Tag Archives: comprehensive rationality

The global study of governance and public policy

Cairney GPP Iran

I was invited by Dr Emamian from the Governance and Policy Think Tank to deliver this short lecture at the first ‘governance and public policy conference’ in Iran. I was unable to attend, so recorded a set of short video presentations supplemented by blog discussion. The topics to be covered include the importance of a scholarly network for policy studies, the need for a set of core policy concepts to act as a technical language for that network, and the need to apply that language to explain shifts in government and regulation towards ‘regulatory governance’.

Please note that my choice to record the videos in my garden (while I look up) seemed good at the time, for some very good reasons that I won’t get into. However, you will see that I become increasingly cold and annoyed at being cold. I can only apologize for my face and the fact that I was too cold to remember to put on my professional voice.

Using shared concepts in a scholarly network of policy researchers

Our aim may be to produce a global network of policy scholars, in two main ways:

  1. To foster meetings and discussion, such as via this conference and others such as the ICPP and ECPR
  2. To make sure that we are talking about the same thing. Most of the theories to which I refer are based on studies of countries like the US and UK. Their prominence contributes to a ‘global north’ perspective which can be useful in the abstract but with uncertain applicability across the globe.

For example, when considering the applicability of US-inspired theories, think about their taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of a political system, in which leaders in many levels and types of government are elected regularly, there is a constitution guaranteeing a division of powers across legislative-executive-judicial branches and between federal/subnational levels, and people describe a ‘pluralist’ system in which many groups mobilise and counter-mobilise to influence policy.

What happens when we stop taking this political context for granted? Do these theories remain as relevant?

Which concepts do we use?

I describe two main abstract concepts then invite you to think about how to apply them in more concrete circumstances.

  1. Bounded rationality, not comprehensive rationality.

No-one can understand fully the world in which we live. Individuals can only understand and pay attention to a tiny part of key aspects of the world such as political systems.

Indeed, a handy phrase to remember is that almost all people must ignore almost everything almost all of the time.

Yet, they must make choices despite uncertainty, perhaps by adopting ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics. In other words, we may see all human choices as flawed when compared with an ideal of perfect decision-making. On the other hand, we may marvel at the ways in which humans make often-good choices despite their limitations.

Individual policymakers use two short-cuts to gather enough information to make choices:

  • ‘Rational’, in which they adopt measures to ensure that they have good enough information to inform decisions. For example, they prioritise certain written sources of information and draw on people they consider to be experts.
  • ‘Irrational’, in which they rely on things like gut instinct, habit, and emotion to make snap decisions.

In that context, policy scholarship involves the study of how people make and influence those choices. One part is about the role of evidence, in which people produce information to reduce uncertainty about the nature of the world. However, the more important study is of how people understand the world in the first place. As policy scholars, we focus on ambiguity, to describe the many ways in which people choose to understand the same problems, and the exercise of power to influence those choices.

  1. A complex policymaking environment, not a policy cycle.

Things get more complicated when we move from the analysis of (a) key individuals to (b) the interaction between many individuals and organisations in a complex policymaking ‘system’ or ‘environment’. Policy scholars describe this environment in many different ways, using different concepts, but we can identify a core set of terms on which to focus:

  • Actors. There are many policy influencers and policymakers in many authoritative venues spread across many levels and types of government.
  • Institutions. Each venue has its own rules, including the formal, written-down, and easy to understand rules, versus the informal norms, cultures, and practices which are difficult to identify and describe.
  • Networks. Policymakers and influencers form relationships based on factors such as trust, authority, and the exchange of resources such as information and support.
  • Ideas. People communicate their beliefs, about policy problems and potential solutions, within a wider understanding of the world (often described as a paradigm or hegemony). Some of that understanding is taken-for-granted and not described, and people limit their analysis and argument according to the ways in which they think other people see the world.
  • Socioeconomic context and events. Policymakers often have to respond to policy conditions and events over which they have limited control, such geographic, demographic, and economic factors. These factors help produce non-routine ‘events’ alongside more predictable events such as elections (or other means to ensure a change of government).

In that context, policy scholarship focuses on producing theories to explain what happens when policymakers have limited control over their political systems and policymaking environments.

How far do these concepts travel?

As you can see, these concepts are widely applicable because they are abstract. What happens when we try to apply them to specific countries or case studies? For example:

  1. We talk about policymakers using cognitive, moral, and emotional shortcuts, but those shortcuts can vary profoundly across the globe.
  2. Each political system has a different collection of authoritative venues, formal and informal rules of politics, networks of power, ways to describe how the world works and should work, and socioeconomic context.

This is where our global network becomes valuable, to help us describe how we make sense of the same concepts in very different ways, and consider the extent to which such discussions are comparable.

Example: how do governments address an ‘era of governance’?

One way to foster such discussion is to consider how governments address the limits to their powers. These limits are described in many different ways, from a focus on ‘complexity’ and policy outcomes which ‘emerge’ from local activity (despite attempts by central governments to control outcomes), to a focus on the shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’.

As policy scholars, we can make several useful distinctions to describe these dynamics, such as to separate an actual shift in policymaking from government to governance, versus a shift in the way we now describe government.

Or, we can separate how governments can, do, and should address the limits to their powers.

I’d say that most policy scholarship focuses on how governments operate: how they actually address problems and what are the – intended and unintended – consequences.

However, these studies are trying to describe the tensions between what governments can do, given the limits I describe, and what they think they should do, given their position of authority and their need to describe their success.

For example, some systems may be more conducive to the support for ‘polycentric governance’, in which many authoritative venues cooperate to address problems, while others are built on the idea of central control and the concentration of authority in a small group of actors.

Therefore, the study of actual policymaking and outcomes will vary markedly according to the ways in which government actors feel they need to assert an image of control over a policy environment which is almost immune to control.

Perhaps an ‘era of governance’ describes some recognition by many governments that they need to find new ways to address their limited control over policy outcomes, both domestically and globally. However, an enduring theme in political science and policy studies is that we do not explain policymaking well if we restrict our attention to the ‘rational’ decisions of a small number of actors. Let’s not make too many assumptions about their power and motive.

Further reading:

The New Policy Sciences

How to Communicate Effectively with Policymakers

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking

Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Bounded Rationality and Incrementalism

(podcast download)

A classic starting point in policy studies is to compare ideal-types (which might be ideals to aspire to) with the real world. The classic example is comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality. The idea is that elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process (aims are identified, the means to achieve those aims are produced and one is selected) and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility.

Its comparator is ‘bounded rationality’ (coined by Simon) which suggests that policymakers’ ability to make and implement decisions is more problematic. We question our ability to separate values and facts. We note that policymakers have multiple, often unclear, objectives which are difficult to rank in any meaningful way. We wonder if the policy process is so ordered and linear (or if policymakers sometimes select a solution that already exists to a problem defined for them). We know that policymaking organizations have limited knowledge and research capabilities; that they have to use major shortcuts to gather a limited amount of information in a limited time. We know not to seek policymaking perfection, but something that is good enough. We don’t ‘maximize’ – we ‘satisfice’.

We can use this discussion to go down two main paths. The first is empirical/ descriptive. Lindblom’s famous conclusion is that bounded rationality helps cause incrementalism[i]. Organizations use simplifying strategies, such as limiting policy analysis to a small number of policy choices which diverge incrementally from the status quo (based on the argument that it is better to analyse a few issues comprehensively than seek comprehensive coverage of all issues). They use trial and error. Rather than ranking preferences in advance, they test their willingness to trade off one aim for another when they make policy decisions. They use an incremental strategy as a rule of thumb: if a previous policy commanded widespread respect then policymakers recognise the costs (analytical and political) of a significant departure from it.

If we follow this empirical path, we want to know if policymaking, and its outcome, is incremental. This picture of policymaking seemed to be common wisdom for some time: Lindblom’s critics often bemoaned the problems with the outcome, not his analysis. We can also identify related terms such as path dependence, policy succession and inheritance before choice which, albeit in different ways, highlight the dependence of current policy decisions on those made in the past. More recently, punctuated equilibrium theory suggests that incrementalism is not the full story. Rather, we can identify a mix of ‘hyper-incrementalism’ and radical change; a huge number of small changes and a small number of huge changes. Studies of policy diffusion also suggest that bounded rationality often prompts governments to emulate the (often radical) policies of other governments without fully understanding their success. So, we can now identify, in the literature, a common focus on bounded rationality as a starting point, but some very different conclusions about policy change.

The second path is normative/ prescriptive. Lindblom’s early work was often criticised for selling incrementalism as good practice: focusing on radical options is futile if no-one will countenance them anyway; policy in a series of steps reduces serious mistakes; and, existing policy is good if based on wide agreement. It prompted intense debate, focused on the extent to which incrementalism was appropriate when governments had a mandate for, or a need to engage in, radical change. Lindblom’s thinking also changed to some extent, to reflect his diminishing belief that the US political system was pluralistic and therefore a vehicle for policy based on widespread agreement.

This debate took place when Lindblom was contrasting policymaking in the US with the Soviet Union. Incrementalism was partly an antidote to ‘central planning’. While that specific debate has aged, we can still identify a broader concern with the centralization of power. The ideal of comprehensive rationality includes an assumption that power is held centrally by policymakers whose decisions are carried out by neutral bureaucrats or other organizations. In other words, a central decision maker should control the policy process; power should reside in the hands of elites at the top/ the centre at the expense of other actors. This raises debates about the balance between central and local government power, particularly when both have electoral mandates. We should also consider our need to balance authority at the top with local knowledge at the bottom; to balance the delegation of policymaking to people who know best how to do it with the maintenance of a meaningful degree of accountability for the outcomes. For example, you can see this debate play out in studies which apply complexity theory to public policy. In practice, the descriptive/ prescriptive elements of these discussions become blurred. One may argue for particular arrangements not only based on principle but also because they appear to work.

Much of the postwar debate took place in the idiosyncratic US, but incrementalism (or, in some cases, inertia) has been identified as a defining feature in systems such as Japan, Italy and Germany. It is tempting to associate incrementalism with particular types of system, such as ‘consensus democracies’ or systems with diffused power and multiple veto points – in contrast to the ‘majoritarian’ or ‘top-down’ UK. Yet, incrementalism’s key features – bounded rationality; the necessity of bargaining and compromise between actors who have different information, different interests and conflicting views; and, the need to build on past policies – may be ‘universal’.


[i] Policymaking through non-radical steps. Note that the meaning of ‘incrementalism’ is not always clear and that Lindblom is not its only exponent – look out for Wildavsky too.

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