Public Policy Process: From Authoritative Choice to the Social Construction

Though I have been interested in the area of policy advocacy and analysis, my engagement in the area has been limited to a practitioner’s point of view. In all the areas I worked in, the gap between the policy intentions and the actual implementation was so large that the whole exercise of consensus building and the policy making seemed to me farcical and overly-ritualistic. I was deeply skeptical of the idea of popular participation in the policy making process as the policies, for me, always emerged out of authoritative choices of the establishment. Colebatch’s book helped me in clearing some of my dogmas. No policy decision can be said to be entirely based on the idea of order and rationality. When looked closely, every policy making process is confronted with interpretation, contestation, meaning-making, power-struggle, volatility, and uncertainties. The textbook account of the policy may see it only as a process to a known and intended outcome, and to be accomplished by following certain stages; in reality, it is much more complex and ambiguous that it is made out to be. A policy action is possible only after a series of negotiations and adjudications. A more elaborate theorization of this point could be found in Kingdon (1980)[1], who identify three successive stages in the policy processes. The first stage is when the problem is identified. It requires a lot of imagination to turn the ‘problem’ into an ‘issue’ (or present it as one). Once the problem is located, the ‘policy stream’ gets activated, which essentially deals with the ‘what could be done about it’ part of it. The most of the classical accounts of policy processes stop here, but Kingdon adds one more stage to it, which he calls ‘political stream’ (whether it would win the political support). Even the most authoritative choices seek popular support and legitimacy.

The book also gives a detailed account of how policies are framed and mapped. Three basic mapping strategies which are referred in his book, are; (1) policy as an authoritative choice, (2) policy as a structured interaction, and (3) policy as a social construction. The dominant framing sees the policy as an authoritative choice, where ‘anything that government chooses to do or not to do (Dye 1972: 2)’ is considered a policy action. This view of policy framing has been highly contested, with critics arguing that even ‘the government’ which is often described as a monolith entity, is an array of multiple participants, voices, diverse agendas and contested realities. If the given reality is so complex, then how the policy process can be framed in such a straight-forwarded manner. This discontentment led to an ‘argumentative turn[2]’ in policy process discourse, and with this turn, emerged two new framings or ways of seeing and analyzing the policies. These alternative forms (structured interaction and social construction) pointed out at the ‘muddled’ and ‘chaotic’ nature of the policy processes and acknowledged the existence of multitudes of competing logics. While the structured interaction framing gave the primacy to the government in the policy processes, the social construction emphasized on the way concerns are recognized as worthy of collective attention. The social constructionist approach goes beyond the pre-existing phenomenon, and the concerns of policies are generated in the policy process. This sort of framing directs our attention to meaning making process and the shared understanding around an ‘issue’ or the problem. The greater attention given to the environmental issues in the policy discourse could be one example where the phenomena of ecological crisis were actively constructed by the stakeholders and was legitimized by the official discourse afterward.

Colebatch briefly discusses the types of policy knowledge; Episteme, Techne, and Phronesis (borrowed from Tenbenrel) and how a policy argument involves all of these sorts of knowledge. Even though he describes episteme as ‘what is true?’, techne as ‘what works?’ and phronesis as ‘what should be done?’, the interaction among these knowledge paradigms in a policy argument remains unclear to me.

[1] Kingdon, J.W. 1984 Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies, Boston MA, Little Brown

[2] Inspired by the ‘linguistic turn’ in social sciences, the policy theorists started referring to the work of theorists such as Habermas, Foucault, Derrida etc. and actively explored the dynamics of language, power, locus in the theory and practice of policy-making

EdTech, Educational Data Sciences, Childhood Studies, History of Education & Policy Sociology, curate @central_ed , Currently @IIMAhmedabad

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