Policy Analysis in Canada: The State of the Art

What Happens in the Policy Process?

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What Happens in the Policy Process?

The policy process and the policy cycle are most commonly used as frameworks to think about and understand policy-making. The most common approach to understanding what is happening is to think of various self interested actors engaged collectively in reaching a policy outcome (Hoberg 2000). However, this explains too little and omits too much. It explains too little in part because of the level of generality and the absence of a solid theoretical foundation. The theoretical failing is primarily one of a failure to articulate a theory of what actors do in the engagement. The idea of a process suggests that there are various steps and interactions. However, there is a failure to address the fundamental character and nature of these.

In trying to get at these questions, and develop an adequate theoretical framework, the policy scholar is faced with a kind of black box. The most that there is to work with from a theoretical perspective is optimization. However, optimization describes a strategy, not a form of behaviour. The fundamental question of how actors actually interrelate is curiously treated as something that is not fully capable of description in theoretical terms.

There is something too simple about the presentation of the policy process in these conventional terms. One of the implications of a model based on self interested behaviour is that actors in multi-agent settings engage in bargaining. Actors who are solely motivated by self interest in their relations with other actors engage in one of two kinds of social relations: exchange or negotiation. Exchange is uniquely market based. Thus we are left with negotiations as the fundamental relationship defining the policy process.

As far as government actors are concerned, this conclusion is rather odd. First it does not accord with what most would say they do. Of course, it is true that many actors cannot describe what they actually do. The argument is nevertheless problematic. In most cases a clear explanation, if provided, will lead a reasonable intelligent person to agree that what the description is valid. In the case of the policy process, it is impossible to get this kind of concurrence with respect to negotiations.

Most people will concede that government actors have interests. And that these interests are important. But they are actors with a difference. Their interests usually are very complex. The outcome of their behaviour is not going to be judged on how well it served their private interests. Rather, it is more likely to be judged on how well it matches some kind of public purpose. Their behaviour is also shaped by culture, conventions, beliefs, institutional expectations, mandates and directions from principals, ideas, and other complex factors.

In general the result is that they will seek to be informed by something other than interest claims. The claim that they are simply pursuing self-interest just doesn’t ring true to what is commonly observed. Further, empirical results establishing the case for this is in remarkably short supply. Nor does it seem to make sense to claim that government actors are just another set of competing actors. Additionally, virtually all descriptions of the policy process recognize that ideas are important in policy-making. It is very difficult to establish the case that all ideas originate in, and are used solely for, the purpose of advancing the self interest of actors.

The behaviour of government actors is procedurally very complex. If we are to talk of in an informed way about the workings of the policy process, we need some better way to describe actors’ behaviours within the process and better explanations of what they do in their engagements with one another. Jon Elster has written that there are three ways, and three ways only, in which collective decisions are made, namely:

  • Negotiations

  • Deliberation

  • Voting (Elster 1998)

The idea that policy-making is essentially defined by one or some combination of these three kinds of activities suggests ways of better understanding the policy process: we need workable theories of deliberations, negotiations, and voting.

Bargaining has been quite thoroughly examined with the focus on optimization in a social context. If optimization could perfectly explain behaviour, all policy activity would be defined by bargaining, and scholars could simply reduce the study of policy-making to the study of bargaining. Policy analysis would be the same as negotiation analysis, and the theoretical and empirical questions would be largely resolved. Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Government actors invariably engage in deliberation, not bargaining, in formulating policy. Deliberation is different from bargaining, and it gives rise to activities that are fundamentally different from negotiations. Indeed, deliberation is in some sense an alternative to negotiation. And thus policy formulation must be examined within the context of deliberation as well as bargaining.

This is not to say that the policy process is exclusively a matter of deliberations. But it is important to pay attention to what governments actually do in the policy process. To some degree the neglect of deliberations has resulted from the tendency to want to understand all actors as doing the same thing regardless of their location. It is difficult to think of interest groups as being involved in collective deliberation. But it is not nearly so hard to recognize deliberation as playing a large role if one looks directly inside government. Policy is a product of government, and governments do engage in collective deliberations. The search for a single common form of activity has discounted the importance of deliberations. In the final analysis, policy is made by governments and governments make decisions.

The collective process may take place in a network, a Cabinet, a committee, a policy team, a commission, a task force or any number of variations of groups assigned the task arriving at a decision. The membership of the collective will be defined by institutional rules. Some of these rules may be formal, and others a matter of custom, convention or practice.

In getting to a decision, following Elster, actors many deliberate, negotiate, or call for a vote (or some combination). Deliberation and deliberation theory, of these three has suffered the greatest neglect. And yet when governments pursue reform of the policy process, it is most often the deliberative aspect of the processes that gets the greatest attention. It is here that the government actors generally call for policy analysis. Policy analysis in government settings is invariably undertaken in support of deliberations. My contention is that the role of analysis can best be understood by focusing on deliberation. Deliberation is the theoretical lens that best informs with respect to the role of analysis.

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