Can't Ideology and Policy Expertise Just Get Along?

Policymakers are more polarized and driven by ideology than ever before, writes Paul L. Posner.
March 26, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Paul Posner
By Paul L. Posner  |  Contributor
The late director of the public administration program at George Mason University

Our modern conception of public administration began with Woodrow Wilson's seminal work, in which he argued for a neutral competence that transcends political passions and parties. 1 His work set the tone and ideals for our government, which aspired to the highest traditions of merit-based employment and analysis of public policy. While the distinction between politics and administration has always been an elusive one, public managers have had a unique role in our public life because of their expertise and institutional knowledge.

Wilson's ideals, though, have been polluted by a new age of "unreason," according to the current rhetoric. Policymakers are more polarized and driven by ideology than ever before. They have less tolerance or interest in ascertaining the facts before taking positions. The line between campaigning and governing is eroding as governance becomes a 24/7 process of never-ending sloganeering and proselytizing. Symbolic campaigns that appeal to ideologies and anxieties have become the most effective way to sway the public. Even traditional, neutral think tanks that gained status and political audience by their assiduous detachment have been supplanted by a plethora of aggressive advocacy analysts eager to for a voice in policy debates.

Those of us in the public policy analysis and management professions have to be disturbed by this litany. Will the bright students graduating today want to take up careers tilting at increasingly elusive windmills? Finding a silver lining for policy analysis in these dark clouds appears to be challenging indeed.

However, I argue that the use of policy analysis in policymaking occurs more frequently than the foregoing would lead us to expect. Let's look at what one presumes should be the toughest nut for expertise to crack -- the U.S. Congress, that hotbed of political polarization where neutral information might be expected to land with a decided thud. In the past 40 years, the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office, along with the Congressional Research Service, have become leading and highly credible and neutral purveyors and producers of primary research on major policy and programmatic issues across the entire range of governmental functions. Congressional staffs have increased in numbers and depth of analytic background during this period as well. These trends have also been replicated at the state level as many state governments have developed high-level policy analytic and evaluation staffs working in the legislature during this period of renaissance in state governance capacity.

Their analytic reports are not merely "Olympic divers" -- beautiful analyses that make no splash. To the contrary, studies have shown that legislators rely heavily on these reports and data in formulating their agendas, developing legislative proposals, and conducting oversight of policy implementation. While always interested in the electoral connection, members are also vitally interested in making good policy.

Whether it is free trade, smoking bans or trans fat prohibitions, expert-based policies can shake agendas and enable leaders to more easily blunt opposition by narrow interests that heretofore had hegemonic influence over these areas. The framing of issues by experts was critical in setting the stage and defining alternatives for such major federal initiatives as as airline and telecommunications deregulation as well as Social Security, tax and farm-policy reforms. Old policy monopolies and iron triangles have proven to be surprisingly vulnerable when presented with compelling information from expert communities.

As existing programs have become more central to the social and economic well being of the nation, policymakers have become beset with demands to rationalize, revise or revisit such critical programs as Social Security, Medicare and education. This rationalizing agenda catapults policy analysts and technical staff into more prominent roles, since they are the experts who have the greatest command over the technical terms of program design that are so critical to rationalizing debates. 1 For instance, as student-loan defaults rose to exceed 20 percent, the student-loan program earned the dubious distinction by the GAO as a "high-risk area." With the assistance of staff from GAO and the Education Department, Congress adopted a wide ranging set of reforms changing incentives facing banks, state guarantee agencies, trade schools and students involved with the problem. The default rate was lowered to less than 10 percent.

In short, expert-based policymaking is at least alive in our system, if not well. It has become a competing avenue to achieve policy change in our system, alongside more traditional interest-group and party-based channels. The renewed power of ideas to transform policy debates, in fact, has prompted several colleagues and myself to suggest that there are four "pathways to power" that have emerged to define policy debates. 1 The more traditional interest group and party pathways have been supplemented, and at times supplanted, by the emergent expert and symbolic pathways to recognize the compelling grip that new ideas -- sometimes simple and populist but other times complex and sophisticated -- can gain in our process.

Indeed, as the influence of experts grows, we need to be careful about getting the influence we wished for. As ideas become more central to debates, they are also more vulnerable to politicization and distortion. A growing number of advocacy groups are arming themselves to compete in the expert pathway by hiring their own experts to serve up more sophisticated arguments The development of consensus based on independent and neutral research -- the wellspring of experts' legitimacy -- may be ultimately compromised as analysis is weaponized to pursue a wide range of particular and partisan interests.

Nonetheless, given the increased political pressures in our system in a media-saturated environment, the continued political viability of policy research as a base for at least some decisions is remarkable. As with the proverbial dog of Samuel Johnson that walked on its hind legs, it is remarkable not that the dog walks awkwardly but that it walks at all!

1. Woodrow Wilson, "The Study of Public Administration," 1887.

2. Lawrence Brown, New Policies, New Politics (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1981)

3. David Beam, Timothy Conlan and Paul Posner, "The Politics that Pathways Make," a paper presented at the American Political Science Association annual meeting, September 2002.

Paul Posner
Paul L. Posner | Contributor