Messy Issues, Policy Conflict and the Differentiated Polity: Analysing Contemporary Policy Responses to Complex, Uncertain and Transversal Policy Problems
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At present, a surprisingly wide variety of commentators and observers seem toagree that Europeans are failing to tackle urgent policy challenges. As a result,so the argument does, Europeans are falling further and further behind in anincreasingly competitive global race. Part of the reason, these commentatorsbelieve, is the very nature of policy challenges that face European politicians,policy-makers and citizens. Today’s policy problems are messy: underlyingcauses are rarely known in full, the impacts are complex, and repercussions arelikely to spill over into other policy domains or jurisdictions. For this reason,polities across the European continent feature divisive and protracted policyconflicts about how to solve messy policy problems.This thesis, then, sets out to understand the nature of this policy conflictabout messy policy problems in contemporary policy-making contexts. Conventionally,the social sciences explain policy conflict in terms of a clash ofself-interested policy actors. Interest-based approaches, however, tell only partof the story. In particular, they entirely omit the impact of ideas, knowledge andworld-views on conflicts about messy policy problems. Since, however, “ideasmatter” in policy-making, understanding of policy conflict requires analysingthe way policy actors clash over ideas and knowledge. This, then, gives riseto the three general research questions of the thesis: is there a way to analysepolicy conflict in terms of ideas, knowledge and world-views; what insights intoconflict in contemporary European policy domains does such an ideas-basedapproach offer; and what can the analysis of ideas-driven policy conflict tellus about governance in European policy domains? The thesis addresses thesequestions in two parts.Part I of the thesis develops the conceptual framework for policy-orienteddiscourse analysis designed to analyse conflict about messy policy problems.Chapters 2, 3 and 4 provide both the general conceptual backdrop as well asintroduce central concepts and tools used in the discourse-analytical framework.Chapter 2 introduces the idea of the “differentiated polity” by discussing (predominantlyBritish) literature on policy networks and policy communities. Thedifferentiated polity — that is the realisation that contemporary policy-makingtakes place in functionally segregated and specialised institutional network —provides the institutional setting for the discourse-analytical framework. Inturn, Chapter 3 maintained that what goes on between policy actors in policynetworks and policy communities is fundamentally argumentative and conflictual.By critically reviewing the so-called “Argumentative Turn in PolicyAnalysis and Planning”, the chapter contributes a range of instruments, conceptsand tools that aim to analyse the impact of divergent ideas, knowledgeand world-views on contemporary policy processes. In Chapter 4, the thesisdiscusses five different theories that explain policy processes in terms ofthe interaction between ideas and institutions: the “Politology of Knowledge”[Nullmeier and R¨ub, 1993], the “Multiple Streams Analysis” [Kingdon, 1984,Kingdon, 1995], “Epistemic Communities” [Adler and Haas, 1992], “AdvocacyFramework Coalition” [Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith, 1993b], and “cultural theory”.This chapter discusses and compares the strengths and weaknesses of each theory thereby identifying the key concepts and tools deployed in the discourseanalyticalconceptual framework.Chapter 5 develops the conceptual framework for policy-oriented discourseanalysis by building in the synergies between different frameworks and theoriesdiscussed in Part I of the thesis. The aim here is to capitalise on the mutualstrengths of each approach while avoiding the specific weaknesses. Theconceptual framework explains policy conflict over messy issues in terms of fundamentallyincompatible “perceptual lenses” or policy-frames. Policy actors— networks of individuals that coalesce around a particular policy frame andpolicy project — use these lenses or frames to make sense of complex and uncertainpolicy problems. These policy frames, however, are fundamentally biasedbecause they emerge from and legitimate incompatible forms of social organisation.Yet, since frames are irreducible, all knowledge about messy policy issuesis inherently relative and partial. The discourse-analytical framework uses the“policy stories” method to reconstruct and compare arguments based on framesin terms of coherent narratives. In this way, the chapter designs a discourseanalyticalframework capable of systematic analysing the scope, structure, andimpact of policy conflict about messy policy problems.Part II of the thesis applies the discourse-analytical framework to three distinctpolicy domains: European transport policy, environmental security andpension reform. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 each feature a similar structure. In eachchapter, the analysis uses the policy stories method to gauge the scope of policyconflict by comparing and juxtaposing contending policy stories about theparticular issue. Moreover, in each chapter the analysis also explores the structureof policy conflict: here, each chapter scrutinises and compares the areas ofagreement and disagreement between each policy story. Last, the chapters alsoexamine the potential impacts of contending policy arguments. This involvesscrutinising the contending policy arguments for blind-spots and weaknesses.Given that of policy arguments emerge from frames based in fundamentallyincompatible forms of social organisation, the chapters find that ideas-drivenpolicy conflict about complex, uncertain and transversal policy problems is endemicand intractable. Thus, the case studies suggest that a wide scope of policyconflict increases the likelihood of policy debate deteriorating into a “dialogue ofthe deaf”. The inherent selectivity of policy frames, in turn, implies that a narrowscope of policy conflict leaves policy processes vulnerable to unanticipatedconsequences and policy failure. Chapter 9 applies the conceptual framework toexplore the impact of frame-based policy conflict on recent continental Europeanpension reform experiences. Counter to much of the social scientific literature,the chapter shows how widening the scope of policy conflict in European pensionreform debates brought about structural changes in continental Europeanpension systems.The conclusion reviews the argument, evidence and findings of the previouschapters. The frame-based discourse analysis of Part II suggests that inevitableand intractable policy conflict is a valuable, if volatile, resource for dealing withmessy policy problems. On the one hand, a wide scope of conflict maximisesthe pool of potential policy solutions available to policy actors while minimisingunanticipated consequences. On the other hand, a responsive policy debateensures that contending policy actors profit from the critical potential of policyconflict without descending into a dialogue of the deaf. Based on the applicationof the discourse-analytical framework to three different policy domains, the conclusion outlines an agenda for future research. This research will revolve aroundtwo main ideas. First, future research will explore the implication of a framebasedanalysis of policy conflict for pluralist democracy in Europe. The analysisin the empirical chapters of Part II suggests a positive relationship between policyconflict, policy change and pluralist democracy. A future research agendawill investigate how the discourse-analytical framework can be deployed to refurbishpluralist theory and practice for contemporary policy processes. Second,the future research agenda will also look at how the discourse-analytical frameworkmay be applied to overcoming or mitigating intractable policy conflictabout complex, uncertain and transversal policy problems.
PublisherThe University of Bergen
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