Public policies are everywhere in today’s world, but their ubiquity is also why their definition is often elusive and the analysis of public policies tends to be complex. The Public Policy 101 series offers the reader several tools of analysis that help make sense of the complexity of public policies. This 101 series comprises eight different articles, each focusing on a different aspect, which should provide the reader with a framework of analysis to better understand the complex world of public policy-making.
Beyond national public policy
New approaches in public policy studies
The focus of this 101 series so far has been on national public policy. When policy decisions involve actors and institutions hailing from different contexts, policy-making takes on the name of ‘multi-level governance’ (see Marks, 1993; Hooghe & Marks, 2003). Multi-level governance (henceforth MLG) can go both from national to sub-national, such as in federal systems, and from national to supra-national, which is the case of the European Union (EU). Understanding MLG arrangements is necessary to explain how policy comes to be when there are multiple levels of decision-making, each involving different sets of actors, often with diverging interests.
Scholars offered several different definitions of MLG. For instance, Marks (1993: 392) understands it as ‘[a] system of continuous negotiation among nested governments at several territorial levels.’ Rhodes (1997: 1) suggests that we ‘no longer have a mono-centric or unitary government,’ and that there are ‘many centres linking many levels of government,’ from local to supranational. Finally, Richards and Smith (2004) claim that policy-making has become a complex mix of hierarchies, networks and markets, characterised by dispersal of authority and of decision-making.
Cairney (2019) identifies three key ideas behind MLG. Firstly, MLG can be a choice, as is the case of the EU (membership to which is voluntary), or of countries such as Switzerland and Germany, both of which allow a strong level of autonomy to their regions (the Swiss Canton and the German Länder). On the opposite end there are systems of governance such as the British Westminster model, where a strong, centralised state acts unilaterally in matters of policy-making (on this, see Rhodes, 1997). However, MLG can also be a necessity. This is particularly the case in federal polities such as the United States, Canada, Australia, or India, whose extensive territory and heterogeneous population make unitary state arrangements contentious or difficult to manage (Kelemen, 2000; see also Fabbrini, 2010).
The second key idea behind MLG is that of power-sharing. Having multiple centres of governance and overlapping competencies can lead to coordination problems. Indeed, it is not uncommon for MLG systems to fall into the so-called ‘joint decision trap’ (Scharpf, 1988), in which the eventual policy outcome can only be taken at the lowest common denominator in order to satisfy all actors. Unfortunately, this often results in a slow, piecemeal and unambitious policy. The problem is particularly complex when one or more actors have veto power over the decision-making process (see Tsebelis, 1995, 2002). This is for instance the case for several EU policies such as membership approval and foreign affairs: in such instances, one single member state can block the entire process, further lowering the bar for the lowest common denominator.
On the other hand, MLG arrangements can also work as a conduit of easier policy diffusion and transfer (on this, see Dolowitz & Marsh, 2000; Simmons et al., 2006). Being part of the same community (whether federal or supranational) can improve policy-makers’ ability to learn from past policies in a similar environment and implement them at a new level of governance. This was the case for healthcare in the United States. Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was an improved version of an earlier experiment for expanded healthcare access in the State of Massachusetts. Likewise, the Covid-19 pandemic allowed national leaders to more easily observe how well different levels of restrictions worked both in other EU member states and within subnational units, which made their choice about national-level restrictions easier to weigh against other policies on the table.
The final idea behind MLG is that it is also a new way to understand policy-making. The standard policy cycle heuristic is often difficult to apply in multi-level systems of governance. For instance, in the EU, the Commission holds agenda-setting power (Nugent & Rhinard, 2015); policy is often formulated with the help of transnational interest groups (Klüver, 2013); decision-making power is shared between the member states, represented at the Council, and nationally elected Members of the European Parliament (Hix & Høyland, 2011); implementation is also a multilevel problem-solving game involving European institutions, national-level ministries and local implementing officers (Börzel et al., 2010; Thomann, 2019). In such a conundrum, the policy cycle heuristic becomes even messier and more abstracted from reality.
On the contrary, an approach based on MLG, which can take into account policy learning and diffusion both by policy issue and over time, is better able to capture the development of European integration, and why the EU went from a relatively simple and small economic agreement limited to regulatory policies (Majone, 1994, 1996) to a quasi-federal political arrangement, with a complicated web of institutions (Fabbrini, 2015; Coman et al., 2020). It can also help explain why some policies such as consumer protection have enjoyed widespread success when implemented at the European level (Rauh, 2019), whereas others such as debt mutualisation have found much more resistance (Howarth & Schild, 2021).
It should not be surprising, then, that MLG, especially pertaining to the development of the EU, has deep roots. The first theoreticians of European integration adduced two potential lines of development for the EU (back then still European Economic Community). One theory, neofunctionalism, was supported by Ernst Haas (1958, 1961) and suggested that transnational economic interests would be the driving force behind stronger integration. Businesses at the national level would see economic integration as a strong incentive to switch from national- to EU-based regulation, thus pushing policy-making beyond the national boundaries. On the opposite side, intergovernmentalists such as Stanley Hoffman (1966; and later Andrew Moravcsik, 1993, 1998), rebutted this claim by showing how the development of EU integration was stunted by national interests, which did not want to lose sovereignty. Putnam (1988) later suggested that political actors may be playing a 'two-level game' in which receiving concessions at the higher level (the EU, for instance) would be easier when the more constrained leaders were at the lower level (the national level).
Although none of these scholars explicitly addressed these processes as MLG, they were, for all intents and purposes, describing its modus operandi. Neo-functionalism showed how policy learning would be easier within a common regulatory framework. For its part, intergovernmentalism suggested that strong veto players would inevitably lead EU policy-making within a 'joint-decision trap', denying any possibility of further developments at the higher level. Putnam's (1988) claim was that this was not a foregone conclusion, but that policy negotiations (i.e. the formulation and decision stage) at the EU level would depend on individual national situations. Today, MLG scholars accept that all such takes are valid, which ironically creates a paradox: on the one hand, national states are conducive to better EU-level policy-making as they help in aggregating the preferences of their citizens beyond the national borders, on the other, they often constrain EU policy-making on grounds of national sovereignty (Schackel et al., 2015).
The main issue relating to MLG is that it remains an elusive concept even among scholars. There is a wide consensus that today’s policy-making process has changed extensively, and that a variety of political actors from the sub-national, national, and supranational levels alike are getting involved in shaping policy outcomes. However, a MLG approach is very difficult to apply to policy studies in a coherent and systematic manner. Such difficulty stems from three factors. First, since MLG can be applied to a wide range of systems of governance, there lack clear definitional characteristics that can be related to all MLG arrangements.
Secondly, MLG can often be chaotic, and competencies among jurisdictions at different levels are often blurred, leading to several contentions before courts (one only needs to think of the long list of complaints before the US Supreme Court concerning the competence of the States versus the federal government). Inevitably, this adds to the previous definitional problems, leading different scholars to understand the same MLG arrangement in different ways. Indeed, as Schackel et al. (2015) write, ‘there are almost as many definitions of MLG as there are users of the term.’
Finally, polities can present elements of both typical unitary and federal systems. For instance, the United Kingdom is often understood as a strong centralised state, in which the dispersion of formal authority is limited to a small number of jurisdictions through devolution (Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales). However, responsibilities between these jurisdictions and Westminster often overlap, leading to devolved and central governments producing different policy instruments to deal with the same problem (see Bache & Flinders, 2004).
Notwithstanding these weaknesses, the idea of MLG governance should not be discarded. Rather, as Cairney (2019) points out, it remains extremely useful to understand policy-making, in at least two ways. First, it can be employed conceptually, as an abstract way to describe key policy-making developments. This is the case of the joint decision trap, which could not be explained by single-level governance approaches. Secondly, it can be employed to describe specific empirical developments, such as how certain policy areas, e.g. monetary policy, have undergone a process of Europeanisation (on monetary policy, see Mourlon-Druol, 2012; see also Börzel, 2005 for multiple policies comparison), leading to the creation of new European institutions and policies.
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Figure 1: Shutterstock (2020). The US is the oldest example of a system of multilevel governance. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.governing.com/now/the-forgotten-meaning-of-we-the-people.html.
Figure 2: Flickr (n.d.). It's difficult to explain European public policy-making without making any reference to MLG. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/european_parliament/47937867822.
Figure 3: Murphy, M. (2021). Britain has lost the EU. Can it find a role?. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/01/02/britain-has-lost-the-eu-can-it-find-a-role
Figure 4: Mitchell, J. J. (2022). People manifesting in favour of Scottish independence, which would end its devolution relationship with Westminster. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/challenge-on-new-scottish-independence-vote-likely-to-end-up-in-court-ckhnscbml.
Cover picture: Bernis, A. (2021). The world is entering a new era of big government. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/11/20/the-world-is-entering-a-new-era-of-big-government