40 years of Policy & Politics: critical reflections and strategies for the future

Dr Sarah Ayres, Senior Lecturer in Policy Studies, School for Policy Studies and Co-Editor of Policy & Politics Journal

Dr Sarah Ayres, Senior Lecturer in Policy Studies, School for Policy Studies and co-editor of Policy & Politics Journal

Editorial by Sarah Ayres, co-editor of Policy & Politics. The full version of this blog was published this month in Policy & Politics volume 41, number 4, available free until the end of November 2013.

This special issue is based on a selection of papers presented at the 40th anniversary Policy & Politics conference, held in Bristol in 2012. Policy & Politics published its first issue in 1972 and has since become one of the leading international journals in the field of public and social policy. In that time the nature of policy and politics has undergone significant transformations. Recent changes include the increasing importance of global governance, a reframing of the state in delivering public services and the global economic downturn and associated austerity measures. These have been combined with rising public expectations about choice and quality of public services and the transition from government to governance, epitomised by the inclusion of non-state actors in the policy process.

The 40th anniversary year provided an opportunity to reflect on these developments, the impact they have had on the field of policy studies and the world of practice. It has also been an opportunity for the journal to consider its position within and contribution to the field.

A host of leading international scholars were invited to present papers on the 2012 conference theme: 40 Years of Policy & Politics: Critical Reflections and Strategies for the Future. Delegates examined contemporary policy issues while looking back at the experiences of the last 40 years and reflected on what endures, what has changed and how lessons from the past can inform future policy. The conference covered themes around which Policy & Politics has enjoyed a strong track record in publishing world class scholarship including: democracy and social justice; partnership working and governance; politics and discourse; theories of policy making and reflections on health; housing; welfare; and education policy.

This special issue presents a selection of articles drawn from the conference. It brings together work by world-leading scholars to address theoretical and practical developments pertinent to Policy & Politics over its 40-year history. It begins with an article by Christopher Pollitt: 40 Years of public management reform in UK central government – promises, promises … Pollitt argues that ‘despite the UK’s leading role in public management reform, and decades of continuous change, little has been learned of the final outcomes’ (p. 465). He notes the apparent ease with which large-scale reform takes place in the UK, which he argues is the consequence of a ‘light touch’ legal system and a style of politics which enable leaders to instigate public reform unchallenged. While the UK may have a leading role as a major exporter of public management ideas, Pollitt asserts that ‘its prominence has been built upon shaky foundations’ (p 466).

Rod Rhodes joins Pollitt in raising questions about the production and quality of social science evidence to inform policy and practice in his article Political anthropology and civil service reform: prospects and limits. He uses the concept of ‘storytelling’ to examine the structures and procedures that guide working practices in Whitehall. He argues that would-be reformers would benefit from drawing on observational evidence so that they know ‘what they are seeking to reform’ (page 492). These insights, he argues, would be more effective than the rational, managerial approaches to reform that have predominated since the 1970s and produced modest success.

Dr Sarah Ayres

Dr Sarah Ayres

Janet Newman calls for the exploration of creative and progressive responses to the politics of austerity through her article Performing new worlds?. She considers ‘how actors with “progressive” social or political commitments are able to enact new worlds within the confines of the [neoliberal] present’ (page 515). An apparent absence of radical new ideas in austerity politics is discussed. Instead, observations of new solutions emanating ‘bottom-up’ as practitioners take the role of innovators and entrepreneurs in their daily practices are noted.

Martijn van der Steen, Mark van Twist, Menno Fenger and Sara Le Cointre (551-67) also examine the role of contextual factors, local circumstances and practitioners in shaping policy outcomes in their article Governing local partnerships: does external steering help local agencies address wicked problems?. More specifically, they examine the unintended effects of policy interventions in ‘weak schools’ in the Netherlands. The questions is posed: What causes the differences in outcomes of similar policies in similar contexts? Like other articles in this issue, they recognise the central role of local practitioners in predicting and identifying the local circumstances and causations that might impact on policy outcomes in unique ways.

Other articles have explored the complex relationship between different modes of governance – markets, hierarchies, networks – in the policy process. Guy Peters, in his article Toward policy coordination: alternatives to hierarchy, examines the challenges of policy coordination in different contexts. Likewise, Steve Martin and Valeria Guarneros-Meza consider the dynamics of hierarchy and coordination in their study of local partnership working: Governing local partnerships: does external steering help local agencies address wicked problems? They conclude that ‘soft steering’ – defined as the provision of government funding, information and expertise’ – can have ‘an important role in helping to establish and mobilise the local partnerships’ (page 586) but that self-steering capacity is also vital. These examples illustrate the continued presence of hierarchy within the so-called transition to networked governance and, interestingly, the potential complementarity of governance modes in the right context.

Peter John’s work on the ‘tools of government’, All tools are informational now: how information and persuasion define the tools of government, looks at the scientific developments that have taken place in the field over the past 40 years. John argues that the traditional tools of government, such as legislation, finance and regulation, are being redesigned or supplemented by low cost behavioural interventions, such as ‘nudge’. Nudge involves using information in a particular way that encourages citizens to behave in their own or society’s interest. John’s work provides a powerful demonstration of the impact of new methodological and scientific techniques on the policy process.

A number of articles in this issue have raised questions about the type of knowledge and evidence produced by social scientists, and its variable impact on policy (Flinders, 2013; Pollitt, 2013; Rhodes, 2013). In particular, Matthew Flinders, in The politics of engaged scholarship: impact, relevance and imagination, reflects on how the academy should engage with policy and practice. He calls for ‘engaged scholarship’, and for academics to realise their ‘political imagination’ to ensure that academic knowledge has a clear role in ‘promoting public debate, cultivating engaged citizenship and having some form of impact beyond academe’ (page 626). He challenges the academy to reconnect with policy and politics and to embark on a different type of scholarship that is more accessible. Aside from meeting a public duty, he argues that this will be essential to the reputation and survival of political studies as a discipline.

The content in this collection of articles represents key contours of the terrain covered by Policy & Politics over the last 40 years. In the final article, Reflections on contemporary debates in policy studies, Sarah Ayres and Alex Marsh reflect on the theoretical and practical developments pertinent to Policy & Politics during this period, and suggest some steps to advance the debate. We draw out key themes from the papers comprising this 40th anniversary special issue and discuss them under four headings: (1) theorising policy, (2) evidence and the policy process, (3) transforming structures and processes, and (4) implementation and practice. We argue for ‘greater tolerance of diversity in theoretical and empirical enquiry and for continued reflection on the foundational assumptions of the field of policy studies’ (page 643).

Matthew Flinders notes:

The next 40 years will reward those journals who lead from the front and are willing to take risks; those journals that bridge boundaries, challenge common assumptions, and think anew; those journals that are willing to cultivate curiosity and shape debates (page 639).

Policy & Politics welcomes this challenge and has a commitment to remaining reflexive, open minded and responsive to trends while being proactive in setting research agendas.

This blog is a shortened version of the original which can be found on the Policy Press blog. In that version you can also read reflections on the future of Policy & Politics.