Public Policy 101: Rationalist and Constructivst Ontology in Public Policy

Foreword

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.

  1. What is public policy?

  2. The stages of the policy process

  3. Rationalist and constructivist ontology in public policy

  4. An overview of the theories of the policy process

  5. The public policy actors

  6. The policy subsystem

  7. Beyond national public policy

  8. New approaches in public policy studies

Ontology and epistemology are two key terms in philosophy and the social sciences. The former refers to the nature of phenomena – what things are. It concerns the foundational claims about reality. The latter refers to how one can come to know these phenomena and things – that is, the standards used to establish the accuracy and truth of conjectures about how reality works (see Jones & Radaelli, 2015). While epistemology will be discussed more in depth in the next instalment of this series, the present article focuses on how actors involved in policy-making perceive reality. One cannot understand how phenomena can be explained if first the nature of said phenomena is not established.


A first tradition in the social sciences is the rationalist or positivist approach, which stemmed from economics and then spread to other disciplines. In this model, the individual – often labelled as homo oeconomicus – is a utility-maximising rational actor, facing a well-defined problem and equipped with perfect information (Forester, 1984). In other words, policy is logical, reasoned and neutral, and policy-makers can take the best possible decision to maximise their utility, having weighed up the alternatives (John, 2013: 24). To do this, the rational actor must possess a range of ‘heroic qualities’, as Griggs (2007: 174) put it. They must possess full information about the problem at hand, and have stable preferences that can be ranked in a clear and transitive order (e.g. x is better than y, which is better than z, meaning that x is also better than z). It must always be possible to specify, in a consistent way, that one outcome is better than, as good as, or worse than any other. This will allow rational actors to calculate costs and benefits of a particular course of action over others and compare potential different outcomes so as to choose those that confer the maximum utility to the actor or society (Griggs, 2007).


Figure 1: In a rational model, humans are very machine-like. Source: Pemptousia.

Such an exercise not only entails that actors can separate values from facts (i.e. have a positivist view of reality), but also that policy can be made linearly, as the policy cycle model proposes. In this approach, therefore, rationality is comprehensive in the sense that ‘policy-makers translate their values and aims into consistent policy choices following a comprehensive study of all choices and their effects’ (Cairney, 2019: 56-7). It is obvious that such a herculean feat is simply not possible: humans seldom have well-defined and consistent preferences; nor do they have perfect information and infinite time to make choices. People, as Cindy Kam (2005) put it, are ‘cognitive misers’: they are not machines able to simultaneously compare billions of alternatives, and must instead rely on informational shortcuts and heuristics to gather just enough evidence to make decisions (Cairney and Kwiatkowski, 2017).


As such, the behavioural model underpinning almost all theories of public policy is that of ‘bounded rationality’ (Simon, 1955, 1957, 1976; see also Jones, 2017; and Jones & Thomas III, 2018). Here, actors are not rational, but rather are fallible; they do not face well-defined problems, but ambiguous ones; they act upon imperfect knowledge and information; and the outcome is not optimising, but satisficing. Unlike comprehensive rationality, bounded rationality is based on four different tenets: (a) the principle of intended rationality, whereby actors are goal-oriented, but often fail to accomplish their intentions because of cognitive shortcomings that cannot cope with environmental complexities; (b) the principle of adaptation, according to which human thought is adaptive and based on the task facing people; (c) the principle of uncertainty, due to the complexity of social problems, which also affects probability calculus; and (d) the principle of trade-offs, whereby trading off one goal against another in a choice is far more difficult than comprehensive rationality suggests (Jones & Thomas III, 2018: 274-6).


Figure 2: Herbert Simon, the father of bounded rationality. Source: Wikipedia

Because of bounded rationality, the pursuit of ends in public policy is best understood as a satisficing process whereby policy-makers have to make decisions based on a limited amount of information that can be gathered and processed (John, 2013: 24). In other words, decision-makers act in situations of ambiguity which arise exactly because problems and preferences are not well known (see Zahariadis, 2007). Thus, decisions cannot be made on the basis of fully informed choices and policymakers tend towards what is ‘good enough’.


But if the reality of public policy-making is one shaped by bounded rationality, what does this entail for how policy actors see and understand problems and solutions? First of all, in a situation of ambiguity policy actors must rely on heuristics and informational shortcuts, as mentioned before. Psychological research shows that rational reasoning often follows emotional reasoning (Haidt, 2001, 2012). Hence, good anchors for information processing are those that rely on emotions. These include beliefs and values that are already intrinsic to the individual (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993; Jenkins-Smith et al., 2017); stories that can arouse emotions and appeal to beliefs (Jones et al., 2014; Shanahan et al., 2017); or value judgments based on conscious biases and strategic exploitation of social stereotypes (Ingram et al., 2007).


In all these cases, public policy becomes a social construction: decisions on which problem deserves attention and which solution should be chosen are not part of a utility-maximising process where policy-makers have perfect information about the world and infinite time to make decisions. Rather, they follow the tenets of bounded rationality, whereby the definition of problems and solutions depends on deep psychological, behavioural and social limitations.


Because of bounded rationality, the pursuit of ends in public policy is best understood as a satisficing process whereby policy-makers have to make decisions based on a limited amount of information that can be gathered and processed (John, 2013: 24). In other words, decision-makers act in situations of ambiguity which arise exactly because problems and preferences are not well known (see Zahariadis, 2007). Thus, decisions cannot be made on the basis of fully informed choices and policymakers tend towards what is ‘good enough’.


But if the reality of public policy-making is one shaped by bounded rationality, what does this entail for how policy actors see and understand problems and solutions? First of all, in a situation of ambiguity policy actors must rely on heuristics and informational shortcuts, as mentioned before. Psychological research shows that rational reasoning often follows emotional reasoning (Haidt, 2001, 2012). Hence, good anchors for information processing are those that rely on emotions. These include beliefs and values that are already intrinsic to the individual (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993; Jenkins-Smith et al., 2017); stories that can arouse emotions and appeal to beliefs (Jones et al., 2014; Shanahan et al., 2017); or value judgments based on conscious biases and strategic exploitation of social stereotypes (Ingram et al., 2007).


In all these cases, public policy becomes a social construction: decisions on which problem deserves attention and which solution should be chosen are not part of a utility-maximising process where policy-makers have perfect information about the world and infinite time to make decisions. Rather, they follow the tenets of bounded rationality, whereby the definition of problems and solutions depends on deep psychological, behavioural and social limitations.


Figure 3: In public policy theories, reality is often taken as a social construction. Source: The Partially Examined Life

To be sure, bounded rationality is not the only way to tweak comprehensive rationality. A long tradition exists that runs parallel to Herbert Simon’s work, in which rationality is not merely bounded in terms of cognitive limits, but is also the result of actors belonging to competing interest groups (Lindblom, 1959). In this case, the problem is not merely ambiguous, but presents multiple definitions, and knowledge can be contested, withheld or manipulated. This approach is often typical of the problem definition literature, where problems are understood to be ‘wicked’ in the sense that they are complex, open-ended, and intractable (Alford & Head, 2017; Head, 2008; Rittel & Webber, 1973). The resulting outcome is one in which bargaining and incremental adjustments prevail – ‘muddling through’ as Lindblom (1959) called it – but in which radical change can sometimes take place (Baumgartner & Jones, 2009; Baumgartner et al., 2017).


Finally, rationality can be bounded in the sense that it is distorted by the political-economic structures of inequality: the problem is defined strictly in ideological terms and information, far from perfect, blurs into misinformation. Under these conditions, Forester (1984: 28) suggests, incrementalist strategies tend to be profoundly conservative and change can only occur through restructuring strategies aimed at redressing inequalities. This approach is most strongly purported in critical policy studies, often based on authors such as Marx, Habermas or Foucault.


In conclusion, rationalism and constructivism in public policy should not necessarily be understood as complete opposite ontological approaches. Rather, they belong to different positions in the same ontological spectrum that differently understand human behaviour in reality-construction (for a similar approach in European politics studies, see Christiansen et al., 1999). Rationality is never unbounded – it is just not in our human nature. But at the same time, the boundedness of rationality should not be confined to cognitive limits. These limits can also be socio-political, based on contested knowledge and multiple competing groups, as Lindblom suggests; or they can be grounded in broader structures of inequality, which can warp one’s perception and understanding of reality in ways that are most consistent with one’s positioning in such structures. The next step is then to see how, based on different ontologies, theories of the policy process apply varying epistemologies to study public policy.


References

  • Alford, J., & Head, B. W. (2017). Wicked and less wicked problems: a typology and a contingency framework. Policy and Society, 36(3), 397-413.

  • Baumgartner, F. & Jones, B. D. (2009). Agendas and Instability in American Politics. 2nd edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Baumgartner, F., Jones, B. D. & Mortensen, P. (2017). Punctuated Equilibrium Theory: Explaining Stability and Change in Public Policymaking. In Theories of the Policy Process, 4th ed. Weible, C. M. and Sabatier, P. A. (Eds.). London: Routledge, pp. 55-102.

  • Cairney, P. (2019). Understanding Public Policy. 2nd edition. London: Red Globe Press.

  • Cairney, P., & Kwiatkowski, R. (2017). How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies. Nature Communications, 3(1), 1-8.

  • Christiansen, T., Jorgensen, K. E., & Wiener, A. (1999). The social construction of Europe. Journal of European Public Policy, 6(4), 528-544.

  • Forester, J. (1984). Bounded rationality and the politics of muddling through. Public Administration Review, 44(1), 23-31.

  • Griggs. S. (2007). Rational Choice in Public Policy: The Theory in Critical Perspective. In Handbook of Public Policy Analysis – Theory, Politics, and Methods. Fischer, F., Miller G. J., and Sidney, M. S. (Eds.). London: CRC Press, pp. 173-186.

  • Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814-834.

  • Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. London: Penguin Books.

  • Head, B. W. (2008). Wicked problems in public policy. Public Policy, 3(2), 101-118.

  • Ingram, H., deLeon, P., and Schneider, A. (2007). Democratic Policy Design: Social Construction of Target Populations. In Theories of the Policy Process, 2nd edition. Sabatier, P. A. (Ed.). London: Routledge, pp. 93-128.

  • John, P. (2013). Analyzing Public Policy. 2nd edition. London & New York, NY: Routledge.

  • Jenkins-Smith, H. C., Nohrstedt, D., Weible, C. M., and Ingold, K. (2017). The Advocacy Coalition Framework: An Overview of the Research Programme. In Theories of the Policy Process, 4th ed. Weible, C. M. and Sabatier, P. A. (Eds.). London: Routledge, pp. 135-172.

  • Jones, B. D. (2017). Behavioral rationality as a foundation for public policy studies. Cognitive Systems Research, 43, 63-75.

  • Jones, B. D. and Thomas III, H. F. (2018). Bounded rationality and public policy decision-making. In Routledge Handbook of Public Policy. Araral, E. Jr, Fritzen, S., Howlett, M. and Ramesh, M. (Eds.). London and New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 273-286.

  • Jones, M. D., & Radaelli, C. M. (2015). The narrative policy framework: Child or monster?. Critical Policy Studies, 9(3), 339-355.

  • Jones, Michael D., Mark K. McBeth, and Elizabeth A. Shanahan. (2014). Introducing the Narrative Policy Framework. In The science of stories: Applications of the narrative policy framework in public policy analysis. Jones, M. D., McBeth, M. K, and Shanahan, E. A. (Eds.). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-26.

  • Kam, C. D. (2005). Who toes the party line? Cues, values, and individual differences. Political Behavior, 27(2), 163-182.

  • Lindblom, C. (1959). The science of Muddling Through. Public Administration Review, 24(3): 79-88.

  • Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

  • Sabatier, P.A. and Jenkins-Smith, H. C. (1993). Policy Change and Learning: And Advocacy Coalition Approach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

  • Shanahan, E. A., Jones, M. D., McBeth, M. K., and Radaelli, C. M. (2017). The Narrative Policy Framework. In Theories of the Policy Process, 4th ed. Weible, C. M. and Sabatier, P. A. (Eds.). London: Routledge, pp. 173-214.

  • Simon, H. A. (1955). A behavioral model of rational choice. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 69(1), 99-118.

  • Simon, H. A. (1957). Models of Man: Social and Rational. New York, NY: John Wiley.

  • Simon, H. A. (1976). Administrative Behavior. 3rd edition. London: MacMillan.

  • Zahariadis, N. (2007). The Multiple Streams Framework: Structure, Limitations, Prospects. In Theories of the Policy Process, 2nd edition. Sabatier, P. A. (Ed.). London: Routledge, pp. 65-92.

Image References



Author Photo

Marco Schito

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia

Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn