Public Policy Analysis, c.1970 – c.2020: In Memoriam?

When I first started out in public policy analysis, the Great Debate was between the enlightenment function and the engineering function of knowledge in advancing public discourse. What was the better objective: enlightening the assumptions underlying decisonmaking or engineering better policies? Whatever, it takes about 7 years of public discussions before a major issue matures, I was told at the time. All this looks delusional now, confronted as we all are with the reality of a turbo-charged de-enlightenment and de-engineering of public discourse.

What appealed to me about policy analysis early on was its melding of high Rationalism and low Pragmatism. Rationalism in the normative sense we should try to plan in an orderly fashion, pragmatism because we are empirically judged by the consequences—good or bad, intended or unintended—of trying (and often failing) to do so.

But here we ended up having to go further. Contingency and complexity are everywhere and affect both sides, intention and consequence. It’s not just that my good intentions may end up achieving the opposite; it’s not just my thoughtlessness may save others and myself from worse. It’s also that when it comes to intention and consequence, we are uncomprehending of the whys and wherefores in either case.

–So back to the beginning. I graduated with a master’s in public policy studies from the University of Michigan in the early 1970’s and with a PhD in public policy from the University of California Berkeley in the later 1980’s. Pretty much at the start of my career, I promised myself I’d never be one of the WhenWee’s, that expatriate tribe who patter on about “how things were better back when.” So chalk up the following less as a valediction and more as an anticipation.

The rise in the haute vulgarization of “wicked policy problems” is only the tip of the problem. There’s little understanding, it seems to me, that labeling a policy issue wicked can over-complexify a problem that would otherwise be open to recasting into more tractable forms without loss of its obvious complexity. To put it another way, the gap is widening between the increasing sense of policy intractability and the sense all along that problems are complex and that this very complexity affords multiple opportunities to recast/redescribe/revise the problems more manageably.

–Two important misconceptions stand in the way of seeing the latter. First is the notion that in its early days policy analysis assumed problems were simpler and to be solved by our best and brightest. That is not how I remember my graduate training. I had the good fortune to have been a student of and worked with Pat Crecine, the founding director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies (now the University of Michigan’ Ford School) and Aaron Wildavsky, a founder of the now Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Two different people you can’t imagine, but one always insisting to his first-generation students that policymaking was complex, while the other was the last person on earth who would say policy implementation was simple.

But none of this Keep it simple! should surprise us. Just as calls for more localization are a response to increasing globalization, calls for more and more simplification increase as any field professionalizes and specializes, which policy analysis most certainly has done during a half a century of discipline growth and institution building. Of course, silliness comes with professionalization. I remember a then well-known policy academic argue that the “policy cycle” from policy formulation through policy evaluation was a signal advance over early notions of muddling through and incrementalism. You only need implement something you planned to realize that the cycle’s stage of “implementation” is itself a lethal critique of anything like a formal policy cycle.

–In fact, these simplifications don’t bother me as much as the over-complexification of policy issues into dead-end intractability.

At the beginning of my career in the 70’s, I wanted to write a book on poverty, defense and environment. A key focus on poverty and hunger today? More likely, it’d be Inequality. Today, defense? Much more likely on Security or, at a stretch, Terrorism. And environment? Far more likely to be on Climate Change, Species Extinction and Biodiversity Loss. Note the twofold change: the topics are different and now capitalized as extreme.

Which take me to the second misconception. A reduced form narrative runs like this: Since policy problems have become more complex over time, they must have become (more) intractable. Yes, of course, indicators are there for this: In the 1970s at the advent of policy analysis as its own field, a key indicator of what is now called “a failed state” was its inability to produce an annual government budget. That happens all over the place now in the US. (This preoccupation with “failed states” borders on being 21st version of the late 18th century European mania for ruins.)

What I don’t understand is why such changes are taken to be proof-positive that things have gotten bog-standard “intractably complex” when it comes to analysis and action.

Yes, of course, Current Times are polarized and rapidly changing, but, please, don’t try to persuade me, a product of the 1960s, that Current Times are more polarized–other than in the pur et dur sense of there being more people now than then. Politics, dollars and jerks have always been the center of gravity of policy analysis and public management. I’ve never worked in on a major topic or in an important situation that wasn’t polarized or polarizing.

Nor am I willing to concede that experience today of rapid change differs much from before.

Yes, major issues and more rapid change go together these days, and here too there are more issues to be changing. But has there been a phase shift in the perception of rapidity changed? David Hume, the philosopher, was complaining about the speed of “instant” stock transactions in the mid-1770s, while a century early, complaints were commonly heard about how “affairs here change so fast that one no longer reckons time by months and weeks, but by hours and even by minutes’; “many new, unusual emergencies, such as our forefathers have not known”; increasing “with an inconceivable rapidity” and “in one century more light has been thrown on this science than had been elicited in the preceding period of near 5,700 years” (recorded by historians Istvan Hont, George Parker and Keith Thomas, respectively). When it comes to how public affairs are experienced, it’s still difficult to dismiss the part where plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

–It is true it’s harder to recapture that sense of policy analysis recasting difficult problems more tractably in the same way that policy analysis originally recast public administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I first started off.

–It is true it’s harder to recapture that sense of policy analysis recasting difficult problems more tractably in the same way that policy analysis originally recast public administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I first started off. (I remember being excited to hear Graham Allison talking about his multiple paradigms for explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

But this admission doesn’t go far enough to the wider truth at work since then. One way I think about what has happened to the policy analysis I’ve known over the last half century is to distinguish between (1) the discipline as taught in graduate schools and the profession that policy analysts think they are joining upon graduation and (2) the profession as it is actually practiced at any one time or place and the actual careers that policy analysts have across time and place.

By way of example, policy students typically breathe a collective sigh of relief when they move from quantitative analysis to implementation analysis as if they are moving from the hardest to the easier task. But the latter is far harder than the former. The key to quantitative analysis is you are told or shown what you need to know or get in order to do the analysis. Implementation analysis is the opposite. Here you have to figure out what you are missing, what you are not seeing, and that is what a career makes palpable.

Which leads to a perhaps controversial last point.

I have reiterated the importance of real-time as the litmus test of better management and policy. But the effectiveness of policy analysis and public management is not just based on whether or not or the degree to which it solves or manages specific issues, right now. Effectiveness is deeply rooted, I believe, in careers that produce unique knowledge and practice which may well never be taught in programs, but nevertheless do match the dynamics of “over time,” not just “real time.”

If you will, the career affords its own optic for recasting policy issues. It’s the closest we analysts get to reflecting on our practice and remaking the next steps ahead.

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