Case-by-case analysis: realism, criteria, virtues


–I remember reading there were eight principal approaches to government-as-economic-policymaker—-

  •             1.         Government as an exogenous black box
  •             2.         Government as a neutral extension or aggregation of private choice
  •             3.         Government as a nonneutral decision-making or preference-aggregating                         process
  •             4.         Government as an instrument of the powerful
  •             5.         Government as an instrument with which to check the power of the powerful
  •          6. Government as the source of problems, if not of evil, in society
  •             7.         Government as the source of progress
  •             8.         Government as part of the necessary framework of the market.

—-and thinking, “Really, there are four approaches only. . .”

In semiotic terms—a thing is defined by what it is not—there’s one approach centering around the dimension of neutrality and its opposite (2 & 3), another around that of the instrumentation of power and its counter (4 & 5), and the third around retrogression and progress (6 & 7). Numbers 1 and 8, while not mirror images, represent a sharp contrast between the known market and the unknown black box.

This semiotic reading underscores that approaches to government economic policymaking need not have been determined deliberately by policymakers. Structurally, to have one approach entails its opposite, if simply by stating what the former is not.

–Similar semiotics are found at work in the recommended steps to undertaking a policy analysis: define the problem, assemble the evidence, identify the alternatives, agree on the methods and criteria to evaluate the alternatives, evaluate the alternatives in light of their projected consequences, decide on your recommendation, and then communicate it in a way that is understood and actionable.

The steps are thus also coupled—problems and solutions like alternatives and consequences are reciprocally defined. But what is of interest here is how a step-wise approach entails its own frustration. Not only does taking a step imply that the step can be frustrated, but taking that step might frustrate subsequent steps. 

–It’s this marked opposition—e.g., define/not define, and so on for other steps—that gives the stepwise approach its realism.      

The more steps and time in addressing the issues, the more realism conveyed by that addressing. The more time the steps take, the more difficult it is, the more real it all becomes. Too many activities also means reducing the conditional probability that any of this activity will reach a conclusion.  In short, the more real these issues are the more these issues don’t have a chance of being real in any other way. It becomes its own case, to be evaluated in its own right.[1]


The traditional ex ante (before the event) criteria for a policy proposal are economic efficiency or cost-effectiveness, political and administrative feasibility, equity and legality, among others. When it comes to ex post (after the event) evaluation of actual policy performance, the criteria narrow down to variations of: Did policy implementation match the mandated goals of the policy? Complex policy and management issues are, moreover, also complex because we must expect that the goals will change, even during implementation.

Or to put that point differently, there are always different ex post criteria to evaluate any complex policy, five important ones being:

  • in terms of whether its implementation achieved its stated objectives;
  • against some ideal, which the policy’s objectives may or may not match;
  • against the implementation record of like policies;
  • in terms of what would have happened had not the policy been in effect (the “counterfactual”); and
  • in terms of whether savings could have realized if the policy had been more cost-effectively undertaken.

The very process of identifying which of these is or are the most important is often what is meant by “determining the weight of the evidence” or “deciding the case on its own merits.” Such is why complex policy analysis is a form of case-by-case analysis.

Why? Because it is at this point of selecting evaluative criteria that questions of cross-cutting levels and scales of analysis come to the fore. For example, it’s easy enough to say that a forest ecosystem restoration project requires an interdisciplinary team in the sense of, say, a forest ecologist, a forest products economist, and a population ecologist. But the professions represented may have the same scale of analysis, limiting their ability to cross-scale measures for recoupling and recasting the demands of restoration more effectively.

One considerable benefit of having an interdisciplinary team organized around members who work at different scales and according to different system concepts is increasing the likelihood that (1) each team member will have to rely on his or her own best judgment about specific interconnections between scales and (2) the team as a whole will thereby treat each case of complex ecosystem restoration on its own merits.


–An earlier blog sketched some of the practical advantages of the case approach. Let me now provide more flesh and bone (in no order of priority):

  • You get to see and show how theory-based taxonomies and conceptual frameworks go only so far but rarely far enough when applied in the field;
  • You get to see not just politics but power at work—which is key for those of us loathe to talk abstractly about a bracketed-off [Power];
  • You get to see that policy and management are more complicated than politics, dollars and jerks. You get to see how easy it is to confuse the noise and mess as “intentions” of those involved. Other explanations—bureaucrats were mindlessly following rules—also turn out to be more complicated on closer examination;
  • The case level helps you differentiate and see some things afresh, as if for the first time, and about as close to “objectivity” as you get;
  • If your case study is across time, you’ll observe not just “normal” periods but also disruptions and more. (Here your career, and not just a specific task or job, is “the case.”) When it comes to policy and management, you’ll be able to map out the different positions and standpoints taken with respect to the efficacy of macro-design, micro-operations, system-wide pattern recognition and anticipation, and more localized contingency scenarios; and
  • It will come as no surprise that actual practice, actual behavior and actual implementation in the individual case study differ from the principles, policies and plans said to govern the former. This is so unexceptional that when things work as planned this must be a surprise worthy of its own research and study.

–If you were to summarize the six bullets, focusing at the case level brings a seriousness to your analysis and advice—what the ancients highly prized as parrhesia or frank counsel—about complications of power, context, implementation, and macro-design.

Things are more complex than we thought and because they are complex, they can be recast and seen in a new light. This is, I believe, the great virtue of the case approach: Seeing something extremely difficult in a fresh and productive light.

An example. I attended a presentation on an ecosystem restoration project in Montana. One of the project leaders described what was for him the key contribution of ecosystem management: He could now see how his forest acres in the valley fit into the wider landscape. The approach gave him a way to integrate the small and large scale, with cross-scale implications both ways.

In effect, his management perspective recoupled his acres to the landscape across scale and across time. Not only could the project leader stand in his woodlot and see how it fit in with the larger scale of the ecosystem and landscape, he was able to plan at the smaller scale for the longer term. He was able to expect a future for the forest. So too for the ecosystem manager standing at the ridge overlooking the valley, as she looks down and is able to plan at the larger scale for the shorter term. She can now see what the next steps ahead are when it comes to managing the entire ecosystem.

“Think globally, act locally” is recast as, “Think long term from the small scale, act real time from the large scale.” In this way, recoupling at the case level ends up recasting what had hitherto been an obviously coupled world, but shorn of these crucial details and specifics.

[1] An example: Richard Burton, in his well-regarded The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, writes,

If it were possible, I would have such priest as should imitate Christ, charitable lawyers should love their neighbours as themselves, temperate and modest physicians, politicians contemn the world, philosophers should know themselves, noblemen live honestly, tradesmen leave lying and cozening, magistrates corruption, &c., but this is impossible, I must get such as I may.

The realism of that “impossible” emerges through the long list of wants that cannot be had, which when you re-read the passage is less a case about reality than about Burton’s own life-long depression, his case being “such as I may have”.

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