MPSA Blog: Top 10 Posts from 2016

MPSA Blog: Top 10 Posts from 2016

Regardless of your research interests, your academic (or Alt-Ac) role, or your aspirations for the new year, there is something on this list of MPSA’s most popular blog posts from 2016 that is sure to pique your interest:

MPSA would especially like to thank regular contributors Newly Paul, Adnan Rasool, Michael A. Smith, and Harry Young for sharing their research, political perspectives, and pedagogical insights with us this calendar year. We look forward to highlighting even more NSF-Funded research, conference presentations, and MPSA member interviews in the coming months. If you’re interested in sharing your work with MPSA’s members and the discipline, we’d love to hear from you.

Best wishes for a safe and productive 2017!

Policy Implementation, Representation, and Democratic Governance

MPSA Blog - Policy Implementation, Representation, and Democratic Governance

At last year’s MPSA conference, Pamela McCann of USC Sol Price School of Public Policy was kind enough to ask me to participate in a roundtable discussion with other prominent scholars. The focus of the panel was “Why Do We Have No Theory of Policy Implementation?”. I agreed to participate and upon informing my friends in public administration and public management, many smiled quaintly and pondered whether we needed such a theory. Realizing I was serious, they wished me Godspeed as I was apparently about to descend from my own perch in regulatory policy and bureaucratic politics into the abyss.

Nevertheless, we do need a theory of policy implementation. For reasons I will note below, policy implementation is key to understanding policy change and outcomes broadly, and not just in the crevices left by public administration or public management. Policy implementation is fundamental to understanding enduring issues in American politics, such as representation, party governance, and democratic governance.

Let’s get to that question of importance first. Of the many things that scholars of political behavior have suggested drive voting behavior, one of these is the policies of the party in power—especially the party of the president. The assumption, sometimes heroic, is that voters sense when the party in power has moved too far left or right for their tastes, and in response, turn out the party in power. How do we understand this linkage in the context of administrative incompetence, or even more importantly, opposition party obstruction? If opposition parties are able to impede, or outright degrade, the quality of policy implementation, then citizens no longer judge policies, but their implementation. This leads to a quite different interpretation of representation and mass movements in party support.

In the United States, it is apparent that opposition parties are able to manufacture this dynamic. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, has suffered from day one due to decisions about implementation forced on the administration by the opposition. Similarly, as late as fall 2015, 20% of the regulations implementing the Dodd-Frank regulatory reforms of the financial sector were still unimplemented, confronting stiff opposition from the House Banking and Finance Committee. This phenomena works both ways. At the present, Democrats are holding out obstruction as one possible response to the recent election of Donald Trump.

For political scientists, this also opens up an avenue for studying party governance in a new way. Opposition influence does not end with the bargain struck in the legislative branch. Our recent past has shown, if nothing else, that debilitating the governing party’s attempts at implementation is a viable strategy for influence, and governing from the back. As for democratic governance, it emerges as a viable strategy for representation, even when out of power. In other words, credit-claiming and position-taking has both an affirmative, and preventative dimension relating to government action.

If I have convinced you that policy implementation might be important, why do we need a theory of policy implementation? After all, we have the prosperous fields of administration and management that bear heavily on many of the things bureaucracies do. It is difficult for research traditions built around the inner-workings of bureaucracies and administrative units to deal effectively with a problem that is inherently inter-institutional. The same could be said of bureaucratic politics with its focus on influence, the accumulation of power through reputation, and how bureaucracies navigate their political environment. Are these things important for understanding policy implementation? Of course they are, but they will never be theories of policy implementation.

Three characteristics of governance in American politics severely limit that ability of current research to speak to policy implementation. The first of these is the nature of the issues faced by government in the modern era. Issues like climate change, terrorism, and global economic interdependence are boundary-spanning (May & Jochim 2013) in nature—they cross many traditional substantive issues. As such, diverse interests and bureaucracies work within the same substantive area.

The second is bureaucratic competition in regulatory and implementation politics. My own work demonstrates that it is rare for one, and only one, bureaucracy to work within an issue area (Workman 2015). Bureaucracies compete to define policy problems, provide information, and steer the resulting policy debate with tremendous implications for policy implementation.

Third, federalism overlays the nature of these problems and the bureaucracies competing within them, adding an extra layer of consequences for policy implementation (McCann 2016). In many ways, the federalism components of the ACA’s implementation shaped resultant policy outcomes in the program for better and worse. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that legislators and parties were thinking about policy implementation when considering these choices.

If we understand policy implementation as important, and accept that a theory of policy implementation must move beyond our current approaches in management or bureaucratic politics, why now? The straightforward answer is that the problems and political dynamics we now face demand it if we are to understand policy change, outcomes, and how citizens intersect with governing structures. Beyond that, it is worth considering the history of policy implementation.

Policy implementation was born, grew, and expired long before the necessary conceptual and theoretical components necessary for understanding it where intellectually ripe. In other words, it was an important problem before its time. As Soren Winter, Christopher Barry and George Krause pointed out on the roundtable (Soundcloud audio above), many of our theories of politics today bear directly on policy implementation, including theories of delegation, the ecology of games, how governing systems process information, and how they accumulate expertise. None of this intellectual infrastructure existed when the concern for policy implementation burst onto the scene.

If not now, when? If not us, who? I hope that by connecting the study of policy implementation to larger concerns of democratic governance and representation, those in American politics, especially those studying legislators, parties, bureaucracies, and U.S. federalism, might forge a new line of research in policy implementation. The characteristics of modern governing structures, matched to modern policy problems demands it.

About the Author: Samuel Workman is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma, and author of The Dynamics of Bureaucracy in the U.S. Government. Workman served on the “Why Do We Have No Theory of Policy Implementation?” roundtable at the 2016 MPSA annual conference with Pamela Clouser McCann, University of Southern California, Chair; George A. Krause, University of Pittsburgh; Soeren C. Winter, The Danish National Centre for Social Research; and Christopher Robert Berry, University of Chicago.

How Do Experiences with Government Programs Shape Political and Civic Engagement? Looking Beyond the American Case

A key insight of policy feedback theories is that government offices are sites of adult political learning. As Joe Soss explains:  “…public bureaucracies provide relatively immediate experiences with government. Legislatures may host more dramatic political activities, but the police station, the motor vehicles office, and the Internal Revenue Service are more likely to supply citizens with lessons about government that ring with the truth of first-hand experience.” The key point is that people are apt to generalize their personal experiences with government bureaucracies to government and politics at large. These experiences and the lesson about government that they impart can influence people’s sense of political agency, their perceptions of government responsiveness and their propensity to participate in political and civic life. People’s experiences with government bureaucracies will, of course, differ and the policy feedback effects can be expected to vary accordingly.

A key finding to emerge from studies of the impact of program experiences on political and civic activity in the United States is that programs that are structured along paternalistic lines typically have negative feedback effects. Clients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are particularly likely to have experiences that are disempowering and politically demobilizing. Their lives and personal circumstances are subject to a good deal of scrutiny and control and they are apt to be stigmatized and treated as deserving, at best, of pity.

The Impact of Program Participation on Participation in Politics and Civic Life – Presented by Elisabeth Lesley Gidengil at the annual MPSA conference in Chicago, April 8, 2016.

The question is whether these findings generalize to other welfare states. The United States is hardly a typical case. It is usually viewed as the archetype of the liberal welfare state where the neoliberal restructuring of welfare programs has been the most thoroughgoing. The result has been a very paternalistic welfare system that makes the receipt of benefits conditional on fulfilling a variety of obligations and gives case workers a good deal of discretion in administering benefits. This restructuring is reflected in popular discourse where welfare recipients are caricatured as “moochers” and “welfare queens”.

North of the border, Canada is also usually classified as a liberal welfare regime. However, Canada’s regime is less robustly liberal than the United States. Canada’s national social insurance programs, for example, include paid maternity (15 weeks) and parental (35 weeks) leave and unemployment benefits are available for up to 36 weeks or more. Welfare reform has been less far-reaching than in the United States. For example, while receipt of welfare benefits can be tied to workfare requirements, there is no time limit on eligibility for welfare benefits. Canada thus makes an interesting case for comparison.

The data come from a two-wave online survey of 1,692 residents of Ontario, Canada’s most populous and socially diverse province. The survey includes a large over-sample (941) of respondents who have used needs-based social programs. Respondents were asked about 11 different social programs that differ widely in terms of their design and authority structures. Respondents who had used a given program were asked whether they had ever contacted a government office about the program. Those who had were asked to rate the treatment they received in terms of helpfulness, whether it was fast or slow, whether they were treated with respect and how the treatment made them feel about themselves.

First, we can look at the relationship between participation in each program and various forms of political and civic activity. The test is a tough one because multiple programs are analyzed simultaneously. The findings turn out to be strikingly different from those reported in studies of program use in the United States. There is no evidence that welfare recipients are less likely than other respondents to take part in political and civic activities. This is the case whether we look at party membership, contacting elected officials, signing petitions, taking part in a product boycott or a demonstration, working with others in the community to solve a problem or complaining to local authorities about a problem in the neighborhood. The only exceptions relate to volunteering and, not surprisingly, making a donation to charity

At the same time, there is little evidence that contributory insurance programs have positive effects on political and civic engagement. Like Social Security, these programs are characterized by depersonalized financial relationships with government and they are very visible to recipients. The U.S. literature would tell us that these are the sorts of programs that are most likely to be associated with greater involvement in political and civic activities. However, in Canada, the effects are either very small or non-significant.

Why are the findings for the means-tested programs that involve the most intrusion into and control over recipients’ lives so at odds with some of the negative policy feedback effects reported in the United States? One possibility is that Canadian recipients are less likely to have negative experiences with their case managers or with the agencies responsible for administering these programs. Predictably, though, welfare recipients were the most likely to have reported negative experiences when contacting a government office about the program and recipients of other means-tested benefits were also less likely to have had positive experiences than people receiving tax-related benefits and social insurance benefits. But far from dampening political and civic engagement, negative experiences either have no effect or are associated with an increased propensity to participate.

So why don’t negative program experiences have demobilizing effects on recipients of means-tested benefits in Canada? On the one hand, Canada’s social programs are more generous and the new paternalism has not shaped the design of social programs to the same degree as in the United States.  On the other hand, we need to look beyond the nature of the welfare regime to consider institutional differences and especially the presence of a viable social democratic party.

About the Author: Elisabeth Gidengil is the Hiram Mills Professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill University in Montreal and is the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship. She specializes in elections, public opinion and voting behavior, political communication, and women and politics research.