'Some social languages may connect, and others not…'

Our editor Jon Sutton hears from Peter Spink about a ‘Public Action Languages Approach’ to moving ‘Beyond Public Policy’.

Peter Kevin Spink is a psychologist based in the Centre for Public Administration and Government Studies, Getulio Vargas Foundation, São Paulo, Brazil. His new book, Beyond Public Policy: A Public Action Languages Approach is published by Edward Elgar Publishing in their New Horizons in Public Policy series.

Public policy is an expression that has come to dominate the way people talk about doing government and public administration and is seen as a central component of the modern democratic order. Adopting an innovative ‘public action languages’ approach, Beyond Public Policy shows how policy is only one of many powerful social languages (budgeting, planning, rights, directives and protests, amongst others) used to make things happen in the ever-changing arena of public affairs; where they may cooperate, compete, or just go their own way.

We posed Peter some questions about the approach and the book.

In the first chapter of your book, you pick up on one of our cover features - 'Overrated: Our capacity to impact policy' – to ponder whether 'policy' has outgrown its conceptual space and contribution. Does the 'elephant' of policy 'need to shrink back to normal size'? 
It may need to, but it probably can’t; like other expressions and concepts that became centre stage there is so much vested interest that it is difficult to imagine anything going into reverse once it is 'seen as obvious'. It is more likely that it will fade away and other expressions will become important.

What you're raising here is the prospect that there is life beyond public policy… that there was something that came before, and something that could come after, in terms of the very ways that we talk and think about what happens in our world.
Yes, there were many different ways of talking and doing or, better still, talking-doing public affairs before public policy arrived on the scene in the 1970s and 1980s and they are still around today. Some of them can be found in different circles of government and others are used by different publics themselves.  

Budgeting, for example, has been around in many versions with many names, with ours appearing in 1733 when Walpole described the presentation of accounts to parliament as opening the budget; a reference to the leather bag (in French – bougette) that held his papers. Centralised public finance really took off In Napoleonic France with the 'Inspection Générale de Finances' (1797). Today, if someone wants to know what governments are going to do or have done, they look for the budget and most budget specialists will say that budgeting is about planning. A bit later, the 1937 Roosevelt Commission on Administrative Management would spell out administrative activities as 'planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting and budgeting'. Planning was a newcomer in the 20th century and planning, programming and budgeting systems were a fashion in the early seventies.

The publics too had their languages of protest – as seen in historical studies of the English crowd – and were very active in a number of areas such as schooling, shelters, orphanages and parish visiting, many years before the 1945 landslide elections in the UK that issued in the welfare state. Publics were also way ahead of the international diplomatic community in a number of areas. The International Committee of the Red Cross (later to add the Red Crescent) was formed at a meeting convened in Geneva (1863) by Jean-Henri Dunant, a business man who had witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino. In the same city in 1922, Eglantyne Jebb, one of the founders of Save the Children, would draft a proposal for a declaration of children’s rights, adopted two years later by the League of Nations. Rights is a very powerful public rallying language and shows well the tension and conflict present in public action. Rights are not implemented when there is a budget, or because there is a plan or a policy; rights are affirmative and highly performative: you have them, or you don’t. 
 
In the same way as all these different social languages are still very much around, other ideas and notions will be emerging and also in turn be 'seen as obvious'. Certainly, one contender here in discussions of government action is the notion of governance and publics too are continuously creating different ways of talking-doing protest and social action. But there will be others…

Why did the idea of 'public policy' become so popular?
This would require a different study from the one I did, but there are some clues. There was much discussion after the second world war along the lines of why 'the sciences', which were very important in war time, couldn’t carry on contributing to government in peace-time and helping with the urgent challenges of development? There was a lot of resistance to this idea in many areas including psychology, because it was seen as getting involved in politics.

At the same time, the post-war period saw a tremendous expansion of government action in the different welfare states with ministries and agencies actively engaged in creating and running new services; very different from the traditional control approach of the earlier ministries. Academic research was also expanding into these new areas; another stimulus for a social and political science language that could discuss government in action rather than focus on government in the abstract.

Policy and public policy probably provided a way of creating a middle ground where actions and programs could be evaluated, advice given on questions of importance and effectiveness with some degree of independence. But it was a slow process. For example, it was 20 years or so between the creation of the National Health Service and the later Fulton Report which introduces the idea of long-term policy thinking and planning and 'policy support'.

Your background is as a social and organisational psychologist. What would you say that combination has brought to the issue?
The expression 'organisations' – another recent addition – refers to all sorts of social and material arrangements for getting things done. They don’t fall out of the clouds ready-made but are the ongoing and more visible bits of social processes. Much of what holds them together are social expressions, theories, institutions and concepts as well as buildings, machines, offices, meeting places or street corners. Social psychologists have learned the importance of taking these many different discursive devices or narratives more seriously and placing them in time as human action. This certainly helps when doubts are raised about the centrality of certain articulating ideas or the assumption that something is obvious.

Language roams throughout your book as a living, breathing, social beast. We're familiar with the idea that words have power, but can you give an example or two of power words, megawords, that do a lot of work in our society?
I can think of two at least to which, as psychologists, we need to be paying more attention: 'vulnerability' and 'diversity'. Even though vulnerable has been around for a very long time – much longer than policy – it was only in the 1980s and 1990s that it starts to take on the role of articulating wider social questions in disaster relief, health, social services, poverty and, later, climate. Before, it was a very specific term used in military defence and in a few other areas including child psychology. Diversity is another very active term that is increasingly present with its different inter-crossing threads on gender, colour, culture, religion and language.

My frustration with a lot of modern politics is around the fact that the Right have all the best lines… short, simple soundbites which engage basic emotions. Those of a more liberal leaning may mock these populist leaders, but surely the onus is on the Left to find equally effective ways of communicating?
Given that democracy is performative and performativity is elastic, being democratic is a notion that can get pushed and pulled in a variety of ways. Here, being effective is both a practical and moral issue. I also feel that the approach of engaging basic emotions through soundbites, stretches elasticity beyond what has up to now been seen as reasonable. There are signs of counter pressures, but I do agree that the more progressive areas of the polity need to think much more about how to communicate in these circumstances, without falling into the trap of following suit.

You write of evidence that 'the organisation of public affairs is something that publics can, if they need or want to, sort things out for themselves, by themselves'. Do psychologists have a role in facilitating this?
Yes, not only in facilitating discussions but also by looking for the spaces where we can join in community-based debates about public affairs and alternative actions; not as a specialist but as just one more person with public concerns and a willingness to make a contribution.

Would you say yours is a radical, revolutionary approach? I'm struck by the contentious process, the decentred and 'agonistic' approach…
The public action languages approach begins with the evidence of heterogeneity and the possibility that some social languages may connect, and others not… that there is no common performative notion that holds all the pieces together… that there will be conflicts and, therefore, the challenge is to build links and negotiate possibilities. Recognising the frailty of our 'magic words' may seem radical – but I think it is necessary. Perhaps that makes me a radical by necessity!

What type of 'public action languages' would you like to see gain the status of the 'public policy' discourse?
Considering what we have been discussing, there is only one possible answer: none. 

- Find out more about the book.

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