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Takao Akiyoshi

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The academics to reform policymaking systems

Takao Akiyoshi
Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration, Faculty of Law, Chuo University

Why choose public policy studies?

I specialize in the academic field of public policy studies. The field of public policy studies was born as policy sciences following World War II. It is still a relatively new field and this article may be the first time that many people hear its name. Some people may wonder why the academic field of public policy studies is necessary, or how public policy studies differs from previous academic fields.

Put simply, public policy studies is an academic field which deals with public policy. Our society has a variety of problems including environmental problems, regional disparities and traffic problems. Public policy provides courses of action and specific methods for solving these social problems.

When hearing the phrase “solving problems,” some people may think that public policy studies focuses only on solutions. Unfortunately, very few social problems can be solved simply. Classes in public policy studies deal with the complexity of social problems. The majority of social problems are somehow linked to other problems. In some cases, solving one problem may cause another to worsen. Furthermore, many people are involved in such problems and each person has their own perspective of the problem. Moreover, the form of problems changes with the passage of time and past solutions will become ineffective at some point.

Is the specialized field of modern sociology capable of responding to such social problems? This question is the origin of public policy studies (policy sciences). In the 1930s, sociology had become academics for the purpose of academics and people raised the incisive question of what the purpose of such knowledge is. Following World War II, the political scientist Harold Dwight Lasswell proposed policy sciences as a science providing material needed for clarifying the process of policy formation in society and enabling rational judgment regarding political issues.

Two fields of public policy studies

Some readers may find it strange that the term policy sciences has a plural “s.” Public policy studies is an academic field which integrates knowledge from a variety of fields including political science, economics, business administration and sociology. Accordingly, it has been written in the plural tense. The field still has a short history, which often creates the impression the public policy studies is a vague field. I am frequently questioned about this perceived vagueness. It’s true that public policy studies spans numerous other academic fields. However, stated broadly, public policy studies is composed from the two areas of knowledge in process and knowledge of process.

The former knowledge in process is knowledge provided to the process of policymaking. It encompasses a wide range from knowledge related to each policy field to individual methods of policy analysis such as cost-benefit analysis. It is also known as policy design theory.

The latter knowledge of process is knowledge regarding the process of policymaking. Also known as policy process theory, it is knowledge concerning how and by whom policy is made and implemented. Knowledge of process is important in order to connect knowledge in process to actual policy within the policymaking process. Stated differently, knowledge of process keeps policy proposals from becoming pie in the sky.

Setbacks of early public policy studies

Now, how has public policy studies considered the reform of policymaking? The original field of policy sciences may give many people the impression that the field consists of rational decision-making for selecting and applying the optimal proposal for a problem.

It’s true that early public policy studies (policy sciences) sought to realize rational decision-making as the automated preference. Initially, groups of experts used advanced methods to analyze social problems and derived several possible solutions (policy alternatives). Then, in a decision-making system which removes politics, the optimal solution was automatically selected.

Actually, in the U.S. during the1960s, the administration of President Johnson assigned sociologists to many social programs and implemented PPBS (Planning, Programming and Budgeting System) for rational (efficient) budget allocation based on cost-benefit analysis for preparing the federal budget. However, as is widely known, the majority of those social programs failed and PPBS was aborted after only a few years.

Pluralism of knowledge and participation

Faced with such failure, public policy studies was forced to shift away from automated preference. The injection of pluralistic knowledge was a particular area of emphasis for knowledge in process which is provided to the policymaking process.

There is diverse knowledge for composing public policy. In addition to the theoretical knowledge of experts, there is practical knowledge acquired by bureaucrats during the implementation of policy and the firsthand knowledge of citizens who are affected by the policy. Public policy studies has placed particular focus on firsthand knowledge. The barrier of expertise has caused firsthand knowledge to be overlooked. However, firsthand knowledge is used to formulate policy based on the needs of citizens who represent the demand side for policy. Problems cannot be solved by policy which lacks firsthand knowledge.

In western countries, as an opportunity to input this firsthand knowledge, government has created chances for citizens to participate in policymaking and hold debates. Since a variety of citizens participate in such opportunities, it is possible to understand the context of a social problem while also inputting knowledge. Understanding the context enables analysis for the structure of a problem and formulation of possible solutions. In this way, public policy studies has reviewed a methodology of participatory policy analysis.

Policy process as a process of utilizing knowledge

The setback of early public policy studies which was discussed above also impacted knowledge of process which analyzes the structure of policy process. In conventional public policy studies, knowledge of process mainly analyzed the characteristics of politicians, bureaucrats and other actors involved in policymaking, as well as the power relationships between such actors. However, since policy analysis did not function in the policy process as part of automated preference, a new form of research was conducted known as knowledge utilization theory.

First, analysis was conducted to determine how knowledge provided through policy analysis is utilized in actual policymaking. Analysis was also conducted to assess how knowledge provided through policy analysis influences politicians and bureaucrats, as well as to determine what kind of policy selection is brought by such knowledge. Additionally, it was pointed out that the government formulates policy by learning from socioeconomic context and past experience. The concept attracted attention under the name of policy learning theory.

Furthermore, in political science, attention was placed on how the behavior of actors is impacted by systems; specifically, by the various rules and mechanisms which surround the actors. Research was conducted for the theory of new institutionalism and public policy studies was also affected by this development. In public policy studies, review was conducted to determine how such systems effect policymaking, especially in terms policy learning which was previously discussed. It was indicated that the reflection of knowledge on policymaking is influenced by the structure of the environment in which policy is formulated, as well as by the presence of rejection points for which veto rights are used and the presence policy legacy, which refers to systems formulated in the past.

Towards reform of policymaking

Public policy studies has conducted repeated academic review struggling with the question which was raised at the inception of the field—How to reform policymaking? Japan lags behind in such research and academic results have not been sufficiently introduced. However, a shared understanding has been reached as 3rd-generation public policy studies.

When public policy studies shifted direction in the 1970s, the first step was to abandon the fantasy of rational decision making. The idea of objective and neutral experts formulating possible solutions to a problem through value neutral analysis and policymakers then conducting rational policymaking based on the analysis is nothing more than a dream.

So, what action should be taken? Public policy studies has emphasized the simple securing of pluralistic knowledge in policymaking. At the same time, this recommendation has greatly changed the form of experts. In order to analyze the context of applicable problems, experts are expected to participate in fields where pluralistic knowledge is injected. At that time, it is necessary to have knowledge of process regarding the channel through which knowledge is linked to policymaking. Even more important is that possible solutions to a problem are not formulated by experts alone. Based on a variety of information (validity of policy debate, basis for facts and information, social and technological restrictions) that is provided by experts, solutions must be reviewed through exploration which is composed of discussion between various actors.

Takao Akiyoshi
Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Born in Oita Prefecture in 1971. Graduated from the Faculty of Commerce and Management, Hitotsubashi University in 1994. Completed the Master’s Program in the Graduate School of Commerce and Management, Hitotsubashi University in 1997. Completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Commerce and Management, Hitotsubashi University in 2000. Holds a PhD in commerce and management from Hitotsubashi University. Served as Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law, Kumamoto University and as Professor in the Graduate School of Social and Cultural Sciences, Kumamoto University. Assumed his current position in 2013.
Currently conducts research on the process of policy change, particularly on how cognitive factors such as ideas and knowledge impact policy shifts and policy selection. His major written works include Changes in Public Policy and Policy Science: Two Regulatory Reforms in the Japan-U.S. Air Transport Industry (sole author, Yuhikaku Publishing Co., Ltd., 2007) and Basic Public Policy (co-written, Yuhikaku Publishing Co., Ltd., 2010), etc.