Professor Beryl A. Radin[i] gave a short interview to JCPA media coordinator, Dr. Athanassios Gouglas[ii], about the article she co-authored with David L. Weimer ‘Compared to What? The Multiple Meanings of Comparative Policy Analysis’. The article was published on the celebratory special issue for the 20th anniversary of the Journal of Comparative Analysis: Research and Practice (JCPA). The article addresses two main questions. What is comparative public policy and more importantly how can it contribute to better public policy?
One should not be surprised that the field of policy analysis has found ways to acknowledge an interest in comparative work as globalization has become more prominent during the 21st century. Policy analysts have been struck by both similarities and differences across the globe and international conferences have become a way to deal with the issues that have emerged from a world of change and conflict. This variation has led to two different approaches. In one setting a belief seems to have developed that what works on one setting can be easily transferred to another. In another setting players believe that differences prevent this from happening. Similarly, the split in the policy field between policy researchers and policy analysts seems to have minimized attention to unique attributes in different settings.
2) Do we know if they are actually interested and what they want?
Potential clients of issues dealing with comparative dimensions seem to be less interested in the work of researchers. Clients who are in decision making roles want to find policy analysts who understand the constraints they are facing and the complex situations in which they find themselves. Increasingly clients acknowledge that they share authority with others and want analysts who understand this source of complexity. At the same time, the clients want information about what they believe to be effective. That is information that respects their belief in the unique qualities of their situation and details that tell them what their colleagues in similar situations might be doing. In a sense, they are looking for the kind of information that might be viewed as peer to peer technical assistance.
3) Does the supply of such work meet the needs of policy practitioners?
It is fairly rare that researchers are attentive to those unique qualities. They find that the presence of multiple clients, areas of conflict and constant change create complex situations that are not always documented in existing data systems. Analytic techniques that rely on quantitative methods do not always lend themselves to conflict and change. And qualitative approaches such as comparative case studies are time consuming and require research support.
4) Has JCPA managed to bridge this gap?
While JCPA has managed to bridge some aspects of this gap, it is still fairly unusual to find articles that are sensitive to these issues. I do not know how many articles in the journal emerged from collaborative work between individuals who are actually located in different settings. It is my impression that a single author (or two or three joint authors) is likely to be responsible for understanding the diverse multiple constraints that are found in the research effort. I also believe that similarity of experience and perspectives is more likely to lead to a focus on similarities rather than differences of experience, values and interpretation of past efforts.
5) You mention three key future challenges for JCPA authors, editors and reviewers. Challenge 1: Careful consideration of the context in which the policy operates.
Attention to differences in context has not received the general attention that I think it deserves in the policy analysis field. We have not paid much attention to the structure of government, especially the differences between parliamentary and shared power systems. And increasingly networks and shared power systems have made real demands on the creativity and care with which a policy analyst should approach the assignment. We also fail to carefully examine the value differences at play in democratic systems compared to non democratic forms. Shifts in the boundary lines in many countries have created tensions that are an important part of the context of the policy and reflect both language and religious differences within the country.
Challenge 2: The role of subnational levels.
The level of centralization and decentralization in the structure of a national government can create major problems for a policy analyst. Federal systems are very diverse and led to varied relationships by policy area and the level of resources available in different states or provinces. For example, provinces that have oil (no matter what the country) are likely to play controlling roles within the country. Yet I would doubt that this level of detail would have shown up in a comparative analysis. We need to develop frameworks and typologies that can emerge from the complexity of the contemporary comparative policy setting.
Challenge 3: Focus on the role of the policy analyst.
I believe that an effective policy analyst dealing with comparative policy issues will find many challenges involved in this task. While it may be easier to deal the task wearing the hat of the researcher, I believe that has a limited payoff.
6) Any closing remarks of comments?
Several years ago Richard Simeon and I did a comparison of Canadian and US federalism. While we had many shared values and views, we found ourselves talking almost different languages. We could agree on descriptions of expected reactions but disagreed on our categorization of a larger framework. Were the two systems similar or different? That question created a situation where we both valued comparison. It helped to clarify explanations for both variation and similarity. And it created a setting where we could learn from one other.
Thank you Beryl!
[ii] Athanassios Gouglas is Lecturer in Politics & Public Policy at the Department of Politics, University of Exeter, United Kingdom. He has previously worked as a civil servant in the Hellenic Civil Service and as political and policy adviser in two ministerial offices in Greece.