The architecture of public policy design and its dynamics, both in terms of enquiry and craft, lends itself to multiple meanings about the drift or minimal stasis the government seeks. An attempt is made in the study of public policy to rigorously apply science(s) to the issues embedded in governance and government. Harold D Laswell (1951), writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, articulated the policy sciences orientation to establish an applied social sciences to become instrumental in cohering academics, government decision-agencies and citizens for the purpose of improving the practice of democratic ethos and human dignity and also the realization of human capabilities. So, from where do policies come from, i.e., the ontology of it? And, how do we make sense of the diverse policy literature? There is no simple answer to the question where policies come from, and the contours of the subject are almost terra incognita, particularly in the Indian study of public policy. In the dialectic opposition between knowledge and politics, methodological orientation and contextual precepts, and the public and the private, lies the development of policy literature undergirded by positivism, to its critiques and presents post-positivist efforts.
The academic discipline of public policy, though its origin resonates much in American policy movements, is an umbrella discipline about government actions to address socio-economic problems. It is quintessentially multidisciplinary and rests on the premise that the causal model sustaining a policy and an epistemology to discern policy must largely correspond. However, to grasp the essence of the logic of policy, not only public policy ‘in’ and ‘of’ itself is important but also is the ‘politics of policy’. The three disciplines, among others, of political science, economics and sociology seem to be the core of epistemic knowledge offering three different analytic vantage points for policy studies. These disciplines lay down the framework of the field of public policy, explain the broad questions it grapples with and through comparison focus on the generality and specifics of its appropriateness and applicability.
Vishal Narain in his book, Public Policy: A View from the South argues that with the available literature on public policy, though primarily from the global north, it is not difficult to understand the policy processes in India, provided that policy researchers are well versed in the dominant narratives and paradigms shaping the subject. However, public policy in India suffers from two intractable gaps–- the paucity of literature available on India when compared with the western repertoire of concepts and theoretical frameworks and between the ‘policy outputs’ and ‘policy outcomes’, simply put as the ‘implementation gap’.
Narain’s effort is to structure the book, following the logic of ‘policy cycle’ (formulation, implementation and analysis), into five broad themes: basic concepts in the analysis of public policy and institutions, theories and models of policy choice and change, the drivers of policy change, processes of policy implementation and policy monitoring and evaluation. He cites Indian case studies in his broad themes to explain the challenges and constraints in the applicability of ‘one size fits all’ model to the Indian context. This raises the possibility of an alternative policy architecture, perhaps counter-distinct to western paradigms, and consequently policy shifts in India. For a multidisciplinary subject like public policy, one may be cautious with the caveat that any choice of boundary would be necessarily arbitrary and may preclude the all-encompassing survey of the policy landscape.
The Indian state is unevenly undergoing a complex shift from government to governance and to public service delivery systems. Recent mainstream policy literature, both in India and abroad, has drawn upon cost-benefit evaluation studies, neo-institutionalism, neo-Marxist analysis and a mix of pluralist approaches. Policy research in India, while initially, was government sponsored with a narrow economic orientation, the successive waves of research centres helped move towards a more interdisciplinary enquiry. Also, various NGO-type policy research institutions set an alternative development debate by focusing not much on interdisciplinarity but on the very reconceptualization of democracy discourse.
Vishal Narain, in the opening chapter, maps the conceptual tools of public policy and unpacks its language along with its associated institutions, provides a review of the terms and concepts, and reverts to some basic questions: Is public policy based on policy research? Does research in public policy play a role in shaping public policy? In the Indian context, he laments, that analysis ‘for’ policy rather than ‘of’ policy makes for a weak policy research. There is too much emphasis on policy outlays and outputs than outcomes, and hence limited impact of public policy is felt. India moves from one crisis to another, shifts paradigm for appropriate forms of governance and diverges emphasis from state to markets, local institutions and partnerships. This, in fact, provides the fundamental fodder for the analysis of public policy processes, for the need for a greater interface between researchers and policy-makers (both at the individual and institutional level), and for the institutionalization of the relationship between studies of public policy and policy-making.
Is there ‘one size fits all’ model of public policy-making and implementation in the Indian context? Can policy processes be explained better by different models, say linear or participatory, when countries move through different stages of development? To answer these questions, Narain explains that policies in sectors where the stakes are high and huge numbers of people are affected and where there is room to manoeuvre the course of policy such as water, irrigation, power and infrastructure, interactive-participatory model of the policy process may be applied. And, where the nature of the sector is specialized, stakes are relatively not very high, and the scope to influence policy is restricted, appropriate policy-making inescapably ought to be linear. However, sorting and sifting of policy choices need a deeper understanding and a robust research system of the processes and politics behind.
Narain, in chapter three, raises the fundamental question of policy studies: Where does policy change come from? Is it the context, ideas and people? In order to have sound rational policy choices, the author argues that even though global context influences policy goals, it is the change agents, policy networks and epistemic communities working in the backdrop of good-governance agenda and globalization of governance that bring the difference. For instance, in water privatization policy pushed by neo-classical economists emphasizing the need to price water correctly so as to reflect its scarcity value, a fundamental question pops up, ‘can the universal need for water to live and some people’s desire to profit from its sale be reconciled?’ (Urs and Whitell 2009) On the experience of water privatization in Bengaluru, Banerjee-Guha (2009) and Baviskar (2002) argue that the neo-liberal agenda and globalization’s impact on the urbanization process at city level have led to the displacement and the marginalization of the poor, and further marginalization of women. In such a situation, the state must avoid issuing licenses for the sale of water and industrial use, especially in areas having fertile agricultural lands and where groundwater is the only source available to the local population. The author remarkably locates the policy change, in the case of water privatization in Bengaluru, in the interactional process of context, ideas and people on the ground level.
Policy implementation outputs are policy at its most operational level. Policy designs and the implementation processes are considered as important causes of policy-outputs, as outcomes are the consequences. Implementation is analysed from multiple perspectives representing different research strategies, evaluation standards, concepts, focal subject areas and methodologies. It gets further improved by involving theoretical diversity and partial theories and hypotheses, and by applying more comparative and statistical research designs. Narain, in the fourth chapter, grapples with the issue of ‘implementation snag’ that gets embodied in the social and political processes influencing the course of administrative action. For him, the management of change requires much attention, especially mobilization of necessary resources—financial, technical and managerial. The success of policies and the understanding of the effectiveness of implementation make periodic monitoring and evaluation of policies crucial. Narain gives much required attention to the approach of practical deliberation that transcends the ‘technical-analytic’ policy discourse and facilitates policy evaluation within its wider social and political context. Evaluation is data gathering and data-analysis and essentially application of value criteria to the data gathered and data analysed.
Public policy is an emerging discipline. Both, its academic study and real world are ‘sizeable, complex and differentiated’ bodies of practice and of knowledge. In India, and mostly in less developed nations, there seems to be an absence of robust institutional mechanisms to address policy problems. The book attempts to bridge the gap between growing research and literature in public policy and the practice of it, particularly in India.
Laswell, H.D. 1951. The Policy Orientation. Ch. 1 in The Policy Sciences, ed. D. Lerner and H.D. Laswell. Plato Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press
Urs, K and Whitell. R. 2009. Resisting Reform? Water Profits and Democracy. New Delhi: SAGE Publications.
Banerjee-Guha, S. 2009. ‘Shifting Cities: Urban Restructuring in Mumbai.’ Economic and Political Weekly 31 (2): 121-122
Baviskar, A. 2002. ‘The Politics of City.’ Seminar (New Delhi) August 2002.
Tanvir Aeijaz is Associate Professor of Public Policy in the Department Political Science at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.