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Public Opinion and Policy Making in Less Settled Polities

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In the last post on this Blog, my colleague, Anne-Katrin, discusses John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, a very influential study of the policy process in the United States. In the study, Kingdon shows how the three streams of problems, policy solutions and politics converge to move an issue to 'the decision agenda'; that is, governmental action. The policy process, he says, is a sort of 'organized anarchy', but the magic moment appears to be when the three streams converge a social problem finds the right policy solution and the right 'policy window'; offered by the political process...and governmental action of some sort happens. His work is elegant and compelling: problems, policies, and politics. It all rings true.

However, I want to begin by explaining  why the policy process is an important area of concern for a program like CommGAP. Governance reform- or any major reform for that matter – needs the convergence of public will and political will, fundamentally communication processes. Otherwise, the reform will not happen, or it will not be sustained.  In the study that we have just published, Governance Reform Under Real World Conditions, two contributors discuss the policy process in insightful ways: Matt Andrews and Lori Post. Second, one of the fascinating questions for us is to what extent and in what ways public opinion has an impact on the policy process. And that brings in the role of the media. Lori Post discusses this at some length in our new study. And that fascination also explains, I suspect,  Anne-Katrin’s post.

Reading John Kingdon gave me an experience of elegance, that moment when an intellectual framework gives you a handle on a complex area of reality, helps you to see more and to predict more, and to plan interventions more smartly. But his framework is not perfect by any means. More work needs to be done to adapt his elegant framework to developing country contexts (and I would really appreciate pointers to any work already done along these lines).

Problem number one: the policy process in an advanced democracy might appear like organized anarchy but there are many developing countries where it is real anarchy that is at work. For, settled constitutional systems, with helpful constitutional conventions, provide a platform for the policy process to unfold. Policy changes are trailed, discussed. Citizens can anticipate changes and make plans accordingly. Violent, sudden policy reversals are not the order of the day. In less stable environment, I am not sure you can speak of a policy process at all.

Problem number two: my view is that the influence of public opinion - and hence the news media -  on the policy process, such as it is, will depend on whether or not governments have to hold regular elections during which they might actually get thrown out of office. For, if the electoral process has no integrity, governments are not likely to take public opinion as seriously as they should (except to prevent riots or violent upheavals). All this depends on country context.

Problem number three: what about the impact of donors on the policy process in developing countries? When donors engage in ’policy dialogue’ with ’partner governments’ do they organise thereby a wonderful coming together of John Kingdon’s three streams of problems, policies and politics? And move issues up the policy agenda and into the decision agenda, and, hence, governmental action by so doing? The reflections by Matt Andrews and Lori Post in our new study go directly to these questions. And I believe that these matters are at the heart of the feasibility of processes of pro-poor change in developing countries. As a result, they are matters to which we shall return again and again.

Photo Credit: Bill Lyons, 2002 (World Bank)

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