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 to agree that Europeans are failing to tackle urgent policy challenges. As a result, so the argument does, Europeans are falling further and further behind in an increasingly competitive global race. Part of the reason, these commentators believe, is the very nature of policy challenges that face European politicians, policy-makers and citizens. Today’s policy problems are messy: underlying causes are rarely known in full, the impacts are complex, and repercussions are likely to spill over into other policy domains or jurisdictions. For this reason, polities across the European continent feature divisive and protracted policy conflicts about how to solve messy policy problems. This thesis, then, sets out to understand the nature of this policy conflict about messy policy problems in contemporary policy-making contexts. Conventionally, the social sciences explain policy conflict in terms of a clash of self-interested policy actors. Interest-based approaches, however, tell only part of the story. In particular, they entirely omit the impact of ideas, knowledge and world-views on conflicts about messy policy problems. Since, however, “ideas matter” in policy-making, understanding of policy conflict requires analysing the way policy actors clash over ideas and knowledge. This, then, gives rise to the three general research questions of the thesis: is there a way to analyse policy conflict in terms of ideas, knowledge and world-views; what insights into conflict in contemporary European policy domains does such an ideas-based approach offer; and what can the analysis of ideas-driven policy conflict tell us about governance in European policy domains? The thesis addresses these questions in two parts. Part I of the thesis develops the conceptual framework for policy-oriented discourse analysis designed to analyse conflict about messy policy problems. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 provide both the general conceptual backdrop as well as introduce central concepts and tools used in the discourse-analytical framework. Chapter 2 introduces the idea of the “differentiated polity” by discussing (predominantly British) literature on policy networks and policy communities. The differentiated polity — that is the realisation that contemporary policy-making takes place in functionally segregated and specialised institutional network — provides the institutional setting for the discourse-analytical framework. In turn, Chapter 3 maintained that what goes on between policy actors in policy networks and policy communities is fundamentally argumentative and conflictual. By critically reviewing the so-called “Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning”, the chapter contributes a range of instruments, concepts and tools that aim to analyse the impact of divergent ideas, knowledge and world-views on contemporary policy processes. In Chapter 4, the thesis discusses five different theories that explain policy processes in terms of the 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], “Advocacy Framework 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 discourseanalytical conceptual framework. Chapter 5 develops the conceptual framework for policy-oriented discourse analysis by building in the synergies between different frameworks and theories discussed in Part I of the thesis. The aim here is to capitalise on the mutual strengths of each approach while avoiding the specific weaknesses. The conceptual framework explains policy conflict over messy issues in terms of fundamentally incompatible “perceptual lenses” or policy-frames. Policy actors — networks of individuals that coalesce around a particular policy frame and policy project — use these lenses or frames to make sense of complex and uncertain policy problems. These policy frames, however, are fundamentally biased because they emerge from and legitimate incompatible forms of social organisation. Yet, since frames are irreducible, all knowledge about messy policy issues is inherently relative and partial. The discourse-analytical framework uses the “policy stories” method to reconstruct and compare arguments based on frames in terms of coherent narratives. In this way, the chapter designs a discourseanalytical framework capable of systematic analysing the scope, structure, and impact of policy conflict about messy policy problems. Part II of the thesis applies the discourse-analytical framework to three distinct policy domains: European transport policy, environmental security and pension reform. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 each feature a similar structure. In each chapter, the analysis uses the policy stories method to gauge the scope of policy conflict by comparing and juxtaposing contending policy stories about the particular issue. Moreover, in each chapter the analysis also explores the structure of policy conflict: here, each chapter scrutinises and compares the areas of agreement and disagreement between each policy story. Last, the chapters also examine the potential impacts of contending policy arguments. This involves scrutinising the contending policy arguments for blind-spots and weaknesses. Given that of policy arguments emerge from frames based in fundamentally incompatible forms of social organisation, the chapters find that ideas-driven policy conflict about complex, uncertain and transversal policy problems is endemic and intractable. Thus, the case studies suggest that a wide scope of policy conflict increases the likelihood of policy debate deteriorating into a “dialogue of the deaf”. The inherent selectivity of policy frames, in turn, implies that a narrow scope of policy conflict leaves policy processes vulnerable to unanticipated consequences and policy failure. Chapter 9 applies the conceptual framework to explore the impact of frame-based policy conflict on recent continental European pension reform experiences. Counter to much of the social scientific literature, the chapter shows how widening the scope of policy conflict in European pension reform debates brought about structural changes in continental European pension systems. The conclusion reviews the argument, evidence and findings of the previous chapters. The frame-based discourse analysis of Part II suggests that inevitable and intractable policy conflict is a valuable, if volatile, resource for dealing with messy policy problems. On the one hand, a wide scope of conflict maximises the pool of potential policy solutions available to policy actors while minimising unanticipated consequences. On the other hand, a responsive policy debate ensures that contending policy actors profit from the critical potential of policy conflict without descending into a dialogue of the deaf. Based on the application of the discourse-analytical framework to three different policy domains, the conclusion outlines an agenda for future research. This research will revolve around two main ideas. First, future research will explore the implication of a framebased analysis of policy conflict for pluralist democracy in Europe. The analysis in the empirical chapters of Part II suggests a positive relationship between policy conflict, policy change and pluralist democracy. A future research agenda will investigate how the discourse-analytical framework can be deployed to refurbish pluralist theory and practice for contemporary policy processes. Second, the future research agenda will also look at how the discourse-analytical framework may be applied to overcoming or mitigating intractable policy conflict about complex, uncertain and transversal policy problems.