P & P

Analysing policy change: institutions and ideas

[Originally posted on The Policy Press Blog, 23/12/10]

The analysis of continuity and change is a preoccupation for scholars of the policy process. While a range of frameworks have been proposed, it would be fair to say that institutionalist approaches are currently flavour of the month. A long-standing challenge for historical institutionalism, however, is an asymmetry in its explanatory power. While plausible accounts of stability and continuity have been offered – invoking notions such as path dependency and lock in – providing credible accounts of policy change has proved more challenging.

Recent debate has called for a move “beyond continuity”. The idea of agents exploiting ambiguity within institutions has been proposed as one way forward. Another focus of attention is the role of ideas and how they might be deployed strategically by political actors to achieve change. We are even encouraged to look to a new – discursive – institutionalist approach.

Looking back over the articles published in Policy & Politics this year I reacquainted myself with the brief paper by Béland and Waddan on policy successes and failures experienced by the Clinton and Bush administrations. The paper is based around a pair of successful policy changes and a pair of failures, one each for Clinton and Bush. The starting point for the paper is that the selected case study reforms are interesting because the successes and failures do not line up well with political preconceptions. While Clinton succeeded with welfare reform in 1996 he had earlier failed with reform to health insurance. Yet, the flavour of the welfare reform was considerably to the political right of more conventional Democrat territory, while the health insurance reforms should have played to the Democrats’ strengths. Similarly, Bush’s attempt to reform social security addressed a traditional Republican bugbear, but was ultimately unsuccessful, while he legislated for Medicare reforms that represented a commitment to increase government spending on welfare significantly.

In their discussion of these cases Béland and Waddan bring out the role of institutional barriers to change in explaining policy failure. They highlight concentration of power and embedded sectional and industry interests as standing in the way of change. While the forces of conservatism in the cases of successful policy change were weaker that was not felt to be an adequate explanation of the difference. In order to understand these policy outcomes there needs to be an awareness of context and a recognition that ‘depending on the context, factors like strategic choices, political judgement, and even chance can facilitate or complicate change’ (p227). These factors in their turn can be influenced by, for example, the perceived state of public opinion or the electoral cycle. An intersection of factors can result in apparently counterintuitive outcomes. The authors argue that ‘recognising this basic contingency inherent to the policy process helps leave room for agency within the institutional framework’.

In passing Béland and Waddan also provide food for thought on more detailed issues such what form policy proposals should take to maximise the chances of success. Is it most appropriate to bring forward detailed policy proposals so as to offer transparency, but greater ammunition for critics seeking to undermine the case for change? Or should governments bring forward broad policy positions and aspirations, with detail to be filled in later? The risk here is that it can lead to accusations that the proposals are premature. Key stakeholders may be unwilling to support something that is considered too vague. Presidents Clinton and Bush tried different strategies at different times – and Béland and Waddan’s account provides evidence of policy learning in this respect – but there was mixed results. Again, context is important.

Having reread their paper I feel that Béland and Waddan offer policy scholars much to reflect on. The answers they provide will not satisfy everyone, and in some areas the argument feels like it needs developing in more detail. But it represents a valuable step forward on our collective journey to a fuller understanding of the vagaries of policy.

Béland, D. and Waddan, A. (2010) The politics of social policy change: lessons of the Clinton and Bush presidencies, Policy & Politics, vol 38, no 2, 217-233. [Free access to abstract; Subscriber access to content]

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