Colebatch and Hoppe (Eds), Handbook on Policy, Process and Governing

Hal Colebatch and Robert Hoppe (Eds), Handbook on Policy, Process and Governing, Edward Elgar, 2018, xiv + 516 pp, 1 78471 486 4, hbk, £195. (The eBook version is priced from £36 from Google Play, and other eBook vendors, while in print the book can be ordered from the Edward Elgar Publishing website.)

Handbook: Originally a book small enough to be easily portable and intended to be kept close to hand, typically one containing a collection of passages important for reference or a compendium of information on a particular subject … Later also more generally: any book (usually but not necessarily concise) giving information such as facts on a particular subject, guidance in some art or occupation, instructions for operating a machine, or information for tourists. (Oxford English Dictionary)

The editors of this volume have gathered a global cast of expert authors to create a genuine handbook, in the second dictionary meaning of the term. The chapters are thoroughly evidence-based; readers will gain new understandings of the policy process and be better able to exercise the art or occupation of operating the policy machine; and anyone reading the book will be able to orientate themselves within a wide variety of perspectives on the policy process, and will therefore be better able to navigate them.

The editors’ introductory chapter states their initial agenda as an attempt to draw a map of how scholars have employed ‘concepts, categories, practices and relationships’ in order to understand the place of policy in ‘generating collective action and, specifically, in the process of governing’ (p. 3). Chapter 2 sees policy-making as the method by which authority-figures govern as they make decisions and those decisions are then put into practice by officials; chapter 3 understands government as the writing of policy documents, and points out that those documents function differently for academics and civil servants. Chapter 4 understands policy-making as problem-solving, finds social problems to be socially constructed, and therefore understands ‘policy-making as problem-solving’ to be a useful narrative rather than a linear process. Chapter 5 sees policy-making as a body of practices understood by relevant stakeholders, meaning that to study policy-making we need to study what different stakeholders actually do; and chapter 6 asks how policy-making relates to the past, the present, and the future, in order to understand it as a body of knowledge. These different perspectives on policy-making are correctly understood as different aspects of a complex process; and the editors contribute a useful further perspective when they suggest that policy is the field lying between politics and administration.

Part II of the book pursues the agenda set in chapter 2: the understanding of policy as authoritative choice, with the different chapters exploring explanations of the policy process. Chapter 7 defends a ‘stage’ theory of policy-making; chapter 8 understands design as a constant process rather than as simply an initial stage; chapter 9 studies the way in which scholars have come to see the policy process as a constant choosing of policy instruments; chapter 10 explores the idea of implementation as policy-making, and finds it to be a multi-layered activity; and chapter 11 recognises that, in a more turbulent world, evaluation of policy outcomes as a part of the policy process has some significant challenges to meet. The overall impression delivered by this section of the book is that in a fast-changing world, policy-making methods suited to a more stable world require significant adaptation, and that it will be essential to see policy-making as a constant process rather than as a linear list of stages.

Part III sets out from the insight that policy-making is never an individual affair: rather, policy is made across networks of individuals and organisations that relate to each other in complex ways. Chapter 12 tries to understand how policy actors relate to each other, and whether the clusters that emerge can be categorised; chapter 13 learns lessons from the theory that advocacy coalitions based on shared values can provoke the formation of counter-coalitions based on alternative values; chapter 14 sets out from the theory that a ‘problem stream’, a ‘policy stream’ and a ‘politics stream’ moving in the same direction can create a window for policy change; and chapter 15 studies the relationships between different ‘policy workers’, and particularly bureaucrats and professional advisers. The overall theme here is that the different understandings of the policy process function as heuristics: simplified but still useful frameworks for understanding a complex field.

Part IV sees the policy process as a ‘making sense’ of what happens. It is ‘collective puzzling’ about ‘what is normal, what is problematic, what demands collective attention, what is the problem, what is the source of the problem, what forms of response are appropriate, and who should be involved in accomplishing the response’ (p. 9). Chapter 16 shows how important the process of framing problems is to the policy process, and how frames can be used to prevent or to achieve compromise; chapter 17 studies agenda formation and change, and finds the early stages of agenda-setting to be sufficiently fluid to enable important choices to be made at that stage; chapter 18 understands the policy process as the construction of narratives that can drive policy trajectories (for instance, the ‘war on drugs’); chapter 19 studies the way in which policy ideas are transferred from one situation to another, with substantial change occurring during the transfer process; chapter 20 discusses how the news media follow their own agendas and therefore relate rather obliquely to the policy process, preferring to publicise problems than to study policies and their long-term effects; and chapter 21 studies the silo effect of social media, which can prevent relationships between alternative problematisations. Chapter 22 regards the process of problematisation as intrinsic to the policy process, and shows that issue selection and the definition of problems are ways in which society charts its way towards social change.

The final section of the book, on the limits of policy, begins with chapter 23 on how governing has often been about continuity and the tweeking of existing policy, whereas more recent ideological approaches to government have resulted in significant policy shifts. Chapter 24 finds that a variety of factors determine whether stasis or change occurs, and suggests that what is required is approaches that integrate reflexive agency, interactions, and changing context. Chapter 25 shows how the policy process is substantially driven by the particular social and economic situation in which a jurisdiction finds itself; and chapter 26 shows how existing policies, understood as institutions, affect the policy process and therefore future policy.

The final chapter of the book surveys the ground that the book has covered, and draws some conclusions. The editors find that new understandings that recognise the complexity of the policy-making process still struggle to make headway against a longstanding understanding of a rational and linear account of policy-making; and that researchers tend to reach conclusions that will endear them to policy practitioners.

Research approaches which suggest that there was not much that could be achieved by the exercise of authoritative choice, and that the most effective courses of action would not generate much kudos for the government, would not be as well received. (p. 496)

The editors call for research grounded in practice, and suggest that that will discover a diversity of institutionalised concerns, in effect rivals for attention and access to resources. In the policy process, they compete for resources, so they have an interest in winning, but they have an equally important interest in maintaining an orderly process in which they continue to be significant players. (p. 498)

The book contains a few proof-reading and formatting errors; there are useful introductions to each of the sections; and there is a thorough index. The high price of the book will restrict it to academic libraries, but, in that context it will be enormously useful to scholars in every conceivable policy field.

The importance of this book for those involved in the Citizen’s Basic Income debate is that it reveals the policy process to be a complex and constantly changing field of activity in which every participant has influence. The challenge is therefore to engage with the policy process in as many different ways as possible, in the knowledge that every initiative will have influence. A lesson to learn, though, is that the complexity of the field means that any intervention can have unintended effects as well as intended ones.

A further relevance of the book’s diverse understanding of a diverse policy process is this: The Citizen’s Basic Income debate is relatively unusual in historical terms in that it tests a proposal against societal and economic problems rather than setting out from problems and seeking solutions: but this is precisely the kind of non-linear policy-making that the book takes as much of its agenda. In a complex and changing world, not only would Citizen’s Basic Income respond to many of the issues facing our societies and our economies, but it also meshes more easily with today’s policy process than it did with yesterday’s. If ever there is a second edition of this important book, then the editors might consider including a chapter titled ‘Starting with the solution’.