Theories of the policy process – initial observations

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This was written yesterday…just didn’t get round to publishing it…so for ‘today’, read ‘yesterday’!

Today, I started what I hope will be a longer inquiry into theories of the policy process.  I’ve been telling myself for a long time that I need to ‘get to grips’ with it.  As mentioned in my last post, I’ve kind of got this general overview of the landscape and know names of some theories and bits of associated jargon, but I do need to develop my understanding (and confidence in that understanding) more if I’m going to do research in my interest area of  ‘healthy public policy’.  So, instead of just staring at a pile of books and thinking “I need to read them”, I’ve written myself a topic list to guide my learning.  Just hope I can keep the motivation going alongside the ‘real’ studying of my PhD module.

Today, I read the Introduction (well most of it, I was using the Amazon Look Inside!) and penultimate chapter (available as a pdf on Paul Cairney’s blog) of Sabatier and Weible (Editors) Theories of the Policy Process (third edition, 2014).

I’m not going to reiterate the content, just note a couple of insights…

Firstly, in Weible’s Introduction, there was a few lines concerning the use of the terms ‘policy making’ and ‘policy process’.  I think up to now I have kind of used them interchangeably.  But what Weible touches on is that ‘policy making’ carries with it the implication that a policy gets made and implemented – that there is an ‘end’ to the process.  Whereas ‘policy process’ implies something without an end.  This reminded me of Vickers’ characterisation of everyday life as a never-ending stream of events and ideas interacting.  So, in that vein, from now on, unless I am referring to a more finite policy ‘production’ process, I will use the term policy process.

Secondly, I found myself thinking about the use of theory itself.  In the introduction, Weible points out that the policy process is messy and complex and that theories are useful to distinguish particular elements out of that mess (rather like a sense-making process).  Cairney and Heikkila touch on that too – theories “aid the study of the policy process” (p. 385) and their “empirical applications may come in waves” (also on p.385) .  But that seems to overlook the fact that at some point these theories were ‘made’, generated by a scholar (or group of) from their observations of one or many instances and presumably then each empirical application is a ‘test’ of the theory or may contribute to its ongoing development.  The re-use of the theory thus helps re-make it and increase its acceptability.  But I’ve also noticed in my more general reading that not all theories develop within the policy studies discipline itself – some researchers seem to ‘borrow’ theories or methodologies developed in other disciplines and then use them as a lens on the policy process to see if they generate new and helpful insights.  So, for example, I’ve previously seen complexity theory used as a way of making sense of policy making and today I’ve learned that narrative approaches are beginning to be used in studies of the policy process.  What I haven’t worked out yet is what this means for policy practice – the theories may be good for empirical application in research or to help with sensemaking/understanding for those involved in ‘policy work’, but how does that connect to or contribute to improvement in the domain of practice?


Weible, C. (2014) ‘Introduction’ in Sabatier, P. and Weible, C. (Editors) Theories of the Policy Process, Third Edition, Chicago, Westview Press

Cairney, P. and Heikkila, T. (2014) ‘A Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process’ in Sabatier, P. and Weible, C. (Editors) Theories of the Policy Process, Third Edition, Chicago, Westview Press

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