Governing local partnerships: does external steering help local agencies address wicked problems?

Steve Martin and Valeria Guarneros-Meza
Steve Martin and Valeria Guarneros-Meza

Steve Martin and Valeria Guarneros-Meza discuss their article Governing local partnerships: does external steering help local agencies address wicked problems? from the 40th anniversary issue of Policy & Politics. This issue is available free until 30 November.

Reflecting on developments in public policy over the last forty years, we argue that collaboration has become a hegemonic discourse and partnerships a dominant feature in the local governance landscape. However, there is still considerable debate about what makes for good partnership working. Some scholars believe that governance networks are self-organising and self-sustaining. Seen from this perspective, external steering by national governments is not just an insult to local democracy but also an impediment to local collaborative efforts. But others have argued that local partnerships inevitably operate in the shadow of hierarchy and that external steering is helpful, perhaps even essential, for them to succeed.

We analysed these arguments through an investigation of the factors that influenced the ability of three local multi-sectoral public service partnerships to address complex public policy issues (or ‘wicked problems’). These case study partnerships served contrasting areas of Wales, they focused on very different types of wicked problems, and they adopted different integration strategies. However, in spite of their differences, all three needed external support. The Welsh Government eschewed what we call ‘hard steering’ (attempts to dictate how the partnerships operated through the imposition of top down targets and performance regimes). Instead, it provided funding, information and expertise, what we call ‘soft steering’.

This soft steering was important, but it was not the whole story. The success of the partnerships also depended on the actions of local actors. We found that partnerships needed a combination of soft steering and self-steering capacity to establish and mobilise collaboration, and to enable them to begin to address ‘wicked problems’. But whilst the type of self-steering they required varied according to the contexts they operated in and the kinds of collaborative activities they attempted, all three partnerships needed the same kinds of government support.

We argue that theories of local partnership working should pay more attention to the positive impacts of the right kind of government support, and we put in a plea for future research to test out our findings in other countries and contexts. On a gloomy note, we speculate that austerity could pose a threat to the ability of local partnerships to address wicked problems if it means that national governments are no longer willing or able to offer the kinds of support which our case studies benefitted from.

Governing local partnerships: does external steering help local agencies address wicked problems? is available free until 30 November as part of the 40th anniversary issue of Policy & Politics.

Toward Policy Coordination: Alternatives To Hierarchy

B. Guy Peters
B. Guy Peters

B. Guy Peters, Department of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh, discusses his article Toward Policy Coordination: Alternatives To Hierarchy from the 40th anniversary issue of Policy & Politics. This issue is available free until 30 November.

Policy coordination and coherence have been a challenge to government since the inception of government. The development of the public sector has been primarily through continuing specialization and the creation of organizations that perform a limited number of functions. Hierarchical control from central agencies and political leaders has been the conventional response to the coordination problem, but other methods such as networking and collaboration are also available to coordinators.

This paper discusses coordination from two seemingly contradictory analytic perspectives. The major part of the analysis will be attempting to understand coordination as a collective action problem. Coordination involves multiple actors whose self-interest, or ignorance of the possibilities for improving public services, may prevent them from cooperating in ways that would improve overall performance. Thus, coordinating public policy involves many of the same issues as forming governing coalitions, and I will develop an argument about how to address the issue analytically, if not necessarily practically,

The other, and to some extent competing, perspective about policy coordination is identifying some means for promoting cooperation and collaboration among the actors. This approach to coordination is not based so much upon rational calculation and bargaining but more on perceived needs to work together, and also on ideational approaches. That is, the assumption of these collaborative approaches is that most people working within the public sector tend to want to produce better outcomes for their clients. Therefore, when those opportunities can be identified the actors involved will indeed cooperate. Even then, however, good ideas may not be enough and cooperation may not emerge autonomously and some agency will be required. Thus, effective coordination may require the utilization of a variety of instruments.

Toward Policy Coordination: Alternatives To Hierarchy is available free until 30 November as part of the 40th anniversary issue of Policy & Politics

Where is public policy? And where next?

Alex Marsh
Alex Marsh

by Alex Marsh

This blog post was originally published on on November 3. If you would like to read more on this topic, Alex’s article, Reflections on contemporary debates in policy studies, written with Sarah Ayres, can be found in the 40th anniversary issue of Policy & Politics. This issue is available free until 30 November.

There seems to be quite a bit of reflection on the current state of play in the study of public policy at the moment. I have recently offered something on the topic myself.

A couple of months ago Peter John posted a draft paper online entitled New directions in public policy: Theories of policy change and variation reconsidered. The paper offers a perspective on the state of the debate and identifies what may constitute a novel way forward. As always with Peter, the paper is thought-provoking and well worth reading.

The thought it provoked in me was that he is both absolutely right and very possibly not quite so right at one of the same time.

Peter’s paper divides the history of the study of public policy into three. The focus is on policy continuity and episodes of policy change, so the paper leaves out quite a bit that is interesting about public policy – for example, implementation theory or processes of adaptation.

But, accepting the focus upon policy change, Peter maps out the three phases as the early classic studies – encompassing rational decision making, but also incrementalism and Simon’s bounded rationality – a second phase focused on the synthetic approaches of the 1990s – multiple streams, punctuated equilibrium, advocacy coaltion framework – and the current phase. John’s argument is that the current phase has been characterised by a relative lack of theoretical innovation. With the exception of a rise in interpretative policy analysis and behavioural public policy – which are, one has to concede, rather large exceptions – nothing has emerged that has had an impact similar to that of the three big beasts of 1990s US policy studies.

Peter then proceeds to argue that if you look over the fence at other subfields within political science and at the intersection of political science and economics then you will find there is interesting and innovative work going on. It is seeking to shed light upon the determinants of public policy. Hence, public policy scholars have much to gain from expanding their horizons.

At one level I agree with Peter’s analysis of the state of play. But at another level I would say that it implicitly relies on some rather heavy-duty boundary work. You could argue, for example, that some of the most interesting work relevant to policy that has been done since the 1990s draws on historical instutitionalism. I’m thinking of the 2005 collection edited by Streeck and Thelen or, in particular, the 2010 collection edited by Mahoney and Thelen which develops the case for taking endogenous incremental change seriously. But this work does not tend to make any reference to the big three, or much else from the canon of the ‘public policy’ literature. While the application of these ideas to policy is relevantly straightforward plenty more needs to be done to work them through in a policy context.

We can conclude that research in public policy has been a little moribund only if we are prepared to draw the boundaries of what constitutes ‘public policy research’ quite tightly.

The other interesting aspect of Peter’s argument is that he works towards the conclusion that a potentially fruitful way forward for public policy research is political economy, and comparative political economy is particular.

Now I am absolutely in agreement that expanding the compass of explanation to locate policy processes more explicitly in their socio-political context would be a valuable theoretical sophistication. But “political economy” is a treacherous concept. Or rather it can mean very different things to different people.

Peter favours the version of political economy that flows from the encroachment of mainstream economics into political science. This is the sort of field where political economy is as likely to carry the prefix “positive” or “constitutional” as it is “comparative”.

It is undoubtedly true that this flavour of policy economy has thrown up some interesting findings. These findings can be used to critique some of the myths and taken-for-granted assumptions that underpin contemporary political discourse. Peter briefly reviews some of them.

But I would argue that if we are to expand the analysis of public policy into the realm of political economy then there is an urgent need to embrace the sort of political economy preferred by social scientists who are not mainstream economists – human geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, institutional economists.

Here the focus is much more clearly upon the impact of values and ideologies, structures of power, agnotology, the ways in which local decision making is framed and stabilised by global discourses, or where – drawing inspiration from Polanyi – the idea that there is a meaningful binary divide between “the state” and “the market” and that policy processes are constrained by “the market(s)” is challenged as a fundamental misunderstanding of structure of society.

That is a route that would, it strikes me, be just as likely to prove illuminating. But would it be “public policy”? I’ll leave it to others to adjudicate on that point. Personally, I’m happy to look wherever the mood takes me and wherever it looks like there are theoretical resources that offer the potential to advance our understanding.

Reflections on contemporary debates in policy studies is part of the 40th anniversary issue of Policy & Politics, available free on Ingenta until the end of November.

The Politics of Engaged Scholarship: Impact, Relevance and Imagination

Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders, co-editor of Policy & Politics, discusses his article The Politics of Engaged Scholarship: Impact, Relevance and Imagination from the 40th anniversary issue of the journal. This issue is available free until 30 November.

I promise that I never planned to use the word ‘masturbation’ (offered in the context of methodological debates) three times in my April 2012 opening address to the Political Studies Association annual conference in Belfast. There was no carefully made plan to achieve a record-breaking ‘twitter-spike’ or to create a wide-ranging stir. It just sort of happened. The results of this rhetorical flourish have, however, been largely positive in the sense that it initiated a professional debate about the role of political studies in the twenty-first century. More specifically it initiated both research and discussion into the available evidence that the discipline had become either ‘more’ or ‘less’ visible or influential vis-à-vis the public, social groups, politicians or policy-makers, while at the same time unleashing a more fundamental debate about the meaning and political implications of terms such as ‘impact’, ‘relevance’ or ‘engagement’ when applied to political science.

My simple argument throughout this debate is that political science is kidding itself if it really believes it is visible, engaged or relevant beyond the academy. There are clearly exceptions to this argument. Some sub-disciplines and specialist fields have cultivated and maintained a social relationship that delivers a visibility and level of influence far beyond the lecture theatre and seminar room. There are also a small number of what I might term ‘hyper-engaged’ scholars but these are very much the exception rather than the rule. Several scholars have criticised me for making such arguments and have argued that the discipline has never been so relevant. My response is that if this is the case – and it’s a very big ‘if’ – then a serious perception gap exists (i.e. if high-quality theoretically informed but policy-relevant research is being undertaken by political scientists then it is simply not percolating down into Whitehall and Westminster). Debates about the existence or explanations for this ‘gap’ could form the focus of a hundred books or journal special editions and yet to engage in such an intellectual exercise risks simply reinforcing the view of many social commentators that political science has become ‘self-referential as well as self-reverential, and often unreadable to anyone but a specialist… a narcissistic world of academics writing for each other’.

It is exactly this context that my focus falls not on the ‘tragedy of political science’ (to adopt the title of David Ricci’s wonderful 1984 book) but on the ‘potential of political science’ or what C Wright Mills termed ‘the promise’ of the social sciences. This potential and promise will, I suggest, only be realised once political scientists accept that they possess a professional responsibility to the public in terms of engaging with society in the broadest sense about why their research and writing matters. This argument has absolutely nothing to do with the corporatisation of the universities, with the dumbing-down of scholarship or with ‘clipping-the-wings’ of academic autonomy or independence. I am not interested in producing purely instrumental knowledge or in narrow definitions of ‘impact’ or ‘relevance’ but I do believe that a new model of ‘engaged scholarship’ provides ways of increasing the visibility of the discipline as well as increasing its leverage with potential funding bodies. (Moreover, I’ve said many times before that it is political theorists and political philosophers and not the governance and public policy specialists who have most to gain from the ‘tyranny of relevance’). ‘The promise’ of the social sciences relates to being able to promote an understanding of the world that allows individuals to locate themselves within the bigger picture. There are no simple solutions to complex problems and academics must push back against unrealistic expectations but there is a great public appetite for new ways of understanding the world. Frameworks of understanding, a new marketplace of ideas, novel opportunities to embed ‘impact’ within both teaching and research, clear and direct ways of dealing with the ‘so what?’ question that scholars of all disciplines are increasingly asked …the notion of engaged scholarship provides a way of turning what is frequently interpreted as a threat into an opportunity.

The specific characteristics of this argument and its surrounding debate – as well as an important and novel attempt to tease-apart and tie-down the concepts of ‘impact’, ‘engagement’ and ‘relevance’ – can be found in this article and it is sufficient here for me to sign-off by recalling a famous passage in C Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination (1959) [I make no apologies for its length]

“Just now, amongst social scientists, there is widespread uneasiness, both intellectual and moral, about the direction their chosen studies seem to be taking. This uneasiness, as well as the unfortunate tendencies that contribute to it, is, I suppose, part of a general malaise of contemporary intellectual life. Yet perhaps the malaise is more acute among social scientists, if only because of the larger promise that has guided much earlier work in their fields, the nature of the subjects with which they deal, and the urgent need for significant work today… Not everyone shares this uneasiness, but the fact that many do not is itself a cause for further uneasiness among those who are alert to the promise and honest enough to admit the pretentious mediocrity of much current effort. It is quite frankly my hope to increase this uneasiness, to define some of its sources, to help transform it into a specific urge to realize the promise of social science, to clear the ground for new beginnings… my conception stands opposed to social science as a set of bureaucratic techniques which inhibit social inquiry by ‘methodological’ pretensions, which congest such work by obscurantist conceptions, or which trivialize it by concern with minor problems unconnected with publicly relevant issues. These inhibitions, obscurities and trivialities have created a crisis in the social studies today without suggesting, in the least, a way out of that crisis.”

Over half a century later it is possible to detect a new or continuing ‘widespread uneasiness’ about the direction of the social sciences, in general, and political science in particular. This is also forms part of a wider set of concerns about the state of contemporary intellectual life (the role and future of universities, the impact of the internet and social media, the decline of public intellectuals, etc.) while the Perestroika movement in the United States and the ‘Perestroika-lite’ agenda across much of Western Europe raises both methodological and normative questions that resonate with Mills’ position. The aim, however, of my focus on engaged scholarship is to suggest ‘a way out of that crisis’.

The Politics of Engaged Scholarship: Impact, Relevance and Imagination is part of the 40th anniversary issue of Policy & Politics, available free on Ingenta until the end of November.

Complex Causality in Improving Underperforming Schools: A Complex Adaptive Systems Approach

van twist et al
Clockwise from top left: Martijn van Der Steen, Mark van Twist, Sara Le Cointre and Menno Fenger

Martijn van Der Steen, Mark van Twist, Menno Fenger and Sara Le Cointre provide a commentary on their article Complex Causality in Improving Underperforming Schools: A Complex Adaptive Systems Approach, part of the 40th anniversary issue of Policy & Politics. This issue is available free on Ingenta until the end of November.

Policy makers’ intentions and attempts to shape the state of the world in accordance with their beliefs and expectations through policy interventions is based on their perceptions of cause and effect in the policy domain, which they then try to influence through policy: through compliance with new regulation, they presume situational changes for the better. Practitioners, as well as scientists, have a hard time coming to grips with this linear understanding of policy intervention. How is it that intervention works in one case and not in another, even when cases share similarities? Is it the manner of policy intervention design that is misinformed? For ages, scientists have racked their brains for answers to problems of unintended and unanticipated consequences: what are they, how do they evolve and can we do anything to stop them? As the world around us, including the world of policy intervention, grows increasingly more complex, we find ourselves understanding the effects of policy intervention better in some ways, but also worse in others, and struggle to determine whether interventions under such circumstances can be at all effective. Different questions are raised about what is going on. Yet the age-old question for policy makers remains the same: what works?

In an attempt to help scientists and practitioners understand the intricate relationship between the effects of a policy with its produced results and interactions it causes in a complex world, we combine different theories. Theories about complexity (system dynamics, complex adaptive systems, causal loops), combined with those of unintended effects and unanticipated consequences, together shed new light on the workings of policy interventions. In the article we question the notion of the concept of causality, on which most policy interventions and the theories explaining them are based. We introduce the notion of mutual causality in policy interventions, based on a study of underperforming schools in the Netherlands. We show that some schools end up in vicious cycles where situations deteriorate as a result of intervention, whereas other schools are propelled into a virtuous cycle that markedly changes for the better. The cases show the dynamics of intervention processes and the ways in which interactions of circumstances, contexts and factors emerges. Understanding these processes and the loops of causation that are involved depends to a great deal on local knowledge and the ability of local actors to signal the relevant changes. Therefore we claim that a change in perspective and language about causality and consequences in designing policy interventions is needed in science and in practice. Rather than linear conceptions of causality and one-size-fits-all policies, designing effective policy interventions is about positive and negative feedback loops, observation, monitoring and tailor-made interventions. That implies that the broader regimes and systems in which policy-interventions are designed become better equipped to deal with local complexity and the local judgement of professionals or policy-makers that intervene in those local systems.

Martijn van Der Steen, Mark van Twist, Menno Fenger and Sara Le Cointre

Complex Causality in Improving Underperforming Schools: A Complex Adaptive Systems Approach is part of the 40th anniversary issue of Policy & Politicsavailable free on Ingenta until the end of November.