Policy, what policy?

I have recently started a new research project which involves analysis of the social justice aspects of policies and policy-making for electric mobility.

I was also recently accused, in relation to a different project, of unhelpfully conflating guidance and policy.

Personally, I would refute that I was mixing the concepts up, but I do understand why it was seen as unhelpful.

The inconsistency in our respective perspectives appears to have derived from their narrower focus on policy as formally adopted strategic principles. Yet I believe policies are also inclusive of the more detailed descriptions of potential ways to implement those principles, even if agreed at a different level. For example, the road user hierarchy with pedestrians at the top and private cars at the bottom is an example of a strategic policy. But I would say that design guidance for the layouts of roads that put pedestrians first, or the sections of the highway code that indicate who has priority at a junction are also policies.

And yet, strategic policies often gain widespread, multi-level approval more easily, whereas ‘the devil is in the detail’. Pointing out such details could be seen as unhelpful if there is limited power to apply or implement the policy concerned.

Still, just in case, I thought I’d look up the dictionary definition of ‘policy’.

The source of inconsistency was immediately clear. Policies are defined as ‘principles of action’, ‘ideas or a plan of what to do’. Policies should systematically both ‘guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes’. So are they principles and ideas to guide decision-making or are they actions and plans that achieve something called outcomes? Policies are also defined as being adopted by or agreed to in some official manner by a particular group or organisation. Yet there are as many ways to officially agree to something as there are groups or groups of groups who might do the agreeing.

These questions also partially explain the why the academic literature on policy processes and design is contested, as it struggles to make sense of the discontinuity, ambiguity and uncertainty inherent in a process now generally accepted to be non-linear. Allocating agency and unpicking power relations is also tricky, as policies are not the same as politics, and individuals can be actors in their own right as a ‘policy entrepreneur’, for example, or buried in an ‘advocacy coalition’ or a ‘target population’. The terminology reflects the challenge of defining the policy process in a rational and consistent manner.

All this may be why many transport studies include a section on ‘policy implications’, usually of the effectiveness of certain ideas or principles, without engaging with policy makers or the process of how policy is made. Yet if transport planning wants to achieve goals of social justice, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability, policy implications must consider not just statements of principle or indicators to measure outcomes, but also all the steps in between. And that means engaging with multiple elements of the policy process, even if the idea of distinct, linear policy stages has been criticised as overly simplistic.

This is particularly important for a project that aims to assess social justice, which also has multiple aspects. Transport research and planning tends to focus on distributional justice, measuring policy outcomes like accessibility. Yet there is also procedural justice, which is all about who is involved in policy design and decision-making, and the recognition aspect of justice, relating to who decides what is a problem that needs addressing and so sets the policy agenda.

In conclusion, policy is complex and contested. That is part of what makes policy what it is – and makes it only more likely that some will argue about what it isn’t.

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