Policy Knowledge And Advocacy Organizations Research Paper

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Substantive policy knowledge is a set of beliefs that encompass perceptions of (a) the seriousness of various dimensions of a policy problem (e.g., the health impacts of air pollution, the declining quality of health care), (b) the relative importance of various causes of those problems, and (c) the expected impacts of policy options for changing current conditions. In conflicts between advocacy organizations that pursue their interests through the policy-making process—including interest groups, corporations, administrative agencies, and associations of governments—debate surrounding the various elements of policy knowledge is often technical in nature. These debates frequently employ scientific research, technical policy analyses (such as benefit cost analyses), and policy evaluations that follow scientific norms of data acquisition and analysis.

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There are four main frameworks for examining the nexus between substantive policy knowledge and the political behavior of advocacy organizations: (a) a ‘civics textbook’ approach; (b) an ‘atheoretical skeptics’ perspective; (c) the ‘multiple streams’ approach; and (d) the ‘advocacy coalition framework.’ All vary in their attention to the political process underlying public policy debates and the potential biases inherent in substantive policy information.

1. The Civics Textbook View Of The Role Of Science

This is basically a normative model, derived from certain fundamental principles of democratic theory. It assigns very distinct roles to three categories of actors in the policy process:

Elected officials are responsible for making basic policy decisions in a manner which reflects the distribution of values in society. They use scientific findings to help them understand trends in various problems, the factors affecting them, and the means of alleviating those problems. Their basic role is to establish clear laws and budgetary priorities for implementation by agencies.

Governmental agencies are composed largely of civil servants who should be politically neutral (i.e., faithfully implement whatever the legislature decides) and who have a special role in fostering applied research in areas of interest to the agency. Political appointees within the agency are responsible for seeing that the agency reflects the government’s priorities—to the extent permitted by law.

Scientists are supposed to be neutral seekers of the truth. Their role is to understand the world and to present this information to policy-makers.

This is a normative model of how science should be used in making public policy, and many scientists involved in policy disputes do, in fact, view themselves as ‘objective technicians’ (Meltsner 1976).

According to this model, the major problem impeding communication between scientists and governmental officials is that they inhabit two quite distinct communities with different value priorities, timeframes, and methods for resolving conflict (Dunn 1980). Proposals for reform thus focus on improving communication between the two communities by exchange programs, the development of facilitating or ‘translating’ institutions, etc.

The textbook model has substantial limitations in practice, in large part because most actors do not behave as the model indicates they should.

Elected officials seldom pass clear laws on contentious issues with substantial technical components because very few have the expertise to obtain a decent understanding of the technical issues. Instead, they tend to pass procedural or ‘framework’ laws which hand over the problem to an administrative agency without clear policy priorities.

Agency officials are seldom as neutral as the civil servants in the Weberian model of bureaucracy (Knott and Miller 1987). Most agencies have a fairly clear overall mission which tells them to give priority to some values over others. Most officials who join the agency come to accept those priorities, whether out of self-selection or gradual indoctrination. Agencies are often dominated by members of a particular profession or scientific discipline who share the norms of colleagues outside the agency. Thus, most agencies can be expected to sponsor research consistent with their mission and to be skeptical of findings which cast doubt on its wisdom.

Scientists are often not neutral participants. Virtually all scientists operate within a specific ‘paradigm,’ i.e., a set of often implicit assumptions about basic causal assumptions and proper methods of investigation which guide research (Kuhn 1970). More importantly for our purposes, almost all scientific disciplines contain important normative assumptions which members often come to accept in an uncritical fashion. The normative assumptions behind welfare economics and benefit/cost analysis have been widely discussed (Rhoads 1985). With respect to nuclear waste disposal, Barke and Jenkins-Smith (1993) pro- vide evidence that biologists perceive significantly greater risks than physicists, chemists, and engineers. The latter think basically in terms of dose-response curves, while biologists are more wary of the effects of any dose on living organism.

Moreover, scientists are often drawn to applied— rather than basic—research because they want to help solve a particular problem. Having a demonstrable effect on policy normally requires the accumulation of results over an extended period of time (Weiss 1977). The more neutral and ‘apolitical’ scientists are unlikely to remain interested in an issue long enough to have such an impact. Thus the most active scientists in a particular dispute are likely to be those who have been involved the longest and who are most committed to defending a particular point of view.

The end result is that scientists who have something to contribute to important policy disputes are seldom neutral (Mazur 1981). The argument does not imply that they manipulate or falsify data. Instead, disciplinary paradigms, the values underlying their discipline, and their desire to solve particular problems affect the topics they choose to research, the variables they focus on, the methods they utilize, where they place the burden of proof in cases of uncertainty, and how quickly they present various results. For example, wildlife biologists are much more likely than engineers to look for species in trouble because their disciplinary norms define species extinction as a serious problem. They are more likely to look to human technological interventions as a likely explanation because they tend to respect the beauty of natural systems. In contrast, engineers assume they can improve on nature. Members within each discipline will readily present results which are congruent with these assumptions, while incongruent results are likely to be interpreted as tentative and in need of further verification (Brown 1977).

2. The Atheoretical Skeptics’ View Of The Role Of Scientists In Policy Disputes

Over the years, a number of studies have seriously questioned the textbook view that scientists participating in policy are completely neutral. First, Weinberg (1972) argued that some topics—such as risk assessments of very improbable, catastrophic events—are essentially in the realm of ‘trans-science.’ Second, as argued above, there is increasing recognition that the topics chosen for research, the allocation of the burden of proof in areas of uncertainty, and the presentation of results are affected by scientists’ disciplinary paradigms (Stewart 1986), organizational interests (Primack and von Hippel 1974, Jasanoff 1987), and/or policy concerns (Nelkin 1971).

Although suggestive, most of these studies have suffered from two serious limitations. First, they have failed to articulate a comprehensive theory (or theories) of the role of ‘advocacy science’ in the overall policy process. Instead, they have usually limited themselves to identifying certain institutional organizational features that inhibit or exacerbate the extent of advocacy (Mazur 1981). But there is very little recognition of the role of broader social norms, economic conditions, and the myriad of advocacy organizations involved in most policy subsystems. Second, almost all of this research has consisted of essays or of rather traditional case studies which (a) lack explicit theoretical grounds for case and variable selection and (b) utilize quite subjective methods of data acquisition and analysis. The result has been a plethora of interesting arguments and illustrative examples, but very little systematic, intersubjectively reliable analysis of the extent of advocacy science, the factors affecting it, and its effects on the overall policy process.

3. The Multiple Streams Framework Of The Policy Process

Drawing upon the ‘garbage can model’ of organizational choice (Cohen et al. 1972), Kingdon (1984) developed an approach to agenda-setting and policy formulation that deals explicitly with the role of substantive policy information. In his view, policymaking can be conceptualized as three largely unrelated ‘streams’:

(a) A problem stream consisting of information about real world problems and the effects of past governmental interventions. This would include large databases of problem severity and causes gathered by governmental agencies and research organizations, as well as policy analyses of the benefits and costs of previous attempts to address those problems. This information is treated as relatively unbiased.

(b) A policy stream consisting of proposals to solve one or more problems. This is the province of policy analysts in government think tanks and consulting firms, as well as many legislative staff. Kingdon notes the tendency for analysts to become infatuated with a particular solution and then to seek to apply it to a wide variety of problems. For the past 30 years, for example, many resource economists have viewed tradeable permit schemes as the solution to virtually all environmental problems (Tietenberg 1984).

(c) A political stream consisting of elections, legislative leadership contests, and other openly political competition.

According to Kingdon, major policy reforms result when a ‘window of opportunity’ joins the three streams. The window may be opened by a ‘focusing event,’ such as an airplane crash or oil spill, that dramatically illustrates the potential seriousness of a problem, or it can be opened by a political election that brings a new leader with a new agenda to power. In response to the window, major policy change will result if the policy community develops a proposal that is financially and technically feasible and if elected officials find it advantageous to approve it.

The multiple streams approach has a number of promising features. It gives a prominent role to substantive policy information about real world problems and the impacts of past governmental interventions. It was one of the first frameworks that treats researchers and policy analysts in consulting firms, think tanks, and universities as potentially important political actors. And it acknowledges the role of serendipity—particularly in the case of focusing events—in the policy process.

On the other hand, it has several limitations. First, we are not convinced that the problem stream is nearly as neutral and apolitical as Kingdon suggests. Bureaucracies gather information on some aspects of a situation and not on others. The US Department of Agriculture gathers much more extensive information on crop production and prices than it does on nitrogen runoff from fields into streams and groundwater basins. Second, the conditions creating windows of opportunity need further analysis. Third, the multiple streams framework contains virtually no falsifiable hypotheses, and thus very little has been learned about its strengths and limitations over time (cf. Kingdon 1995, Chap. 10).

4. An Advocacy Coalition Framework Of The Policy Process

The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) starts from the premise that political elites concerned with a specific problem or policy domain—such as transportation, education, health, or air pollution—will form relatively autonomous subsystems composed of interest-group leaders, administrative agency officials, researchers, and a few legislators with a specific interest in the topic. These subsystems (or policy communities) usually involve actors from multiple levels of government. Once a subsystem is formed, policy disputes become increasingly technical and specialized as actors learn more about the complexity of problems and solutions. In such a system, the role of legislatures and political parties is primarily to aggregate the decisions made by policy specialists and to provide some general guidance.

The ACF views policy change over time as primarily the result of competition among advocacy coalitions within a policy subsystem (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993, 1999). An advocacy coalition consists of interest group leaders, legislators, agency officials, researchers, and even journalists who share a set of basic beliefs (policy goals plus critical perceptions of causal relationships) and engage in some degree of coordinated behavior in an effort to make governmental policy more consistent with those beliefs. Conflict among coalitions is mediated by ‘policy brokers,’ i.e., actors more concerned with fashioning an acceptable compromise than with achieving specific policy goals. While the framework focuses on competition among coalitions within the subsystem, changes external to the subsystem (such as fluctuations in socioeconomic conditions) and stable system parameters (such as constitutional rules) play an important role in major policy change.

The belief systems of advocacy coalitions are assumed to be hierarchically organized. At the highest broadest level, the ‘deep core’ of a coalition’s belief system consists of fundamental normative beliefs, such as the familiar Left Right scale, that operate across virtually all policy domains. Within any given policy subsystem, however, it is the ‘policy core’ and the ‘secondary aspects’ that are most critical. The former consists of basic positions, some of them purely normative (e.g., the relative importance of different values, such as environmental protection vs. economic development), while others are a mixture of normative and empirical (e.g., the proper scope of governmental vs. market authority for realizing those values), that operate across most or all of the policy subsystem. These policy core positions are very resistant to change, are only intermittently the subject of policy debate, and are usually changed as a result of perturbations external to the subsystem, although long-term ‘enlightenment’ may also play a role (Weiss 1977). Science plays a much more important role in the secondary aspects of coalitions’ belief systems, as these involve disputes over the seriousness of a problem or the relative importance of various causal factors in different locales, the evaluation of various programs and institutions, and specific policy preferences.

The ACF assumes that members of a coalition will readily accept new evidence consistent with their views and seek to discount information which conflicts with their perception of the seriousness of a problem, the relative importance of various factors affecting it, or the costs and benefits of different alternatives (Lord et al. 1979). The result is ‘a dialogue of the deaf?’ in which members of different coalitions talk past each other. Given that policy core beliefs are resistant to change, the composition of coalitions is hypothesized to be stable over periods of a decade or more.

The ACF explicitly rejects the assumption that most bureaucrats and researchers involved in a policy area will be neutral. Some may well have no strong policy preferences, at least initially. But the framework contends that, as conflict between coalitions increases and as the interrelationships among sets of beliefs become clearer over time, initially loose groups with amorphous beliefs will coalesce into increasingly distinct coalitions with coherent belief systems; in the process, most neutral actors, particularly university scientists, will drop out. The ACF thus contends that, in well-developed subsystems, most agency officials and researchers who are active will be members of specific coalitions in terms of sharing a set of policy core beliefs and acting in concert to some degree (Sabatier and Zafonte 2000).

Policy-oriented learning involves relatively enduring alterations of thought or behavioral intentions that result from experience and/or the assessment of new information involving the precepts of belief systems (Heclo 1974). Learning within coalitions is relatively easy, as members share the same valuepremises and are looking for the most effective means to those ends. Learning between coalitions is much more difficult, as people from each coalition have quite different values and distrust each other. Nevertheless, the original versions of the ACF hypothesized three conditions facilitating such learning (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1988).

(a) Issues on which there is an intermediate le el of conflict. Issues have to be important enough to generate sufficient research—usually by members of several coalitions, as well as neutrals. On the other hand, issues involving conflict between the core beliefs of different coalitions (e.g., the rights of non-human beings or the ability of humans to improve on nature) generate more heat than light. Learning across coalitions is thus most likely on issues involving important secondary aspects of the relevant belief systems.

(b) Issues involving primarily the natural sciences. Across-coalition learning is generally easier in the natural than in the social-behavioral sciences because the theories and accepted methods are better established and the objects of study are not themselves actors in the policy debate.

(c) The existence of a forum that is (i) prestigious enough to force professionals from different coalitions to participate and (ii) dominated by scientific norms. The latter assures a general consensus on the appropriate rules of evidence and a minimum of ad hominem attacks, as well as some attention to underlying assumptions. Possibilities for professional forums include ‘blue ribbon’ committees appointed by the National Research Council or a professional association, studies by organizations with a strong reputation for neutral competence (e.g., the Congressional Budget Office), or, in some cases, interagency technical advisory committees.

The following set of conditions have been developed for successful professional forums, i.e., those in which experts from the competing coalitions come to consensus on technical and/or policy issues placed before it. In general, such forums are most useful when a fair amount of scientific technical information on various aspects of the topic exists, but the conclusions of different studies vary and the validity of much of the evidence is questioned by members of opposing coalitions. The arguments below assume that the essential task of a professional forum is to convince coalition experts that professional norms require the alteration of one or more beliefs important to a coalition.

Composition. In order for scientists with very different points of view to come to consensus and for that consensus to be accepted by the major coalitions, the technical advisory committee should include both (a) scientists clearly associated with each of the major coalitions and (b) neutral scientists. The chair should come from the latter.

The ACF assumes that the various coalitions involved in important policy disputes have scientists (or technical experts) whom they trust, presumably because they share most of the coalition’s policy core beliefs and can help the coalition understand the scientific aspects of such disputes. Many interest-group leaders, legislative personnel, and agency officials who constitute the leadership core of coalitions have an intuitive awareness of the role of values in determining the agenda of technical advisory committees and how uncertainty is treated. Thus they are very unlikely to accept the recommendations of any technical advisory committee on which their point of view has not been argued by someone whom they trust. And, if they do not trust the committee’s report—particularly in a relatively decentralized political system like that of the USA—they almost always can find some decision-making venue that will enable them to circumvent or obstruct the committee’s recommendations. In short, selecting a committee composed entirely of relatively ‘neutral’ scientists—which we perceive to have been the strategy of the National Academy of Scientists (Boffey 1975), for example— may facilitate short-term consensus but will probably fail in the long run.

On the other hand, the technical advisory committee needs to be chaired by a neutral (and probably to include a few other neutrals) whose task is to impose professional norms on the debate regarding acceptable evidence, methodologies, etc., and to indicate to coalition experts when a professional consensus is beginning to emerge. Nonprofessionals must be excluded from these deliberations in order that scientific norms can prevail in weighing the evidence for—and the assumptions behind—different points of view.

Funding and Sponsorship. Funding must come from an institution which is not perceived as being controlled by a single coalition. This will usually require funding either by (a) a neutral foundation or (b) multiple agencies representing the various coalitions. This is important because policy participants are unlikely to trust a committee funded—and therefore potentially controlled—by their opponents. Since many agencies are perceived as being part of a specific coalition (Sabatier and Zafonte 2000), single-agency technical advisory committees will lack legitimacy in the eyes of opposing coalitions.

Duration. A forum should meet at least half a dozen times over a year or so. It takes time for scientists from different coalitions to analyze their hidden assumptions, to evaluate the evidence critically, and to begin to trust each other. One-shot committees of short duration will probably not work.

Context of Policy Stalemate. A forum will be successful only in a context of policy stalemate, i.e., when each of the coalitions views a continuation of the status quo as unacceptable. In any policy dispute, arriving at a compromise acceptable to everyone requires that all the coalitions view the status quo as unacceptable. If any should view the status quo as acceptable, then it will be much less willing to compromise and may not even participate.

The assumption thus far has been that lasting policy change requires genuine learning between/across coalitions. In a relatively open and decentralized political system, such as the USA’s, coalitions that do not agree with the conclusions of a professional forum have numerous points of appeal (courts, legislatures, agencies at different levels of government) which have different biases. In more centralized systems, such as UK’s, where routes of appeal are severely restricted, it may be possible for a coalition to change policy simply by convincing a policy broker of the merits of its point of view without having to change the views of the other coalition(s).

5. Summary

This research paper has presented four conceptual frameworks that seek to understand the role of advocacy organizations in processing substantive policy information of a relatively technical nature in policy disputes, particularly in the USA. Both the civic textbook model and the multiple streams model view substantive policy information as being relatively unbiased, but the multiple streams has a much more sophisticated understanding of the policy process. In contrast, both the atheoretical skeptics and the ACF view substantive policy information as ‘filtered’ through organizational, disciplinary, and coalition lenses, but the ACF has a much more sophisticated model of the policy process in intergovernmental policy subsystems. This sophistication, however, comes at the cost of parsimony. All four perspectives in combination can be useful in generating a clearer understanding of the role of policy knowledge in the behavior of advocacy organizations.


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