Claiming and Assigning Credit for Fulfilled Policy Promises – Why Policymakers Fight an Uphill Battle

KonigPascal D. König & Markus B. Siewert

A key promise of representative democracy is that the government strives to generate public policy outputs which are responsive to the preferences of (a majority of) the people. If it delivers on its policy promises, a government can expect to gain or maintain support in the electorate, but if it fails to do so, it is likely to be sanctioned at the next election. This amounts to a central – albeit perhaps somewhat romanticising – rationale behind political competition driving policymakers to do their job. 

Recent data on pledge fulfilment across a range of representative democracies indicates that governments indeed appear to be in a – perhaps surprisingly – good position to claim credit for their output in office. In light of these findings, one would expect that governments are able to generate an image of credibility and responsiveness based on their policy performance. Yet while fulfilled policies seem like an ideal basis for policymakers to present themselves as responsive, we argue that these will not be successful. The reason for our scepticism is that a lot can go wrong between (a) the government realising an electoral pledge and (b) citizens perceiving the government as responsive and attributing credit for that performance. Hence, even if governments realise a significant number of their policy promises, they are still confronted with an even greater challenge than delivering on what they have promised.

In our recent article in Policy & Politics entitled ‘Why don’t citizens give governments credit when they deliver on electoral pledges?’, we asked which obstacles policymakers encounter in their quest to present themselves as responsive, especially against the backdrop that they often seem well-positioned to do so, based on their policy outputs. This led us to identify several barriers that governments face when trying to gain credit for their actions and to be perceived as responsive by the people. These barriers come into view once we understand credit claiming by policymakers to be fundamentally an act of communication, and properly locate it within the broader context of a mediatised public sphere.

Our argument highlights that there is an entire chain of conditions that has to be present so that fulfilled electoral promises by the government translate into credit assignment by citizens, as per the diagram below.

Figure 1: Chain of conditions between credit claiming and credit assignment

Figure 1 König

In short:

  1. policymakers need to choose to prominently speak about a fulfilled policy promise and claim credit for it in the first place. But even if they decide to so,
  2. this does not automatically mean that the media will pay lots of attention to these actions due to the media’s own selection and presentation logic. And even if the media report prominently about the policy and policy performance,
  3. this does not necessarily mean that citizens will receive the media reporting in a way which evokes an image of government responsiveness followed by assigning credit to policymakers for keeping their electoral pledge.

The main problem for policymakers is that favourable conditions for all three conditions are unlikely to be jointly present.

The purpose of the framework developed in our article is to offer a systematic look at the conditions under which policymakers in representative democracies (fail to) successfully present themselves as responsive when they indeed fulfil policy promises. With this analytical perspective, we want to stimulate future research that dedicates more attention to the politics of credit claiming and examines it from a holistic perspective comprising the conditions that we have outlined above. Studying credit claiming in this way will hopefully help us to develop a better understanding of when and how policy actors (fail to) receive credit for their actions. Based on our considerations, the very architecture of modern mediatised democracy makes credit claiming and credit assignment extremely difficult.

For the working of representative democracy this means that it is difficult to perceive the system as effective, even when it is. This has important implications. For one, citizens may become disengaged with politics unless they form realistic expectations based on knowledge of how the mediatised public sphere works and produces a certain construction of reality. Moreover, we need to establish (more) channels and ways for citizens to accurately learn about the policy performance of their governments. What arguably comes close to such mechanisms are efforts by larger quality newspapers like the Washington Post in the United States, El País in Spain or the Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany, as well as by fact-checking organisations like PolitiFact or FactCheck.org. These report on important government actions during the legislative term and communicate to a broader public the kind of information that political science research on electoral pledge fulfilment has generated. While this strengthens the first link in our framework, more efforts are needed if we want to ensure that the chain between credit claiming and credit assignment works.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

König, Pascal D. & Siewert, Markus B. (2020) ‘Why don’t citizens give governments credit when they deliver on electoral pledges?‘, Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557320X15786201228120

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

The effects of organisational features on media attention for public organisations

Political innovation, digitalisation and public participation in party politics

Public deliberation in an era of communicative plenty

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