The public policy – action relationship
The public policy – action relationship

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The public policy – action relationship

1.3 The perils of partnership: policy as an adaptive system

Here the focus is on an organic way of understanding the relationship between policy and action. From this perspective, government, public service organisations, contractors, staff and, more recently, the public themselves are viewed not as cogs in a machine but as mutually interacting elements of an adaptive policy system. As in other organic entities – populations, species, even the human body itself – change takes place around an equilibrium point at which the entity is in balance with its environment. This equilibrium is sustained by feedback loops: as the environment shifts, so the organism (or in this case the organisation) must adapt or perish. And few organisms can survive alone: collaboration is needed in order to better secure the survival of the whole species or population.

This ecological analogy helps in focusing on ways in which the policy system might better adapt to the complexity of many of the tasks or problems which the modern state has to address. Agency, then, is dispersed; and rather than being constrained by structure, it is shaped by mutual relationships and reciprocal dependencies. As Barrett (2006) argues, this requires a different approach to understanding policy implementation. Here the study of implementation is viewed, first, as an integral part of the policy process rather than as a final stage subject to formal administrative processes. Second, the approach acknowledges the ambiguity of many areas of public policy: objectives may not be precise, and different objectives may be in conflict. Third, it focuses on policy as a multidimensional, multi-organisational field of interaction – what Susan Barrett and Colin Fudge (1981) term a ‘policy-action continuum’.

Many policy innovations have emerged from bottom-up processes of agency. And sometimes an ‘enabling’ approach to policy on the part of government can elicit innovation in a positive fashion, by encouraging and rewarding experimentation and/or by judging performance on the basis of longer-term outcomes rather than short-term outputs. In the US context, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler (1992) have constructed a vision for the new public sector and its management (endorsed by the former Clinton administration) that is based around a simple mantra – steering, not rowing – which questions what the authors see as the traditional models of public administration. Their emphasis is on finding ways of working through a de-centred and fragmented policy field, held together by the exchange of best practice between social (and public) entrepreneurs, rather than by any regulatory framework or over-arching national policy. Similarly the rise of multi-level governance in the EU was a de-centred way of managing policy across national and sub-national jurisdictions, and a means of building direct links between EU members despite domestic constraints.

In the more centralist UK context, the balance between nationally driven policy and local partnership-based initiative was more uneasy than such a vision might suggest. But examples of such initiatives in the first and second terms of the Blair government were legion. Projects such as the education action zones, health action zones, SureStart and Neighbourhood Renewal encouraged local actors across the public, private and voluntary sectors to form partnerships. Each was required to develop plans by involving ‘the community’ in setting local priorities and finding the best ways of working to achieve positive outcomes. Differences of approach between projects in different areas were initially encouraged, and the results were closely evaluated to determine what lessons might be learned for mainstream policy making. Such an approach also enabled the focus to shift from organisational outputs (based on targets set by individual government departments) to policy outcomes (based on joined-up working).

The significance of these developments is reflected in the focus on joined-up government and the increasing emphasis on partnership as a means of both shaping and delivering policy. But, as Janet Newman (2006) argues in relation to partnership working, enabling and learning approaches to policy delivery tend to be undermined by the strong traditions of rational planning and the continued centralisation of power associated with top-down, mechanical models of the policy-action dynamic.

The organic model, as a metaphor, helps in looking again at the policy/implementation divide that characterises many of the classic policy texts. In this approach, rather than policy being made in one place (by government) and implemented in another (by public services and other contractors), policy and delivery are mutually implicated in an iterative process of change. That is, organisations in a dispersed field of power confront new problems and develop new ways of tackling older problems on an almost daily basis. Some of these new approaches are transmitted to other organisations in the system through a process of imitation or learning; some are left fallow, going nowhere; and some are taken into the next cycle of formal policy making.

The next two models can help explain why systems may fail to adapt successfully. Section 2 focuses on why some ideas fail to be translated into action, and suggests ways in which power and interests can act as barriers to change.


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