Policy as contestation

Every year the University of Manchester puts on a week of lectures, symposia and other events concerned with the relationship between research and policy: “Policy Week”. Generally there is plenty to interest. I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute to a symposium “We need to talk about growth” in 2012, just prior to launching our “Steady State Manchester” initiative. Last year I contributed a couple of times to events concerned with inequality. This year the theme has been “Science, Technology and Public Policy”, but as always the scope is defined broadly. But in some of this year’s discussions I have been struck by an implicit, and I think naïve, understanding of the policy process.

This view seems to situate researchers on the one side, trying to provide “evidence” to “policy makers” on the other side. These policy makers are generally seen to be politicians and State employees (in the civil service, other government agencies, including arms-length ones, and local government). This is consistent with what I often characterise as a Fabian ideology, where experts armed with facts, and science inform political leaders who then produce and implement policies.

But this misses the idea of the policy nexus as one of contestation, of struggle, and in what follows I will draw on my previous work (my 2013 article “In and against social policy”) to describe this and then draw out some implications.

Social Policy and the State

In order to understand the policy process it is first necessary to consider its contradictory nature in relation to the modern State. It is worth noting that the nature of the State itself has been the focus of considerable controversy in theoretical analysis (for the classical Marxian debate, see Harvey, 19851 ; Miliband, 1969, 1970; Poulantzas, 1969; Therborn, 1980). The State can be seen as a set of relations and processes, whereby social and economic interests compete for influence in its nexus, and then exert influence on the rest of the society, using the resources that the State then affords them. It is the dominant social interests that exercise the most influence, but the process is not automatic, given that it is a field for contestation, and that the State, although much “captured” by commercial interests, enjoys a degree of relative autonomy from the economy and from the various interest groups. However it is not possible to generalise about the extent to which State power reflects a particular dominant social interest, without being explicit about the particular conjuncture of forces and relations that apply in a concrete context in time and space. We know that different States follow somewhat different models, and also that States from time to time undergo crises of legitimacy whereby the concordance between State power and the dominant social interests becomes dislocated, what Gramsci discussed as a crisis of hegemony (Gramsci, 1971).

It is through the governmental organs of the State that social policy is formulated, agreed, operationalised and implemented. There are several potential levels, which differ somewhat in different countries and regions. British writers on Critical Social Policy (e.g. Gough, 1979, 2000, 2008; Jessop, 2003; Mishra, 1999) from the end of the 1970s onwards, following O’Connor (1973), see social policies in terms of the interplay between the role of the state in the service of capital and the realisation of emancipatory struggles by a variety of subjects (workers, women, disabled people, ethnic minorities, and so on). In this view the State reproduces the interests of the ruling class, but it does not do this mechanically or deterministically. Rather, it is also responsive to what can be termed subaltern pressures, typically in the form of struggle and pressure from social movements that represent the interests of labour, women, ethnic groups, environmentalists, disabled people and so on. The State then is a site of conflict but also of negotiation and the resolution of conflict, both on a ‘grand scale’, as in the post-war settlement between capital and labour after the 1939-45 war, and at a more particular level, for example in the reforms to the mental health system over the post-war period.

A consequence of this understanding of social policy is that concrete examples are inevitably messy, difficult to ‘decode’ in terms of the interests in play and the likely consequences of implementation. Our (Burton and Kagan, 2006) analysis of policy for intellectually disabled people in the UK demonstrates this. That policy framework (Department of Health, 2001) involved an emphasis on employment, personalisation through market mechanisms such as personal budgets, but also an emphasis on the responsibility of a wider set of actors than the traditional health and social care sector to facilitate the inclusion and participation of intellectually disabled people in community places and everyday life. The policy stems from a blending of the social model of disability (Barnes, 1998; Chappell, Goodley, & Lawthom, 2001; Goodley, 2001), produced through the organised action of disabled people, academics, family members, and some groups of professionals, with the neoliberal imperatives of marketisation and the conversion of social needs into sources of corporate profit (Lister, 2005; Pollock, 2004; Whitfield, 2006; Whitfield, D, 2010). This ‘unholy alliance’ was cemented by a romantic imaginary of intellectually disabled people and a downplaying of the collective dimensions of community life and participation. This policy mix did lead to some positive openings, including the establishment of multi-stakeholder boards to oversee implementation in each municipality, which included intellectually disabled people and family members. While this could and did lead to silencing through co-optation in some areas, in others it opened up policy and provision to improved public scrutiny and introduced new sources of imagination and challenge to the welfare bureaucracy. But the romantic simplification of the task of social inclusion, together with the increased reliance on the for-profit sector meant that some people who were difficult to include (because of the complexity of their needs) were excluded to congregate settings that on occasion had standards poor enough to allow abusive regimes and a national scandal (Oakes, 2012).


What this means is that it is unlikely that presenting sufficient or persuasive “scientific evidence” in isolation is the key factor in arriving at good policy. The policy process doesn’t work like that. Instead, it may be best to see evidence as a rhetorical tool in the hurly-burly of politics that is the stuff of the contested State policy process. Decision-makers are not being “irrational” when they fail to act on evidence, as one speaker at Policy Week suggested, but rather their rationality is not restricted to a cold consideration of research evidence: they are also responding to their own and others’ interests, refracted through the lenses of ideology, amplified by propaganda, yet also subject to particular experiences – which is why it is always important to emphasise the human stories, the emotional, when presenting scientific evidence, or even better to find ways of bringing people in positions of power face to face with those affected, or potentially affected by State policies.

1References can be found in the article from which this section is adapted. http://www.gjcpp.org/pdfs/burton-v4i2-20130522.pdf

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