Big Mac attack!

John Uhr, Australian National University

Beryl A Radin, Beyond Machiavelli: Policy Analysis Comes of Age Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2000 (195pp). ISBN 0-87840-773-1 (paperback).

Democracy is valued because it allows all citizens to have a say in how they are governed. Some active citizens want to exercise close supervision over politicians, in part to keep them honest. Some academic analysts of politics also want to monitor the workings of elected governments, often to promote competence in addition to honesty. But many other citizens simply want to let elected politicians get on with the job. These people are not necessarily opting out of politics: often they recognise that they lack the skills to govern directly and are more than happy to delegate the task of government to professional politicians.

But why trust party-political activists with the power of political rule? Who ever said that political ambition is a sign of competence in government? In fact, one reason that politics is on the nose with many voters is that they increasingly suspect that ‘the government’ tends to put self-interest ahead of community interest. So where does good sense and sound planning enter the picture, to balance the predictable self-interest of each and every government of the day? One traditional answer is: the public service, which was originally designed to protect the values of administrative expertise and policy competence.

A more contemporary answer is: through the work of policy analysts, many of whom are employed in the public service but just as many are employed in non-government organisations, think-tanks, party headquarters, academic research centres and the like. The great hope of policy analysis is that it can provide government with core competence in cool policy evaluation to balance the necessary but rather heated energy of party activists. Ministers need minders; and minders need ‘minds’, preferably minds that can blend political advocacy and economical analysis. Yet it is hard to find a convincing justification of policy analysis as a non-partisan academic enterprise. There are many schools of public policy but there seems no agreed formula for training in policy analysis. Hence the relevance of this new book, which provides a useful intellectual history of policy analysis as a basic requirement for democratic good government. You can have democracy without formal policy analysis or designated policy analysts, or policy analysis without democracy, but this book argues how important it is to keep them together.

What exactly is ‘policy analysis’ and where does it come from? In practice, policy-analytical skills span the usual duo of economics and political science. As this book demonstrates, the figure of Machiavelli gives policy analysis a bad name. Going beyond Machiavelli means going beyond power-politics. Beryl Radin is former president of the US Association of Policy Analysis and Management, publishers of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, and this book is an accessible portrait of the skills required by the contemporary policy analyst: one-third economics, one-third politics, and one-third personal vision.

The great hope of policy analysis is to provide cool policy evaluation to balance the heated energy of activists.

The heart of the matter is money, or budgeting to be precise. Historically, the term ‘policy analysis’ derives from the United States during the 1950s in the context of early applications of ‘systems analysis’ (itself a product of World War Two) to provide governments with new techniques for resolving problems of public policy. Tellingly, the US Department of Defense under secretary McNamara in the early 1960s was one of the original sites to recognise ‘policy analysts’ as heralds of a new discipline. They promised to bring rationality to budgeting. They were committed to ‘systems’ as that term evolved in their team song: PPBS—or ‘Planning, Programing and Budgeting System’. This systematic approach to policy-making arrived in Australia in the 1970s under the looser label of ‘program budgeting’.

Radin argues that policy analysis originally emerged as a tool to perfect traditional arts of policy advising, an activity which is much older than what she terms the craft or profession of the policy analyst. Her title Beyond Machiavelli refers to the ambition of modern policy analysis to go beyond the traditional activity of counseling rulers about how best to govern. Policy analysts answered a higher calling: to mobilise public resources for a war on waste, including wasted government efforts to improve society. The original generation of policy analysts tended to be technocratic assistants to political executives. The latest generations are more supple and pluralistic. The sites where policy analysts work has widened from the side of chief executives in government to include not only the legislature but also many non-government organisations wanting to influence public policy.

This book provides a rare historical review of the emergence of policy analysis from economic preoccupations of political executives over budget control to contemporary interests in facilitating greater community deliberation over the social value of contending policy options. This history is told in part through the emergence of policy analysis as an academic activity, as evidenced through the growth of graduate programs in public policy at many Universities around the world and the fascinating spread of policy institutes in and out of government.

Tellingly, the US Department of Defense was one of the first to recognise policy analysts as heralds of a new discipline.

Interestingly, Radin does bring forward one pre-eminent model of exemplary policy analysis and policy education: the late Aaron Wildavsky, founder of policy studies at Berkeley, to whom the book is dedicated. Wildavsky’s perspective on the need for disciplinary checks and balances appears frequently throughout this book. So too Wildavsky’s book title Speaking Truth to Power emerges as the organising theme of policy analysis as a professional commitment. Wildavsky was one of the first educators to speak out against the deletion of political judgment from training in policy analysis, a view that finally but slowly won over even more conventional advocates such as Yehezkel Dror, whose reflections on the nature of policy analysis feature prominently in this book.

In many respects, policy analysis is what ‘policy analysts’ do, and Radin usefully reviews the style of operations of a number of prominent US policy organisations. These include the ‘policy shop’ in a large government department, represented by the US federal Department of Health and Human Services; an activist think tank here illustrated by the Heritage Foundation; two legislative research agencies—the Congressional Research Service, and California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office—and two non-government organisations: the Twentieth Century Fund and the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities.

One lesson is that influential policy analysis is no longer confined to the executive heartland of government. Originally a top-down activity, policy analysis still turns on evaluations of budget strategies but increasingly this is a competitive field of open policy debate, driven as much by interested outsiders as government bureaucrats. There is a story here about policy analysis as the contemporary form of democratic deliberation. In this regard, Giandomenico Majone’s work on the importance of policy argument is given due prominence. The range of types of policy analysis across these exemplary organisations illustrates many different but acceptable balances of analytical neutrality and policy advocacy. There is an important central chapter examining the two worlds of analysis and politics which includes an interesting discussion of the ethics of policy analysis, drawing on Hirschman’s three options of exit, voice and loyalty.

Increasingly this is a competitive field of open debate, driven as much by interested outsiders as bureaucrats.

Radin presents the development of the craft of policy analysis through pen-portraits of two fictional analysts: John the former public servant, now consultant, who represents the original world of economical analysis; and Rita the younger public servant who represents the new world of multi-disciplinary flexibility. These two characters frame most of the chapters and finally come together for a discussion in the final chapter, sharing their impressions of the emerging profession. Radin’s point is to demonstrate the huge variety of forms of legitimate policy analysis and to argue that democratic policy-making really requires a diversity of policy disciplines.

Radin’s book is relatively short but quite ambitious. The challenge she undertakes is to make the case that, at its best, policy analysis is a better guide to policy-makers than either stand-alone economics or self-interested politicking. The risk is that policy analysis might emerge as lacking not only the theoretical clarity of economics but also practical sense of political judgment. Radin argues that, properly understood, policy analysis transforms the traditional art of policy advising from (a) its historic preoccupations with the short-term political interests of the Prince (as in Machiavelli), and (b) its more recent preoccupations with the theoretical interests of the adviser (as in the economics origins of the policy sciences where disciplinary purity was paramount) to (c) the community of interests of the public in whose name policy is managed.

One of Radin’s central messages is not to confine policy analysis to any one instrument or tool. In one of her many memorable phrases, when you have only a hammer in your tool box, chances are that everything else starts to look like a nail!

John Uhr is a Reader in the Graduate Program in Public Policy, The Australian National University, and author of Deliberative Democracy in Australia: The Changing Place of Parliament (Cambridge, 1998).