Partisan Policy-Making in Western Europe: How Ideology Influences the Content of Government Policies

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Issue Section:. You do not currently have access to this article. Download all figures. Sign in. You could not be signed in. Sign In Forgot password? The broad field of comparative public policy research comprises of research perspectives or traditions, theoretical approaches, empirical scopes and research methods. Numerous sub-disciplines and perspectives have emerged over the last decades.

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This development reflects the variety—and probably also limited commensurability—of the different paradigms guiding scholars of comparative public policy. So far, no dominant approach has emerged. In the following sections, I identify and discuss four dimensions along which studies of comparative public policy diverge. Scholars of comparative public policy analysis seek to systematically describe and explain the decisions of different governments, their timing and content.

To this end, several strategies have emerged to determine governmental behavior and decisional output—including for instance legislative acts, executive decrees or administrative circulars. A second group of researchers focuses on policy outcomes , namely the immediate consequences of a policy decision, while the third approach refers to policy outputs, namely the content of the decision.

As an example from the social policy field, one might consider unemployment protection policies. In this context, the decision to introduce monetary unemployment benefits at a certain level reflects the immediate policy output. The same decision could also be approximated by referring to total government spending on this particular social protection scheme i.

In the field of environmental policy-making one could consider emission standards for industrial plants. The definition of the standard itself, such as a limit value for the emission of sulfur dioxide, connotes the policy output, whereas the policy impact would be measured by the associated change in industrial emissions and air quality with respect to this particular substance. These brief examples illustrate the considerable risk of incomparability and incommensurability that result from the conceptualization and operationalization of the dependent variable government policy decisions.

From a policy cycle perspective, policy output on the one hand and policy outcome or impact on the other refer to different stages of the policy process. Sabatier and Mazmanian , Howlett and Ramesh ff. There is, however, a divide between policy outputs and their consequences outcome and impact not only with respect to the temporal patterns but also with regard to the potentially high number of intervening factors that influence the effects of policy decisions.

It is almost impossible to infer governmental decisions and intentions based on indirect outcome and impact measures. Esty and Porter conducted an extensive study in which a variety of different factors were analyzed to examine their influence on environmental performance outcome data. The authors find other factors besides institutional arrangements to have an impact on the policy outcome in addition to the policy outputs themselves including socio-economic and infrastructure-related factors. Thus, as this example shows, selecting indicators for the subject of analysis or the dependent variable is far from trivial.

The literature on both social and environmental policy shows that the majority of large-n comparative studies rely on outcome or impact instead of output measures due to eased data availability. It is rather the result of a series of decisions including institutional ones that cannot be comprehensively assessed by comparing single policy outputs see Scruggs 20ff. These indices are compiled from various outcome measures. They differ in their breadth in terms of the number of included pollutants cf. Impact and outcome measures are also common in the literature on social policy.

This might also be due to the conceptual and notional focus given that most scientists belonging to this area of research focus on the analysis of the welfare state as a whole rather than the explanation of single social policies. Analogously to the field of environmental policy research, policy output studies are uncommon.

Outcome indicators in the field of social policy differ with regard to their conceptual closeness to the underlying policy decision. On rather abstract levels, data on public expenditure allow for the comparison of public commitment to policies, governments or time. Expenditure data are usually easily available proxies for policy decisions.

They are often used in quantitative comparative studies cf. Stephens et al. However, as with the case of environmental policy the direct linkage between policy outputs and outcomes is questionable.


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A number of authors find alternative factors that have an impact on public spending levels Wilensky ; Castles and Mitchell ; Pierson ; Castles ; Kitschelt ; Allan and Scruggs The comparison between the politics of pension reform and unemployment protection, for instance, illustrates the complex interplay between socioeconomic conditions, government action and welfare expenditure and the risk of endogeneity for the resulting analyses. On the one hand, demographic change and aging of the population are likely to trigger policy-making by governments which then translates into expected expenditure levels for this specific social policy program Bonoli On the other hand, socio-economic conditions might also lead decision-makers to adapt unemployment protection policies.

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This is quite evident in the field of unemployment policies, where altered rates of unemployment directly impact on the resulting expenditure levels of the protection scheme Allan and Scruggs Again, these developments might motivate policymakers to take action Vis As these brief examples show, multidirectional effects cause problems of endogeneity which in turn pose serious risks for the validity of the findings obtained from such analyses. Furthermore, expenditure analyses entail the risk of omissions, as stable outcome levels of social policy might obscure underlying changes due to altered contexts e.

Knill et al. Replacement rates refer to the amount of monetary compensation paid to retirees, unemployed persons or those unable to work because of illness. Social generosity from this perspective is operationalized through the benefit levels e. This strategy allows for consistent cross-country or cross-time comparisons for certain sub-aspects of policy-making. A major problem with this approach is that available data on replacement levels cover only few aspects of the policy. On the one hand, the use of replacement rates is biased toward policy decisions with monetary implications.

On the other hand, by focusing on the benefits for representative standard employees, such studies often also neglect the full range of policy decisions with regard to the different levels of benefits.

Thus, cross-country comparisons on the basis of replacement rate indicators only incur serious risk of biased results due the systematic focus on the monetary implications of social policies Whiteford ; Lynch ; Bonoli ; Scruggs ; Knill et al. The recent literature on social policy-making, however, shows a number of more sophisticated fine-grained analytical frames to study and compare policy-making in different countries. Immergut et al. Altogether, the decision of how to conceptualize and measure the subject of study i. The comparative approach often requires a certain degree of pragmatism and simplification with respect to the operationalization of the underlying concepts—particularly when it comes to designing quantitative large-n studies.

However, as this brief overview of different ways of conceptualizing and operationalizing the dependent variables in comparisons of public policy-making illustrates, these decisions might considerably influence the validity of the findings due to the choice of variables and indicators. In this context, policy change analyses with a direct focus on policy output are one way to assess the underlying decision-making of governments—hence covering various stages of the policy cycle including agenda-setting, policy formulation and decision-making see Howlett and Ramesh They represent the eventual consensus that has been reached by the group of involved policy actors.

Policy outcome studies are based on rather indirect measures of the underlying policy decisions. These include performance indices or pollution data for certain substances and expenditure data for the fields of environmental and social policy, respectively.

Given the supposedly complex processes that account for the outcomes, the direction of causal mechanisms is far from evident, which again creates risks of endogeneity. Scholars of quantitative comparative environmental policy research have partly acknowledged this challenge by including certain policy outputs e.

Nevertheless, given the bi-directional causation between policy output and outcome, one could argue that policy outcomes are crucial in explaining follow-up policy-making. As outcomes reflect the effectiveness of previous policy decisions through records of either financial expenditure or pollution they might also create incentives for future policy-making.

Furthermore, the heterogeneity of the different approaches found in the literature impacts on the degree of comparability of the results of different studies themselves. Even within the subfield of outcome studies, there are currently many different strategies to design environmental performance indices or to compile expenditure indicators for social policies. This arbitrariness might explain the limited comparability and inconsistency of the findings.

As a consequence of the difficulty in comparing the policy-making behavior of governments in its entirety, various research traditions have emerged to analyze and compare public policies from distinct perspectives. In this section, I present and discuss three different research traditions that analyze public policy-making from a comparative perspective by taking a particular analytical lens and focusing on the observed patterns of policy change or adoption. While the majority of scholars include positive as well as negative decisions in the analysis, scholars of policy termination or dismantling focus exclusively on decisions that are of reductive nature through the partial or complete abolishment of policies.

Research on policy termination was initiated by Brewer in the early s with the objective directing scientific attention toward this final stage of the policy cycle process. His initiative led to a vital but short-lived scholarly reaction to analytically advance research into this aspect of policy-making cf. Despite persistent theoretical problems and inconsistencies, a number of empirical studies followed e. The policy termination approach develops types or forms of policy termination that are of different scope and that are debated between groups of opponents and proponents of different strengths cf.

Policy dismantling is a related concept in that it focuses on policy decisions to reduce public generosity distributive policies like social policy or water down the rigidity of regulatory policies e. Policy dismantling has initially been studied in the context of welfare state analyses. So far, various methods have been applied to analyze such policy decisions mainly in the field of social or welfare state policy e.

A second criterion for case selection is based on the empirically observed patterns of spread of certain policy innovations. The broad literature of policy diffusion seeks to explain the dissemination of certain policies among units at different levels i. In order to reduce complexity in comparing public policy-making over cases or units, policy diffusion scholars analyze single policies or policy innovations by describing the underlying adoption patterns over time and units. Braun and Gilardi , diffusion scholars try to explain the spread of policies by identifying the relevant domestic and international factors at work.

This way, diffusion scholars seek to estimate the international influence on domestic policy decisions cf. Frank et al. Since its emergence in the s Gray ; Collier and Messick , policy diffusion research has become ever more sophisticated especially with respect to the development of ambitious research methods to detect diffusion channels cf. Tyran and Sausgruber ; Brooks ; Volden et al.

Third, the policy convergence perspective is another way of comparing the patterns of policy-making of different nation-states, states or local entities by focusing on and explaining the degree of similarity they reach over time as a consequence of passing policies of similar contents Bennett ; Knill This rather indirect analysis of public policies does not seek to explain the actual decision of a government but how it changes the status quo in relation to other cases e.

There are a number of studies dealing with the degree of transnational convergence in the fields of environmental and social policy cf. Heichel et al. Overbye ; Howlett ; Starke et al.

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The analytical motivation of convergence scholars has often been twofold: to describe the dynamics of policy change over time and in relation to other units, and to explain the observed patterns. Holzinger et al. This brief summary of different analytical strands, that each address certain sub-aspects of policy-making from a comparative perspective, highlights the complexity of the subject of investigation.

Comparing public policies over space and time often requires narrowing the analytical lens in favor of a more selective focus on policy-making. As a consequence of this conceptual simplification the above approaches suffer from certain theoretical limitations that impede on the generalizability of the results with respect to public policy-making in general. First, the risk of biased results cannot be excluded due to the one-directional analysis of policy-making that is inherent to, for instance, the subdisciplines of policy dismantling, policy termination and policy diffusion research.

While the former two perspectives make statements about government decisions of reductive nature, the latter have traditionally exclusively dealt with expansion policies although this does not occur by definition. Second, biases are likely to affect those studies that select their subject of study i. In other words, results from diffusion studies might only allow for valid inference with respect to policies that have reached a certain degree of dissemination.

Howlett and Rayner In the following paragraphs, I will provide a further criterion along which to classify the literature on comparative public policy: the processes and factors of public policy-making. While the conceptualization and operationalization of the dependent variable see above crucially influences the validity of the findings, the selection of policies according to their patterns of spread see above primarily impacts on the generalizability of the results toward public policy-making in general.

There are several subdisciplines of comparative research on public policies that explain policy decisions or outputs by focusing on selective explanatory factors or processes. These include scholars of policy learning and policy transfer as well as research on political institutions. One common feature of these studies is the objective to analyze and compare the respective processes of the decision-making and the behavior of the involved actors. As a consequence, the results of these studies are often ex ante focused on specific explanations.

One way of narrowing down the empirical focus of comparative public policy analysis can be found within the literatures on policy learning, policy transfer or emulation. Scholars belonging to these research traditions identify certain mechanisms or factors that cause the dissemination of policies with the aim of tracing and explaining the underlying processes. Similarly to the diffusion perspective, they describe the way in which policies travel from one unit e. As opposed to the previously discussed research perspective, policy transfer, learning or emulation take a process orientation.

In this context, policy learning or lesson-drawing refers to instances in which governments adopt a certain policy based on the evaluation of a policy in place elsewhere for a thorough discussion of different forms of horizontal and vertical learning see Bennett and Howlett ; cf. Sabatier ; Rose , ; Hall ; Meseguer , ; Radaelli Thus, the policy transfer literature analyzes the role of actors by pointing to the importance of interest groups, NGOs, think tanks, non-state policy entrepreneurs as transfer agents and the role of policy networks in promoting the diffusion of ideas and their intersubjective perceptions of solutions as well as in providing social learning and building up epistemic communities cf.

Dolowitz and Marsh , , Radaelli ; Stone , , Cases of negative lesson-drawing,in turn, might also lead governments to deliberately exclude policy options found elsewhere cf. Rose , The literature subsumed under the label of institutionalism provides another framework for the analysis of government choices by explaining policies and their content based on the institutional conditions that channel the decision-making processes.

Veto player Bonoli ; Immergut and Anderson and institution-centered analysis Swank ; Streeck and Thelen are common approaches in the comparative analysis of, for instance, social policy change. There are a number of studies that illustrate the role of the fragmentation of political power horizontal or vertical for reforming the pension systems of Western democracies cf. Research of comparative public policies that belong to the sub-disciplines of policy learning, policy transfer or institutional analysis puts the analytical focus on understanding and describing the processes that impact on and shape the policy decisions.

As a consequence, the empirical results of these studies might be of limited generalizability to policy-making in its complexity. Given the individual conceptual points of departure, scholars belonging to these research traditions are at risk to overestimate the influence of certain explanatory concepts either through potentially biased case selection policy learning or transfer or by the analytical focus on one explanation only institutionalism.

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As studies pertaining to these research traditions tend to select their cases according to specific causal processes, their findings might not hold for explaining policy-making in general. Altogether, the degree of specificity of the dependent variable differs over the analytical perspectives discussed in the previous two sections, which furthermore reduces the generalizability of the results for public policy-making. While transfer and diffusion studies solely explain whether a certain policy has been passed or not, policy learning studies allow for a more detailed conceptual calibration.

Similarly, the analytical precision of policy termination studies is rather low; dismantling or retrenchment studies in turn apply refined conceptual approaches by considering different sub-aspects of policy outputs.

Policy convergence in this context, also allows for a multidimensional perspective on the dependent variable i. There is a large number of empirical studies that analyze social and environmental policies based on different methodologies qualitative versus quantitative and levels of analysis micro versus macro. Interestingly, the methodological lines of division are almost identical to the ones separating the various research traditions discussed above.

More precisely, the question of whether to study policy outcomes instead of policy outputs is predominantly an issue for scholars of quantitative research. Given the difficulty of constructing and obtaining comparable measures for policy-making over large numbers of cases, macro-quantitative studies often switch to outcome indicators due to improved data availability. However, authors of case studies e.

Howlett and Cashore by taking a micro-analytical perspective.

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The division between quantitative and qualitative studies continues also within the different subdisciplines of comparative public policy research as discussed earlier in this chapter. In this context, policy learning and lesson-drawing are mostly addressed through comparative case study designs for an exception see Sommerer , while diffusion is often analyzed through large-n designs but see, for example, Tews et al.

The policy change literature also reflects the methodological divide. While the policy termination literature almost exclusively consists of comparative case studies, welfare state retrenchment research of policy outcomes comprising studies based on expenditure or replacement rate data usually involves large-n studies. In this context, analyses of the dismantling or termination of environmental policies are still in general the exception but see, for example, Knill et al.

While research on policy dismantling or termination tends to overestimate the factors that lead to negative policy choices, the diffusion and transfer literature is biased toward policy innovations and positive policy decisions, respectively. In spite of this potential bias, there have been hardly any efforts in comparative analyses of social or environmental policies to systematically compare policy outputs of both directions, with the possible exception of the literature on policy convergence. As already mentioned, output studies that provide in-depth analyses of policies or policy change in social or environmental policy are almost exclusively limited to qualitative case studies due to their conceptual and empirical complexity.

The literature on comparative social and environmental policy shows biases with respect to the explanatory factors taken into account. Policy diffusion, convergence or welfare- state retrenchment studies in these policy fields, for instance, tend to take a macro perspective focusing particularly on the effects of globalization and economic pressure Castles ; Drezner ; Sykes et al.

Looking at the role of political parties for public policy-making from a meso perspective , for instance, there is an interesting fragmentation between the literatures on environmental and social policy. While this factor has received abundant attention in research on the welfare state in general and welfare state retrenchment in particular e. Huber and Stephens ; Kitschelt ; Green-Pedersen , ; Korpi and Palme ; Allan and Scruggs ; Vis and Kersbergen ; Vis , it has less frequently been studied in the context of environmental policy-making but see Shipan and Lowry ; Knill et al.

Similarly, the two fields of research differ with respect to the incorporation of institutional explanations for policy-making. The concept of veto players is often applied to analyze reforms of the welfare state and to explain the feasibility of cutbacks in public generosity Bonoli ; Crepaz ; Ganghof ; Immergut et al. In addition, institutional factors have received limited attention in this field of research but see Dryzek et al. This brief overview on the methods used and causal explanations tested in the analysis of social and environmental policy-making points to systematic differences between the approaches used in the two policy fields.

Choices of methods and explanatory factors, which determine the comparability of results, seem to be related to both the analytical perspective on the dependent variable and the field of research e. These patterns of comparative policy research illustrate the internal fragmentation of this scientific discipline and the limits of generalizability of its findings. Scholars of comparative public policy usually make an implicit statement through either the conceptualization of the dependent variable, case selection based on certain policy patterns, by focusing on certain processes or by choosing specific explanatory concepts.

These choices entail fundamental consequences for the expected degree of generalizability of the results and the scope of explanation see below Table 3. On the one hand, process-oriented approaches toward public policy-making reveal a tendency to focus on the explanatory factors i. On the other hand, pattern-oriented studies termination, dismantling, and diffusion tend to put more analytical emphasis on explaining and comparing certain types of public policies themselves.

Both subdisciplines share the narrow perspective on the subject of study, i. As a consequence, the approaches are limited to policies with certain characteristics or policy aspects. In this context, the literatures on policy learning, transfer or institutional change consider policies that are influenced by distinct explanatory factors.

Policy termination and policy dismantling studies incorporate exclusively negative policy decisions, while research on policy diffusion is biased toward policy innovations that have reached a certain degree of dissemination. These features might limit the generalizability of all these approaches. The policy change literature claims to broaden the analysis of policy-making—at least theoretically—by means of an inclusive conceptualization of the dependent variable and explanatory processes and factors for a discussion of the deficits in current policy change research, see Howlett and Cashore As shown, however, in the discussion on the different ways to conceptualize.

This fragmentation in current public policy analysis illustrates the potential benefits of more integrated approaches that on the one hand, give primary attention to a more careful conceptualization of the subject of research and comparison. On the other hand, the findings call for more flexible combinations of research perspectives, methods, and different explanatory factors in both fields of research.

This would enhance the generalizability and the validity of the findings and enable theoretical progress to be made based on the consolidation of the different approaches. Policy network models The punctuated equilibrium Public policy debate and th The advocacy coalition fram We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site.

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