I have taken a 12 week policy course to understand policy and the craft of policy making and analysis in a structured manner. A secondary purpose of this course was also to understand if I can really engage with theory as I engage with practice.
Engaging with practice or doing things on work along with relevant reading and research comes more naturally to me than first reading, understanding and then doing. I have been lucky at work with colleagues whose strengths lie with the later approach. Both methods have their own advantages and disadvantages. But one thing that I no more question is the relevance of theory to practice.
But what kind of theory is useful is something I always dwell upon. The process of engaging with theory is fascinating. Theories paint a neat and beautiful picture most of the times. They make you hopeful and optimistic about solving a problem. And the process of theorization most of the times assume many things and concentrate on few parameters or factors that affect the problem and try solving the problem with these factors in mind alone.
One of the books that lays down beautifully the approach to policy analysis is Eugene Bardach ‘s A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving.
It helps understand how to look at a problem and solve it methodically step by step. But every step I read, in my mind I have examples of following some of the steps ( myself or someone else) and failing at achieving expected outcomes. And in real world most of these structured approaches do not guarantee achievement of aspired outcome. And my questions in most classes are the sort that do not get answered satisfactorily. This leads to a conclusion that, in spite of all these beautiful methods, every situation is unique and every outcome of a situation is as uncertain and unpredictable when prepared for or unprepared for. Especially in the policy making/ analyis exercise. This is more so in the Indian context.
But to my relief reading the papers from 1959 and 1979 respectively ; The Science of “muddling through” and Still muddling, Not yet done ; by Charles E Lindblom seem to answer my angst. Lindblom’s incremental approach to theorizing policy and decision making more real.
The concept mostly used in policy analysis is a Rational- Comprehensive approach, What Bardach suggests can be comfortably placed under this approach.
Characteristics of Rational- Comprehensive approach are :
- Clarification of values or objectives distinct from and usually prerequisite to empirical analysis of alternative policies.
- Policy-formulation is therefore approached through means-end analysis: First the ends are isolated, then the means to achieve them are sought.
- The test of a “good” policy is that it can be shown to be the most appropriate means to desired ends.
- Analysis is comprehensive; every important relevant factor is taken into account.
- Theory is often heavily relied upon.
Whereas what actually happens is intertwined evaluation and analysis. This can be better understood using the Successive Limited Comparisons approach as suggested in Lindblom’s paper.
Characteristics of Successive Limited Comparisons approach are :
- Selection of value goals and empirical analysis of the needed action are not distinct from one an- other but are closely intertwined.
- Since means and ends are not distinct, means-end analysis is often inappropriate or limited.
- The test of a “good” policy is typically that vari- ous analysts find themselves directly agreeing on a policy (without their agreeing that it is the most appropriate means to an agreed objective).
- A succession of comparisons greatly reduces or eliminates reliance on theory.
- Analysis is drastically limited:
- Important possible outcomes are neglected.
- Important alternative potential policies are neglected.
- Important affected values are neglected
If theorization draws from reality like what Lindblom does it looks like my cup of tea, atleast for now! If not I will stick to doing rather than theorizing.
Signing off, as I muddle through my dilemma of “to theorize or not to”… 🙂
1. The Science of “Muddling Through” , Charles E. Lindblom, Public Administration Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring, 1959), pp. 79-88,Published by: Wiley