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

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The public policy – action relationship

1.5 The problem of power: policy as political

The plural polity that characterises contemporary policy making means that many stakeholders are involved in the policy-action relationship dynamic, from commercial firms, public and non-profit organisations, the professions, central and local government, service delivery organisations, trade unions and the media, to organised groups of the public itself. Viewing policy as political, then, does not mean simply focusing on politicians. Rather, it signifies adopting a stakeholder perspective in which multiple groups, each with their own interests or preferences, seek to influence the outcomes of policy making and delivery. The focus on politics means analysing the kinds of power each stakeholder may seek to exercise and assessing the balance of power between them. It means rather more than looking at how different players may seek to obtain advantage through political manoeuvrings or game playing. Questions relating to power inequalities, and to the interplay of different power and resource dependencies belonging to stakeholders, are equally significant.

Issues of power have now been incorporated into analyses of policy formulation to a quite significant extent, with notions of advocacy coalitions, policy communities and so on coming to the fore. Rather less attention, however, has been paid to issues of power in the process of delivery; and such attention, where it does exist, has tended to focus on relatively simplistic assumptions about resistance. It is assumed that where policy is not delivered to the extent that, or in the way in which, government intended, this is because public service organisations or professions resist its implementation in order to defend their own interests. This issue is returned to in Section 2, which discusses policy failure and its causes. Here, however, it should be noted that there are two other perspectives on power that may be helpful in analysing the policy-action dynamic.

The first is the idea of discretion. Michael Lipsky's (1980) famous study of the ‘street-level bureaucrat’ highlights the significance of front-line staff as agents in the policy-action dynamic. They act within the structures (the rules and guidelines) of the bureaucracies where they work, but these can never anticipate every situation that staff face in the course of their everyday work. Thus, because public work is complex, front-line workers inevitably exercise some discretion. Lipsky argues that ‘the decisions of street-level bureaucrats, the routines they establish, and the devices they invent to cope with uncertainties and work pressures, effectively become the public policies they carry out’ (1980, p. xii). Other work, such as Janet Newman's (2005), highlights ways in which senior managers, newly cast as ‘leaders’, exercise agency in a dispersed field of power. Lipsky's and Newman's studies lend support to the organic metaphor, since both suggest that policy happens bottom-up as well as top-down. But the argument here is rather different. In neither study did those concerned exercise their power in terms of a narrow definition of their interests. In the case of front-line staff, the way in which they exercised discretion was, in Lipsky's view, based on coping mechanisms designed to deal with the pressures placed on them, or to simplify the uncertainties and ambiguities of their work. In the case of senior managers, Newman argues that while some used their discretion to reinforce or extend managerial power, others used it either to try to reconcile top-down governmental targets with bottom-up priorities derived from consultations with local populations or with service users, or to innovate in ways which went beyond, rather than conflicting with, current government policies. The second perspective on power to be noted here is the increasing emphasis on empowering citizens or service users in the policy-action dynamic and the extent to which power is actually devolved to the public. While there has recently been an explosion of participation and empowerment initiatives, vary rarely, it seems, is power actually ceded by the organisations concerned in favour of citizens or service users.


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