Overview Of Public Policy: The Public And Its Policies
Abstract and Keywords
This article examines a story of the limits of high ambition in policy studies and policy making. It looks at the way those limits have been appreciated and how more modest ambitions have been made. The article also examines the difficulties of modest learning and reveals some of the most basic truths: policy and policy making is mostly a matter of persuasion and policy is not only about arguing, but also about bargaining. Networked governance, choices under constraint, and democratic politics are some of the other topics covered in this article.
The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy aspires to provide a rounded understanding of what it is to make and to suffer, to study and to critique, the programs and policies by which officers of the state attempt to rule. Ruling is an assertion of the will, an attempt to exercise control, to shape the world. Public policies are instruments of this assertive ambition, and policy studies in the mode that emerged from operations research during the Second World War were originally envisaged as handmaidens in that ambition.1 There was a distinctly “high modernist” feel to the enterprise, back then: technocratic hubris, married to a sense of mission to make a better world; an (p. 886) overwhelming confidence in our ability to measure, monitor, and control that world; and boundless confidence in our capacity actually to pull off the task of control (Scott 1997; Moran 2003).
High modernism in the largest democracies was rule by “the best and the brightest” (Halberstam 1969). It left little room for rhetoric and persuasion, privately much less publicly. Policy problems were technical questions, resolvable by the systematic application of technical expertise. First in the Pentagon, then elsewhere across the wider policy community, the “art of judgment” (Vickers 1983) gave way to the dictates of slide-rule efficiency (Hitch 1958; Hitch and McKean 1960; Haveman and Margolis 1983).
Traces of that technocratic hubris remain, in consulting houses and IMF missions and certain other important corners of the policy universe. But across most of that world there has, over the last half-century, been a gradual chastening of the boldest “high modernist” hopes for the policy sciences.2 Even in the 1970s, when the high modernist canon still ruled, perceptive social scientists had begun to highlight the limits to implementation, administration, and control.3 Subsequently, the limits of authority and accountability, of sheer analytic capacity, have borne down upon us.4 Fiasco has piled upon fiasco in some democratic systems (Henderson 1977; Dunleavy 1981; 1995; Bovens and t’Hart 1996). We have learned that many of the tools in the “high modernist” kit are very powerful indeed, within limits; but they are strictly limited (Hood 1983). We have learned how to supplement those “high modernist” approaches with other “softer” modes for analyzing problems and attempting to solve them.
In trying to convey a sense of these changes in the way we have come to approach public policy over the past half-century, the chapters in our Handbook (and still more in this chapter introducing it) focus on the big picture rather than minute details. There are other books to which readers might better turn for fine-grained analyses of current policy debates, policy area by policy area.5 There are other books providing more fine-grained analyses of public administration.6 The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy offers instead a series of connected stories about what it is like, and what it might alternatively be like, to make and remake public policy in new, more modest modes.
This chapter is offered as a scene-setter, rather than as a systematic overview of the whole field of study, much less a potted summary of the chapters of the Oxford Handbook of Public Policy. The authors of those speak most ably for themselves. In this chapter, we simply do likewise. And in doing so we try to tell a particular story: a story about the limits of high ambition in policy studies and policy-making, about the (p. 887) way those limits have been appreciated, about the way more modest ambitions have been formulated, and about the difficulties in turn of modest learning. Our story, like all stories, is contestable. There is no single intellectually campelting account available of the state of either policy-making or the policy sciences; but the irredeemable fact of contestability is a very part of the argument of the pages that follow.
1 Policy Persuasion
We begin with the most important of all limits to high ambition. All our talk of “making” public policy, of “choosing” and “deciding,” loses track of the home truth, taught to President Kennedy by Richard Neustadt (1960), that politics and policy-making is mostly a matter of persuasion. Decide, choose, legislate as they will, policymakers must carry people with them, if their determinations are to have the full force of policy. That is most commonly demonstrated in systems that attempt to practice liberal democracy; but a wealth of evidence shows that even in the most coercive systems of social organization there are powerful limits to the straightforward power of command (Etzioni 1965).
To make policy in a way that makes it stick, policy-makers cannot merely issue edicts. They need to persuade the people who must follow their edicts if those are to become general public practice. In part, that involves persuasion of the public at large: Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” is one important lever. In part, the persuasion required is of subordinates who must operationalize and implement the policies handed down to them by nominal superiors. Truman wrongly pitied “Poor Ike,” whom he envisaged issuing orders as if he were in the army, only to find that no one would automatically obey: as it turned out, Ike had a clear idea how to persuade up and down the chain of command, even if he had no persuasive presence on television (Greenstein 1982). Indeed Eisenhower’s military experience precisely showed that even in nominally hierarchical institutions, persuasion lay at the heart of effective decision.
Not only is the practice of public policy-making largely a matter of persuasion. So too is the discipline of studying policy-making aptly described as itself being a “persuasion” (Reich 1988; Majone 1989). It is a mood more than a science, a loosely organized body of precepts and positions rather than a tightly integrated body of systematic knowledge, more art and craft than genuine “science” (Wildavsky 1979; Goodsell 1992). Its discipline-defining title notwithstanding, Lerner and Lasswell’s pioneering book The Policy Sciences (1951) never claimed otherwise: quite the contrary, as successive editors of the journal that bears that name continually editorially recall.
The cast of mind characterizing policy studies is marked, above all else, by an aspiration toward “relevance.” Policy studies, more than anything, are academic (p. 888) works that attempt to do the real political work: contributing to the betterment of life, offering something that political actors can seize upon and use. From Gun-nar Myrdal’s American Dilemma (1944) through Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (1984) and William Julius Wilson’s Truly Disadvantaged (1987), policy-oriented research on race and poverty has informed successive generations of American policy-makers on both ends of the political spectrum, to take only one important example.
Beyond this stress on relevance, policy studies are distinguished from other sorts of political science, secondly, by being unabashedly value laden (Lasswell 1951; Rein 1976; Goodin 1982). They are explicitly normative, in embracing the ineliminable role of value premisses in policy choice—and often in forthrightly stating and defending the value premisses from which the policy prescriptions that they make proceed. They are unapologetically prescriptive, in actually recommending certain programs and policies over others. Policy studies, first and foremost, give advice about policy; and they cannot do that (on pain of the “naturalistic fallacy”) without basing that advice on some normative (“ought”) premisses in the first place.
Policy studies are distinguished from other sorts of political science, thirdly, by their action-orientation. They are organized around questions of what we as a political community should do, rather than just around questions of what it should be. Whereas other sorts of political studies prescribe designs for our political institutions, as the embodiments or instruments of our collective values, specifically policy studies focus less on institutional shells and more on what we collectively do in and through those institutional forms. Policy studies embody a bias toward acts, outputs, and outcomes—a concern with consequences—that contrasts with the formal-institutional orientation of much of the rest of political studies.
These apparently commonplace observations—that policy studies is a “persuasion” that aspires to normatively committed intervention in the world of action—pose powerful challenges for the policy analyst. One of the greatest challenges concerns the language that the analyst can sensibly use. The professionalization of political science in the last half-century has been accompanied by a familiar development—the development of a correspondingly professional language. Political scientists know who they are talking to when they report findings: They are talking to each other, and they naturally use language with which other political scientists are familiar. They are talking to each other because the scientific world of political science has a recursive quality: The task is to communicate with, and convince, like-minded professionals in terms that make sense to the professional community. Indeed some powerful traditions in purer forms of academic political science are actually suspicious of “relevance” in scholarly enquiry (Van Evera 2003). The findings and arguments of professional political science may seep into the world of action, but that it not the main point of the activity. Accidental seepage is not good enough for policy studies. It harks back to an older world of committed social enquiry where the precise object is to unify systematic social investigation with normative commitment—and to report both the results and the prescriptions in a language accessible to “nonprofessionals.” These can range from engaged—or not (p. 889) very engaged—citizens to the elite of policy-makers. Choosing the language in which to communicate is therefore a tricky, but essential, part of the vocation of policy analysis.
One way of combining all these insights about how policy-making and policy studies are essentially about persuasion is through the “argumentative turn” and the analysis of “discourses” of policy in the “critical policy studies” movement (Fischer and Forrester 1993; Hajer 1995; Hajer and Wagenaar 2003). On this account, a positivist or “high modernist” approach, either to the making of policy or to the understanding of how it is made, that tries to decide what to do or what was done through vaguely mechanical-style causal explanations is bound to fail, or anyway be radically incomplete. Policy analysts are never mere “handmaidens to power.” It is part of their job, and a role that the best of them play well, to advocate the policies that they think right (Majone 1989). The job of the policy analyst is to “speak truth to power” (Wildavsky 1979), where the truths involved embrace not only the hard facts of positivist science but also the reflexive self-understandings of the community both writ large (the polity) and writ small (the policy community, the community of analysts).
It may well be that this reflexive quality is the main gift of the analyst to the practitioner. In modern government practitioners are often forced to live in an unreflective world: The very pressure of business compresses time horizons, obliterating recollection of the past and foreshortening anticipation of the future (Neustadt and May 1986). There is overwhelming pressure to decide, and then to move on to the next problem. Self-consciousness about the limits of decision, and about the setting, social and historical, of decision, is precisely what the analyst can bring to the policy table, even if its presence at the table often seems unwelcome.
Of course, reason-giving has always been a central requirement of policy application, enforced by administrative law. Courts automatically overrule administrative orders accompanied by no reasons. So, too, will their “rationality review” strike down statutes which cannot be shown to serve a legitimate purpose within the power of the state (Fried 2004, 208–12). The great insight of the argumentative turn in policy analysis is that a robust process of reason-giving runs throughout all stages of public policy. It is not just a matter of legislative and administrative window-dressing.
Frank and fearless advice is not always welcomed by those in positions of power. All organizations find self-evaluation hard, and states find it particularly hard: There is a long and well-documented history of states, democratic and nondemocratic, ignoring or even punishing the conveyor of unwelcome truths (Van Evera 2003). Established administrative structures that used to be designed to generate dispassionate advice are increasingly undermined with the politicization of science and the public service (UCS 2004; Peters and Pierre 2004). Still, insofar as policy analysis constitutes a profession with an ethos of its own, the aspiration to “speak truth to power”—even, or especially, unwelcome truths—must be its prime directive, its equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath (ASPA 1984).
(p. 890) 2 Arguing versus Bargaining
Our argument thus far involves modest claims for the “persuasion” of policy studies, but even these modest ambitions carry their own hubristic dangers. Persuasion; the encouragement of a reflexive, self-conscious policy culture; an attention to the language used to communicate with the world of policy action: All are important. But all involve the danger of losing sight of a fundamental truth—that policy is not only about arguing, but is also about bargaining. A policy forum is not an academic seminar. The danger is that we replicate the fallacy of a tradition which we began by rejecting.
Policy analysts, particularly those who see themselves as part of a distinct high modernist professional cadre, often take a technocratic approach to their work. They see themselves as possessing a neutral expertise to be put in the service of any political master. They accept that their role as adviser is to advise, not to choose; and they understand that it is in the nature of advice that it is not always taken. Accepting all this as they do, policy advisers of this more professional, technocratic cast of mind inevitably feel certain pangs of regret when good advice is overridden for bad (“purely political”) reasons.
Politics may rightly seem disreputable when it is purely a matter of power in the service of interests. When there is nothing more to be said on behalf of the outcome than that people who prefer it have power enough to force it, one might fatalistically accept that outcome as politically inevitable without supposing that there is anything at all to be said for it normatively. Certainly there is not much to be said for it normatively, anyway, without saying lots more about why the satisfaction of those preferences is objectively desirable or why that distribution of power is proper.
Nor is this account necessarily incompatible with some conception of democratic policy-making. Indeed some democratic theorists try to supply the needed normative glue by analogizing political competition to the economic market. The two fundamental theorems of welfare economics prove Adam Smith’s early speculation that, at least under certain (pretty unrealistic) conditions, free competition in the marketplace for goods would produce maximum possible satisfaction of people’s preferences (Arrow and Hahn 1971). Democratic theorists after the fashion of Schum-peter (1950) say the same about free competition in the political marketplace for ideas and public policies (Coase 1974). “Partisan mutual adjustment”—between parties, between bureaucracies, between social partners—can, bargaining theorists of politics and public administration assure us, produce socially optimal results (Lindblom 1965).
Of course there are myriad assumptions required for the proofs to go through, and they are met even less often in politics than in economics. (Just think of the assumption of “costless entry of new suppliers:” a heroic enough assumption for producers in economic markets, but a fantastically heroic one as applied to new parties in political markets, especially in a world of “cartelized” party markets (p. 891) (Katz and Mair 1995).) Most importantly, though, the proofs only demonstrate that preferences are maximally satisfied in the Pareto sense: No one can be made better off without someone else being made worse off. Some are inevitably more satisfied than others, and who is most satisfied depends on who has most clout—money in the economic market, or political power in the policy arena. So the classic “proof” of the normative legitimacy of political bargaining is still lacking one crucial leg, which would have to be some justification for the distribution of power that determines “who benefits” (Page 1983). The early policy scientists clearly knew as much, recalling Lasswell’s (1950) definition of “politics” in terms of “who gets what, when, how.”
The success of that enterprise looks even more unlikely when reflecting, as observers of public policy inevitably must, on the interplay between politics and markets (Lindblom 1977; Dahl 1985). The point of politics is to constrain markets: If markets operated perfectly (according to internal economic criteria, and broader social ones), we would let all social relations be determined by them alone. It is only because markets fail in one or the other of those ways, or because they fail to provide the preconditions for their own success, that we need politics at all (Hirsch 1976; Offe 1984; Esping-Andersen 1985; World Bank 1997). But if politics is to provide these necessary conditions for markets, politics must be independent of markets—whereas the interplay of “political money” and the rules of property in most democracies means that politics is, to a large extent, the captive of markets (Lindblom 1977).
Tainted though the processes of representative democracy might be by political money, they nonetheless remain the principal mechanism of public accountability for the exercise of public power. Accountability through economic markets and informal networks can usefully supplement the political accountability of elected officials to the electorate; but they can never replace it (Day and Klein 1987; Goodin 2003).
Another strand of democratic theory has recently emerged, reacting against the bargaining model that sees politics as simply the vector sum of political forces and the aggregation of votes. It is a strand which is easier to reconcile with the “persuasive” character of policy studies. Deliberative democrats invite us to reflect together on our preferences and what policies might best promote the preferences that we reflectively endorse (Dryzek 2000). There are many arenas in which this might take place. Those range from small-scale fora (such as “citizens’ juries,” “consensus conferences,” or “Deliberative Polls” involving between twenty and 200 citizens) through medium-sized associations (Fung and Wright 2001). Ackerman and Fishkin (2004) even have a proposal for a nationwide “Deliberation Day” before every national election.
Not only might certain features of national legislature make that a more “deliberative” assembly, more in line with the requirements of deliberative democracy (Steiner et al. 2005). And not only are certain features of political culture—traditions of free speech and civic engagement—more conducive to deliberative democracy (Sunstein 1993; 2001; Putnam 1993). Policy itself might be made in a more “deliberative” way, by those charged with the task of developing and implementing policy proposals (Fischer 2003). That is the aim of advocates of critical policy studies, with (p. 892) their multifarious proposals for introducing a “deliberative turn” into the making of policies on everything from water use to urban renewal to toxic waste (Hajer and Wagenaar 2003).
Some might say that this deliberative turn marks a shift from reason to rhetoric in policy discourse. And in a way, advocates of that turn might embrace the description, for part of the insight of the deliberative turn is that reason is inseparable from the way we reason: Rhetoric is not decoration but is always engrained in the intellectual content of argument. Certainly they mean to disempower the dogmatic deliverances of technocratic reason, and to make space in the policy-making arena for softer and less hard-edged modes of communication and assessment (Young 2000; Fischer 2003). Reframing the problem is, from this perspective, a legitimate part of the process: It is important to see that the problem looks different from different perspectives, and that different people quite reasonably bring different perspectives to bear (March 1972; Schon and Rein 1994; Allison and Zelikow 1999). Value clarification, and reenvisioning our interests (personal and public), is to be seen as a legitimate and valued outcome of political discussions, rather than as an awkwardness that gets in the way of technocratic fitting of means to pre-given ends. Thus the deliberative turn echoes one of the key features of the “persuasive” conception of policy studies with which we began: Reflexivity is—or should be—at the heart of both advice and decision.
These conceptions, true, are easier to realize in some settings than in others. The place, the institutional site, and the time all matter. National traditions clearly differ in their receptivity to deliberation and argument. The more consultative polities of Scandinavia and continental Europe have always favored more consensual modes of policy-making, compared to the majoritarian polities of the Anglo-American world (Lijphart 1999). Votes are taken, in the end. But the process of policy development and implementation proceeds more according to procedures of “sounding out” stakeholders and interested parties, rather than majorities pressing things to a vote prematurely (Olsen 1972b). Of course, every democratic polity worth the name has some mechanisms for obtaining public input into the policy-making process: letters to Congressmen and congressional hearings, in the USA; Royal Commissions and Green Papers in the UK; and so on. But those seem to be pale shadows of the Scandinavian “remiss” procedures, inviting comment on important policy initiatives and actually taking the feedback seriously, even when it does not necessarily come from powerful political interests capable of blocking the legislation or derailing its implementation (Meijer 1969; Anton 1980).
Sites of governance matter, as well. The high modernist vision was very much one of top-down government: Policies were to be handed down not just from superiors to subordinates down the chain of command, but also from the governing center to the governed peripheries. New, and arguably more democratic, possibilities emerge when looking at governing as a bottom-up process (Tilly 1999). The city or neighborhood suddenly becomes the interesting locus of decision-making, rather than the national legislature. Attempts to increase democratic participation in local decision-making have not met with uniform success, not least because of resistance from politicians (p. 893) nearer the center of power: The resistance of mayors was a major hindrance to the “community action programs” launched as part of the American War on Poverty, for example (Marris and Rein 1982). Still, many of the most encouraging examples of new deliberative processes working to democratize the existing political order operate at very local levels, in local schools or police stations (Fung 2004).
Meshing policy advice and policy decision with deliberation is therefore easier in some nations, and at some levels of government, than others. It also seems easier at some historical moments than others: thus time matters. Until about a quarter of a century ago, for example, policy-making in Britain was highly consensual, based on extensive deliberation about policy options, albeit usually with a relatively narrow range of privileged interests. Indeed, the very necessity of creating accommodation was held to be a source of weakness in the policy process (Dyson 1980; Dyson and Wilks 1983). Since then the system has shifted drastically away from a deliberative, accommodative mode. Many of the characteristic mechanisms associated with consultation and argument—such as Royal Commissions—are neglected; policy is made through tiny, often informally organized cliques in the core executive.
The shift is partly explicable by the great sense of crisis which engulfed British policy-makers at the end of the 1970s, and by the conviction that crisis demanded decisive action free of the encumbrances of debates with special interests. The notion that crisis demands decision, not debate, recurs in many different times and places. Indeed “making a crisis out of a drama” is a familiar rhetorical move when decision-makers want a free hand. Yet here is the paradox of crisis: Critical moments are precisely those when the need is greatest to learn how to make better decisions; yet the construction of crisis as a moment when speed of decision is of the essence precisely makes it the moment when those advocating persuasion and reflexivity are likely to be turned away from the policy table.
All is not gloom even here, however. The analysis of crises—exactly, particular critical events—can be a powerful aid to institutional learning (March, Sproul, and Tamuz 1991). Moreover, there are always multiple “tables”—multiple fora—at which policies are argued out and bargained over. “Jurisdiction shopping” is a familiar complaint, as lawyers look for sympathetic courts to which to bring their cases and polluting industries look for lax regulatory regimes in which to locate. But policy activists face the same suite of choices. Policies are debated, and indeed made, in many different fora. Each operates according to a different set of rules, with a different agenda and on different timelines; each responds to different sets of pressures and urgencies; each has its own norms, language, and professional ethos. So when you cannot get satisfaction in one place, the best advice for a policy activist is to go knocking on some other door (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 1999).
Place, site, and moment often obstruct the “persuasive” practice of the vocation of policy studies. Yet as we show in our next section, there is overwhelming evidence of powerful structural and institutional forces that are dragging policy-makers in a deliberative direction. These powerful forces are encompassed in accounts of networked governance.
(p. 894) 3 Networked Governance
Policy-making in the modern state commonly exhibits a contradictory character. Under the press of daily demands for action, often constructed as “crises,” decisionmakers feel the need to act without delay. Yet powerful forces are pushing systems increasingly in more decentralized and persuasion-based directions.
Of course, even in notionally rigid high modernist hierarchies, the “command theory” of control was never wholly valid. “Orders backed by threats” were never a good way to get things done, in an organization any more than in governing a country. Complex organizations can never be run by coercion alone (Etzioni 1965). An effective authority structure, just as an effective legal system, presupposes that the people operating within it themselves internalize the rules it lays down and critically evaluate their own conduct according to its precepts (Hart 1961). That is true even of the most nominally bureaucratic environments: For instance, Heclo and Wildavsky (1974) characterize the relations among politicians and public officials in the taxing and spending departments of British government as a “village community” full of informal norms and negotiated meanings; an anthropologically “private” way of governing public money.
Thus there have always been limits to command. But the argument that, increasingly, government is giving way to “governance” suggests something more interesting, and something peculiarly relevant to our “persuasive” conception of policy studies: that governing is less and less a matter of ruling through hierarchical authority structures, and more and more a matter of negotiating through a decentralized series of floating alliances. The dominant image is that of “networked governance” (Heclo 1978; Rhodes 1997; Castells 2000). Some actors are more central, others more peripheral, in those networks. But even those actors at the central nodes of networks are not in a position to dictate to the others. Broad cooperation from a great many effectively independent actors is required in order for any of them to accomplish their goals.
To some extent, that has always been the deeper reality underlying constitutional fictions suggesting otherwise. Formally, the Queen in Parliament may be all-powerful; in Dicey’s phrase, may “make or unmake any law whatsoever” (Dicey 1960, 39–40). Nonetheless, firm albeit informal constitutional conventions mean there are myriad things that she simply may not do and retain any serious expectation of retaining her royal prerogatives (unlike, apparently, her representative in other parts of her realm) (Marshall 1984). Formally, Britain was long a unitary state and local governments were utterly creatures of the central state; but even in the days of parliamentary triumphalism the political realities were such that the center had to bargain with local governments rather than simply dictate to them, even on purely financial matters (Rhodes 1988).
But increasingly such realities are looming larger and the fictions even smaller. Policy increasingly depends on what economists call “relational contracts:” an agreement to agree, a settled intention to “work together on this,” with details left to be (p. 895) specified sometime later (Gibson and Goodin 1999). Some fear a “joint decision trap,” in circumstances where there are too many veto players (Scharpf 1988). But Gunnar Myrdal’s (1955, 8, 20) description of the workings of the early days of the Economic Commission for Europe is increasingly true not just of intergovernmental negotiations but intragovernmental ones as well:
And so it has gone in the later life of the European Community, and now the European Union (Héritier 1999).7
If an organization acquires a certain stability and settles down to a tradition of work, one implication is usually that on the whole the same state officials come together at regular intervals. If in addition it becomes repeatedly utilized for reaching inter-governmental agreements in a given field, it may acquire a certain institutional weight and a momentum. Certain substitutes for real political sanctions can then gradually be built up. They are all informal and frail. They assume a commonly shared appreciation of the general usefulness of earlier results reached, the similarly shared pride of, and solidarity towards, the “club” of participants at the meetings, and a considerable influence of the civil servants on the home governments in the particular kind of questions dealt with in the organizations…. Not upholding an agreement is something like a breach of etiquette in a club.
Within these networks, none is in command. Bringing others along, preserving the relationship, is all. Persuasion is the way policy gets made, certainly in any literal “institutional void” (Hajer 2003) but even within real institutions, where authority is typically more fictive than real (Heclo and Wildavsky 1974).
If this is bad news for titular heads of notionally policy-making organizations, it is good news for the otherwise disenfranchised. The history of recent successes in protecting human rights internationally is a case in point. Advocacy coalitions are assembled, linking groups of powerless Nigerians whose rights are being abused by the Nigerian government with groups of human rights activists abroad, who bring pressure to bear on their home governments to bring pressure to bear in turn on Nigeria (Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 1999; Keck and Sikkink 1998). Networking across state borders, as well as across communities and affected interests within state borders, can be an important “weapon of the weak” (Scott 1985).
The change has invaded areas hitherto thought of as the heartland of hierarchy and of authoritative decision by the rich and powerful. Bureaucratic organizations, paradigms of Weberian hierarchy, are yielding to “soft bureaucracy” (Courpasson 2000). And in the world of globally organized business, Braithwaite and Drahos (2000) paint a picture of a decentered world, where networks of bewildering complexity produce regulation often without the formality of any precise moment of decision.
(p. 896) The rise of networked governance in turn accounts for a related turn that is central to the practice of the “persuasive” vocation: the self-conscious turn to government as steering.
4 Rowing versus Steering
High modernist models of policy-making were, first and foremost, models of central control. On those models, policy-makers were supposed to decide what should be done to promote the public good, and then to make it happen.
This ambition became increasingly implausible as problems to which policy was addressed became (or came to be recognized as) increasingly complex. Despite brave talk of ways of “organizing social complexity” (Deutsch 1963; La Porte 1975), a sense soon set in that government was “overloaded” and society was politically ungovernable (King 1975; Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki 1975). Despite the aspiration of constantly improving social conditions, producing generally good outcomes for people without fail, a sense emerged that society is now characterized by increasingly pervasive risks, both individually and collectively (Beck 1992).
Even when policy-makers thought they had a firm grip on the levers of power at the center, however, they long feared that they had much less of a grip on those responsible for implementing their policies on the ground. “Street-level bureaucrats”—police, caseworkers in social service agencies, and such like—inevitably apply official policies in ways and places at some distance from close scrutiny by superiors (Lipsky 1980). Substantial de facto discretion inevitably follows, however tightly rule bound their actions are formally supposed to be. But it is not just bureaucrats literally on the streets who enjoy such discretion. Organization theorists have developed the general concept of “control loss” to describe the way in which the top boss’s power to control subordinates slips away the further down the chain of command the subordinate is (Blau 1963; Deutsch 1963). It can never be taken for granted that policies will be implemented on the ground as intended: Usually they will not (Pressman and Wildavsky 1973; Bardach 1977; 1980).
One early response to appreciation of problems of control loss within a system of public management was to abandon “command-and-control” mechanisms for evoking compliance with public policies, in favor of a system of “incentives” (Kneese and Schultze 1975; Schultze 1977). The thought was that, if you structure the incentives correctly, people will thereby have a reason for doing what you want them to do, without further intrusive intervention from public officials in the day-to-day management of their affairs. This thinking persisted into the 1980s and 1990s: It lay, for instance, behind the mania for “internal markets” in so many of the state-funded health care systems of Europe (Le Grand 1991; Saltman and von Otter 1992). (p. 897) The trick, of course, lies in setting the incentives just right. Allowing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to fine unsafe nuclear power plants only $5,000 a day for unsafe practices, when it would cost the power company $300,000 a day to purchase substitute power off the grid, is hardly a deterrent (US Comptroller General 1979).
Appreciation of the incapacity of the center to exercise effective control over what happens on the ground through command-and-control within a hierarchy has also led to increasing “contracting out” of public services, public–private partnerships, and arm’s-length government (Smith and Lipsky 1993; Commission on Public– Private Partnerships 2001). The image typically evoked here is one of “steering, not rowing” (Kaufman, Majone, and Ostrom 1985; Bovens 1990).
Twin thoughts motivate this development. The first is that, by divesting itself of responsibility for front-line service delivery, the policy units of government will be in a better position to focus on strategic policy choice (Osborne and Gaebler 1993; Gore 1993). The second thought is that by stipulating “performance standards” in the terms of a contract, and monitoring compliance with them, public servants will be better able to ensure that public services are properly delivered than they would have been had those services been provided within the public service itself.
This is hardly the first time such a thing has happened. In the early history of the modern state, under arrangements that have come to be called “tax farming,” rulers used to subcontract tax collections to local nobles, with historically very mixed success. Fix the incentives as the prince tried, the nobles always seemed to be able to figure out some way of diddling the crown (Levi 1988). Those committed to steering, by monitoring others’ rowing, would like to think they have learned how better to specify and monitor contract compliance. But so too has always every prince’s new adviser.
The history of “steering and rowing” crystallizes the contradictory character of the modern “governance” state, and illuminates also the complex relations between “governance” and the conception of policy studies as a persuasive vocation. On the one hand, powerful, well-documented forces are pushing policy systems in the direction of deliberation, consultation, and accommodation. “High modernism” is accompanied by high complexity, which requires high doses of voluntary coordination. And high modernism has also helped create smart people who cannot simply be ordered around: Rising levels of formal education, notably sharp rises in participation in higher education, have created large social groups with the inclination, and the intellectual resources, to demand a say in policy-making. These are some of the social developments that lie behind the spread of loosely networked advocacy coalitions of the kind noted above.
Modern steering may therefore be conceived as demanding a more democratic mode of statecraft—one where the practice of the persuasive vocation of policy studies is peculiarly important. But as we have also just seen, “steering” can have a less democratic face. It echoes the ambitions of princes, and a world of centralized scrutiny and monitoring prefigured in Bentham’s (1787) Panopticon. The earliest images of the steering state, in Plato’s Republic, are indeed avowedly authoritarian; (p. 898) and the greatest “helmsman” of the modern era was also one of its most brutal autocrats, Mao Zedong.
As the language of “steering” therefore shows, the legacy of “networked governance” is mixed, indeed contradictory, inscribed with both autocracy and democracy. This helps explain much of the fixation of the new public management on monitoring and control.
For all the borrowing that new public management, with its privatization and outsourcing, has done from economics, the one bit of economics it seems steadfastly to ignore is the one bit that ought presumably to have most relevance to the state as an organized enterprise: the economic theory of the firm (Simon 2000).
Two key works emphasize the point. One is Ronald Coase’s (1937) early analysis of why to internalize production within the same firm, rather than just buying the components required from other producers on the open market—the “produce/buy decision.” The answer is obvious as soon as the question is asked. You want to internalize production within the firm if, but only if, you have more confidence in your capacity to monitor and control the quality of the inputs into the production process than you do the quality of the outputs (the components you would alternatively have to buy on the open market). You produce in-house only when you are relatively unconfident of your capacity to monitor the quality of the goods that external producers supply to you.
One implication of this analysis for contracting out of public services to private organizations is plain: For the same reason that a private organization is formed to provide the service, the public should be hesitant to contract to them. For the same reason the private organization does not buy in the outputs it promises to supply, preferring to produce them in-house, so too should the public organization: Contracts are inevitably incomplete, performance standards underspecified, and the room for maximizing private profits at the cost of the public purposes too great. Indeed this problem of what may summarily be called “opportunism” lies at the heart of the way the new institutional economics addresses the firm (Williamson 1985, 29–32, 281–5). There then follows another obvious implication: If we do contract out public services, it is better to contract them out to nonprofit suppliers who are known to share the goals that the public had in establishing the program than it is to contract them out to for-profit suppliers whose interests clearly diverge from the public purposes (Smith and Lipsky 1993; Rose-Ackerman 1996; Goodin 2003).
The second contribution to the theory of the firm that ought to bear on current practices of outsourcing and privatizing public services is Herbert Simon’s (1951) analysis of the “employment relationship.” The key to that, too, is the notion of “incomplete contracting.” The reason we hire someone as an employee of our firm is that we cannot specify, in detail in advance, exactly what performances will be required. If we could, we would subcontract the services; but not knowing exactly what we want, we cannot write the relevant performance contract. Instead we write an employment contract, of the general form that says: “The employee will do whatever the employer says.” Rudely, it is a slavery contract (suitably circumscribed by labor (p. 899) law); politely, it is a “relational contract,” an agreement to stand in a relationship the precise terms of which will be specified later (Williamson 1985). Indeed as North points out, there are even elements of the relational in the master–slave relationship (1990, 32). But the basic point, once again, is that we cannot specify in advance what is wanted; and insofar as we cannot, that makes a powerful case for producing in-house rather than contracting out. And that is as true for public organizations as for private, and once again equally for public organizations contracting with private organizations. For the same reasons that the private contractors employ people at all, for those very same reasons the state ought not subcontract to those private suppliers.
The more general way in which these insights have been picked up among policymakers is in the slogan, “privatization entails regulation.” A naive reading of the “downsizing government” program of Reagan and Thatcher and their copyists worldwide might lead one to suppose that it would have resulted in “less government:” specifically, among other things, “less regulation” (after all, “deregulation” was one of its first aims). But in truth privatization, outsourcing, and the like actually requires more regulation, not less (Majone 1994; Moran 2003). At a minimum, it requires detailed specification of the terms of the contract and careful monitoring of contract compliance. Thus, we should not be surprised that the sheer number of regulations emanating from privatized polities is an order of magnitude larger (Levi-Faur 2003; Moran 2003).
The paradoxes of privatization and regulation thus just bring us back to the beginning of the growth of government in the nineteenth century. That came as a pragmatic response to practical circumstances, if anything against the ideological current of the day. No political forces were pressing for an expansion of government, particularly. It was just a matter of one disaster after another making obvious the need, across a range of sectors, for tighter public regulation and an inspectorate to enforce it (MacDonagh 1958; 1961; Atiyah 1979). Over the course of the next century, some of those sectors were taken into public hands, only then to be reprivatized. It should come as no surprise, however, that the same sort of regulatory control should be needed over those activities, once reprivatized, as proved necessary before they had been nationalized. There was a “pattern” to government growth identified by Macdonagh (1958; 1961); and there is likely a pattern of regulatory growth under privatization.
5 Policy, Practice, and Persuasion
To do something “as a matter of policy” is to do it as a general rule. That is the distinction between “policy” and “administration” (Wilson 1887), between “legislating” (p. 900) policy and “executing” it (Locke 1690, ch. 12). Policy-makers of the most ambitious sort aspire to “make policy” in that general rule-setting way, envisioning administrators applying those general rules to particular cases in a minimally discretionary fashion (Calvert, McCubbins, and Weingast 1989). That and cognate aspirations toward taut control from the center combine to constitute a central trope of political high modernism.
One aspect of that is the aspiration, or rather illusion, of total central control. All the great management tools of the last century were marshaled in support of that project: linear programming, operations research, cost–benefit analysis, management-by-objectives, case-controlled random experiments, and so on (Rivlin 1971; Self 1975; Stokey and Zeckhauser 1978).
One non-negligible problem with models of central control is that there is never any single, stable central authority that can be in complete control. For would-be totalitarians that is a sad fact; for democratic pluralists it is something to celebrate. But whatever one’s attitude toward the fact, it remains a hard fact of political life that the notional “center” is always actually occupied by many competing authorities. A Congressional Budget Office will always spring up to challenge the monolithic power of an Executive Branch General Accounting Office, just as double sets of books will always be kept in all the line departments of the most tightly planned economy.
In any case, total central control is always a fraud or a fiction. In the terms of the old Soviet joke, “They pretend to set quotas, and we pretend to meet them.” The illusion of planning was preserved even when producers wildly exceeded their targets, which surely must, in truth, have indicated a failure of planning, just as much as missing their targets in the other direction would have been (Wildavsky 1973). Every bureaucrat, whether on the street or in some branch office, knows well the important gap between “what they think we’re doing, back in central office” and “what actually happens around here.” And any new recruit incapable of mastering that distinction quickly will not be long for that bureau’s world—just as any landless peasant who supposes that some entitlement will be enforced merely because it is written down somewhere in a statute book will soon be sadly disappointed (Galanter 1974).
One solution is of course to abandon central planning altogether and marke-tize everything (Self 1993). The “shock treatment” to which the formerly planned economies of Central Europe were subjected at the end of the cold war often seemed to amount to something like that (Sacks 1995; World Bank 1996). But as we have seen above, even the more moderate ambitions of privatization and creating managed markets in the established capitalist democracies, led to anything but a more decentralized world: They created their own powerful incentives to monitor and control.
More modestly, there are new modes of more decentralized planning and control that are more sensitive to those realities. “Indicative planning” loosens up the planning process: Instead of setting taut and unchanging targets, it merely points in (p. 901) certain desired directions and recalibrates future targets in light of what past practice has shown to be realistic aspirations (Meade 1970).
More generally, policy-makers can rely more heavily on “loose” laws and regulations. Instead of tightly specifying exact performance requirements (in ways that are bound to leave some things unspecified), the laws and regulations can be written in more general and vaguely aspirational terms (Goodin 1982, 59–72). Hard-headed political realists might think the latter pure folly, trusting too much to people’s goodwill (or alternatively, putting too much power in the hands of administrators charged with interpreting and applying loose laws and regulations). But it has been shown that, for example, nursing homes achieve higher levels of performance in countries regulating them in that “looser” way than in countries that try to write the regulations in a more detailed way (Braithwaite et al. 1993).
An interesting variation on these themes is the Open Method of Coordination practiced within the European Union. That consists essentially in “benchmarking.” In the first instance, there is merely a process of collecting information on policy performance from all member states on some systematic, comparable basis. But once that has been done, the performance of better-performing states will almost automatically come to serve as a “benchmark” for the others to aspire to—voluntarily initially, but with increasing amounts of informal and formal pressure as time goes by (Atkinson et al. 2002; Offe 2003).
Another aspect of “political high modernism” is the illusion of instrumental rationality completely governing the policy process. That is the illusion that policymakers begin with a full set of ends (values, goals) that are to be pursued, full information about the means available for pursuing them, and full information about the constraints (material, social, and political resources) available for pursuing them.
“Full information” is always an illusion. Policy, like all human action, is undertaken partly in ignorance; and to a large extent is a matter of “learning-by-doing” (Arrow 1962; Betts 1978). In practice, we never really have all the information we need to “optimize.” At best, we “satisfice”—set some standard of what is “good enough,” and content ourselves with reaching that (Simon 1955). In the absence of full information about the “best possible,” we never really know for certain whether our standard of “good enough” is too ambitious or not ambitious enough. If we set educational standards too high, too many children will be “left behind” as failures; if too low, passing does them little pedagogic good.
The failure of instrumental reason in the “full information” domain is unsurprising. Its failure in the other two domains is perhaps more so. Policy-makers can never be sure exactly what resources are, or will be, available for pursuing any set of aims. It is not only Soviet-style planners who faced “soft budget constraints” (Kornai, Maskin, and Roland 1993). So do policy-makers worldwide. In the literal sense of financial budgets, they often do not know how much they have to spend or how much they are actually committing themselves to spending. Legislating an “entitlement” program is to write a blank check, giving rise to spending that is “uncontrollable” (p. 902) (Derthick 1975)—uncontrollable, anyway, without a subsequent change in the legislation, for which political resources might be lacking, given the political interests coalesced around entitlements thus created (Pierson 1994). In a more diffuse sense of social support, policy-makers again often do not know how much they have or need for any given policy. Sometimes they manage to garner more support for programs once under way than could ever have been imagined, initially; and conversely, programs that began with vast public support sometimes lose it precipitously and unpredictably. In short: perfect means–ends fitters, in “high modernist” mode, would maximize goal satisfaction within the constraints of the resources available to them; but public policy-makers, in practice, often do not have much of a clue what resources really will ultimately be available.
Policy-makers also often do not have a clear sense of the full range of instruments available to them. Policies are intentions, the product of creative human imagination. Policy-making can proceed in a more or less inventive way: by deliberately engaging in brainstorming and free association, rather than just rummaging around to see what “solutions looking for problems” are lying at the bottom of the existing “garbage can” of the policy universe (Olsen 1972a; March 1976; March and Olsen 1976). But creative though they may be, policy-makers will always inevitably fail the high modernist ambition to some greater or lesser degree because of their inevitably limited knowledge of all the possible means by which goals might be pursued in policy.
Perhaps most surprising of all, policy-makers fail the “high modernist” ambition of perfect instrumental rationality in not even having any clear, settled idea what all the ends (values, goals) of policy are. Much is inevitably part of the taken-for-granted background in all intentional action. It might never occur to us to specify that we value some outcome that we always enjoyed until some new policy intervention suddenly threatens it: wilderness and species diversity, or the climate, or stable families, or whatever. We often do not know what we want until we see what we get, not because our preferences are irrationally adaptive (or perhaps counter-adaptive) but merely because our capacities to imagine and catalogue all good things are themselves strictly limited (March 1976).
The limits to instrumental rationality strengthen the case made in this chapter for policy studies as a persuasive vocation, for they strengthen the case that policy is best made, and developed, as a kind of journey of self-discovery, in which we have experientially to learn what we actually want. And what we learn to want is in part a product of what we already have and know—which is to say, is in part a product of what policy has been hitherto. Recognizing the limits to instrumental rationality also strengthens the case for a self-conscious eclecticism in choice of the “tools of government” (Hood 1983; Salamon 2002). These “tools” are social technologies and thus their use and effectiveness are highly contingent on the setting in which they are employed. That setting is also in part a product of what has gone before. In other words, policy legacies are a key factor in policy choice—and to these we now turn.
(p. 903) 6 Policy as its Own Cause
It may truly be the case that “policy is its own cause.” That is the case not just in the unfortunate sense in which cynics like Wildavsky (1979, ch. 3) originally intended the term: that every attempt to fix one problem creates several more; that every “purposive social action” always carries with it certain “unintended consequences” (Merton 1936). Nor is it simply a matter of issues cycling in and out of fashion, with the costs of solving some problem becoming more visible than the benefits (Downs 1972; Hirschman 1982). It can also be true in more positive senses. As we experiment with some policy interventions, we get new ideas of better ways to pursue old goals and a clearer view of what new goals we collectively also value.
From an organizational point of view, solving problems can be as problematic as not solving them. The March of Dimes had to redefine its mission or close up shop, after its original goal—conquering polio—had been achieved. What Lasswell (1941) called the US “Garrison State” had to find some new raison d’être once the cold war had been won. Policy is its own cause in cases of successes as well as failures: In both cases, some new policy has to be found, and found fast, if the organization is to endure.
Policy successes can cause problems in a substantive rather than merely organizational sense. Longevity, increasing disability-free life-years, is a central goal of health policy and one of the great accomplishments of the modern era. But good though it is in other respects, increasing longevity compromises the assumptions upon which “pay as you go” pension systems were predicated, giving rise to the “old age crisis” that has so exercised pension reformers worldwide (World Bank 1994).
Policy can be its own cause both directly as well as indirectly. A policy might successfully change the social world in precisely the ways intended, and then those changes might themselves either prevent or enable certain further policy developments along similar lines. This is the familiar story of “path dependency:” the subsequent moves available to you being a function of previous moves you have taken. Sometimes path dependency works to the advantage of policy-makers: Once village post offices are set up to deliver the Royal Mail across the realm, the same infrastructure is suddenly available also to pay all sorts of social benefits (pensions, family allowances, and such like) over the counter through them; there, the latter policy is easier to implement because of the first (Pierson 2000). Sometimes path dependency works the other way, making subsequent policy developments harder. An example of that is the way in which pensions being paid to Civil War veterans undercut the potential political constituency for universal old-age pensions in the USA for fully a generation or two after the rest of the developed world had adopted them (Skocpol 1992). Policy is its own cause due to such path dependencies, as well.
(p. 904) 7 Constraints
Policy-making is always a matter of choice under constraint. But not all the constraints are material. Some are social and political, having to do with the willingness of people to do what your policy asks of them or with the willingness of electors to endorse the policies that would-be policy-makers espouse.
Another large source of constraints on policy-making, however, is ideational. Technology is at its most fundamental a set of ideas for how to use a set of resources to achieve certain desired outcomes. The same is true of the “technology of policy” as it is of the more familiar sorts of “technology of production.” Ideas of how to pursue important social goals are forever in short supply (Reich 1988).
Occasionally new policy ideas originate with creative policy analysts. Take two examples from the realm of criminology. One idea about why the long, anonymous corridors of public housing complexes were such dangerous places was that common space was everybody’s and nobody’s: It was nobody’s business to monitor, protect and defend that space. If public housing were designed instead in such a way as to create enclaves of “defensible space,” crime might be reduced (Newman 1972). Another idea is that “broken windows” might signal that “nobody cares” about this neighborhood, thus relaxing inhibitions on further vandalism and crime. Cracking down on petty misdemeanors might reduce crime by sending the opposite signal (Wilson and Kelling 1982).
More often, however, policy-making is informed by “off the shelf” ideas. Sometimes these are borrowed from other jurisdictions. In times gone by—the times of mimeographed legislative proposals being dropped into the legislative hopper—policy borrowing could be traced by tracking the typographical errors in legislative proposals in one jurisdiction being replicated in the next (Walker 1969). In other cases, the borrowing is from casebooks and classrooms of Public Policy Schools, or under pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (Stiglitz 2002).
March and Olsen (1976; Olsen 1972a) famously capture this proposition with their “garbage can model” of public policy-making. Policy choice is there characterized as the confluence of three streams: problems looking for solutions; solutions looking for problems; and people looking for things to do. The first stream, but only that one, lines up with the hyper-rationalism of political high modernism. The latter stream represents the desperation of post-polio March of Dimers and the post-cold war Garrison State, looking for things to do once their original missions had been accomplished. The middle stream—solutions looking for problems—captures the paucity of policy ideas that serves as a major constraint on high modernist policy-making.
High modernist policy-making is supposed to be a matter of instrumentally rationally fitting means to ends. But often the means come first, and they get applied (inevitably imperfectly) to whatever end comes along which they might remotely fit. Take the case of the cruise missile. That technology originally developed as an (p. 905) unarmed decoy to be launched by bombers to confuse enemy radar as they penetrated enemy airspace; but when the Senate insisted that surely some of those missiles should be armed, the air force dropped the scheme rather than acquiesce in the development of unmanned weapons systems. There was a subsequent attempt to adapt the technology jointly by the air force for use on “stand-off bombers” (firing the missiles while still in friendly airspace) and by the navy for use on submarines; but given the differences between launching through an airplane’s “short-range attack missile” launcher and a submarine’s torpedo tube, that joint venture came to naught. So the original plan was shelved. But the idea was kept on the shelf; and several years later, in a window of strategic opportunity opened up by the SALT I agreements, the cruise missile was suddenly resurrected, this time as a ground-based missile system installed on the edge of the Evil Empire (Levine 1977).
Equally often, certain sorts of means constitute a “good fit” to certain sorts of ends, only under certain conditions which themselves are subject to change. Those often unspoken “background conditions” constitute further constraints to policy-making. Consider, for example, the peculiarly Australian style of “worker’s welfare state,” which made good sense under the conditions of its introduction at the beginning of the twentieth century but no sense under the conditions prevailing by that century’s end: If you have, as Australia initially had, full employment and an industrial arbitration system that ensured that everyone in employment earned enough to support a family, then you need no elaborate scheme of transfer payments to compensate people for inadequacies in their market income; but once you have (as under Thatcherite Labor and even more right-wing conservative governments) eviscerated both full employment and industrial arbitration schemes, and with them any guarantee of a “living wage” from market sources, the traditional absence of any transfer scheme to compensate for inadequacies in market income bites hard (Castles 1985; 2001).
The largest constraint under which public policy operates, of course, is the sheer selfishness of entrenched interests possessed of sufficient power to promote those interests in the most indefensible of ways. Politics, Shapiro (1999) usefully reminds us, is ultimately all about “interests and power.” Anyone who has watched the farm lobby at work, anywhere in the world, would not doubt that for a moment (Self and Storing 1962; Smith 1990; Grant 1997). Neither would anyone conversant with the early history of the British National Health Service and the deeply cynical maneuvering of physicians to avoid becoming employees of the state (Marmor and Thomas 1972; Klein 2001).
Moralists hope for more, as do conscientious policy analysts. But at the end of the day, politics may well end up being purely about “who gets what, when, how,” as the first self-styled policy scientist long ago taught us (Lasswell 1950).
Even those most political of constraints might be of indeterminate strength, though. Consider for example the growth of “alternative medicine” in the USA. Professional medicine, especially in the USA, is a powerfully organized interest (Marmor 1994). Ordinarily we expect its practitioners to be able to see off any challengers with ease. Certainly they successfully froze chiropractors out, when they tried to horn in on (p. 906) the business of osteopaths, for example. Somehow, however, “alternative medicine” has managed to become sufficiently established—despite the political power of conventional medical practitioners—to appear now as an option in Americans’ Health Maintenance Organizations and to be eligible for reimbursement by health insurance schemes. It may just be a case of the political power of the insurance industry, weary of ever-escalating medical costs, having been mobilized against the political power of physicians, with practitioners of alternative medicine being the incidental beneficiaries. But, ex ante, that would have been a surprising and unexpected source of political support for the alternative medicine movement: Ex ante, one could scarcely have guessed that the power of organized medicine was as fragile as it turned out to be in this respect.
Of course, “constraints” are not immutable. Indeed, one person’s constraint may be another person’s opportunity. From Kingdon’s windows of opportunity (1984) to Hall’s political power of economic ideas (1989) we see how the story is more than one about constraints: It is also about opportunities for change. These we now examine.
8 Change, Constraint, and Democratic Politics
The story of policy is in part a story about constraints. But it is also a story about change, and that is what we now examine. Policies change for all sorts of reasons. The problems change; the environments change; technologies improve; alliances alter; key staff come and go; powerful interests weigh in. For those sadly in the know, all those are familiar facts of the policy world.
But for those still inspired by democratic ideals, there is at least sometimes another side to the story: Policies can sometimes change because the people subject to those policies want them to change. There is a mass mobilization of groups pressing for reform—workers pressing for legislation on hours and wages, racial or religious minorities pressing for civil rights, women pressing for gender equity. What is more, there is powerful comparative evidence that social and cultural developments are promoting the spread of these mass groups (Cain, Dalton, and Scarrow 2003).
Advocacy groups are always an important force, even in routine policy-making (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993). And they are becoming more so, in networked transnational society (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 1999). But they are often treated as “just another interested party”—like physicians vis-à-vis the NHS—speaking for narrow sectoral interests alone, however much they might pretend otherwise. Even (or perhaps especially) self-styled “public interest lobbies” (p. 907) like Common Cause are often said to lack any authority to speak with any authority about what is “in the public interest:” “Self-styled” is importantly different from “duly elected,” as members of Congress regularly remind Common Cause lobbyists (Macfarland 1976; Berry 1977).
Social movements are advocacy coalitions writ large. They bring pressure to bear where politically it matters, in terms of democratic theory: on elected officials. Sometimes the pressure succeeds, and Voting Rights Acts are legislated. Other times it fails, and the Equal Rights Amendment gets past Congress but is stymied by political countermobilization in state houses (Mansbridge 1986). Sometimes there is no very precise set of legislative demands in view, as with the “poor people’s movement” of the early 1970s (Piven and Cloward 1979), and the aim is mostly just to alter the tone of the national debate.
There is always an element of that, in any social movement. Even social movements ostensibly organized around specific legal texts—the proposed Great Charter or Equal Rights Amendment—were always about much more than merely enacting those texts into law. Still, for social movements to have any impact on policy, they have to have some relatively specific policy implications. Every social movement, if it is to make any material difference, has to have a determinate answer to the question, “What do we want, and when do we want it?”
A full discussion of social movements would take us deep into the territory covered by other Handbooks in the series. But there are some things to be said about them, purely from a policy perspective. Consider the question of why social movements seem eventually to run out of steam. Many of the reasons are rooted in their political sociology: They lose touch with their grassroots; they get outmaneuvered in the centers of power; and so on (Tarrow 1994). But another reason, surely, is that they sometimes simply “run out of ideas.” They no longer have any clear idea what they want, in policy terms. Winning the sympathies of legislators and their constituents counts for naught, if movements cannot follow up with some specific draft bill to drop into the legislative hopper.
That was at least part of the story behind the waning of the civil rights and feminist movements in the USA as sources of demand for legislative or administrative change. At some point there was a general sense, among policy-makers and mass publics, that there was simply not much more that could be done through legislation and public administration to fix the undeniable problems of racial and sexual injustice that remained. The policy-making garbage can was simply empty of the crucial element of “ideas.”
Even more narrowly focused advocacy coalitions experience the same phenomenon of “running out of steam” for the lack of further ideas. Consider the case of the “safety coalition” so prominent in US policy-making in the 1960s (Walker 1977). It first mobilized around the issue of coal mine safety. That was a problem that had been widely discussed both in technical professional journals and in the wider public for some time; everyone had a pretty clear understanding of the nature of the problems and of what might constitute possible solutions. Having successfully enacted coal mine safety legislation, the safety coalition—like any good denizen of the (p. 908) policy-making garbage can—went looking for what to do next. Auto safety emerged. There, the issue was less “ripe,” in the sense that there had been less discussion both in technical journals and in the public press. Still, auto safety legislation was enacted. What to do next? The safety coalition then seized upon “occupational health and safety,” an issue about which there had been very little public discussion and little technical scientific discussion. A law was passed, but it was a law with little general backing that in effect discredited the safety coalition and inhibited it from playing any serious role in public policy discussions for more than a decade to come. It revived, in a different guise, only after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor.
9 Puzzles, Problems, and Persuasion
Policy gets made in response to problems. But what is perceived as puzzling or problematic is not predetermined or fixed for all time. The public’s policy agenda shifts as “personal troubles” shift into and out of the realm of perceived “social problems” (Mills 1959). In part, this is a matter of a gestalt shift to “whose problem it is.” And in part it is a matter of transforming sheer “puzzles” into “actionable problems:” If no solution can be envisaged, then for all practical purposes there simply is no problem.
The “progressive agenda” had the state assuming increasing responsibility for personal troubles (Rose-Ackerman 1992; Crenson 1998). The catchcry of the opposite agenda is “personal responsibility,” with the state washing its own hands of responsibility for “personal troubles” ranging from health to income security (Wikler 1987; Schmidtz and Goodin 1998). “Deinstitutionalization”—the decanting of asylums’ inmates into cardboard boxes across America—is perhaps the saddest instance (Dear and Wolch 1987; Mechanic and Rochefort 1990). But in a way this twentieth-century morality play was just a reenactment of the earlier processes by which seventeenth-century poor laws emerged as a solution to the public nuisance of vagrancy, only to be shifted over subsequent centuries to punitive regimes of workhouses in hopes of forcing the undeserving poor to take more responsibility for their own lives (Blaug 1963).
Policy is sometimes simply overtaken by events. Whole swathes of policy regulating obsolete technologies become redundant with technological advances. Military strategies designed to contain one opponent become redundant, or worse, when one’s opponent shifts.
Policy disputes are often resolved by reframing. Lincoln’s great genius, on one account, was reframing the argument over slavery: not as one over abolitionism, but rather as one over the extension of slavery to new territories, and the dangers for free white men in having to compete there against cheap slave labor (Hofstadter 1948, ch. 5).
(p. 909) Policy proposals gain political traction by “hitching a ride” on other policies more in tune with general social values. Described as “a free lunch,” proposals for giving everyone a guaranteed basic income are politically dead in the water (Moynihan 1973). Described as “participation income,” paying people for socially useful work—or better still, as a form of “workfare”—the same policies might be real runners, politically (Atkinson 1996; Goodin 2001).
Policy disputes are as often resolved by some telling new fact. The rights and wrongs of policies of nuclear deterrence had been hotly contested, both morally and strategically, for more than a quarter of a century; but the unthinkable became truly unthinkable when Carl Sagan pointed out the risk that any large-scale use of nuclear weapons might initiate a “nuclear winter” destroying all life even in the country initiating the attack (Sagan 1983–4; see also Sagan and Turco 1990). Or again: the rights and wrongs of banning smoking in public places had been hotly contested for years; but once the risks of “passive smoking” became known, it ceased being a matter of moral dispute and became a straightforward issue of preventing public assaults (Goodin 1989).
Issues cease being issues for all sorts of reasons: some good, some bad. “Benign neglect” might have been the best way of treating all sorts of issues, ranging from race to abortion (Luker 1984). Making public policy can often be a mistake. But making an issue of child abuse and neglect was almost certainly not a mistake (Nelson 1984). The difference between those cases is that in the former there was a real risk of countermobilization undoing any good done by making de facto policies more public, whereas in the latter there seems little risk of countermobilization by or even on behalf of child abusers.
Thinking about the way issues become, or fail to become, policy “problems” takes us right back to the heart of the argument about the persuasive vocation of policy studies. We have argued that the grounds for this persuasive conception are formidable. They include the limits of instrumental rationality; the importance of deliberation in policy formation; the overwhelming evidence of the way modern governing conditions demand a style of policy-making that maximizes consultation and voluntary coordination.
“High modernism” is an anachronism. Running modern government by its dictates is like trying to assemble motor cars on a replica of one of Ford’s 1920s assembly lines—a recipe for defective production, when interacting components are not fully decomposable (Simon 1981).
But the pursuit of this persuasive vocation is a hard road to follow. It demands a unique combination of skills: the skills of “normal” social science allied to the skills of “rhetoric” in the best sense of that much misused word. And the persuasive vocation must be practiced in a hostile world. There is hostility from pressed decision-makers who feel impelled to make rapid decisions in the face of urgency or even crisis; hostility from the still powerful administrative doctrines associated with the high modernist project; and hostility from entrenched powers and interests threatened by more reflective and inclusive modes of decision. Intellectually anachronistic doctrines continue to flourish in the world of policy practice for a whole range of (p. 910) reasons, and all are applicable to the case of high modernism. Within bureaucracies and in the vastly rewarding consulting industries that have grown up around the New Public Management there is a huge investment—intellectual and financial—in the modernistic drive for measurement and hierarchical control (Power 1997). Individual crazes still sweep across policy worlds because they offer possibilities of evading democratic control: The enthusiasm for evidence-based policy-making in arenas like health care is a case in point (Harrison, Moran, and Wood 2002). And in the promotion of one key variant of high modernism—globalization—key global management institutions like the World Bank and the IMF continue to promote standardized reform packages (Rodrik 1997; Stiglitz 2002; Cammack 2002).
So, in the end, the persuasive appeal comes back to power and interests. Which is to say, politics. Just as the founders of the policy sciences told us from the start.
Policy analysts use the imperfect tools of their trade not only to assist legitimately elected officials in implementing their democratic mandates but also to empower some groups rather than others. Furthermore, policy is never permanent, made once and for all time. Puzzles get transformed into actionable problems, and policies get made on that basis. But that gives rise to further puzzlement, and the quest for ways of acting on those new problems. The persuasive task of policy-making and analysis alike lodges in these dynamics of deciding which puzzle to solve, what counts as a solution, and whose interests to serve.
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(*) We thank Rod Rhodes for comments on an earlier draft.
(1) In recommending continuation of wartime research and development efforts into the postwar era, Commanding General of the Army Air Force H. H. (“Hap”) Arnold had reported to the Secretary of War in the following terms: “During this war the Army, Army Air Forces and the Navy have made unprecedented use of scientific and industrial resources. The conclusion is inescapable that we have not yet established the balance necessary to insure the continuance of teamwork among the military, other government agencies, industry and the universities.” Just hear the high-modernist ring in the bold mission statement adopted by Project RAND in 1948, as it split off from the Douglas Aircraft Company: “to further and promote scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare and security of the United States of America” (RAND 2004).
(7) For example, “it is rare in [European] Community environmental policy for negotiations to fail…. An important factor seems to be the dynamics of long-lasting negotiations: i.e., the ‘entanglement’ of the negotiations which ultimately exerts such pressure on the representatives of dissenters (especially where there is only one dissenting state) that a compromise can be reached … [O]n the whole, no member state is willing to assume the responsibility for causing the failure of negotiations that have lasted for years and in which mutual trust in the willingness of all negotiators to contribute to an agreement has been built up” (Rehbinder and Stewart 1985, 265).