We frequently employ analogies such as a leaking roof or finishing last in a ranking to illustrate that there is a serious problem requiring attention. Unfortunately, policy realities are far more complex and less obvious since policymakers do not benefit from objective measures or clear signals akin to having water dripping over their head to indicate the presence of a problem. In fact, they face a plethora of policy actors constantly engaged in defining policy problems for them based on competing frames of references.
The term “policy problems” evokes questions of what makes a social issue a policy problem, but it also raises questions regarding whether problems can actually be solved via a public response and how. Policy problems occupy a crucial role in policy studies, if not for the simple reason that political authorities are unlikely to alter or create policies without the presence of problems. As such, policy problems occupy an important place in popular theoretical frameworks frequently employed in the field of public policy. The formulation of policy problems is at the heart of the punctuated-equilibrium theory since these can result in the creation of new political coalitions seeking transformative policy change. In the social construction of target populations approach, the ways in which the public perceives particular subgroups or subpopulations dictate our understanding of policy problems and the types of instruments to deploy. Frameworks for policy feedback assume that current policies structure the formulation of policy problems along the lines of altering existing policies. In the multiple-streams theoretical framework, policy problems are part of a toolkit used to validate the use of already made solutions by policy entrepreneurs seeking the right opportunity for implementation.
A thorough treatment and analysis of policy problems exist within the policy design literature. Scholars operating within this tradition have emphasized the individual characteristics of policy problems and, as importantly, how these matter when it is time to enact solutions. Characteristics of problems, such as causality and severity, are key elements in the identification and formulation of policy problems and their likelihood to feature prominently in the policy agenda of governmental actors. Additional elements, such as the divisibility of policy problems and the extent to which these problems can be monetarized, matter in assessing the possibility of enacting solutions.
This raises the fundamental question of whether policy problems can actually be resolved. Mature policies are the norm in industrialized countries, and these are increasingly subject to international agreements. Consequently, there are, for example, many more interdependencies, which have led to the reemergence of wicked-problems analyses. However, a substantial number of contributions have associated complexity with wicked problems, raising questions surrounding their intrinsic qualities and the danger of conceptual stretching.
How can we know if policies succeed or fail, and what are the causes of such outcomes? Understanding the nature of these phenomena is riddled with complex methodological challenges, including differing political perspectives, persistent mixed results, ambiguous outcomes, and the issue of success/failure “for whom”? Ironically, the key to understanding policy success and failure lies not in downplaying or ignoring such challenges, but in accepting politicization and complexity as reflective of the messy world of public policy. Gaining insight from such messiness allows a better understanding of phenomena like “good politics but bad policy,” the persistence of some failures over time, and widely differing perspectives on who or what should claim credit for policy success and who or what should be blamed for policy failure.
“Evidence-based policy making” (EBPM) has become a popular term to describe the need for more scientific and less ideological policy making. Some compare it to “evidence-based medicine,” which describes moves to produce evidence, using commonly-held scientific principles regarding a hierarchy of evidence, which can directly inform practice. Policy making is different: there is less agreement on what counts as good evidence, and more things to consider when responding to evidence.
Our awareness of these differences between science and policy are not new. Current debates resemble a postwar policy science agenda, to produce more scientific and “rational” policy analysis, which faced major empirical and normative obstacles: the world is not that simple, and an overly technocratic approach to policy undermines much-needed political debate. To understand modern discussions of EBPM, key insights from previous discussions must be considered: policy making is both “rational” and “irrational”; it takes place in complex policy environments or systems, whose properties should be understood in some depth; and it can and should not be driven by “the evidence” alone.
Transboundary haze pollution affects about half of the countries in Southeast Asia with varied intensities on an almost annual basis. Haze not only affects visibility, but also causes widespread health problems, transportation disruptions, and other socioeconomic issues. This haze, and the fires that cause it, has been a key topic for environmental politics research in the region since the late 1990s. This has largely been driven by one overarching objective: how to prevent haze from returning in the following years. However, conditions on the ground (mostly in Indonesia and in the larger Southeast Asian region) have been changing and evolving drastically. This has resulted in a very dynamic research agenda that has to keep up with these changes.
Within the context of environmental politics, fires and haze can be viewed through the broad lens of national interest. There is a strong link between the severity of haze and the burgeoning agribusiness sector in the region: that of oil palm in particular. Oil palm is a very important crop in the region, with Indonesia and Malaysia making up almost 90% of total global palm oil output. Hence, national and business interest theories have often been used as a framework for research in this area, with commercial oil palm plantations often being the unit of analysis. This includes research by this author, using the patronage politics framework. However, this has been called to question lately as these plantations face increasing market pressure to act more sustainably. A new group of actors that have since been highlighted are smallholders, either independent or in contract with larger plantations. There is potentially much to be uncovered with regard to the relationships between smallholders and commercial plantations, and how this affects patterns of fire use and global sustainability issues.
Related to this is the ever-evolving collection of local, regional, and national policies (and related enforcement issues) over land and fire use in Indonesia. One key area of contention is the use of peatlands. Fires on peat produce the thick, sooty smoke that travels across national boundaries, and are notoriously hard to put out. Political research in this area is heavily framed by a tough debate between the scientific community and socioeconomic concerns. While peatlands play an important role in the global climate change balance, at the same time, these peat areas face immense pressure for development fueled by the scarcity of land.
The regional context has also been an important theme for haze research. Haze primarily affects the Southern Southeast Asian subregion. And the major players of the palm oil sector also come from this region. The Indonesian palm oil sector is a vibrant combination of Malaysian, Singaporean, and local companies. And ASEAN has been the hub of cooperation and mitigation activities over haze. Hence, many scholars have searched for answers at the regional level. However, new national developments like Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act suggest that countries may be losing confidence with regional efforts, which may be an indicator for future directions for solutions as well.
Brian W. Head
In the early 1970s, Rittel and Webber asserted that conventional approaches to scientific analysis and rational planning were inadequate for guiding practitioners and researchers who were tackling complex and contested social problems—which they termed “wicked” problems. The full implications of this challenging critique of rational policy planning were not elaborated at that time, but the underlying issues have attracted increasing attention and debate in later decades. Policy analysts, academic researchers, and planning practitioners have continued to grapple with the claim that conventional scientific-technical approaches might be insufficient and even misleading as a basis for understanding and responding to complex social issues. This is paradoxical in the modern era, which has been attracted to notions of evidence-based policymaking, policy evaluation, and performance-based public management.
Scholarly discussion has continued to evolve concerning methods for addressing highly contested arenas of policy and planning. One key proposition is that citizens and key stakeholders tend to have conflicting perceptions about the nature of particular social “problems” and will thus have different views about appropriate responses or “solutions.” A related proposition is that these disputes are anchored in differing values and perceptions, which are not able to be adjudicated and settled by empirical science, but require inclusive processes of argumentation and conflict resolution among stakeholders. Hence, several kinds of knowledge—lay and expert, civic and professional—need to be brought together in order to develop transdisciplinary “usable knowledge.”
As the research literature produces a richer array of comparative case analyses, it may become feasible to construct a more nuanced understanding of the conditions underlying various kinds of wicked problems in social policy and planning. In the meantime, generalized and indiscriminate use of the term wicked problems is not helpful for delineating the nature of the challenges faced and appropriate remedial actions.
In a multilevel governance system such as the European Union (EU) policy processes at one level may create challenges and dilemmas at lower levels. Multilevel governance involves a multiplicity of regulatory regimes and succeeding governance ambiguities for national actors. These regulatory challenges and ensuring governance dilemmas increasingly affect contemporary European public administration. These challenges and dilemmas are captured by the term turbulence. The inherent state prerogative to formulate and implement public policy is subject to an emergent and turbulent EU administration. Organized turbulence is captured by the supply of independent and integrated bureaucratic capacities at a “European level.”
Throughout history (1952 onwards) the EU system has faced shifting hostile and uncertain environments, and responded by erecting turbulent organizational solutions of various kinds. Studying turbulence opens an opportunity to rethink governance in turbulent administrative systems such as the public administration of the EU.
Richard C. Eichenberg
Scholars and governments are interested in four sets of questions concerning public opinion on foreign policy and national security policy. First, what do public opinion polls measure? How do citizens, who are generally uninformed about foreign policy and world affairs, form opinions on these matters? Second, how rational is public opinion? Is it stable or volatile? Are opinions coherent? Do opinions plausibly reflect the flow of world events? Third, what factors influence the formation of citizen opinions? Specifically, what is the impact of fundamental attitudes toward war and military force, partisanship, ideology, and gender? Finally, how universal are the determinants of citizen opinion, especially on crucial issues of war and peace? Are the findings in global comparisons the same as those in the American or European contexts?
Considerable scholarship has been devoted to these four questions. Scholars now characterize public opinion as rational, in the sense that it is fairly stable, coherent, and responsive to real world events. Attitudes toward war and military force are a major focus of the research literature because many specific policy attitudes flow from fundamental views of war. Gender has also become a major focus of research because many studies find that women are less supportive of the use of military force for most purposes. Finally, scholars are beginning to discover that some opinion patterns are universal across societies, while others are more affected by the individual characteristics of national societies. Studies of global public opinion have expanded greatly, with recent scholarship focusing on global attitudes toward gender equality, immigration, and climate change.
Stephen G. Walker
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.
The concept of role contestation has emerged within the recent renaissance of role theory in foreign policy analysis, which has taken hold among international relations scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. Role contestation is a novel theoretical perspective on the process of role location that complements the more traditional processes of role strain, role competition, and role conflict identified earlier by the role theory literature in the subfield of Foreign Policy Analysis. It refers to the process that occurs within states as their decision units debate and decide what role to select in relations with another state in the regional or global international system. The process of horizontal role contestation occurs among elites inside the government, while the process of vertical role contestation occurs between elites and interest groups outside the government. These role contestation processes can also extend to interactions before and after a foreign policy decision.
Role contestation processes are part of a larger process of role location that refers to various stages of evolution and transition in the enactment of role and counter-role between ego and alter as states construct role conceptions, exchange cues, and adapt to structural role demands in their respective decision-making environments. The focus in this essay is limited to the analysis of horizontal role contestation as a causal mechanism that describes and explains how the foreign policy decision-making process among elites leads to foreign policy decisions. Digraph models represent the process of debate among elites as they deliberate over the selection of ends and means prior to making a foreign policy decision. Game theory models represent how the decision is likely to be carried out as a strategy of role enactment. Illustrative applications of this two-stage modeling strategy are taken from recent research into Britain’s appeasement decisions in the late 1930s.
Ana Bojinović Fenko and Marjan Svetličič
Despite having fought for their bare survival against hostile foreigners, after finally reaching their independence and international recognition in 1991/92, paradoxically, even before fully assuming statehood Slovenians were eager to engage in yet another international integration—the European Union. This historical and societal wager, rather than merely political elites’ driven perspective, dominates as the prevailing reason for pursuing EU membership; thus security assurance to a small geopolitically transit state, economic benefits of a larger common market in conditions of economic globalization, and cultural proximity of Slovenian to European society explain Slovenian general identity-related elements favoring membership in the EU. There is also a more immediate time-space related explanatory factor for this, namely, the collapsing of the socialist Yugoslavia starting by the end 1980s and a view of assuring the democratic political life and market-lead economy via integration with Western European countries rather than South Slavic nations or following other alternative scenarios like full liberalization with all partners’ strategy. Authors critically evaluate where and why during the effort of becoming an EU member state and performing excellently as one during the first four years, the state fell short of capability-building and/or seizing the opportunities of EU membership. As the latter has been most brutally exposed via the effects of the 2008–2014 economic and financial crisis, of key importance for Slovenians currently stands a self-reflection of its development strategy, enhancing competitiveness, and the state’s role within the European family of nations. The main challenge is how to overcome the small state hindrances and more effectively formulate and project national interest to the EU level; with that in mind, the central questions for Slovenians remain assurance of social security to citizens, upgrading economic union to face more effectively global challenges and inter-state solidarity, refreshing enlargement policy for the remaining Western Balkans non-member states and ensuring Slovenian participation in the group of core states leading the European integration.
David P. Dolowitz
While a phenomena dating back to antiquity, it wasn’t until the 1960s that American and European social scientists began seriously discussing occurrences in which it appeared as if localities, states and nations in close proximity were adopting similar policies and programs. These early diffusion studies led to a new field that has variously been referred to under titles such as policy transfer, lesson drawing, policy translations, and policy mobility. While having different focuses and agendas, all of these studies attempt to address issues associated with the movement (or active rejection of a possible movement) of ideas, information, policies, and programs from one political system to another.
While all transfer studies have helped focus social scientists’ attention on the processes and actors involved in the transfer of ideas, techniques, policies, information, and programs, a better link to the knowledge utilization and learning literatures would help advance the usefulness of transfer studies. At a minimum, by considering the insights from the learning and utilization literatures, social scientists should begin understanding some of the outlook changes that individuals involved in transfer undertake that impact individual and institutional long-term understanding of the process and results. It will also start to help opening up the policymaking process to further scrutiny, particularly in relation to where information is flowing and how it is being used as a policy develops and changes.