Is the pursuit of policy actually the absence of action?

Academic author Michael Howlett's book Canadian Public Policy: Selected Studies in Process and Style leaves too many questions unanswered

I’m thinking of writing a book called Public Policy Isn’t.

What’s a policy? Is it the policy of a government to pass a law to achieve a goal? Or does a law require those implementing the law to adhere to certain policies?

It’s perhaps both.

How about the members of the public in public policy?

They’re mostly absent. Cabinet deliberations are secret. So are many meetings of legislative or even city council committees. Even what’s public isn’t often known by many members of the public.

I had two choices to find out more. The first is to go to Tim Hortons or the barber shop and hear the latest conspiracy theory. The other is to dive into the academic literature. Author Michael Howlett has spent a lot of time and grant money on his book Canadian Public Policy: Selected Studies in Process and Style (U of T Press).

The subtitle should really be the title. Here’s why:

Imagine a book about food that speaks of both hot and cold food. Hot food is prepared in microwaves, on stove tops, over camp fires, in toaster ovens and on outdoor barbecues. Cold food comes out of the fridge, is room temperature, has ice in or on it, and so on. In this metaphorical book, we never find out what food is, just how people handle it. We don’t even find out that people eat food.

So the process of public policy is really the focus of this book. It begins with a quote from Canada’s longest-standing prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who noted that “It is what we prevent, rather than what we do that counts most in government.” So public policy may actually be the absence of action.

Howlett, a Simon Fraser University professor, notes the policy process: “agenda setting, policy formulation, decision making, policy implementation, and policy evaluation.” He rightly notes less structured models including just “muddling through.” As for government action, it varies a little from country to country, but can include direct intervention through to coercion and motivation of citizens in an effort to help them.

There’s a good analysis of who works in policy: young people with good credentials.

Howlett tries to find natural public policy windows by studying mentions of a topic in Parliament, media reports and elsewhere. Much of this may be moot, though, as a result of the “hollow state” – governments with fewer levers to pull and not much at the end of the levers that remain.

I like this and most academic books I encounter. The writer has done lots of work and been subjected to peer-review – a nasty process in which fellow academics pass judgment.

But I’m still unsatisfied. I don’t have a good working definition of public policy.

I think I knew intuitively who worked in policy shops and how it’s quite different in small versus large governments, and changes again when major policy issues must be addressed

As for the original research, I’d like to see what’s meant by a mention in Parliament. In maiden speeches, all members extol the virtues of the local crop (fiddleheads in New Brunswick, peaches in Penticton, Alberta beef and so on). So what? A mention in members’ statements is quite different than in question period. A mention by the prime minister carries more weight than one by a backbencher.

As for the media, it’s been said that question period is a forum by which the opposition can read the newspaper to the government. In short, media help drive the process.

For now, I’ll stick with Public Policy Isn’t.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner, MSc, DBA, is a crisis manager based in Toronto. His forthcoming book is Cyber City Safe.

public policy, absence of action

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