Policy & Politics Highlights collection on Transformational Change in Public Policy Special Issue: free to access November 2022 – January 2023

Sarah Brown


This quarter’s highlights collection focuses on three of our most widely read and cited articles this year. All three were featured in our special issue published in July on Transformational Change in Public Policy which was guest edited by our co-editors: Oscar Berglund, Claire Dunlop, Elizabeth Koebele and Chris Weible.

Our first article is the introduction to the special issue entitled Transformational change through Public Policy written by our four co-editors.

The authors highlight how significant time and effort has been spent seeking to understand policy change around the major societal issues we face. Yet their findings show that most change tends to be incremental. The consequent challenge they set out is whether or not public policy scholarship is up to the job of developing a coherent research programme to build knowledge and enable necessary, positive transformational change.

They frame five key research questions about transformational change regarding climate governance specifically, but which also relate to other grand challenges that are explored in this special issue:

  1. What is it about the field of Public Policy that can be useful in achieving societal transformations?
  2. What questions do we need to ask in order to explore opportunities for transformational change?
  3. What actors and whose agency do we need to study to bring about societal transformational change?
  4. Who do we need to speak to?
  5. How do we need to expand our methodological and theoretical approaches to advance knowledge and promote action on transformational change?

Using these questions as a guide, the articles featured in the special issue explore answers and thereby provide a coherent framework for establishing a research programme on this theme. Read the original article for full answers to these questions!

Our second featured article from the special issue is on New pathways to paradigm change in public policy: combining insights from policy design, mix and feedback by Sebastian Sewerin, Benjamin Cashore & Michael Howlett. Here, the authors argue that policy science scholarship is better at explaining policy change in retrospect, rather than formulating forward-looking recommendations about how to achieve major or paradigmatic change. Potentially even worse, existing scholarship emphasizes the importance of external shocks in initiating major policy change which doesn’t augur well for tackling the major problems of our time such as climate change.

In this article, the authors identify two gaps in conceptual and theoretical thinking that might limit thinking about major or paradigmatic change: First, a lack of shared understanding of what ‘policy change’ is, and second, a focus on (changing) policies in isolation rather than on policies as part of complex policy mixes where policies and their effects interact. Against this background, they argue that if we considered combining insights from policy design, policy mix and policy feedback literature, that would allow us to identify other pathways towards initiating and achieving policy change.  They argue that thinking about policy design more systematically, understanding policies as part of more complex policy mixes and considering that policies have real-world effects that feed back into politics could offer new ways of achieving major policy change.

Our third and final article is Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education and gender policy by Paul CairneyEmily St DennySean Kippin, and Heather Mitchell. In this article, the authors explore whether policy theories might help us to understand and facilitate the pursuit of equity (or the reduction of unfair inequalities). To explore this question, they produce a series of literature reviews on equity policy and policymaking in healtheducation, and gender research.

They find that policy theories could offer some practical insights for equity research, but that they do not always offer the lessons that some advocates seek. For example, health equity researchers seek to translate insights on policy processes into a playbook for action. This might include framing policy problems to generate more attention to inequalities, securing high-level commitment to radical change, and improving the coherence of cross-cutting policy measures. However, the authors caution that any attempt to turn a transformational political project into a technical ‘toolbox’ or ‘playbook’ is misleading.

In fact, the authors find that the most useful lessons emerge from cross-disciplinary insights. They highlight two very different approaches to transformational political change. One offers the attractive but misleading option of radical change through non-radical action, by mainstreaming equity initiatives into the abovementioned technical ‘toolboxes’ to make continuous progress. The other offers radical change through overtly political action, fostering continuous contestation to keep the issue high on the policy agenda and challenge co-option. There is no clear step-by-step playbook for this option, since political action in complex policymaking systems is necessarily uncertain and often unrewarding.

Ultimately, they conclude that advocates of profound social transformation are wasting each other’s time if they seek short-cuts and technical fixes to enduring political problems. They argue that insights from policy theories and equity research shows that grappling with the challenges highlighted is an inescapable part of the process.

We hope you have enjoyed this quarter’s collection from our recent special issue on Transformational Change in Public Policy. If you want to hear more about the motivations behind it, please listen to our editors’ podcast.

Check out other articles in our Special Issue below:

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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