Perspectives on policy

In a nutshell:

  • policy can be framed as being integrative and harmonising (the “ideal”)
  • policy can be recognised as continuously contested – especially by elites and elite “public opinion”
  • policy may be read as power of the dominant, and as about setting different actors’ responsibilities
  • in yet another paradigm, policy can be understood to be constrained and checked by the grassroots actors, and also as potentially empowering
  • much policy can be analysed as representing a mess or a vacuum, or simply as intended (or unintended) “flexibility”

So what is policy?

Policy can be taken to mean a plan or course of action, as of government, political party, business, or any other organisation, intended to influence and determine decisions and actions (Hornby 2000).  How policy works varies according to diverse paradigms, in particular functionalism, liberal pluralism, power, radical democracy, and chaos .  

Paradigms 1: Functionalism

Policy in this outlook is regarded as a system to harmonise and align behaviours in the interests of the reproduction of the whole entity. This approach highlights common interests and consensus. It thus sees policy playing the role of integrating different forces. As such, the point of policy in this perspective is to provide for predictability, and to avoid ad hoc actions. To do this, policy must spell out the agreed rules of the game, and ensure that there are unambiguous roles that are clearly understood by the various players. From this perspective, it is readily apparent how policy can be intended to clarify relations and resolve tensions between editorial independence and public accountability.

This paradigm is temptingly obvious as an understanding of the role of policy, but it has some blind spots – and in particular, it ignores the politics of policy.

Paradigms 2: Liberal pluralism

Policy in this view reflects differing interests in competition. The perspective assumes that the outcomes will depend on the degree of pluralism present, and on the possibilities for informed choices and debate amongst those making policy. And even though policy formulation may eventually entail aggregation and compromise between differing interests, even this is not necessarily stable: politics can easily continue in the implementation (or non-implementation) of the policy. It is predictable therefore that whether to prioritise editorial independence over public accountability (or vice versa), is likely to be a matter of ongoing contestation.

Again, we have a paradigm that sensitises us to an important dimension of policy formulation and practice. But also again, we find that something else is ignored – namely power.

Paradigms 3: Power

In this perspective, policy is also about authority and responsibility. Politics around policy do not necessarily take place between equal parties, nor do the most rational proposals automatically winning the day. Instead, policy is very often about the exercise of power by those with power. But by the same token, wielding power is intrinsically bound up with responsibility, so this approach also highlights where “the buck stops” – i.e. where final authority and accountability lie for formulation, implementation and review of policy. This perspective is especially relevant to making public accountability a reality: it stresses who ultimately has authority and responsibility to adopt, enforce and review policy. It sensitises us also to noticing that much power in policy comes less from the policy-initiators and policy-makers than from implementers – the mandarins, mundane bureaucrats, and mid-level newsroom managers.

The perspective is further valuable in reminding us that policy is sometimes about legitimisation – about the symbolism that “something is being done” by those in charge. But this focus on the top-down power dimension of policy can also hide a different dimension.

Paradigms 4: Radical democracy

This grassroots view observes that policy is not simply a tool to be brandished unchecked by those with power, but also often something that is constrained by those at the bottom of the heap. It indicates how grassroots actors can impact on policy, even by active non-co-operation, and set its parameters accordingly. It also implies that effective policy should explicitly go further than recognising the role of the liberal pluralist elite of active stakeholders, and explicitly canvass the views of grassroots stakeholder groups (whose experiences and insights can often enrich the policy outcome and make a difference to implementation). The radical democratic paradigm also puts value on the notion that policy can empower and liberate; that it does not only have to be about strictures. A policy on editorial independence, in this view, can be a useful  tool for journalists to fend of pressures to compromise craft ethics and to strengthen their abilities to make and defend professional decisions.

Being conscious of bottom-up policy aspects is a valuable insight. However, there is a danger of it becoming a romantic populism that reduces the role of final authority (and even of trained expertise) in policy formulation and implementation. This insight about the dangers of a policy “free-for-all” is provided by a fifth approach.

Paradigms 5: Chaos theory

This outlook sensitises us to several situations. One is when there is a policy vacuum – and the fact that “no policy” can in fact be a policy in the sense of allowing authorities to avoid having to develop something to which they can be held to account. In this sense, chao can also serve power. Also highlighted by this paradigm is that even when there is policy, it is often ad hoc, inconsistent, arbitrary, half-baked, unknown, arcane, or ineffectual. Chaos can exist too when there are too many policies, or too much detail about them, and when there is a lack of integration and prioritisation. The chaos approach further points to irrationalities in processes, the deleterious effects of poor research, the likelihood of unintended effects, and confusions as regards roles, responsibilities and review. In general therefore, the chaos paradigm underlines what is poor in much policy – and the antidote therefore  points to some kind of functionalist order and harmony. On the other hand, chaos is not intrinsically negative. There can be dangers in an “over”-policy-ised situation that lacks any flexibility.  Accordingly, editorial independence and public accountability can sometimes flourish in the absence of policy detail, and precisely because of the flexibility entailed. On the other hand, a complete policy vacuum can also open the gates to unprofessional journalism and to something other than public accountability.

Summing up paradigm insights for assessing what policy, in practice, actually is:

  • integrative and harmonising
  • elite interests contestation
  • the power of the dominant, and as responsibility
  • a limit set by grassroots actors, but also as potentially empowering of them
  • a mess, a vacuum, or as “flexible”

Speaking generally, political or business control (eg. of a public broadcaster) can be avoided through formulation of policies that are functionalist in nature and therefore capable of serving all sections of the entire society, and which serve as an ideal norm against which policy-makers and others can be held accountable.

To be realistic, however, cognisance should, however, be taken of the contested interests in policy, and of whether grassroots input is incorporated. The power paradigm points towards the hot topic of where final decision-making and responsibility should lie. 

Chaos, or (more charitably, flexibility), is often the result of (sometimes, but not always, welcome) policy realities – insufficient capacity, knowledge, time, skill, process and follow-through. Here, policy likely functions as political theatre but with little credibility – except that actors can exploit ambiguities and gaps (for better or for worse).

A final insight into policy theory is the difference between values, policies and codes. Values are key foundation stones of policies on editorial independence and public accountability, and will inform the specific cultural form these take. Codes are the mechanisms by which editorial policies are supposed to be put into practice: they are the  written rules that state how people in an institution should behave. It stands to reason that good policy is explicit, and clearly based on values, and is also made implementable through defined codes and procedures. It is not enough to have a policy – like editorial independence or public accountability defined and operational at only one level (eg. values, or codes) – and outside the three-tier package as a whole. Too much is left assumed or taken for granted if this is the case.

(Excerpted from: Berger, G. 2005. Reconciling Editorial Independence and Public Accountability Issues in Public Broadcasting Service: Editorial Policies at South African Broadcasting Corporation)

Bibliographic reference: Hornby, A.S. 2000. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. 6th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.