Certain branches of the social sciences, especially those associated with the goals of social justice, have a long tradition of bearing witness to suffering and, as Aaron Wildavsky expressed it ‘speaking truth to power’, i.e. providing policy-makers and other powerful actors with what might be uncomfortable messages. This can require courage and conviction. So, although the study of public policy and public management may at times seem dry, I find it exciting (geeky as this may appear!).
A bit about me: I grew up in a time when it was legal in this country to pay women less than men for doing the same job. Inequities and injustices continue to motivate my interest in how public policy can impact on the lives of individuals and large numbers of people. Before I entered academia I worked in a local authority and for NHS organisations. This work as a ‘street-level bureaucrat’ with responsibility for areas such as social inclusion and for evaluating Sure Start local programmes stimulated my subsequent academic interest in policy interpretation, public management and implementation.
Reading between the lines
My first degree had English as a major component. At first sight, that might not appear directly relevant to either health sciences or policy analysis. But my research has been greatly influenced by the experience I gained in textual analysis and literary theory. For my (as yet!) unpublished Master’s in Research dissertation I took one policy text and drew on my background in literary criticism to ‘read between the lines’, examining the use of nouns, verbs and modalities. This showed, for instance, that childcare as a noun can mean different things, depending on whether it is linked to early-years development or the provision of childcare for working parents. Verb tenses were also important, since policy frequently attempts to predict and control the uncertain future – and interpret and frame the past too. In policy documents imperatives may take the form of ‘must dos’ setting out what is expected of policy implementers. But use of the term ‘may’ rather than ‘must’ indicates space for interpretation and discretion (‘wriggle room’) within policy implementation. Thus, perhaps counter-intuitively, rather than a single authoritative text or definitive policy document, multiple meanings emerge and policy becomes co-authored in the process of implementation.
Facts and values
An increasingly influential international academic network uses Interpretive Policy Analysis as a method, and a body of research is now emerging that uses these methods. This approach acknowledges that (except for some unambiguous instances such as seatbelt legislation) policy is rarely straightforward and often contains contradictions. The consequence is that those responsible for implementing policy have to use their judgement and interpret the context they find themselves working in to make decisions that make sense to them and the people they work with and for. This method is linked to what has been termed ‘the argumentative turn’, an approach to policy analysis, which emphasises the role of values and ideas and how these may or may not become generally accepted as facts. The argumentative turn encompasses many varying opinions and practices that are not always in complete accordance with one another, but all focus on rhetoric, problem framing, symbolism and narratives rather than statistical analysis.
As many people (including policy analysts and qualitative researchers) are aware, storytelling is a powerful collective means of making shared sense of the world – of portraying what it means to be human in an often inhumane environment. In my research I regularly encounter people telling stories and producing policy narratives, sometimes with the aid of visual techniques, sometimes using artefacts. This everyday work of meaning-making can dramatically affect how policy is enacted and how managers and front-line workers go about their work. The use of qualitative methods and an interpretive approach helps us to understand how policy gets re-shaped within implementation practices and how unintended consequences might happen. It’s not just policy-makers in the rarefied environs of Whitehall that write policy, but those at the sharp end of care in inner-city Leicester, too.