Thursday, May 7, 2009


It is indeed paradoxical to attempt an analysis of the relevance of Public Policy education today, which by its very definition is an analysis of the processes involved in the formulation of Public Policy. However, there are reasons which make it significantly meaningful for me to undertake such an intellectual exercise. The paradoxical nature of this attempt, notwithstanding, the real appeal of this discipline (Public Policy) lies in the much needed promise to social science theorizing of various disciplines that it is indeed possible to apply the vast reservoirs of reasoned and rationalized analytical knowledge to the interest needs of the society towards effective governance.

However , for such an attempt to be successful and to accommodate the various social science disciplines into one practical science of decision making in the public domain, there needs to be an overriding emphasis of the discipline that justifies the interdisciplinary amalgamation of often methodologically conflicting disciplines. This overriding emphasis presents itself in the form of a problem oriented approach, which by virtue of its existence in the public policy domain automatically necessitates and justifies the synthesis of ideas and techniques borrowed from the divergent and often compartmentalized social science disciplines making public policy essentially a multidisciplinary action oriented science.

However, to conclude on the very nature of Public as an integrated specialized and multidisciplinary knowledge structure of social sciences it is essential to investigate the possible influences and factors that led to the acknowledgement of the need to integrate various social science disciplines in a historical context. It is natural to conclude, given the novelty of the attempt of public policy to integrate the knowledge of various disciplines towards an interdisciplinary science that an acknowledgment of such a need has no historical precedence. However such an assertion is as far away from the truth as possible. History is testimony to instances where the need for using the knowledge bank of social sciences have been felt and acknowledged with an undying conviction. However the real novelty of public policy as an academic discipline that hit the academic institutions during the 1970s lies not in the singular recognition of the role of social sciences in solving public problems which has a huge history of past occurrences but the very fact that the treatment of policy sciences as a contextual multi-method and problem oriented science in the hands of the public commitment makers was indeed a very revolutionary attempt at dealing and influencing private, social and public reality.

The following extract shall exemplify the aforementioned paragraph “The policy scientist perceives himself as an integrator of knowledge and action and hence as a specialist in eliciting and giving effect to all the rationality of which individuals and groups are capable at any given time. He is a mediator between those who specialize in specific areas of knowledge and those who make the commitments in public and private life…Both the intellectual community and the community at large is beginning to acknowledge the indispensable place of the integrator, mediator and go between….

(Lasswell, 1970a: 13-14)

Furthermore to appreciate the bridge between approaches aimed at exploring social reality and of using such knowledge in the form of a prescriptive knowledge structure careful attention must be drawn towards locating the emergence of policy sciences in an institutional setting on the historical timeline of evolving disciplines in social sciences. The earliest conception of policy sciences as a as a proposed discipline transports the mind to the Post Second World War US around 1950s when Harold Lasswell was beginning to make an impact with his proposed discipline of public policy as a manifestation of his vision of a multidisciplinary enterprise capable of guiding the political decision process of the Post Second World War industrial societies. In this context, therefore it is imperative to conceptualize the impulses of time, place and history in his comprehension of a need for policy sciences. The historical rationale with regards to time and place would suggest that the imagery of ill effects of governance directly observable after the Second World War was the most important stimuli for his grand theorizing.

A definite precursor to emergence of Policy sciences is quantitative methods of operations research which as a management science was evolving when industrial engineers shifted their focus of attention from individual work operations to the overall operations of the firm. The basic conception of Operation Research was stimulated in the critical environment that prevailed after the Second World War wherein groups of operation researchers were sponsored by the government in core sectors like iron and steel, road and rail transport textiles, agriculture etc. The extension of the operation science methodology to social and governance issues implies the ground for the integration of different academic schools of thought in the social sciences to further the cause of problem solving in different government initiatives, actions and inactions.

Additionally with regards to pre-existing economic determinism rooted in classical free market emphasis, the situation after the Second World War presented a new paradigm of public policy. This alternative approach was centred on the works and contribution of John Maynard Keynes wherein he unravelled the underlying causes of the Great Depression of 1940s. Thus the contribution of Keynes opened up a new can of worms with regards to pre-existing conventional thinking in economics of laissez faire and it is difficult to disregard the impact which Keynesian paradigm of Macro economics had on the argument towards the need for Public Policy.

Keynes essentially stated how free markets devoid of Government intervention would have a constant tendency to find an inefficient & unemployment equilibrium, contrary to what the classicists would claim or believe. This meant that the Governments did have an extremely crucial role to play in deciding and influencing fiscal allocation and that the market could not be given a free hand to reach unemployment equilibrium.

Now, then the manipulation of the allocative processes towards allocative efficiency would require rigorous empirical skills and also the conclusion of full employment shall essentially be a normative decision. Therefore a definite correlation can be drawn with regards to Keynesian prescription of government intervention in the free market mechanism through fiscal management and the rationale for the growth of Public Policy.

However even though the emergence of policy sciences was largely a product of the ground level socio-economic factors of the Great Depression and the corresponding Second World War, at the level of conception, a policy orientation was evident much before Lasswell and Y Dror, in the very beginning of American social science. The concerns which informs the policy science writings of Lasswell finds its roots in the drive towards educational and sociological training for legislators furthered by Lester Ward with a view towards embedding rational decision making into the very culture of political institutions of American society.

According to Brooks “The vision of a new politics share a conviction that the institutionalization of scientific analysis into the policy making process is a necessary condition for the attainment of democratic government in modern society.” Lasswell essentially acknowledges the role of American Pragmatism wherein he seconds the belief that his conception of policy sciences is nothing but a contemporary adaptation of American pragmatic thought furthered by John Dewey. In this context therefore special emphasis was given to the integration of scientific method and creative intelligence towards more reasoned and relevant public policy.

Questioning the Validity of the Novel Initiative of Harold Lasswell

The contribution of Lasswell can thus be regarded as the first systematic effort towards a new field of enquiry aimed at the needs of decision making in public sphere. The validity or the real need for this is that which shall be explored further and like the very nature of social reality, is an extremely complicated ideal with an unlimited range of overlapping variables. In this context it is essential to focus our attention towards the self proclaimed ambitions of Harold Lasswell with regards to the policy sciences framework.

If at all anything was lacking in the vision of Harold Lasswell with regards to the conception of Policy Sciences, it was modesty of goal setting. The emphasis of this multidisciplinary knowledge structure of Harold Lasswell known as Policy sciences, was thus on assimilating the intelligence needs of policy practitioners and analysts to act as a mediator between academics, government decision makers and the citizenry by providing objective solutions which shall be easily discernible to eliminate the scope for uninformed political debate in areas where the objective knowledge of policy sciences is more authentic However the characteristic goal setting to prescribe the very nature of Public Policy was not limited to an interdisciplinary and objective study of social reality but towards a mega policy for the analysis of the political policy process. It essentially accommodates and is rooted in the notion of theoretical complexity of analysis and evaluation.

However, the inherent contradiction to the basic theoretical and methodological premise is presented when it also intends to be normative by allowing a specific scope to value judgments in the selection of the most suitable policy deal with a concerned social problem. The argument put forward by Lasswell with regards to adoption and prescription of normative and prescriptive methods for policy formulation and analysis was the fact that he visualized the nature of policy science as a desperate measure to maintain the interests of democratic polity and of perpetuating its interests for promoting the cause of human dignity in theory and practice. He therefore assumed that public policy should be set and constrained by the need in facilitating the development and evolution of democratic government in a corporate liberal society.

At the intentional and theoretical level even if Public Policy as a discipline came up in recognition of the need to construct a science of public decision making to further the cause of democracy, at a practical level it is highly debatable if it has been successful in being able to do so. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest in line with the evolutionary trajectory of policy sciences post 1960 down to the present day, the evolution of policy sciences has happened more on technocratic lines then on the lines of democratic polity. This is a huge deviation from what policy sciences essentially set out to be.

With one foot already on possible cynicism with regards to the theoretical propriety of policy sciences we cannot help but unravel the multitude of other theoretical contradictions in the policy making project. If empiricism is considered as the tricks of the trade for policy analysis, then how are we to conceptualise that armed with all the empiricism the analyst is supposed to take a normative stance. If the facts of a social problem do speak for themselves in case of an empirical approach then this essentially implies that those problems will by themselves be capable of suggesting objective solutions. The reasoning would automatically imply that there needs no real normative assessment. This therefore can be extended to the conclusion that consistent with the positive and empirical assessment of reality a normative stance rooted in values of utilitarianism is either falsified or a methodologically impossible thing to achieve. The only ground for such a claim to exist (mutual existence of empirical and normative assessment) can be found if the accommodation of empirical analysis and normative methods can be qualified at the level of action but never at the level of theory. The theoretical contradiction therefore is apparent in its very structure. In this context, however, it is essentially important to resist the temptation of suggesting empirical evaluation under quasi-experimental conditions.

The inherent contradiction of the prescription of Lasswell does not end at the acknowledgement of the conflict between the adoptions of empirical methods with the hope of a normative analysis of empirical deductions. It goes much beyond into the prescription of an action oriented science of policy making or in other words public decision making. It has already been stated how the grand theorising ideal of policy sciences finds no justification in its evolution but in the context it is interesting to explore the reasons which contribute to such a happening. It is a matter of fact that social sciences occur in strict contexts of time space and history, essentially implying a micro-level occurrence. In this logical framework the very expectation of a grand theory to explain such behaviour is logically inconsistent with the occurrence of reality. Therefore it would not be an exaggeration to conclude that such grand theorising would be incapable of explaining a micro level occurrence and formulate policies for its mediation or management. Unlike the empirical discipline of modern economics where Micro models can be aggregated to conceptualise a bigger macro phenomenon, the context of a social problem at the micro level cannot use aggregation beyond the boundaries of its context.

Let us now focus our attention to the most important hurdle towards the clarity of conceptualisation of Public Policy as an academic discipline. The most important argument produced by Harold Lasswell in his 1970 work prescribing his visions of a policy scientist as an integrator of knowledge of multiple disciplines presents within itself the most important contradiction. The argument essentially is that public policy as an academic discipline has a need to emerge because of an indispensable requirement of specialisation in the art of policy making, formulation, analysis and evaluation as an action centred science since the pre existing social science disciplines cannot or have not done justice to the requirements of public action.

Lasswell therefore, wanted to selectively borrow relevant knowledge from the pre-existing knowledge structure based on the normative assessment of the relevance of the different disciplines to the needs of the problem. However the real contradiction in such an initiative is that it is extremely problematic to normatively decide and reach a consensus on the relevance of a particular approach towards the mitigation of public problems.

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