Policy Safari

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My last post – on the topic of evidence-based public health policy – made me start thinking about ‘policy’ and people’s conceptions of it.  Getting theoretical about policy-making is important stuff – if you understand a situation, understand what is going on, it is more likely that you can take purposeful action to influence it in a way you perceive as productive.  It is particularly important when advocating for ‘healthy public policy’ and for ‘participative policy making’.  The way you understand policy will affect what you understand to be the purpose of, and reason for, tools like health impact assessment; principles such as citizen engagement; and, policy positions such as the espoused view to have evidence-based policy.

Way back when I was doing my MBA, I read a book called Strategy Safari (Mintzberg et al, 1998).  It’s a good book that I’ve been back to on a number of occasions.  In essence, the authors identify and describe ten ‘schools of thoughts’ about strategy.  They describe the different research basis and premises behind each of these ‘schools’ and discuss their strengths and limitations.

The ten schools – as listed on the contents page – are

Three schools that are prescriptive – are about how strategy ‘ought’ to be done

1) The design school – strategy formation as a process of conception

2) The planning school – strategy formation as a formal process

3) The positioning school – strategy formation as an analytical process

Schools that are descriptive – attempt to describe how strategy is done

4) The entrepreneurial school – strategy formation as a visionary process

5) The cognitive school – strategy formation as a mental process

6) The learning school – strategy formation as an emergent process

7) The power school – strategy formation as a process of negotiation

8) The cultural school – strategy formation as a collective process

9) The environmental school – strategy formation as a reactive process

A school that combines the others according to organisational maturity and need

10) The configuration school – strategy formation as a process of transformation

When I originally read this book, I found myself wanting to locate myself into a school – to find my camp.  But now I tend to see each of these schools as useful ‘lenses’ to make sense of strategy theory and practice.  If each has its strengths and each has its weaknesses – then why not use them all heuristically as part of a process of understanding and learning.  This is akin to the way in which Morgan (2006) talks about how to use his ‘Images of Organisation’ – each image of an organisation brings some things into focus and ignores others. A premis that Winter and Szczepanek (2009) continue into their book ‘Images of Projects’.

Now I am a little cautious of falling into the ‘trap’ of believing that the different strategy schools (developed in a competitive business context to be applicable to strategy) can be applied to policy processes where the end point is (intended to be) public good, rather than private gain.  There is some opportunity for learning between the two – for example, Mintzberg et al use research into policy to elucidate The Power School.  But it strikes me that policy research has gone on for a while now and perhaps we need a ‘Policy safari’ or a set of ‘Images of Policy’.

I wrote this introduction and started thinking about this issue a few days ago.  I had this ‘brainstorm’ in my head of things like policy as a decision making process; policy as a problem-solving process; policy as an argumentative process; policy as an opportunistic process; policy as a learning process.  I’ve touched in my reading on things like Kingdon’s policy streams; actor-network theory; policy as communicative practice and other theories of the policy process.  But it felt overwhelming to take on researching and writing Policy Safari all by myself – especially when I should be writing an assignment & getting ready for Christmas.

Then two things happened…

Yesterday, I followed by tutor’s advice and sought out a PhD thesis to read – the idea was to get a sense of what I am heading for.  I decided to seek out the PhD thesis of Katherine Smith (Smith, 2008) who has recently published an article (Smith, 2013) based on her PhD research proposing that it is ideas, not evidence, that transfers between research and policy.  In the first Chapter of her thesis, Smith introduces a number of different theories attempting to elucidate the relationship between research and policy.

“1. A knowledge-driven model in which research findings (i.e. knowledge) provide the necessary pressure for policy to develop in line with the new knowledge;

2. A problem-solving model, in which a policy problem is first recognised, prompting research with the aim of providing evidence on which to base policy solutions to the problem;

3. A political model, where research is used in a pre-determined manner to support policies which it has already been decided to implement for political reasons;

4. A tactical model, where research is used as a method of delaying the decision-making process, providing policymakers with some ‘breathing space’;

5. An interactive model, in which research is just one factor amongst many that have the ability to influence policy (other important ones include political ideology, external pressure and the personal experiences of policymakers).

6. An enlightenment model, in which research influences policy through indirect, diffuse processes over long periods, often contributing to a change in the way policy problems are framed, rather than addressing specific problems.

7. A two-communities model, which depicts policymakers and academics as contrasting communities with different (often conflicting) values, reward systems and languages. This makes it difficult for academic research to inform policy in any meaningful sense”

Source: Smith, 2008, pp15-16

This list seemed to me to be a good start for my Policy Safari, although as Smith states these were theories specifically selected because they had something to say about the specific relationship between research and policy.  I haven’t read the whole Thesis yet but maybe more will come to light as I go through.

Then today, this morning, I was catching up on Twitter when I saw a tweet linking to an article on different theories of policy making.  I followed the link and found it was also by Smith! (Smith and Katikireddi, 2012).  In the article, the authors briefly summarise different theoretical accounts of policy inertia and change and also of the agents of policy change.  It felt like the article was written for me but as I read it I did not get a sense of ‘resonance’ – for some reason, whilst the article was of interest, I didn’t seem to get inspired by it.  Then in the responses to the article, Shaw and Russell articulate something that for me explained my emotional reaction.  They highlight that approaches to thinking about policy come from three different epistemological frameworks:

1) a rationalist framework – conceives of policy in stages that evidence gets fed into

2) a political rationalist framework – sees policy as an emergent property of the interaction of ideas, interests, values and actors involved

3) a policy-as-discourse framework – conceives of policy as shaped by language and social interaction

Shaw and Russell comment that Smith and Katikireddi (2012)’s article emphasised the first two of these to the detriment of the latter.  They mention the ‘argumentative turn’ in policy studies – something I ‘discovered’ recently and got interested in through reading Fischer and Gottweis (2012).  This helped me understand what was missing for me – the epistemological framework I feel most comfortable with – that resonates with me – is that of policy-as-discourse – this is the part of the Safari I want to get to grips with more.  They reference an article by Shaw (2010) which took me to my next breadcrumb – it provides a more rounded description of each of the three frameworks and some of the more ‘specific’ theories that stem from each of the different epistemologies.  Shaw (2010) goes on to focus on the implications that adopting different epistemological frameworks has for selecting methods for researching policy.

For me, the implications of this safari are more about what does/could this mean for policy practitioners?  For people who are attempting to design/create policy processes that are health-oriented and engage ‘whole of society’.  So if you conceive of policy-as-discourse – how do you create the spaces for quality social interaction.  And that leads me onto something that is only just hinted at in the framing of ‘policy-as-discourse’ which for me is policy as social learning.  As someone who has been inspired by Schön’s accounts of government as a learning system, it troubles me that societal learning kind of gets missed from discussions of policy.  But tucked away as the last chapter in Fischer and Gottweis (2012) is a chapter (Fischer and Mandell, 2012) that starts to remedy this.  Titled “Transformative Learning in Planning and Policy Deliberation: Probing Social Meaning and Tacit Assumptions”, the chapter draws not just on Schön’s work but that of Heclo (1974) and Forester (1999).  It draws together not just a description of how learning plays a part in policy making but also how that understanding can be used to facilitate learning – create the conditions for it to happen ‘better’.

That for me is a great starting point – and settles my head enough to be able to concentrate on Christmas and my assignment!


Fischer, F. and Gottweis, H. eds. (2012), The Argumentative Turn Revisited: public policy as communicative practice, USA: Duke University Press.

Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B. and Lampel, J. (1998), Strategy Safari: the complete guide through the wilds of strategic management, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Morgan, G. (2006), Images of Organization Updated Edition., London: Sage Publications.

Shaw, S.E. (2010), Reaching the parts that other theories and methods can’t reach: How and why a policy-as-discourse approach can inform health-related policy. Health, 14(2), pp.196–212.

Smith, K.E. and Katikireddi, S.V. (2012), A glossary of theories for understanding policymaking. Journal Epidemiology and Community Health, Online First.

Smith, K.E. (2008), Health inequalities in Scotland and England: the translation of ideas between research and policy. PhD Thesis. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/1842/7203 [Accessed December 8, 2013].

Smith, K.E. (2013), The politics of ideas: the complex interplay of health inequalities research and policy. Science and Public Policy, Advance access.

Winter, M. and Szczepanek, T. (2009), Images of Projects, Farnham: Gower Publishing Ltd.

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