walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
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_An Introduction to the Policy Process_, Thomas A. Birkland

I have the second edition, subtitled: Theories, Concepts, and Models of Public Policy Making. I believe I bought this around 2008, but I can't convince Amazon to produce it in my order history and I cannot imagine I bought it anywhere else so I don't really know what to think.

The publisher is M.E. Sharpe, which also published Crunden's fantastic _Brief History of American Culture_ in the mid 1990s and which continues to be in print (because why shouldn't it be? It's amazing.). There is a new edition of Birkland as of 2010.

At the time, I was involved in local politics connected to the library in Mayberry (<-- not its real name) and I had some questions only very tangentially related to the local/library experience, specifically, I wanted to know how laws went from being words in a book to ... something that actually happened. I could sort of imagine some amount of training of police officers, but that didn't address how a law about improving air quality got converted into every year or so having to go someplace, have your car in a special booth hooked up at the tail pipe and a bunch of diagnostics done, then some paperwork associated with that and/or proving you spent such-and-such an amount of money and that wasn't enough to fix it so we're done for now. I was sort of hoping this book would give me an organized way of thinking about the entire process from hey, the air really sucks here to oh, wow, I'd better go do the emissions check this week or I'm in trouble.

Of course, books can only do that if you read them. Birkland entered the read-or-release project (summary: I have books I've been meaning to read for years. Now, I am reading them, one by one, or figuring out why they are not worth my time.) and, as I would expect from an M.E. Sharpe product, it is uniformly good. As the subtitle indicates, Birkland is presenting an overview of theories, rather than a lot of detailed case studies in support of _a_ theory, or just a bunch of case studies about how this works without a theory (<-- which might be cool, if you know of such a thing, I'd love to hear about it). Birkland is a big fan of Deborah Stone's _Policy Paradox_, and also mentions Baumgartner and Jones several times; the latter is available on kindle, the former is not (and neither is Birkland, more is the pity).

The case studies are the weakest element of the book. Honestly, I just sort of wish they weren't there, but perhaps a professor teaching a class and using this as a text (which it clearly is, I mean, duh, it's published by M.E. Sharpe) could do something useful with them and they are side-barred thus ignorable. Here are examples of why I don't like them.

p 16: "Normative and Empirical Analysis of the Abortion Debate"

It's all about "the degree to which a woman's mental and physical health is affected by having an abortion". Needless to say, nothing about the mental and physical health effects of _not having access to abortion_, or having an unwanted child. Yuck.

pp 46-48: "Civil Rights and the Deliberate Pace of Change"

In describing US history from the Constitution through to 50 years after Brown, there's a big gap between 1930s era voting rights cases and 1950s era education cases. There is _absolutely not one fucking word_ about desegregation in the military, which started during WW2 and the Korean War as a battlefield decision and became official in 1954, three years after Truman ordered it to happen.

Many people who write about the civil rights movement think that what happened in the military was an important input into what happened in schools and elsewhere later on. It strikes me as a really big lapse to just Not Mention it, and then ask at the end of the case study, "What features of American history, politics, and government do you think caused the nearly 100-year delay in redeeming the promises made in the Civil War amendments? What made it possible for there to be so much change in the relatively few years between 1954 and 1970?" How can you answer that question with that context?

So the sidebars are pretty weak.

Because the second edition was published in 2005 and necessarily the writing largely predates that, the recent, massive transition away from news_papers_ and newsmagazines (in all forms) towards getting news online (whether from electronic versions of old brands like NYT or entirely new products like Nate Silver and Bill McBride) is absent, and, even more important, internet activism is not mentioned, much less developed as an important component of the process, which is sort of sad because while this _was_ pre-Obama, I think MoveOn was already spamming us at the time of publication.

Don't get me wrong. This is a great book. It is covering exactly the ground I wanted it to cover. It lays out the history of "public policy" as an academic study area (which is recent), and the various other fields that connect to it/feed into it/preceded it. It presents an inevitably weak history of public policy in action (summaries at this level tend to be somewhat useless), focusing almost exclusively on the United States. The good news is that Birkland uses this as an opportunity to explain why making change happen in the context of the United States is really difficult. He _could_ have decided to laud this situation as leading to "hyperstability" and he didn't do that.

On the other hand, while his first examples are almost always policy examples for stereotypically left wing (but, honestly, centrist, or they would never, ever happen), like women's rights, civil rights, environmental protection/anti-pollution measures, etc., he then always has a bit about stereotypically right wing efforts. This is a case of even-handedness that irritates me, but which is actually probably exactly the right tone.

He then rattles through an overview of official actors, unofficial actors, the agenda setting process, types of policies.

Chapter 7 and 8 are the chapters most of interest to me. The former summarizes possible policy goals as part of designing policies and then assessing their success. It also covers policy tools. The case study is the Patriot Act; in this case, the weakness lies in the questions at the end tending to sort people along a libertarian axis. The chapter as a whole, however, spends a lot of time on Deborah Stone's work and while it isn't as clear as I would like it to be, it does dig into how to respond to rhetoric ascribing things to "accidents", "acts of God", the "unforeseeable" etc., to preserve the opportunity to change the way we respond to things in a useful manner. I could nitpick the descriptions of tax incentives as "largely self-executing", given how much enforcement effort winds up going into some deductions, but it hardly seems worth the bother. Chapter 7 provides an extremely useful overview of how to think about choices in accomplishing a goal such as "universal health care". What we wound up with makes a lot of sense, even tho it feels like a failure to many participants, because it resulted from a bottom-up process, involved a lot of negotiation, provides for a great deal of choice, and focuses on multiple goals simultaneously and at the same time making quite limited promises in its efforts to get us to "universal coverage". (I'm pulling some of the ideas from Chapter 8 into this, of course). Chapter 8 is about Making It All Happen (or not), and is the 20 pages that I was really here for. It does a good job describing the recursive interactions between policy choices in design and tools and implementation and assessment of success/failure thereafter. The case study here is about aviation security and terrorism, and again, it feels weak. There's a great theme here of how we build up a bunch of desired changes over time, and then try to get them all at once when some relevant Crisis occurs -- but it's so backgrounded, it is all but invisible.

Chapter 9, models of the process, has all kinds of annoying features that I feel should have been apparent when the book was written (remember: 2nd edition, published in 2005), but are really problematic in 2013. One of the worst of these, _always_ wrong:

p 221: "Laws, rules, and regulations are often thought of as burdensome and challenged on those grounds. And these claims are usually quite true: laws and regulations _do_ impose burdens on some people or interests. The key factor for policy makers is who bears the burden and how heavy the burden is. That a law or regulation imposes a burden on someone is an insufficient reason for supporting or opposing a rule without understanding who benefits and who pays for a given policy."

The Reagan era of deregulation is so embedded in the frame that even tho the author pointed it out earlier in the book, it appears to get away from him here (sorry about the mixed metaphor). Laws, rules, and regulations _do not_ impose burdens. They _shift_ burdens. I'm sure there is an exception somewhere -- a law or regulation that only makes things worse for absolutely everyone -- but I have yet to encounter it when fresh. If you buy the idea that laws impose burdens and then have to decide who gets the pain in exchange for goodies, then Laws Are Evil. You have to accept going in that there is Already Pain Being Imposed By Someone's Actions or Inaction, and that laws etc. are designed to improve that situation: either overall reduction of pain, overall improvement of benefits, or shifting some of the pain back on the perpetrator. There was a polluter, before there was a law against pollution. Somebody killed somebody and then we called it murder and decided what to do to the killer.

"there has been greater pressure, in the past twenty years, to ensure the efficacy of current laws rather than simply make new ones. Calls for more gun control policies, for example, are countered with calls to more effectively enforce the laws that are already on the books." This is a _terrible_ example of "oversight". This is an example of people opposing a policy, and you can tell, based on what they did next (zero budget the people who were supposed to enforce the current laws, type of thing, currently escalating to attempts to criminalize on the state level efforts to enforce federal gun law). "Oversight" is real. People _really do_ try to figure out which laws to get rid of on account of not working -- such as eliminating Reg E, the requirement for a sticker on ATMs warning about fees, in the face of lawsuits brought by people who started their transaction by _scraping the sticker off the machine_ and were caught on videotape doing it. But gun control isn't where you are going to find those people.

The meat of the chapter is devoted to summarizing Kington, Sabatier and Baumgartner-and-Jones on how policy is made, which is fantastic in terms of finding other sources on the subject (the summaries are detailed enough), and a great way to end the book (the appendix on doing research on the web has the inevitable problems).

While I wouldn't recommend reading this older edition (there is a newer one), there is every reason to believe that Birkland's current edition (3rd, 2010, but if you read this later, there will probably be more) will continue to be a usable textbook/introduction to policy, particularly since Birkland's approach is extremely centrist, consensus oriented, and carefully attributed to sources. He's not here plugging his own model; he's telling you what is out there. Since I'm not familiar with the field, I cannot say whether horrifying bias is revealed by what he ignored, but I don't see any obvious evidence of that. It's about the United States; if you want something more general, you'll have to go elsewhere.

On the whole, I remain pleased with M.E. Sharpe's products, and happy that I'm engaging in the read-or-release project. This book will only get more out of date as time goes by.
Tags: book review, non-fiction
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