories and concepts in these series use this term, but many help to explain many elements of policy and policymaking contradictions.
See also this note on policymaking in Scotland, also containing the not-entirely-helpful crisp analogy.