Public Policy 101: New Approaches in Public Policy Studies
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.
Public Policy 101: Rationalist and Constructivist Ontology in Public Policy
Public Policy 101: An Overview of the Theories of the Policy Process
Public Policy 101: New Approaches in Public Policy Studies
In the past fifty years or so, the study of public policy has changed dramatically. Much of it could be seen throughout this 101 series: the assumption of perfect rationality has been relaxed to give way to constructivist and behavioural approaches to public policy based on bounded rationality (see John, 2013, 2018). The policy cycle heuristic has been side-lined in favour of more complete theories of the policy process that could not only describe policy-making, but also explain policy change (see Weible & Sabatier, 2017). Furthermore, the range of actors involved in policy-making has considerably expanded, including now epistemic communities, the media, and an enormous variety of interest groups (see Haas, 1992; McBeth & Shanahan, 2004; Bitonti & Harris, 2017). Finally, the locus of policy-making analysis has also expanded thanks to the increased focus on multilevel governance (see Hooghe & Marks, 2003).
This last article of the series builds on the insights accumulated so far in order to show which direction public policy is taking as a discipline, and how new approaches are changing it in at least three ways: in terms of theories, in terms of methodology, and in terms of scope.
Theorising public policy
The role of theories in any discipline is to offer a coherent structure (framework) that helps the researcher interpret and explain facts by generating falsifiable predictions, the validity of which can be assessed against empirical reality (on the distinction between theories and framework, see Ostrom, 2010). Theories abound in scientific research. One needs only to think of Newton’s gravitational law, Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, or Michels’ iron law of oligarchy. Many of these are centuries-old, but public policy was late in offering a set of consistent theories to explain policy change. A reason for this is that public policy – unlike physics or biology – is a relatively new field. When Cicero wrote De Re Publica and Machiavelli The Prince, these were works of political history and governance, but did not offer any particular theory about how policies come to be. In other words, they did not make predictions, unlike Newton’s laws of motion, which could be employed to explain the movement of planets.
Yet, since the 1980s, theories of public policy have mushroomed, with thousands of empirical studies to date that have put them to test. This has been addressed in an earlier instalment of the series. Here, instead, the focus is on how this multitude of theories can offer a single coherent framework of analysis. Hekkila and Cairney (2017: 319-20) show how each theory can partially explain the behaviour of policy actors and/or the different steps in the process. They write:
[A]ctors form coalitions to cooperate with each other and compete with their opponents (ACF); they exploit cultural stereotypes and cognitive biases to tell stories with heroes and a policy moral (NPF); the policy system dampens the effect of most stories and amplifies some (PET); the small number of amplified issues prompt policy change during a window of opportunity (MSA); and subsequent policies create feedback, or the rules that constrain and facilitate future coalition activity (PFT).
Today, it has become commonplace to integrate different theories to offer a wider explanatory analysis. Yet, as Cairney (2019) warns, this should not be done uncritically for at least three reasons. First, as the definition of theory offered above suggests, theories require coherence. Integrating different theories of the policy process entails that these theories must approach the same subject. If the same name given to a concept is employed in different ways, then the theories are incompatible (e.g. the PET understands institutions to be organisations, but the IAD likens them to rules). Secondly, theories must be based on the same ontology, i.e. the same approach to understanding reality. Integrating positivist and post-positivist ontologies within a single framework is in itself a contradiction. Finally, theories cannot make opposite predictions if one wishes to integrate them. As such, when moving forward, the synthesis of new theories can help offer a more accurate picture of policy change, though it must be done so within important constraints.
The methodology of public policy
In its inception, public policy analysis was very much descriptive, taking on a rhetorical narrative. Much of the pioneering work by scholars such as Lasswell, Schattsneider, Kingdon and Sabatier followed this approach. However, public policy was not immune to the ‘quantitative turn’ that has swept the social sciences in the past thirty years. The qualitative-quantitative debate is a tale as old as time in the social sciences (Mahoney & Goertz, 2006), nor is it of interest here.
Rather, the peculiarity of the methodology of public policy lies in its extreme flexibility. While some theories such as the MSA and the ACF were crafted with an explicitly qualitative approach in mind, newer theories such as the PET and the NPF were explicitly quantitative in how their predictions could be tested. Yet, this has not prevented scholars from crossing the bridge from one side to the other. For instance, lately there have been attempts to ‘quantify’ some of the key concepts of the ACF (Satoh et al., 2021), as much as to offer a qualitative spin on how NPF studies can be conducted (Gray & Jones, 2016; Depuis, 2019).
Such efforts have been allowed by parallel advances in the fields of methodology, statistics, and computational science. Without innovations coming from outside, the field would not boast the richness of methods its scholars can now apply. To offer some examples, public policy scholars have employed computational methods such as network analysis to measure belief similarity between actors in the same coalition (Sato et al., 2021); mediation analysis (see Imai et al., 2010) to examine the mechanism through which a certain narrative element is assumed to have a causal effect on the policy preferences of public opinion (Zanocco et al., 2018); quantitative text analysis to measure the influence of interest groups on policy outcomes (Klüver, 2011). Any of these approaches would have seemed unimaginable to the pioneers of the discipline.
As with theories, the use of new methodological approaches in public policy is necessarily limited by their appropriateness. It is also possible to employ multiple approaches to offer more comprehensive tests of policy theories (see Seawright, 2016), but one must not lose sight of the goal of explaining policy change: if one or more of the approaches employed to test policy theories does not serve this goal, then it must be considered superfluous.
The scope of public policy: beyond WEIRD
In his book The Righteous Mind¸ the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2012) lamented the fact that numerous psychological studies were possibly biased because subjects were most likely to come from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic countries – in a funny twist of words, they were WEIRD. But this is not our reality. There are many more non-WEIRD people than WEIRD ones in the world. Public policy scholarship can be accused of a very similar sin. More so, it can be accused of excessive Americanism. For instance, when Paul Sabatier (1987, 1988) came up with his Advocacy Coalition Framework, he very much had the American political system in mind. It was only ten years later that he decided to tweak the ACF to accommodate other realities, in particular European countries (see Sabatier, 1998). But even efforts like this one do not help to go beyond WEIRD – more is needed.
Cairney (2019) similarly notes that a major portion of the public policy scholarship has taken for granted that what applies to Western countries’ systems of governance must apply universally. But this can hardly be the case when two of the biggest countries in the world – China and Russia – do not have a democratic form of government. It is therefore crucial to understand how the policy process can vary spatially. Efforts in this direction have been taken by including non-democratic countries in more recent studies (e.g. Schlaufer et al., 2021 on waste management narratives in Russia; or the review by Li and Weible, 2021 on the application of the ACF in China), as well as countries from the global South (e.g. Leong, 2015 in Indonesia; and Chakrabarti & Sanyal, 2017 in India).
Beyond geographical space, a non-WEIRD approach to public policy requires breaking the monopoly of understanding created by white male scholars, such as all the pioneers of the field cited above. This involves exploring socially relevant issues such as feminism (Guerrina et al., 2018), the LGBT community (Friedriksen-Goldsen & Espinoza, 2014), and ethnic minorities in the West (on this, see the fascinating collection of essays by Randall Kennedy, 2021). In particular, it requires engaging with non-traditional understandings of public policy, encouraging the dialogue between different approaches and perspectives, something that Cairney (2019: 243) has recently underlined. As such, rather than the deductive (i.e. from general theory to a specific case) methods typical of much of the Western literature, going beyond WEIRD approaches would entail the use of inductive (i.e. from the particular to the general) methods which would, in turn, contribute to developing new theories that can be better in scope, predictions, and social relevance.
In other words, it would entail expanding the scope of theory-building exercises (as opposed to the testing of existing theories) in such a way that new theories would not be constrained by the political system or the policy areas scholars had in mind when crafting them. This would allow not only to build more general theories, but also to expand the scope to which they can be applied, thus keeping up with the fast-paced social and political developments in the real world.
These three directions – in theories, in methodology, and in scope – are by necessity interrelated. The rise of new social and public issues spurs the generation of new and more accurate theories: in turn, the development of new methodologies and more sophisticated computational software allows scholars to put the theories to a more rigorous test. Finally, advances in methodology would remain mere theoretical exercises if new issues and new theories did not offer scholars the opportunity to employ them.
Therefore, moving forward, the study of public policy will follow multiple streams (pun intended), each of which may develop independently – certainly advocates for LGBT rights do not have public policy theories in mind when marching through the streets to protest, nor do statisticians include moral issues in their mathematical models. Yet, only by coupling these streams can public policy as a discipline offer better models of reality that can be put to test, thus generating new insights about how and why policy changes.
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