Occupy the semantic space! Opening up the language of better regulation

Professor Claudio Radaelli introduces the first article – ‘Occupy the semantic space!’ – to be published in the Journal of European Public Policy Special Issue ‘The Politics of Policy Analysis’. Radaelli analyses the regulatory reform agenda of international organizations to shine a light on the language of depoliticization. He highlights a tendency for policymakers to use the phrase ‘Better Regulation’ as a tool to describe policy activities as self-evident, common sense, or natural (who would not want regulation to be better?). This approach helps to insulate current approaches from debate. Such cases studies highlight the need for policy actors to challenge attempts to ‘occupy the semantic space’.

What do ‘better regulation’, ‘policy coherence’, ‘agile governance’, ‘smart cities’, and ‘social value judgements’ have in common? They are all part of our contemporary language of governance. Policymakers use them every day. International organizations publish indicators on the progress made by individual countries in achieving better, coherent, agile governance. But, there is something else.

Look at the semantics

Semantically, these conceptual entities have something important in common. It is difficult to object to language that points to something naturally desirable. Who can argue for worse regulation or policy incoherence? The whole semantic space is kind of already taken, occupied by the dominant language of governance. Then, you either talk within that language or you do not find semantic space to explore, argue for, and organise alternatives. In a recent article, I explore what happens with this language of governance.

I explore in detail better regulation as policy reform agenda. This appears at first glance unquestionable, universally desirable. Yet, the content of better regulation is actually assembled in distinctive ways – such as the pivotal role of economics as justification for regulatory choice, the concerns about excessive regulatory burdens, the imperative to use regulation to stimulate innovation. Again, I am not saying these are wrong concepts. But they are one of the ways we can reason about regulation, not the only one. Instead, with better regulation, it looks like there is no other way.

As political theorist Michael Freeden would say, concepts are assembled in morphologies that make up an ideology. I use ideology not in the sense that this reform agenda is ideological or false consciousness. Ideology, in this case, is how concepts are assembled and work together.

A semantic double act

So, how do concepts work together? First, the adoption of better regulation language limits semantic fragmentation within large coalitions for reforms, for example it keeps together the delegates of the Regulatory Policy Committee of the OECD. Imagine a semantic big tent where all delegates can say ‘we are all for better regulation’ whilst at the same time muting the difference between those of us who want to cut regulation and those who care more about the quality of regulation than its quantity.

This is the first move of the semantic act: all concepts are essentially contestable, but here, in this language, they appear de-contested. The second move is to erect a semantic wall that leaves no space to those outside. There is no semantic room for those who disagree with better regulation, only the absurdity of asking for ‘worse’ regulation. It is a bit like saying ‘here, we are all liberals’ (although policy disagreements exist within the liberal front) and vehemently discrediting how the concept of freedom is understood by libertarians. 

Not just language

It is not just a story about language. It is a story about how dominant policy coalitions shield internal conflict (by de-contesting concepts) and make it difficult to build alternative agendas.

I extend the analysis to other domains, such as policy coherence – a morphology of concepts that has been proved analytically flawed, yet it still seduces policy-makers and generates guidance documents of international organizations like the United Nations. In certain domains, these semantic constructions obfuscate winners and losers (as in the case of smart cities), in others they do not provide the correct basis for taking decisions (such as social value judgements).

So what?

In terms of policy practice, to understand how polysemy works brings in transparency. It allows a more diverse dialogue about the advantages and limitations of reform agendas, without obfuscating practice under generically attractive labels.

Providers of public management executive training should be able to discuss the tools they teach by opening up the semantic horizon, considering concepts that allow for an open discussion with practitioners. For policy entrepreneurs who want to contest dominant language, the pathway is the following: show the fragility of the intellectual foundations of certain morphologies of concepts, expose internal ambiguity camouflaged by decontestation, gain a discursive level-playing-field, re-configure polysemy in ways that are more transparent and inclusive.

Looking critically into the language that is taken for granted in international organizations, governments, and many schools of public policy is a valuable task. Unveiling and exposing the double act can empower alternative coalitions but also benefit the members of the dominant coalition willing to reduce ambiguity and increase transparency in the connection between language and practice. To expose ambiguity helps a dominant coalition to move forward – for example the OECD has carried out a project on moving beyond the classic perimeter of better regulation, discussing four beliefs systems.

And what about us, policy researchers? In the end, all concepts are contestable: policy researchers can contribute to keep this important door (to contestation) open. The identification and critical discussion of dominant language offers citizens the possibility to discuss what is really ‘better’ and ‘for whom’.

Claudio M. Radaelli (2023) ‘Occupy the semantic space! Opening up the language of better regulation’, Journal of European Public Policy, https://doi.org/10.1080/13501763.2023.2181852 (Special Issue: The politics of policy analysis: theoretical insights on real world problems)

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Filed under agenda setting, JEPP The Politics of Policy Analysis, public policy

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