By Mike Beale

Last summer I had the occasion to immerse myself in the world of public policy as seen through an academic lens. I had agreed to participate as a panelist at an academic conference, and review three textbooks from my practitioner’s perspective. I must admit, I didn’t fully appreciate at the time that reviewing three textbooks meant reading three textbooks[1]

So I got to learn a bit about how political scientists think and write about public policy. There was a language barrier – I discovered my 36-year career working on policy in the federal government was not a great help in understanding academic textbooks! But once some basic vocabulary had been acquired, it became a rewarding journey.

Of course, I didn’t agree with everything I read. A pretty basic starting point is what is meant by public policy. The generally accepted definition appears to be “whatever government chooses to do or not to do.” To me, as a former practitioner, this confuses decisions with policy: governments make decisions all the time, but it is only when they are guided by a framework that one can say a policy exists.

Does Canada have a climate change policy? I would say yes; decisions are made within the context of the Paris Agreement, the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, etc. Does Canada have an energy policy? I would say no. Does it matter? Well, it depends on whether you think government decisions on energy should be made on a case-by-case basis or should reflect a preexisting and hopefully coherent framework.

That said, I do like the implication from the academic definition that non-decisions sometimes matter as much as decisions – certainly the history of environmental policy is littered with government non-decisions.

Otherwise, there was a lot in the literature that resonated positively with this practitioner. I liked the notion of “bounded rationality” – policymakers making decisions based on cognitive and organizational shortcuts – as a more realistic alternative to the ideal of “comprehensive rationality.”

I learned about “policy monopolies,” or “the ability of certain groups to maintain a dominant image of the policy problem” – the dominant place of carbon pricing in Canada’s policy debate on climate change comes to mind. For some reason, the notion of “solutions chasing problems” also brought carbon pricing to mind. And the description of the policy process as the “continuing collective management of the problematic” seems generally apt, though perhaps a bit generous when it comes to climate change (is the problem actually being managed, and is the management continuous?).

So in sum, I learned to appreciate the contributions of political science to policy thinking.  Not a bad way to spend a summer.

[1] Cairney, Understanding Public Policy, Macmillan; Colebatch and Hoppe (eds.), Handbook on Policy, Process and Governing, Edward Elgar; Weible and Sabatier (eds.), Theories of the Policy Process, Westview Press.