Social Science perspectives on policy analysis

By: Prof. Kulkeep Mathur/Former Board of Studies Member, CCMG, Jamia

Keynote address at 2nd MPL Faculty Workshop on Teaching Public Policy, Media & Law on 1-2 November 2013 at Central University of Rajasthan (CURAJ), Rajasthan. Held in collaboration with CURAJ, the workshop was held under the aegis of Ford Foundation supported Media Policy and Law Project hosted at CCMG, JMI. 

As the role of the state has become more complex, public policies have come under greater scrutiny from the people. Scholarly interest has also grown concomitantly in analysing how state responds to societal problems and in examining the adequacy of such response. So long as the planned strategy in India based on a political consensus was acceptable, there was much greater focus on the implementation of policies and public administration, but once this consensus broke down, focus shifted to critical analyses of policies themeselves. This shift in focus was concerned with a search for appropriate policy, creation of appropriate structures and process for its formulation, improving the competence of the policy-makers and evaluating policy outcomes.

There has been a considerable contribution from many academic disciplines and from people interested in public affairs towards designing of alternative polices among various choices available. Economists particularly have been in the forefront of the effort of proposing what policies should be followed under varying circumstances. In the past two decades economists in the neo-liberal tradition have offered policy choices that have led to major shifts in economic policies in India since 1991. While much of the concern in these writings was on the reformulation of the goals and in designing strategies to achieve them, there was little analysis of the policy process. However, some of these studies show how the changes in recent neo-liberal policies emanated from influences outside the country.  But the policy literature in the economic policy making arena is not very rich in analysing how and why specific policies were formulated and chosen. Even the actors involved in policy making have shied away from this type of analysis in their remembrances.

Prof. Kuldeep MathurDelivering Keynote address at the Faculty Meet on Teaching Public Policy, Media & Law, organized by CCMG, Jamia at Central University of Rajasthan, Bandar Sindri, Rajasthan

Prof. Kuldeep Mathur
Delivering Keynote address at the Faculty Meet on Teaching Public Policy, Media & Law, organized by CCMG, Jamia at Central University of Rajasthan, Bandar Sindri, Rajasthan

Other social science disciplines did not plunge into the task of policy analysis partly because of their own weak internal capacities but also because during the plan period economists tended to occupy most space in policy making. Either they joined the government or remained outside to provide support to the planning process. Thus other analyses were effectively crowded out.

In much of the prevalent literature, a technocratic view of policy analysis was predominant. This view is closely associated with scientific decision-making. In this perspective, policy process is based on a rational choice of the alternatives available to the decision maker. The process of a rational choice consists of a) identifying the problem, b) defining and ranking goals, c) identifying all policy alternatives for achieving these goals, d)identifying the costs and benefits of each alternative and ranking them according to trade-offs and then e) choosing the best alternative. It is assumed that goals can be identified in advance and all information is available to identify trade offs of each alternative from which the best choice can be made.

To meet with the limitation of having availability of all information Simon introduced  the concept of what came to be known as bounded rationality and conjured up the notion of an ‘administrative man’ in contrast to the economic man who was a maximizer when the administrative man was a satisficer. The steps in the rational decision-making were not abandoned. Two significant consequences took place. One,  this approach helped demarcate various stages in the process of policy making beginning from the stage of agenda setting to that of evaluation and feedback. Each stage was perceived as independent of the other.  The stages approach led to growth of technically oriented analysis. Introduction of computer introduced and encouraged use of quantitative techniques and modeling. Cost-benefit analysis reigned supreme.

This approach is more often than not, associated with planners and professional policy analysts who see the possibility of identifying best solutions to social and economic problems. When these solutions are not implemented, or cannot be implemented they blame politics and its irrational manifestations. Much of the field of policy analysis has been dominated by the literature emanating from the scientific-rational perspective. As a matter of fact a distinctive area of research as implementation analysis emerged particularly after the publication of the volume by Pressman and Wildawsky (1973). Implementation researchers divided the policy process into one that of policy formation and policy implementation and raised questions of how policies were formulated and then once made into law got implemented. More attention was focused how the intentions and goals of policy makers were translated into action and achievement. The approach forced the researchers to accept the goals of policy as given which in principle had to be followed because the legitimacy of the decision at the top could not be questioned. (Bogason, 2000:100)

A banner of the workshop

A banner of the workshop

Apart from the fact that top down approach precluded understanding of policy as a process of negotiation (Bogason, 2000:103), it reduced political and social issues to technical considerations for achieving goals through administrative means. Vexing social and economic problems were interpreted as issues that needed to be managed better with improved programme design; their solutions were to be found in the objective collection of data and the application of technical decision making approaches. This rational-technocratic approach in large part defined the policy sciences since the 1960s (Fischer, 2003:5). This approach found resonance in the value of efficiency embedded in all economic and managerial thinking and therefore dominated the way governments defined their problems and found solutions for them.

Several scholarly contributions in the past decade or so mark a shift in focus in the framework of policy analysis from what was known as top down approach. These contributions are critical of this approach which was closely associated with the idea of scientific decision-making or what Stone (1988) calls a ‘rationality project’. What was lost sight of in this dominant theme, argued by most scholars, was that policy was an arena of contestation – of bargaining and compromises- of politics. Reducing conflict ridden questions to the bureaucratic imperative of impersonality and value neutrality inhibited understanding of how policies were formulated and implemented. It viewed social and political issues as questions of efficiency, performance and productivity amenable to bureaucratic methods of decision-making. Fischer (2003:14) has further argued that these positivist methods of policy analysis have served intentionally or unintentionally to facilitate and bolster bureaucratic governance. He goes on to suggest that the post-empiricist call for the use of interpretative (hermeneutic) and discursive (deconstructionist) techniques are an effort to demonstrate that politics and policy are grounded in subjective factors. It seeks to show that what is identified as ‘objective’ truth by rational techniques is as often as not the product of deeper, less visible, political pre-suppositions. Their analysis starts with the recognition that different discourses, definitions, and questions lead to different policy outcomes. What are known as ‘facts’ are social constructions and framed through the discourses of the actors themselves. It is important, therefore, to explore and investigate the pre-suppositions, values and beliefs on which empirical assertions rest and uncover the many dimensions inherent to many deliberations and debates relevant to most policy issues.

These scholars argue that as facts are social constructions the way these facts are interpreted and defined paves the way for a policy. This is a very important argument because what is important in problem identification is not facts as such but the meanings attached to them by various actors. What is called for then is an analysis of competing definitions, and values and beliefs that interpret the facts. As Fischer (2003:14) points out this includes the theoretical assumptions that underlie a political discourse and the way they shape the apprehensions of policy alternatives, and thus alter the available range of policy options. He further argues that analysis should start with the recognition that different discourses, definitions and questions lead to different policy prescriptions.

Let me dwell on this point a little further. Take a common example of finding beggars on the road. To showcase India they were picked up in Delhi during the Olympics and placed out of sight. To the policy makers, they were symbols of downside of India and impacted negatively on the image that they wanted to build of India. Some see beggars as manifesting reality that still exists considerable poverty in the city. Others see the beggars as law and order problem and cite them as petty criminals. Different policy prescriptions follow in each of these views. The fact that there are beggars on the street does not feed into policy but the interpretation of that fact does.

In a study that a colleague and I did on drought policy (Mathur and Jayal,1993) brought this dimension even more starkly. The discussion in the Parliament was presenting different interpretations of the fact that certain number of districts had been declared drought affected by the government in Rajasthan. One was interpreting it as a symbol of the anger of the gods. Others saw it as a natural phenomenon that occurred periodically and still others saw it as man-made hazard. Each of these interpretations led to different policy prescriptions. Anger of gods interpretation led to the organization of yagnas and kirtan to appease them and one was actually attended by the Speaker. Periodic occurrence interpretation meant immediate rural works program-e to create employment. Stone cutting was the immediate remedy and in an earlier study in Maharashtra, this was widely employed. It was only drought as man-made hazard that led to a long term perspective and creation of assets to drought proof the areas concerned.

Due to the assumptions of the causes of drought, long-term concerns simply did not enter the definition of the crisis.  Thus policy contributed to exacerbating social consequences of drought even as political mileage is derived from drought management. Government performance evaluations were conducted at a technical level only accounting for responses to immediate needs, which, unsurprisingly, produced positive evaluations.

What we are seeing is that problem identification is by itself a complex issue where intense negotiation and bargaining can take place. Meanings are contested and the government finds itself in a position of asserting a meaning not necessarily acceptable by all. It has to persuade and argue. In todays complex governance style then government is unable to  provide for an authoritative meaning.  We need to therefore unravel this complex social and political process that gives meaning to problems and leads to a policy prescription. Once meaning is given policy will follow.

The alternative perspective in policy analysis then seeks to provide an improved reflection of the world of practice as far as policy process is concerned. Instead of attempting to insulate decision-making from everyday politics, it attempts to show that policy problems are defined in a subjective fashion and are dependent on the world view of the actors involved. The world views are open to debate and contestation and a policy is an outcome of one that prevails at that time. Changes occur because relationships among actors change and a new constellation of forces may emerge. Policy making is a dynamic process occurring in a network society rather than one within hierarchies. Policy changes may also occur as knowledge brings about shifts in the beliefs and perceptions of the actors. In a complex society that we are living in, this may happen due to various influences.

Participants of the Faculty Weorkshop on Teaching Public Policy, Media & Law, organized by CCMG, Jamia at Central University of Rajasthan, Bandar Sindri, Rajasthan

Participants of the Faculty Weorkshop on Teaching Public Policy, Media & Law, organized by CCMG, Jamia at Central University of Rajasthan, Bandar Sindri, Rajasthan

Globalization has brought into focus a new range of relationships among governmental institutions and international institutions. Policies are open to global influences and government institutions have accepted formulations of policy framed elsewhere. This is particularly true in the sectors of environment, climate change, human rights etc. It has led critics to argue that policy-making sovereignty of government has been abdicated.

In another significant development, civil society organizations have emerged as part of the network of governance in the country. A number of such organizations attempt to directly shape public policy through advocacy rather than the approach of replication of best-practice models at the delivery level. Civil society organizations may enter policy advocacy directly by organizing campaigns and protest themselves or joining policy networks or issue-based coalitions. In the context of poverty, participation, democratization and equity concerns, Indian NGOs have engaged in organized advocacy in fields as diverse as informal, unorganized sector and child labour; affirmative action and protection for the disabled; a wide range of women’s issues; environment, forests and related issues such as displacement and rehabilitation; health; judicial reform; participatory management and governance; consumer rights; appropriate technology; shelter and other issues affecting the urban poor; and issues relating to their own working space.  The advocacy role of NGOs and their role in popular mobilization has contributed to successful policy changes such as the adoption of the Right to Information Act, Right to Education Act. The current Food Security Bill under consideration of the government is also a product of the efforts of civil society groups.

In these advocacy efforts attempting to change views on persistent problems, policy research organizations have come out to play an important. They bring inputs of new knowledge and research and also become advocates of policy change themselves too. There has been great rise in such policy research organizations in the last decade or so as governments themeselves are eager to explore alternative policies. NGOs have developed alliances with other non-state entities to further an alternative and participatory discourse of development. In concrete terms, NGOs have developed relationships with research institutions that tended towards a more progressive policy outlook. In turn, these institutes have played a key role as nodal institutions in the formation of policy networks and coalitions.

The whole effort is directed to change a world view to change policy. When an actor can make others see the world according to a preferred frame then a chosen course of action can be generated. New technology and immense developments in communications methodology are also contributing immensely in the efforts to change the world view being advocated by specific actors. Media images seem to be more lasting and this message is not lost on the policy advocates. Political parties promote their own newspapers, TV channels etc. A political leader leading an election understands this and has launched his own TV channel. What the media does is to create a drama based on conflict which is then pushed towards a preferred solution.

In the end, let me sum up my argument. During the Plan period, policy research was state-sponsored and had a narrow economic orientation, the successive waves of research institutions helped move towards a more interdisciplinary enterprise. The alternative development discourse broadly engendered by civil society organizations type policy research institutions moved policy research to an interdisciplinary focus and towards the very re-conceptualization of the meaning and kind of democracy. The dominant mainstream in India is still an economics-technology discourse but has much more intellectual and practical expertise to contend with.

We find that institutionalized policy analysis still maintains a substantially rationalist character, and is less engaged with making a practical contribution to the emerging discourse of a participatory democracy.  The pre-dominant mode of bureaucracy giving advice and experts on tap is still more acceptable. Expertise and knowledge is defined through the dominant frames of information technology and global management, and sanctioned by state institutions as well as research disciplines. It is a neat formulation but does not reflect the reality today.

The postpositive perspective in policy studies seeks to provide an improved reflection of the world of practice as far as policy process is concerned. Instead of attempting to insulate decision making from everyday politics, it attempts to show that policy problems are defined in a subjective fashion and are dependent on the values and beliefs of the actors involved (Fischer, 2003). Policy changes can then be seen to occur due to dynamics of complex relationships between societal actors that produce new constellations of social forces. Thus policy making can be recognized as a dynamic process occurring in a ‘network’ society rather than one within hierarchies (Hajer and Wagenaar 2003). Emergence of the concept of governance brings into focus a new range of multi-level relationships among various governmental institutions, civil society organizations and international organizations. Policy analysis would then move away from the pretence of objective and value-neutral policy analysis assumed in the scientific approach (Fischer, 2003:15) and open the door to a participatory democracy where citizens can take part in meaningful debates and contest policy issues that deeply affect them.

Prof. Kuldeep Mathur , Founder, Centre for the Study of Law & Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

This entry was published on January 29, 2013 at 8:31 am. It’s filed under Media Policy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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