The Evolution of the Policy Approach
(excerpt from eBriefings.ca White Paper #07-07-001)
This paper surveys the literature in the expansive field of public policy studies, from its modern origins through to its present state. The study of public policy is broadly concerned with the processes of identifying and analysing public issues, the means by which a collective course of action (or inaction) is taken by an authoritative decision making body in response to perceived public problems, how effect is given to that course of action, and what affect the entire process has on the issue or problem being addressed.
As a course of action, policy as used here is distinct from the common organisational use of the term (e.g., “departmental policy requires that visitors sign in at the front desk”) that connotes the routines, procedures and practices of an institution. Also, following Majone’s (1988) distinction between “two types of policy analysis” – i.e., between allocating public resources among competing ends (in which rational techniques are best suited to determining the optimal solution to a given problem) and the development of arguments in support of a proposed policy – this survey generally considers policy to fall under the heading of the latter, where the focus is on “determining which assumptions and arguments would provide a conceptual basis for a certain policy of assessing the persuasiveness of the evidence that supports a proposal” (Majone, 1988: 157).
In tracing the lineage from the emergence of the policy sciences through to the current state of the art (and craft), this survey reviews the evolution of the policy approach over the past half century. This literature will follow the general theme of the continual erosion of the rational policy approach as an authoritative foundation for “good” policy making and the attendant struggle to rescue some form of policy analysis as an aid to the exercise of precautionary adaptive governance in an environment marked by uncertainty and complexity.
I begin with a brief review of the precursors to the development of a conscious policy approach following World War II. After a period of stagnation during the late 1950s, the policy approach enjoyed a “Golden Age” in the late 1960s and a period of professional and academic growth during the 1970s. These successes gave rise to a significant body of critique – both of the theoretical constructs and the applied record – that exists to today. I conclude with observations on the future of policy analysis in the context of this post-positivist critique.
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