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

–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.

Of course, there have always been those in policy programs and schools, early and late, who over-simplified policymaking and implementation. During my career, I’ve witnessed the 20-page policy brief reduced to the five-page memo into a fifteen-minute PowerPoint presentation into the three-minute elevator speech and now the tweet. What next on the graduate school syllabus: Telepathy? “The knowing look” in 10 seconds or less?

But none of this 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, such simplifications don’t bother me as much as the over-complexification of policy issues into dead-end intractability. 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: 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. What I don’t understand is why such is taken to be the signature that things have gotten into the bog-standard “intractably complex” when it comes to comprehension and analysis.

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 an echt numerical 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. But this admission doesn’t go far enough to the wider truth at work here.

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.

The adult-me hasn’t had much time for (1)–it’s where the left is treated as completely irrelevant–and I’m quite willing to let it R.I.P. But (2) remains the domain of “it always seems impossible until it’s done” (to paraphrase Nelson Mandela) and, as such, is far too vital to qualify for anything like an In Memoriam.

–The vitality I’m talking about lies in the career being 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.

It is the career that reminds us that, if you will, the eye cannot see itself and that when we describe what is going on right now for the policy issue, “there is always a camera left out of the picture: the one working now” (to quote philosopher Stanley Cavell). To bring the camera into the picture is to recast the picture.[1]

For some the resulting infinite regress is a limitation; for me, it amplifies more to rethink. It’s over a career where it is neither optimism nor pessimism but realism to know when “always polarizing” added to “always changing” necessarily equals “This moment too shall pass, along with its cameras.”

[1] There’s a wonderful story told by the poet, Donald Hall, about how bringing such a camera into the picture changes it. He had heard the following from Archibald MacLeish about the actor, Richard Burton, and one of his brothers:

Then Burton and Jenkins quarreled over Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Jenkins said it was a bad poem: disgusting, awful. Burton praised it: magnificent, superb. Jenkins repeated that it was nothing at all, whereupon Burton commanded silence and spoke the whole poem, perfect from first syllable to last. MacLeish told me that Burton’s recitation was a great performance, and when he ended, drawing the last syllable out, the still air shook with the memory and mystery of this speaking. Then, into the silence, brother Jenkins spoke his word of critical reason: “See?

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