Our ‘Policy’ Fantasy

It's in the political arena where things happen in government -- for better or worse -- and where they always will.
January 4, 2016
By Richard Clay Wilson Jr.  |  Contributor
Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

The "policymaker/policy implementer" model -- the notion that elected officials make policy decisions and government employees carry them out -- is axiomatic in the academic field of public administration and in its practice as well. If the model were merely one of "decision-makers" and "decision implementers," I would have no quarrel with it.

But that is not the model we invoke. Instead, we hold that elected officials promulgate "policies," by which we mean products of intellectual purposefulness intended to improve governmental outcomes. In accordance with this idea, we conduct analysis of policies that are in place and dedicate ourselves to the development of policy proposals that we think ought to be in place.

There are two very big things wrong with this model. The first is that it fails to describe reality. The model's view of the political arena is utterly wrong, and the political arena is, for better or for worse, the birthplace of all directions to the institutions of government. Imagine for a moment what a genuine policymaking arena would look like. It would be inquiring, intellectual, analytical and ever open to reconsideration and revision. These are manifestly not attributes of the political arena, and no one would argue otherwise.

The political arena is one of raw combat, among and between parties and interests that have little or no use or regard for each other. The parties engaged in the political arena do not go there hoping for accommodation. When politicians function at their best, they reach political compromises that just barely satisfy, for the time being, forces and interests engaged in political combat. In the absence of such compromise, political combat continues unabated. The first failure of the idea of policy, then, is that it describes what many wish for but not what is.

The second big thing wrong with the policymaker model is that it is contemptuous of politics. If you doubt this, read the announced purposes of schools of public policy everywhere. In a nutshell, the declared purpose of public policy is to "make the world a better place" through the application of scholarly research about, and academic assessment of, political issues. But this is not what the political arena is about.

The highest political purpose is, and must be, to hold office, which means winning elections. (It matters not an iota how noble and virtuous politicians' policy positions might be if they do not hold office.) The second highest political purpose is to advance certain causes and retard others. Politicians are duty-bound to advance their supporters' causes as far as possible and compromise them as little as possible.

The inherent attributes of the political arena are fundamentally incompatible with what would be the fundamental attributes of a policymaking arena. The making of policy would have to happen in a post-politics arena. But there is no such place, at least not yet.

A year or so ago at an academic conference, I asked my friend Mary Hamilton, senior executive in residence at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's School of Public Administration, why the field is, in general, so intent on the idea of policy and so hostile to politics. "Because politics is dirty," she replied. (She added that, as a career city manager, my hands are very dirty.)

I fault no one for wanting policy. I want it too. But it is the stuff of political dreams, not reality. In the real world, the best politicians can do is feed the competing beasts in the political arena enough to prevent them from devouring each other and then the rest of us. Such feedings will hardly ever qualify as policies, though sometimes we stand in amazement at one genuine achievement or another, as well we should.

Our disparagement of politics is actually detrimental to the concept of policy. The political arena is not, cannot be, should not be and never will be a place where political actors and interests pursue "policies" in the academic sense. The truth is that real-world political compromises are far harder to obtain, and of more lasting value, than policy adoptions could ever be. The world is a dirty place. If we want to understand it, and promote measures that would improve the human condition, we should learn to value, not disparage, the age-old practice of politics.

At the present time we are experiencing a deficit of politics, not policies. The political forces in sway proudly refuse to compromise, each insisting on its own, pure "policies." It is, after all, immoral to compromise with demons, and we have thoroughly demonized each other. Dirty political compromises would be ever so much better.