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

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The public policy – action relationship

1.4 The contribution of culture: policy as meaning making

The third model of the relationship between policy and action, between structure and agency, is based on the idea that human agency cannot be understood by simply regarding people either as cogs in a machine or as elements in an interactive system. Rather, human beings are meaning makers and act on the basis of their understandings and interpretations of events. In other words, they construct their own reality. Such constructions are not unique to them as individuals, but draw on a stock of socially circulating repertoires of meaning to which new ideas are sometimes added while old ideas fall away. So, for example, interventions that seek to respond to criminal behaviour among young people might be framed by ideas of anti-social behaviour, parental responsibility and/or restorative justice. Each is a relatively recent addition to the anglophone policy vocabulary, but each has now become an established discourse through which policy makers, police services and public and voluntary agencies interpret behaviour and prescribe solutions. Each gives prominence to certain meanings (‘responsibility’ and ‘concern for the victim’) and marginalises others (the search for social causes of crime and the perpetrator's need for therapies). In a similar way the concept of ‘youth offending’ has, in part, now displaced that of ‘juvenile delinquency’, thus focusing attention on the criminal act rather than on the character of the young person concerned.

Repertoires are recurrently used systems of terms (e.g. metaphors, figures of speech) employed to characterise and evaluate actions and events. How does this help in understanding how change happens? These repertoires of socially circulating meanings – which, for simplicity, might be termed discourses – form, if you like, a kind of already existing structure of meanings that shape how individuals interpret situations or events, and thus guide the way they respond. But in order to better understand the relationship between discourse and social agency it helps to turn to a range of what Frank Fischer terms ‘post-empiricist’ understandings of policy and the policy process. He argues that:

ideas and discourses can have a force of their own independently of particular actors … Discourse, in this view, does more than reflect a social or political ‘reality’; it actually constitutes much of the reality that has to be explained … Instead of understanding power only in negative terms – such as the power to control or manipulate others – the approach … also emphasises that discursive power can determine the very field of action, including the tracks on which political action travels.

(Fischer, 2003, pp. vii-viii)

In other words, the language of politicians and policy makers, whether transmitted through policy texts or other communicative processes, does not just reflect a pre-given reality – it actually helps to constitute that reality. So shifts in the language within which policy is framed, or new ways of linking older ideas in new configurations, provide new resources of meaning making. This in turn, it is argued, can influence – but not determine – social action (there are few if any echoes of the more mechanical structure-agency dynamic here). Such discourses cannot be deterministic, since no one can force another to interpret events in a particular way or to adopt a new identity or self-image within the structural parameters of the policy system. However, the power of discourse can be discerned in the ways in which public service managers tend to adopt ‘new’ policy language in order to legitimate change to their staff, or in order to win credibility and/or funds from government.

Once again, this model disrupts the idea that policy and implementation are separate stages of the policy cycle. Governments may draw on new discourses emerging from the professions, from the business world or from other stakeholders, and adapt them to their own purposes. But rarely do these discourses emerge from government fully formed; it is up to managers, the professions and public service staff to interpret them, bringing their own constructions into the process of interpretation.

It is these actors, then, that are deciding what the policy actually means and enacting it accordingly. Policy is made, and enacted, in a myriad spaces: in schools, for example (as teachers construct for themselves what notions of parental involvement and parental responsibility actually mean); in hospitals (as doctors and managers decide how to work with emerging ideas of choice and consumer power); or in local government (as staff try to reconcile notions of community leadership with ideas of devolution and working in partnership).

The idea of language and other symbols as shaping reality is familiar territory in accounts of culture change programmes in public service organisations. However, the experience of such programmes also suggests some flaws in the notion that new symbols, linguistic or otherwise, can produce new meanings and thereby new practices and behaviours.

However strong the vision and leadership, however convincing the new rhetoric of change, however inspiring the mission, organisations tend to find themselves stuck in repeating the behaviours of their pasts. The same is true of the policy system. New forms of rhetoric on the part of politicians – joined-up government; what counts is what works; delivery, delivery, delivery; responsibility and choice – all provide points around which the agency of those charged with delivering policy can be mobilised. They enable those who are already committed to such developments to emerge from the sidelines and take centre stage. They enable new forms of experimentation and action on the part of those willing to lead organisational change. And, by providing a new rationale and purpose, they legitimise actions which organisations may have been wishing to develop.

Yet despite all this, change may still not occur. This can be explained in part by the continued dominance of mechanical models of implementation that tend to produce compliance rather than commitment. But any discussion of why change may not happen – implementation failure, in other words – would be incomplete without addressing the issues of power and resistance.

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