A Study Of Directed Readings In Public Policy Politics
Author Gilbert Highet once queried, "what is politics but persuading the public to vote for this and support that and endure these for the promise of those?" When examining Highet's critical yet insightful view of politics, namely the process by which policymaking and implantation has on constituents, the importance of key players and an institution comes in to question. Who is influencing the policymaking process and how? This question is one of the most debated aspects of the policymaking process. Two competing theories split the process into a pluralistic process- dynamic in its cast of characters and competing interests versus the elitist approach, where a tightly controlled membership to the policy making process is held by political elites and subsystems. In order to gain insight in to which competing theory may hold more truth for the policymaking system, this essay will first explain the two competing approaches to the policymaking process. Next, access to the policymaking system as structured by the stages model and to what extent do key players and institutions influence the policymaking process will be discussed in order to support the pluralist or elitist approach to policymaking.
The easiest way to begin to understand the policymaking process and who plays what role and to what extent they participate, is to first lay the ground work for the dominate theory of political processes, the pluralist approach, followed by the opposing elitist approach. The pluralist approach follows the same guidelines that the founding fathers sought when setting up the American system of government. Our forefathers were so afraid of an American Patriarchy and the, "control of the central government over the constituent states," (Peters p 24) that they divided up political power among the three branches of government and on down to the states and local governments. The idea was that if power was spread around, so everyone would be able to have a piece, there could never be an all powerful central authority. Different branches or levels of the government would have to come together in the decision making process, which B. Guy Peters points out that, "having a number of decision makers involved in every decision should reduce errors, and permit greater innovation in the federal government and in state and local government," (p 24). The coming together of multiple layers of government would also essentially lead to the decrease in the, "capacity of the central government to run rough-shod over the rights of the citizens or the interests of socioeconomic groups" (p 24). This doling out of powers in order to stop tyranny was exactly what the framers of the constitution had set out to accomplish. The ultimate decentralization of American government comes full circle to support the pluralist approach because , "for citizens, the numerous points of access to policymaking permit losers at one level of government, or in one institution, to become winners at another point in the process" ( Peters p 23). This concept of winners and losers also shifts the focus to the concept that competing ideas may not always "win" out in the end, but the fact that they are never excluded from the policymaking process and are guaranteed a forum in which to be expressed, makes policymaking an open process to all. This may all sound well and good and how we as Americans would like to idealize our policymaking system, but the elitist approach to the policymaking system believes that the control of the policymaking system is in reality controlled by a relatively small, wealthy, white and powerful group of political elites. The elitist theorize that for the pluralist approach to actually be successful there would need to be an equal level of participation and organization at all levels of, "organizations by all interests in society" (Peters p 69). The elitist theory assigns the downfall of the pluralist approach to the lack of political organization by, "working- and lower class individuals" not because they wish to be an unorganized mass but because they simply lack what elites have it coming out of their ears-time and money (Peters p76). The readily available source of time and money makes the elites a highly organized and visible force capable of controlling one of the most influential tools of the policymaking system and that is the policy agenda. If the elites are able to control the policy agenda, keeping their needs on the agenda and outside interest off, their needs are going to be met time and time again.
While neither approach may encompass the whole of policymaking process, further discussion of the access to the policymaking system as structured by the stages model and to what extent do key players and institutions influence the policymaking process may shed light on which approach comes out dominate.
*As a quick disclaimer, the use of the stages model is simply to help describe the policymaking process rather than give an exact sequential order of the policymaking processes. The policymaking process often occurs out of order or may flow in a more linear direction, or dynamic as in accordance with the stages model.
The first stage of the policymaking process according to the stages model is agenda setting or identification of a policy problem or issue. All three branches of government, interest groups and the public at large can all have a hand in setting the agenda, but each interacts with the agenda setting stage quite differently. For starters, the president plays a very complex role during the whole stages model, but especially during the agenda setting stage. The President can be a strong key player in the agenda setting stage because he is able to draw attention to an issue more readily, because as one lobbyist stated, "when a president sends up a bill, it takes first place in the queue. All other bills take second place." The power that a president holds during this stage and all others is often ambiguous and very contextual. Political scientist Richard Neustadt believed that the office of the president is not a powerful as people believe, but that a president who possesses the skills to win over others is, "the necessary energizing factor to get the institution of the national government into action. He and only he supplies the agenda for action for the Washington political community" (Neustadt p 109).It also doesn't hurt that the president has the legitimate power to nominate people who have similar views as him for, "key policymaking positions" (Kingdon p 40). But the president is not an island unto himself, and while he may be able to, "dominate and determine the policy agenda" the president is not able to control the, "alternatives that are seriously considered, and is unable to determine the final outcome" ( Kingdon p 23). So while the president plays a key role in agenda setting, he is not the last say in the process. Public opinion is also a major key player. When an issue arises, such as a crisis or emergency, the public will usually demand action from their elected officials, and if this demand is not loud enough on its own, pressure from the media is a great tool the public can employ. Interest groups are also heavily involved in the agenda setting stage as they try to get their issue or cause attention by attempting to influence Congress, who will in turn get their issue noticed.
After a policy has made it the agenda, whether through pressure from the public, media, interest groups, president or congress, the formulation stage is the next stop in the policymaking stages model. The formulation state is where policies that have made it to the agenda are beginning to take shape, and further develop. The usual key players at this stage are policy planning organizations interest groups and the executive and legislative branches of government. At this time, an interesting collaboration has been known to form referred to as the iron triangle, that will not only influence the formulation stage but also continue through to the legitimating stage and the implementation stag. Iron triangles are groups who are able to, "gain access to policy" and have, "a great deal of influence" with their actions, "often hidden from public view" (Peters p 56). The first key player in an iron triangle is usually comprised of interest groups or constituencies. The role of the interest group in the iron triangle is that they are usually the group to bring issues and policies to the attention of legislators in congress, as earlier noted in the agenda setting stage. Members of Congress will logically make up the second group of the iron triangle. Members of Congress need the support of the interest groups and constituent in order to gain public support when their re-elections roll around, not to mention the funding they often receive for backing the interest groups. In return for the financial and public support, Congress members will push legislation that interest groups support. This leads to the third member of the triangle which is the bureaucrats. The bureaucrats are especially important in the formulation stage because this is when they will attempt to, "exercise their expertise by fleshing out skeletal or ambiguously worded legislation" in order to gain control of the third process of the stages model, implementation. The ambition by which the bureaucrats attempt to "flesh out" or formulate the policy and ultimately implement the policy, is a result of bureaucrats wanting to control the, "appropriation of a sizable chunk of government funding" in order to carry their proposed policy implantation. The goal of the iron triangle it to create a, "three-way, stable alliance that is sometimes called a sub-government because of its durability, impregnability, and power to determine policy"(Knowledgerush, 2010). Iron triangles give a lot of support to the elitist approach, showing how a small group of people can control the policymaking process. But the iron triangles are no longer a secret, and are under constant scrutiny by the media, making their once "hidden" arrangements public knowledge. Another process that has lead to the weakening of the iron triangles is the infiltration of the the growing, "expansion of interactions between citizens and government" (Peters p56).
The next stage in the policymaking process according the stages model is the legitimating process. The legitimating stage usually involves the political actions of government, interest groups, political parties, but most importantly, the public. Legitimacy is a very important aspect in policymaking. The courts can make a policy into a law, interest groups can push the importance of the policy, and political parties can place influence on those who implement the policy, but in order for the policy to succeed, it needs to somehow attach itself to a certain set of identifiable social norms or values. The need for the government to take action is usually left in the hands of the legislative process and administrative process. But even these processes must be translated into tangible actions. For example, when laws are passed, they still intangible ideas if not enforced by law enforcement agencies and administrative procedures are not effective unless translated into regulations that if not followed, have some sort of consequence with the oversight to carry out that consequence. The government's ability to legitimize a policy all depends on how well lower agencies are able to carry out the implementation of the policy and whether the public takes to the legitimacy of that policy. While this stage may seem to limit the number of players in the actual context of legitimizing a policy into a law or administrative action, these processes are very much open to the public through such initiatives as the Administrative Procedures Act and the public's right to a fair trial.
The next process in the in the stages model is the implementation stage. This stage usually involves bureaucracies, public administrators and the activities of executive agencies. The list of governmental agencies that can be listed under that seemingly small umbrella is enough to make anyone's head spin. As writer B. Guy Peters points out, "one of the most important things to understand about government is that is it a minor miracle that implementation is ever accomplished" (p121). With that said, bringing up the whole notion of whether or not the policymaking process is pluralistic or elitist, this expressed concern by Peters that the implementation of a policy is more about coordinating a vast amount of agencies and offices, one would deduct, that the process is wide open. This is both true and false. The majority of those who are involved in these agencies and offices are not always out to implement a policy with the intent to aid the goal of the greater good, but to satisfy the needs of their own agencies or constituents. Add self-serving agencies to the list of the collaborations set up by iron triangles, the ability for a policy to be implemented may be hindered by all of the compromises, negations, and backroom bartering that have take place in order to get the policy to the implementation stage in the first place (Peters p124). The public has already been funneled out at this point in the process and most likely will not be seen again until the last step in the stages model, the evaluation stage.
The last stage in the policymaking stages model is policy evaluation. The evaluation of a policy is a highly political process, as noted by B. Guy Peters. Many of the programs that were initiated by policies are near and dear to many politician's hearts. As politicians should be after all the wheeling and dealing that had taken place during the whole policymaking process. Therefore programs are often fiercely protected by the politicians who want to keep the programs that may not be effective for the greater majority of the population, but serves the needs of his/her immediate constituents. This also brings up the fact that those who are involved in the programs, staff, customers, ect., may fight to keep their program as well, even if it is not hitting the intended goal originally set forth in the implementation process. Change is not easy and in the policymaking forum, changing a policy is even harder than getting it on an agenda in the first place. Institutions like the presidency have even been known to keep a program going long after it has been deemed a failure. The No Child Left Behind act or NCLB is a perfect example of the stubbornness with which policy change is notorious for. NCLB was initiated in 2001 during the administration of President George W. Bush with the goal of getting the national education system up to par and back in competition with foreign educational standards. The policy required school to meet certain levels of "national performance" or they were to be penalized. What happened is many poor school that were already struggling went from bad to worse, because the consequences for a school that did not meet the " national performance" level would be the reduction in the federal funding they received. It is 2010, NCLB still lingers on. President Obama has proposed changes to the NCLB act, but still there is not talk of outright killing the program (Washington Post, 2010). The pluralist approach would seem to have a difficult time at this juncture in the policymaking process. With key players as high up as the executive branch rooting for policies that are obviously flawed, there are still however, windows of opportunity for the policy process to remain open and not in the hands of a few politically elite. The stages model never ends, and though change to a policy may be difficult, the introduction of a new policy, or information on a subject proposed by researchers or think-tank will always keep the political process chugging (however slow) ahead.
While there is no clear answer to which approach, pluralist or elitist, hold more truth in the policymaking process, there seems to be a need for both policies to have a go in order to keep the policymaking process progressing. If it were the elite approach at all times, the policymaking system would have become stagnate and would have ceased to produce new ideas and policies. If the approach to policy making were pluralist at all times, then nothing would ever get accomplished as there are often times that call for leaders and designated followers.
2. In a setting as ridiculously complex as the American Democracy, there are a wide array of theoretical frameworks in which to choose from in order to gain a better understanding of the agenda setting, formulations and decision that making occur in the policymaking process. Two theoretical approaches that have presented themselves as dominate theoretical frameworks are the Garbage Can model and the Multiple Streams Approach. In this essay, these two frameworks will be broken down into their respective main components, analyzed for their strengths, weaknesses, and overall contribution to the understanding of policymaking.
The first theoretical framework under examination is as Professor John Kingdon describes it, "a masterpiece of indelicate language," the garbage can model. While not quite the most appealing sounding theoretically framework, the garbage can model was developed by Michael Cohen, James March, and Johan Olsen during their attempt to understand organizations that they labeled as being, "organized anarchies." Organized anarchies where organizations, (namely universities) that trio saw as being, "a loose collection of ideas rather than a coherent structure; it discovers preferences through actions more than it acts on the basis of preferences" (Cohen, March, and Olsen p1).While elaborating on their theory of organized anarchies and the idea of choice opportunity, they developed the garbage can model in order to focus their research on how, "problems, solutions, and participants" decide to use one choice or solution when others, "may be considered"( Kingdon p 85). Choice opportunity was likened to a "garbage can" where different pieces of "garbage" or ideas, solutions, and problems are, "dumped by participants as they are generated." This dumping by participants is done at random. Ideas, solutions and problems can move between alternative and available garbage cans. If a solution should happen to couple with a choice in the, "right context and at the right time, a decision can be made" (Heitsh et al. p 2). The mish-mosh of the "garbage" and the garbage cans available for, "problems, solutions, and participants, and the participants' resources" to be tossed into and during what time, all represents what Cohen et al. believed to be the expected randomness that occurs in agenda setting, formulations and decision that making that comprises policymaking (Cohen et al. p 2). The factors that surround the policymaking process are never constant. For example, such factors as the time that policies are being implemented, who the participants are at any given time, the available options or tools, what solutions will attach to what problem and vice versa are random, or even happening at the same time. One of the more interesting aspects to take away from this model is that this framework is unlike any other model that chooses to focus on, "comprehensive, rational decision making. People do not set out to solve problems here. More often, solutions search for problems"(Kingdon p86).
The strengths of the garbage can model is that it is a highly "dynamic model, where, "not only the participants interact with each other, but also the remaining components of the decision process (problems, choices, solutions) can become active, attract each other, and move away, each component looks for matching other components"( Heitsch p3). In short, there are opportunities at every juncture for solutions to find problems.
Though this theoretical framework seems to cover every possible, random outcome, the fact that there is an absence of any ration context in which the garbage can process occurs, is political analyst Christine Mussel sees a shortcoming. Mussel questions the processes that Cohen et al. believes to take place either in a, "totally irrational, or in a limited rational, or in a certain rational way according to the Garbage Can Model" ( Mussel p 62). Mussel for example interprets the reading of the term of rationality by the Garbage Can researchers as not existing, stating that, "to emphasize variations in actors' intentions, suggests that Cohen et al. concluded that it is pointless to seek rationality in the actions of participants during the decision process" (Musselin p 62). Musselin believes that Cohen et al. over look and even "deny any kind of rational behavior from the beginning. So even if there is some, there is no chance to discover it." Whether this has any merit on the outcome of the garbage can process is up for interpretation. Musselin seems to think that this oversight of rational behavior could actual create a huge flaw in the whole process.
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