Several 500 Word and 1000 Word (a, b, c) posts try to define and measure policy change.
Most studies agree that policymaking systems produce huge amounts of minor change and rare instances of radical change, but not how to explain these patterns. For example:
- Debates on incrementalism questioned if radical change could be managed via non-radical steps.
- Punctuated equilibrium theory describes policy change as a function of disproportionately low or high attention to problems, and akin to the frequency of earthquakes (a huge number of tiny changes, and more major changes than we would see in a ‘normal distribution’).
One of the most famous accounts of major policy change is by Peter Hall. ‘Policy paradigms’ help explain a tendency towards inertia, punctuated rarely by radical change (compare with discussions of path dependence and critical junctures).
A policy paradigm is a dominant and often taken-for-granted worldview (or collection of beliefs) about: policy goals, the nature of a policy problem, and the instruments to address it.
Paradigms can operate for long periods, subject to minimal challenge or defended successfully during events that call current policies into question. Adherence to a paradigm produces two ‘orders’ of change:
- 1st order: frequent routine bureaucratic changes to instruments while maintaining policy goals.
- 2nd order: less frequent, non-routine changes (or use of new instruments) while maintaining policy goals.
Radical and rare – 3rd order – policy change may only follow a crisis in which policymakers cannot solve a policy problem or explain why policy is failing. It prompts a reappraisal and rejection of the dominant paradigm, by a new government with new ways of thinking and/or a government rejecting current experts in favour of new ones. Hall’s example was of rapid paradigm shift in UK economic policy – from ‘Keynesianism’ to ‘Monetarism’ – within very few years.
Hall’s account prompted two different debates:
1. Some describe Hall’s case study as unusual.
Many scholars produced different phrases to describe a more likely pattern of (a) non-radical policy changes contributing to (b) long-term paradigm change and (c) institutional change, perhaps over decades. They include: ‘gradual change with transformative results’ and ‘punctuated evolution’ (see also 1000 Words: Evolution).
2. Some describe Hall’s case study as inaccurate.
This UK paradigm change did not actually happen. Instead, there was:
(a) A sudden and profound policy change that did not represent a paradigm shift (the UK experiment with Monetarism was short-lived).
(b) A series of less radical changes that produced paradigm change over decades: from Keynesianism to ‘neo-Keynesianism’, or from state intervention to neoliberalism (such as to foster economic growth via private rather than public borrowing and spending)
These debates connect strongly to issues in policy analysis, particularly if analysts seek transformative policy change to challenge unequal and unfair outcomes (such as in relation to racism or the climate crisis):
- Is paradigm change generally only possible over decades?
- How will we know if this transformation is actually taking place and here to stay (if even the best of us can be fooled by temporary developments)?
1. Beware the use of the word ‘evolution‘
2. This focus on the endurance of policy instrument change connects to studies of policy success (see Great Policy Successes).
3. Paul Cairney and Chris Weible (2015) ‘Comparing and Contrasting Peter Hall’s Paradigms and Ideas with the Advocacy Coalition Framework’ in (eds) M. Howlett and J. Hogan Policy Paradigms in Theory and Practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave) PDF