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.
The public policy actors
The policy subsystem
Beyond national public policy
New approaches in public policy studies
The public policy actors
For each stage of the policy process, some actors may be excluded, while others who were marginal before may become pivotal now (Howlett et al., 2020: 12). This article illustrates how five different categories of actors are differently involved in the policy-making process: politicians (and policy-makers), bureaucrats, interest groups, epistemic communities, and citizens.
Politicians and policy-makers
Politicians and particularly policy-makers are included at all stages of the policy process. They are the only democratically elected actors and are meant to represent the will of the majority of the voters. Politicians contend for power in electoral competitions to pursue specific agendas that align with their beliefs (Hartmann, 2014). These may be, for instance, pro- or anti-market regulation, pro- or anti-immigration, or in the case of European countries, pro- or anti-integration. In some cases, however, scholars contend that the opposite relationship is at play, and that politicians do not win elections in order to enact certain policies: rather, they enact policies to win elections and retain power, thus diluting their ideological content (Downs, 1957).
Politicians can listen to public opinion to decide what to put on the governmental agenda, they formulate and decide on the policies to be enacted, and they direct bureaucrats on how to implement policies. Finally, they can listen to the experts’ evaluation of the enacted policies to decide on whether to continue, modify or terminate a policy. All these actions allow politicians to set the course of a country's political life.
Bureaucrats are part of the extended government and constitute the behind-the-scenes arm of politicians. They are often thought to be simply the enactors of governmental agendas, but it needs not to be so. As Page (2003) forcefully argues, civil servants can, for all intents and purposes, assume the role of legislators. They initiate policies by placing them on the political agenda; they make sure that the proposed policies pass through parliament, and they implement and enact them once they have been legitimised. Hence, they are involved at all stages except decision-making, which remains the sole domain of policy-makers.
Their assiduous behind-the-scenes work owes to ministers knowing relatively little about the law they want to advance until civil servants present them with bullet-point briefings and other reports, summarising the key points of the proposals (Page, 2003). But that does not mean that bureaucrats always act at the behest of politicians. As Allison (1969) showed with the different models of management of the Cuban missile crisis, organisations are often messy, and chains of command are not necessarily respected.
Likewise, Carpenter (2001) demonstrated that powerful bureaucrats with a good reputation can also secure policies despite the opposition of politicians. In this regard, the 1980s TV sitcom Yes Minister offered a brilliant example of how civil servants differ from politicians. Finally, a long literature in implementation studies (e.g. Hjern & Hull, 1982; Matland, 1995; Thomann, 2019) shows how bureaucrats have discretion in how policies should be implemented, thus curtailing the power of central policy-makers. Hence, though working in the shadows and anonymously to the public at large, bureaucrats can often exert a significant degree of influence on the political direction of a country.
Interest groups are any non-governmental organisation that attempts to influence the policy process to see their interest reflected in the policy output (Chari et al., 2019). They can affect public opinion by setting the agenda, they most often help formulate policies, and they sometimes carry out evaluations thereof to pass on to policy-makers.
Interest groups are also known as lobbies, and constitute perhaps the most reviled aspect of politics (for an example of a scathing critique of a powerful lobby, see Mearsheimer & Walt, 2006). However, this is a distorted perception of what interest groups are and how they work. Chari and Kritzinger (2006) offer a three-fold classification of interest groups: economic, professional, and public groups.
Economic groups are what lobbyists are most commonly assumed to be: powerful business interests that pursue private gain (financial or otherwise) by legitimately interfering with the policy process. According to some authors (Hart, 2004), big business is such a powerful group that it does not work within the logic of typical interest groups. There is much evidence in support of this. An influential but controversial study by Gilens and Page (2014) concludes that ‘economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.’ For her part, Woll (2019) employs the 2008 economic crisis as a case study to suggest how financial corporations held a privileged status in economic policy-making where they did not even need to exert pressure on policy-makers to obtain what they wanted. As she colourfully describes it, ‘the CEOs and lobbyists of the major financial institutions could have gone off to distant islands slurping cocktails rather than meet with public authorities during the crisis’ (Woll, 2019).
But not all lobbyists represent private economic interests. Professional groups defend the interest of working categories – lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc. Trade unions are one such group, and in some countries, especially in continental and northern Europe, they have managed to assume a key role in politics and policy-making (see Allern & Bale, 2017; Crepaz, 2020).
Finally, public interest groups are what are commonly known as non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The likes of Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders, Transparency International or Human Rights Watch are all groups that can contribute to making policy reflect the interest not of the few, but of the many.
Epistemic communities are groups of experts, hailing from academia, research centres and think-tanks, to make a few examples (see Haas, 1992 for a primer on epistemic communities). Like lobbyists, they are mostly involved in the formulation stage of the policy process, where they help policy-makers make informed decisions through what is known as evidence-based policy-making (Cairney, 2016). Unfortunately, given the environment of uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding much policy-making, epistemic communities have so far had little success in strongly influencing policy (Cairney & Kwiatowski, 2017).
Experts can also contribute significantly to policy evaluation and impact assessment (e.g. Dunlop et al., 2012). In a turn of irony, Dunlop (2017) also describes how epistemic communities, by generating new knowledge for policy evaluations and recommendations that supersede old knowledge (which they themselves had created), may also be curtailing their very policy-making influence.
Public opinion and voters
Although voters are often identified with the ‘governed’ rather than the ‘governing’, they can exert important influence in policy-making. The most obvious way is through voting, although this influence is merely indirect. Rather, they have much more say during the agenda-setting stage. Here, public opinion can open up the window of opportunity for policy-makers to act (Mortensen, 2010; Green-Pedersen & Mortensen, 2018). Recent examples are the economic sanctions against Russia or the ‘green turn’ in several policies: both of them were in part driven by the changing public opinion and higher sensibilisation of voters to these new issues.
Another way in which voters can have a more direct influence on policy-making is through referenda (on this, see Gallagher, 2014). Referenda are commonplace in direct democracy countries such as Switzerland, but can be employed every now and then everywhere else, although their results seldom bind policy-makers. The most famous example is Brexit (which, ironically, was not binding), but others include the legalisation of marijuana in certain US states, and the ban on fracking in several countries.
Other policy-making actors
In some countries, there are other actors that do not fall within any of the five aforementioned categories but that can still exert important policy-making power. The most famous and important one is the US Supreme Court. In light of the common law system of the American judiciary, the Court holds important quasi-law-making powers. Among the most widely known decisions are Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared segregation in education illegal, and Roe v. Wade (1973) which ensured abortion could be performed safely and legally, but also Citizens United (2010), which granted an almost citizen-like status to corporations (money as free speech), and Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which rolled back some provisions from the Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s.
In sum, a wide range of actors can exert influence in policy-making, but not all to the same extent, nor during the same stage of the policy process. While citizens are loudest in the agenda-setting stage, interest groups can best influence the formulation of policies, which policy-makers must vote on. Bureaucrats have the most discretion in implementation, and experts play an important role in policy evaluation and learning.
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Cairney, P. (2016). The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking. London: Palgrave Pivot.
Cairney, P., & Kwiatkowski, R. (2017). How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies. Science Communications, 3(1), 1-8.
Carpenter, D. P. (2001). The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Chari, R., & Kritzinger, S. (2006). Understanding EU policy making. London: Pluto Press.
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Figure 1: Unsplash (n.d.) Marchers with signs at the March on Washington, 1963 [Photo by Marion S. Trikosko]. Retrieved from: https://unsplash.com/photos/9RbdjQ3nCEk
Figure 2: Foundation for Economic Education (2018, November 18th). Still from the TV series Yes Minister [Photo]. Retrieved from: https://fee.org/articles/the-bbcs-yes-minister-is-everything-you-need-to-know-about-government/
Unknown (2016). Two people shaking hands. [photo]. Lobbyt.com https://lobbyit.com/things-consider-hiring-lobbyist/
Figure 5: NPR (2020, December 10th). Depiction of the nine US Justices [Drawing]. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2020/12/07/943937968/supreme