On policy-making

There are many models of policy-making in the literature. Some are simplistic. Some are tediously over-elaborate. At the moment I’m reading Malcolm Dean’s new book, Democracy under attack, in which he offers his own informal, institutionally-oriented definition.

Dean manages to convey the imperatives, intricacies and intractability of much real world policy-making in a sentence (p76):

Policy-making is a complex process, a mix of new events, old promises, bureaucratic loyalties, party allegiances, manifesto pledges, pressure group campaigns, think tank or select committee reports, research findings and legislative cooking time among other factors.

We may all think the world would be a better place if policy making were more rational. It’s never a great surprise when it isn’t.

The academic literature might benefit from greater consideration of the micro-level processes captured in the metaphor of legislative “cooking time”.

It reminds me of a conversation I had a while ago with a Member of Parliament about achieving amendments to a Bill on its way through the House. As with cooking, heat has to be applied at the right point in the process, when the right ingredients are in place, to achieve the desired change. Government may privately have already conceded that change is necessary and is willing to make it, but not yet. Now is not the right time to be seen publicly to yield. The capacity for change is there, but if the heat doesn’t arrive at the right time later in the process then change won’t happen.

In other conversations I’ve had with senior policy makers they have recounted instances where there was a willingness to give ground and make changes in order to ensure the policy kept moving forward. They weren’t wedded to every component of the proposals. But no one pressed for change when it mattered. So they didn’t make it.

The implication for those inside and outside the House seeking legislative change is that timing is everything, and that all is not necessarily lost until the journey through the House is complete.

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