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

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The public policy – action relationship

3 Governance, policy and action

It was noted earlier in this course that the models you would meet are both descriptive/explanatory and normative. In Section 2 they were used as explanatory tools to illuminate different possible causes as to why change might not happen in the ways that policy makers intended. This might be viewed as failure, or it might signify the system adapting to circumstances that were not covered by the original policy. In other words, not all implementation failure is necessarily a policy failure: policy makers cannot anticipate all the ways in which change might take place within a policy cycle. This may mean that a policy is outdated before it is fully realised in action. This leads into the difficult territory of viewing the different models as normative, offering prescriptions as to how policy should be implemented as well as explanations of what actually happens.

Shifts in governance have important implications for normative ideas about the policy-action dynamic. Governance shifts associated with the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s introduced new frameworks. The policy-action dynamic shifted, in part, from one of hierarchical control to one based on principal-agent relations and the importance of contracts. While this offered significant change, you saw in Section 1.3 that this shift may have served to reinforce, rather than undermine, mechanical and top-down processes of implementation. We are now witnessing another shift of governance, one that places much more emphasis on the importance of networks and partnerships. What are the implications of this shift – described by Erik-Hans Klijn and Joop F.M. Koppenjan (2006) – for the policy-action dynamic? It would seem, at first sight, to imply the need for a more organic, evolutionary or even bottom-up approach of the kind described in Section 1. And indeed you can trace the emergence of a new language of policy making that does stress the need for more devolution, more involvement by policy stakeholders, and more emphasis on evaluation and learning. Yet moves in this direction – such as the policy experiments cited in Section 1.3 – seem to be undercut by a further tightening of central government control, together with a greater proliferation of targets and other mechanical measures that allow little scope for experimentation and learning.

Similarly, new ideas can have a normative impact on the policy-action dynamic. The idea of evidence-based policy – based on the rubric ‘what counts is what works’ – is one of the most significant to have influenced the policy process in recent years. It offers a de-politicised image of the policy process, one in which scientific evidence, rather than political preference, informs the selection of policy solutions. This is a seductive idea: who would want policies that don't work, or to argue against the need for evidence? However, critiques of the evidence-based approach have focused on the narrow model of science on which it is based (one founded on positivism and the assumption that there are scientific facts that speak for themselves), on the framing of policy in terms of instrumental rationality rather than values, and on the consequent preoccupation with means rather than ends. The evidence-based policy approach, then, readily lends itself to the forms of rationality and the top-down approaches that characterise the mechanical model discussed in Section 1.2. Evidence-based policy is not necessarily always top-down, however, and some groups (for example community, carer or interest groups) may be the ones to draw attention to problems that need to be solved before public-sector organisations have even thought about them.

In the early 1970s Peter Marris and Martin Rein (1972) were already highlighting some of the challenges faced by policy makers and professionals in trying to learn the lessons of research. They note that it is often impossible to know what would have happened if a particular intervention had not occurred, because social processes are fluid and some change would have taken place even without that intervention. More important, perhaps, the intervention being evaluated is itself likely to change over time, as those engaged in ‘action’ modify what they are doing in response to feedback. Since those concerned do not wait for the outcome of the evaluation before undertaking those modifications, and may even modify their objectives over time, there is never any completed process to analyse (Marris and Rein, 1972, pp. 191–207).

Sandra Nutley and Jeff Webb (2000) highlight the problems of linking an evidence-based approach to a centralised, rational model of policy in which evidence is used to legitimate a single set of solutions to what may be a complex and differentiated set of problems. They also set out an alternative model that corresponds more closely with the organic, incremental approach discussed in Section 1.3 above, in which adjustments to policy are made in the light of learning emerging during the implementation process, so that the learning process is seen as a political one based around a continued process of communication between those involved.

The normative power of this alternative model, however, is very weak compared with that of the value of rationality as an idea and with top-down, central government control as a practice. And the practice of evidence-based policy – however seductive as an idea – is often undermined by the exercise of political power. For example, governments often choose to ignore evidence where it does not fit with their political preferences; policies may be abandoned while evaluations of their effectiveness are still being conducted; or they may be launched while evidence of what works is still being gathered. This is a reminder that the policy process is inherently political, and that the policy-action dynamic cannot be reduced to a series of debates about the relative merits of different policy instruments or implementation measures. In other words, it is not possible to escape from the messiness of political decision making through the promise of greater technical proficiency and the accumulation of ‘evidence’. Even if it is clearly preferable to have some evidence that can inform the process of adaptive action, the nature of that evidence will always itself be uncertain and subject to challenge and reinterpretation.

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