Policy schools in the age of identity politics

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  • December 21, 2017

Martin Lodge, Nick Sitter and Kai Wegrich

Back in the post-First World War era, the field of public administration was established to respond to the social upheaval of demilitarization, economic turmoil, expanding electorates, new political parties and labour movements. Similarly, the rise of ‘policy analysis’ was a response to the devastating experiences of the Second World War, and a belief in technocratic solutions and analytical skills provided by ‘wiz kids’. Concern with policy was also at the heart of the expansion of policy-related research and teaching in view of the expansion of the welfare state in the late 1960s and 1970s.

A century since the end of the First World War, national and international politics and economics are again in turmoil. National politics are shaped by new cleavages surrounding identity and the rise of populist parties; European integration is being challenged by referenda (‘Brexit’) and nationalist governments adopting policies hostile to basic principles of the rule of law, in some cases going as far as sanctioning extreme-right movements and anti-semitism. Multilateral organisations are said to face existential threats. Traditional sources of policy expertise are criticised and dismissed; ‘fake news’ have become a defining characteristic of populist leaders with authoritarian ambitions. In short, what has been identified as an age of identity politics is perceived as a threat to many certainties of late 20th century politics.

What role can contemporary public policy schools play in this changing and demanding context? Do they have anything to contribute? Or are they stuck in a world of elite hobnobbing across international conference venues, airport lounges and intercontinental conference calls? At first sight such questions may seem surprising. After all, hardly a month goes by during which one university or another does not announce a new public policy-related initiative. However, a closer look reveals more deep-seated problems. Public policy schools need to seriously reconsider their role in this ‘identity’ politics age of the 21st century.

The rise of public policy schools was about bringing knowledge, expertise and analytical skills to executive government and the design of public service. They were supposed to ‘train’ and ‘network’ leaders and directly contribute to the better design and delivery of policy programmes to address major global, national and local policy problems. Success is measured in terms of contribution to solving specific policy problems, for example, climate change, derelict housing estates or energy self -sufficient bus shelters. Instead of ‘theory’, there is faith in ‘what works’ when designing individual policy interventions. The technocratic economic-managerial problem-solving bias of this undertaking is partly complemented by an emphasis on ‘governance’ that is supposed to signal the importance of hybrid forms of governing (across local, national and international levels) involving collaboration and negotiation among state and non-state actors.

This broad orientation in public policy schools has traditionally been delivered in three different (sometimes overlapping) flavours. One is the particular economics-based flavour. Accordingly, ‘rigorous’ analysis using latest quantitative methodologies is the basis on which all decisions should be taken. A second flavour is more oriented towards the need to address ‘global’ policy problems; accordingly, the search here is for understanding and supporting international actor networks, organisations and transnational regulation. A third, more managerial flavour focuses on questions of measuring performance and supporting collaboration and leadership so as to identify public value.

We observe three responses to the underlying societal, political and institutional dynamics that shape the contemporary context of identity politics. These can be characterised to be of the unreflective ‘must try harder’ kind.

One response, building on the first (economics-based) flavour is to add to the methodological fire-power. Adding a few field and ‘laboratory’ experiments to the tool-set and giving a nod or two to ‘behavioural insights’ is supposed to address questions of great societal relevance (‘usable knowledge’). If evidence gets contested, we need to produce ‘harder’ evidence. Big data is said to come to the rescue. However, whether such a ‘factual knowledge’ approach, based on a continued commitment towards methodological individualism, is going to support organisational decision-making by executive governments in an age of ‘post-factual’ politics is questionable, especially when all ‘facts’ are part of the conflict between highly polarised societal cleavages.

The second response is to increasingly ‘go global’. Transboundary policy challenges are proliferating, and therefore there has to be growing awareness about transboundary governance at the international level. The problem here, however, is that policies are ultimately also local: the ‘go global’ orientation is interested in overcoming horizontal boundaries between states and business and NGOs, but ignores the (vertical) organisational boundaries  and administrative limitations that occur at the national and sub-national levels.

The third ‘must try harder’ response is to rely on ‘better management’ to understand a world full of ‘(mega-) wicked issues’. Hybridity and mediation are said to be defining features of contemporary governance, and so is performance management. Post-financial crisis, a growing concern has also been paid to ‘ethics’. By offering the latest interpretation of how to achieve ‘public value’, social innovation or collaborative ‘leadership’, underpinned by some case study or another, international elites are prepared to respond to critical policy challenges. The problem here is unfortunately that these case-story materials are highly context-dependent. More fundamentally, there is an emphasis on charismatic leadership in which everyone is supposed to be a ‘leader’, setting up and leading their own unit, agency or NGO. Such an emphasis on change-makers reinforces contemporary managerial fashions that have missed the importance of the mid-level in any organisation.

Is this really all that public policy schools can offer? If we take seriously the view that all expertise is part of societal conflict, that elites are part of a cleavage between ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’, and that these somewheres and anywheres communicate in their own exclusive (social media) echo chambers, then can public policy schools move outside their own little echo chambers? Can public policy schools be more than just an amplifier of their own social movement?

We are of course exaggerating the problem. There is plenty of activity among public policy schools to engage with this new age of identity politics, whether it is by hosting conferences, arranging public events or by embarking on new avenues, such as by focusing on digitalisation and democracy. Students need to be exposed to latest scholarship. However, if programmes and curricula are the central aspect of a public policy school’s mission, then some fundamental elements need to be addressed. This means that populism, polarisation and new cleavages have to be taken seriously so as to understand better the context of actual public policy making. This context does not occur in the confines of ‘laboratories’.

Instead, what is required is a greater emphasis on the substantive understanding of policy. While we all know about the importance of ‘analytical’ and boundary-spanning competencies so as to allow for cross-sectoral application of policy-analysis skills, this cannot come at the expense of understanding how organisations in a political context actually ‘work’, how legal and constitutional boundaries need navigating and what the particular technical challenges in certain policy domains are. We also need a growing emphasis on fairness and acceptability of public policies in order to seriously engage with the (usually voiceless) vulnerable.

What is also required is a more direct exposure to the real world at the coalface of public policy. This is the world of the social housing estate, the nursing home, the meat and drinking water inspector, the banking supervisor, prison warden, the data analyst and cyber-security official as well as the tax and welfare office; it is the world of dealing with socio-economic and ethnic difference. It is at this level where the world of great expectations meets complex reality. It is at this level where austerity becomes real, where abstract conflicts become real fights and the coping strategies of the street level bureaucrat become the actual policy that not only decides about the kind of services people need and receive – but also the way the state is experienced and perceived by those that are said to be estranged from politics and institutions.

Such an ambition is far from new. UC Berkeley in the 1960s ran a multi-year Oakland project (under then dean Aaron Wildavsky). One of these research projects eventually fed into the seminal book on ‘Implementation’ (by Pressman and Wildavsky). Students, researchers and faculty were exposed to the coalface of policy making and public administration in a truly unruly context. Such a theory-informed programme is difficult to deliver – it requires trust between the different parties. It is also difficult to deliver in the context of ever-shorter and intensive executive programmes that involve time-poor students with highly demanding jobs. It is also difficult to deliver such courses which are potentially disruptive to a well-healed clientele used to getting their ways in terms of demanding ‘content’.

However, if public policy schools want to be part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem of the contemporary age of identity politics, then they need to transpose an Oakland spirit into their contemporary offerings. This might, at first, prove demanding, given financial business models, donor and student expectations and academic career incentives. However, such considerations should ultimately not trump the ultimate purpose of public policy schools, namely to offer the springboard for an advanced ‘speaking truth to power’, even in an age in which power is dispersed and sources of truth are contested.

The authors are writing in a personal capacity and their views do not represent the TransCrisis consortium as a whole.

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