What should we be paying attention to in policy, cause or effect?

When we think about policy and politics, we tend to gravitate to the elite - concentrating on the efforts of a select few in shaping the process. In today's post, Dr Kemran Mestan provides a timely reminder to not lose sight of policy effects.

Kemran is a senior research officer at La Trobe University, you can read more about his research here

It can be tempting to dismiss policies on ad hominem grounds, based on which people developed a policy and why it was implemented. For example, in comparing a carbon tax versus an emissions trading scheme, it might be interesting to ask: Why was one policy developed over another policy? Who were the key players influencing the policy, what were the conditions that facilitated the adoption of the policy? Where did the idea come from? But concentrating on these questions can distract from more constructive policy analysis. In fact, due to the intrinsic nature of policy making, identifying the causes of a policy’s development is problematic. Researchers are often well advised to give more attention to the effects of policies – as well as analysing social issues and establishment of policy objectives – rather than focussing on causes.

Policy making is ambiguous and highly contested . There are often numerous influences driving and shaping policy, such as: financial interests, ideologies, personalities, institutional arrangements and popular opinion. Each influence is usually not unified , there are internal conflicts, such as with competing interest groups or struggles between individuals. As a result, it is often not feasible to determine exactly why a policy was established, as this would involve both ascertaining what influences were present in its development and, even more problematic, the exact significance of each.

When numerous influences are present, the exact significance of each can rarely, if ever, be determined, because weighing significance is largely a matter of interpretation. For example, it might be known that, prior to a specific policy eventuating, lobbyists representing particular interest groups met with policy makers, but it remains difficult to establish how large an influence that meeting had on shaping the policy (was it 43% or 47%?). In most cases, aiming at high precision in identifying the significance of influences is inappropriate and even a little absurd.

Even decision makers may not recognise the extent each factor played in determining their own decisions, constructing post hoc rationalisations. For example, a particular policy might have been highly influenced by the mere fact that it was easily implemented within the institutional setting, whereas the relevant minister may sincerely come to believe that the policy was implemented based on evidence about its efficacy. This example also reveals that those with the greatest decision making power do not necessarily determine policy, as people lower down the chain of command can influence the range of options presented to decision makers. The testimony of even candid policy makers should not be given excessive credence, as is humorously demonstrated by the sitcom Yes Minister; the following excerpt is just one of many examples where the senior civil servant, Sir Humphrey, is justifying concealing information from the Minister:

Sir Humphrey: “Bernard, Ministers should never know more than they need to know. Then they can’t tell anyone. Like secret agents, they could be captured and tortured.”

Bernard: “You mean by terrorists?”

Sir Humphrey: “By the BBC, Bernard.” (Jay & Lynn 1980)

Policies are often not the result of one person’s decision. They might be part of a trend of ‘reforms’, constituted by numerous programs, laws and decisions made by many individuals over a period of time. Simply asking ‘the’ policy maker why they really developed the policy is inapplicable, as different policy makers are likely to provide different explanations. For these reasons, the researcher cannot ascertain an objective and absolute truth about why a policy was developed.

This is not to deny that there really are facts about why policies were developed. However, since there are inherent barriers to accessing knowledge of the reasons for policy development, researchers are better not preoccupied with the often fruitless task of attempting to ascertain those reasons. Rather, it will often be far more constructive to focus on whether a policy achieves what it is designed to do and what a policy should do. Policy researchers can often do more good if they avoid getting distracted by the politics of policy making, instead concentrating on identifying what the goals of policies should be, and assessing whether the policies are achieving those goals.