Policy & Politics Highlights collection on the role of politics in policymaking free to access from 1st May – 31st July 2020

Sarah BrownSarah Brown
Journal Manager, Policy & Politics

The intellectual aims of the journal Policy & Politics are varied, but if we could only choose one hallmark that signifies a ‘Policy & Politics article’, it would be to foreground the politics of the policy-making process and advance our understanding of that analytical field. Our three featured articles this quarter do precisely that, yet within significantly different theoretical and empirical contexts (pluralism being another hallmark of P&P).

Our first article, Richard Freeman’s Meeting, talk and text: policy and politics in practice, lays bare the process of policy making to reveal it as a highly political process, as the author describes:

“The (policymaking) literature tends to have addressed the question of how policy is made in functional terms, outlining and defining – and endlessly debating – different sets of activities such as advocacy and agenda-setting, formulating and decision making, implementing and evaluating. But what if we were to begin somewhere else, to explore policy as a set of human actions and interactions, as real-time, practical and physical ‘doings and sayings‘?  What do policy makers really do?  What does their work entail?”

Analysing in detail the practices of meeting, talking and writing that lie at the heart of the policymaking process, he exposes the politics of meaning-making, for example:

“When they meet, participants to an encounter must work out what’s going on; in order to negotiate it successfully, they must develop some shared if implicit understanding of what that might mean. Together the participants must contribute to a single over-all ‘definition of the situation’ which involves not so much a real agreement as to what exists, but rather a real agreement as to whose claims concerning what issues will be temporarily honoured.”

He describes how these politics seem to exist in a state of wholly contingent perpetual motion, as “the ‘definition of the situation’ is continually interpreted and contested, cast and recast from each encounter, gathering and meeting and from each document to the next. Politics, in this account, exists only in wave form.”

He summarises “What we know as policy, then, is made in communicative interaction about matters of common concern, which is why policy makers spend their time in reading and writing, meeting and talking – extraordinary as it may seem”.

The question is important, because making policy engages a great number of people one way or another, and what they do they might do well or badly, so this is something we need to understand.

Our second article, ‘When design meets power: Design thinking, public sector innovation and the politics of policymaking, exposes how the latest fashion by governments to experiment with new design thinking approaches to policymaking in order to increase innovation, do not realise their potential benefits as a result of their failure to engage with the politics of the policy process.

Following an analysis of what impact, if any, design thinking is having on policy making in public sector innovation labs, the authors conclude that its “strength in reframing problems and potential solutions becomes its weakness when politics and political institutions are required to make a design work in practice”. Further, they observe that:

“Design thinking for policy, and new modes for testing ideas associated with it have experienced a rapid rise. It is crucial to appreciate the complementarities and tensions between design thinking and policy design, and the politics and political institutions required to make a design work, so that we can improve policy design in the future”.

Our final article features political experts of a different sort, who understand fully the importance of the politics of the policy-making process and exploit their knowledge to achieve their aims. Paul Cairney proposes his Three Habits of Successful Policy Entrepreneurs as:

“Firstly, entrepreneurs tell a persuasive story to frame a policy problem. Policymakers face too much information and use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ ways to make choices in a short space of time without being fully aware of their own biased preferences. Policymakers seek to reduce ambiguity – by focusing on a simple definition of a complex problem – and uncertainty – by gathering information relevant to that definition. Entrepreneurs focus on the beliefs of their audience more than their assessment of the evidence.
Secondly, entrepreneurs make sure that their favoured solution is available before attention lurches to the problem. There is no policy cycle in which policymakers identify problems, formulate solutions, and make a choice, in that order. Instead, by the time policymakers pay attention to a problem, it is too late to develop a feasible solution from scratch. Solutions take time to ‘soften’ and become accepted within policy networks, and entrepreneurs seek opportunities to sell their solutions during heightened attention, by forming coalitions and engaging in networks to identify receptivity to policy solutions and an opportunity to act.
Thirdly, entrepreneurs exploit a ‘window of opportunity’ during which policymakers have the willingness and ability to adopt their policy solution.

Modern debates on the importance of evidence based policy making seem to be built on renewed hopes for comprehensive rationality and a linear policy cycle. In contrast, I describe policymaking in the real world by identifying the three strategies used by successful policy entrepreneurs to successfully achieve their aims”.


You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Freeman, Richard (2019) ‘Meeting, talk and text: policy and politics in practice‘,  Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15526370368821

Lewis, Jenny M; McGann, Michael; Blomkamp, Emma (2020) ‘When design meets power: design thinking, public sector innovation and the politics of policymaking‘,  Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15579230420081

Cairney, Paul (2018) ‘Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs‘,  Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557318X15230056771696

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