Policymakers and academics often hold different assumptions about the policymaking world based on their different experiences. Academics may enjoy enough distance from the policy process to develop a breadth of knowledge and produce generalisable conclusions across governments, while policymakers/ practitioners such as civil servants may develop in-depth expertise when developing policy for a number of years. In turn, both may learn from each other about how to understand the policymaking world.
Academic-practitioner seminars and short training courses can help further that aim. Yet, there are two major barriers to such conversations. First, academics and practitioners may have their own language to understand policymaking, and a meaningful conversation may require considerable translation.
Second, the promotion of new forms of thinking and knowing in the civil service is unusually challenging, because civil servants face multiple pressures:
- To gather experience-based knowledge essential to their professional image. For example, they must present their activities in relation to their position within government: supporting ministers, who command government portfolios, and are accountable to the public via Parliament.
- To gather more abstract knowledge, which often challenges the idea that ministers are in charge and that civil servants can help them control the policy process.
So, the task is not simply to teach, or encourage one-way learning, but to examine how two potentially-contradictory forms of knowing can be used to produce a coherent whole.
To examine these issues, this article in Teaching Public Administration relates my attempts, in a series of steps, to turn abstract policy theory into something useful for practitioners.
The first step is to identify a potential disconnect between the starting points for academic-practitioner discussions and policy theories. In the former, we may still use concepts developed to aid policymaking – such as the policy cycle, the ideal of ‘comprehensive rationality’ and the ‘top-down approach’ to implementation – because they aid discussion. In the latter, we have generally moved on from these descriptions of the world, to reflect the policy process’ complexity and our need for new theories to help explain it.
The second is to consider how to make those more realistic, but specialist, scientific concepts as meaningful to practitioners. The article considers the extent to which modern theories can provide straightforward insights to policy practitioners by condensing and articulating its ‘key tenets’.
The third is to consider how insights from those tenets, based largely on what governments do, can be used to recommend what they should do. The article contrasts how they might be used by a ‘top down minded’ government with how they might be used by scholars to recommend action. It focuses in particular on ‘complexity theory’ as an approach which combines policy theory with practical recommendations.
A final step is to consider how we can engage with policymakers to discuss those insights. The article draws on my experience of teaching civil servants in policy training seminars, using these theories to identify complex policymaking systems and encourage ‘reflexivity’ about how to adapt to, and operate within, them.
Green access version: How Can Policy Theory Inform Policymaking final version 25March14