The dangers of “policy-sising” social change

January 19, 2021

     By Maria Faciolince     

Christopher Choong Weng Wai is the Deputy Director of Research at Khazanah Research Institute in Malaysia and an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics. His research interest is in the everyday reproduction of poverty, inequalities and exclusion. He tweets at @chrischoongww.

For those of us who work on public policy and social change, there is a common refrain that “policies shouldn’t be politicised”. When I hear this, I think what it means is that policies should not be dependent on narrow political interests. The politicisation of policies in this manner is perhaps apparent and relatively ‘easy’ to detect.

However, there is another subtler and harder-to-discern phenomenon within the field of public policy and social change, a phenomenon I will call the policy-sation of social change here. If the politicisation of policies ties policies to narrow political interests, then the policy-sation of social change confines social change to narrow policy interests. 

The policy-sation of social change is perhaps something widely recognised by those of us in the field, but it is certainly not something that has been clearly articulated. This is my feeble attempt to do so, not only as a critical reflection of our own uncritical practices in policy making, but also as a way of diagnosing my own bias to this phenomenon (analysing something does not mean we’re free from it).

The anatomy of policy-sation 

As a starting point, let’s go over some aspects  —  behaviours and practices, norms and narratives  —  that illustrate and underpin this phenomenon.

First, policy-sation constructs “achievement” as a predominantly document-based process. Achievements are made to be synonymous with approaches and solutions (preferably traceable to one’s own recommendations) being successfully inscribed in policy documents. Whilst the phenomenon is not about document pushing per se, it bases itself on achievements tied to institutional benefits and rewards, over and above the embodiment of these approaches and solutions in practice. 

Second, it promotes a culture of celebrating access to the corridors of power. This flows logically from the first trait because the more important the policy document, the more power is contained in it. Therefore, “achievement” culminates in accessing these powerful policy platforms. It’s not to say that engagements with the powers-that-be are not important, but if they are applauded as an end in itself, then this is a form of policy-sation we should doubtlessly challenge.

Third, policy-sation puts forward a narrative that confers advantage to the policy actors. This story supports the interests of the social groups only when they converge with the interests of the policy actors, disregarding other matters critical to social change. Many times, these are only accounted for when they fit the strategic positioning of the policy actors, who often prioritise their or their organisations’ interests.   

Fourth, it uncritically imagines the relationship between policy change and social change. Given that policy achievements culminate with the powerful, and not the powerless, the links to social change (let alone justice) are often diminished or severed. Some links between policy and social change are taken as given, despite research and reality checks showing them to be tenuous. Articulation of these links is oftentimes done inadequately or dismissed as someone else’s labour (i.e. leave it to those who work on these things).

Fifth, it is preoccupied with justifying rather than learning. This comes full circle through the monitoring and evaluation phase of the policy cycle. When the policy change process is disconnected from the social change process, then learning is confined to the policy space and how best to manoeuvre within it, leading to an evaluation exercise that is skewed towards justifying the existence of the policy actors and their organisations within the policy space.

“The most immediate harm is that the desired social change does not take place, but policy change constructed as achievement gives a deceptive appearance of progress.”

The harms of policy-sation 

The most immediate harm is that the desired social change does not take place, but policy change constructed as achievement gives a deceptive appearance of progress. This then becomes the basis for further funding of ineffective approaches and solutions, perpetuating a vicious cycle of policy-making detached from the realities of the social groups that are represented. 

The phenomenon also preserves power within a self-contained policy circuit, without necessarily opening up new spaces of representation. The ‘powerless’ are perceived to be represented by policy actors, but no – or in rare cases, minimal – attempt is made to create spaces for non-policy actors to represent themselves. 

Mastery of the tools, language and inclinations of the policy circuit opens up opportunities for profit-oriented undertakings, such as overpriced private consulting services. This means financial flows are retained within this circuit, while the social groups they represent continue to suffer from this.

What’s behind this? 

Here, I want to clarify something: I am not suggesting that this phenomenon is directly caused by the morality of policy actors. Rather, I want to ground my explanations on what I think are two interlinked factors which produce the conditions necessary for the policy-sation of social change.

“The discussion around social change including a rich variety of class perspectives is sorely lacking.”

The first factor relates to the values and assumptions underpinning much of the funding in the policy world, which emphasise efficiency, tangible results and input-output framing of the social world. 

The second factor is the middle class-ification of policy work, fuelled by the surge of bureaucracy in the policy space — writing grants, managing projects, conducting evaluation — which generates the demands for a particular profile of a formally educated, professional workforce.

These two factors interact to shape individual actions, perceived by policy actors themselves as rational and ‘normal’ in their everyday work. After all, funders want their funds to be put to good use, galvanising achievements that can be tangibly measured in precise documents. This is far less messy compared to the realities of the social world that do not conform to project structures and timelines. 

On the other hand, policy professionals have to manoeuvre between funding requirements and their own (overly middle-class) conceptions of ‘good’ work and change. What do I see here? The discussion around social change including a rich variety of class perspectives is sorely lacking.

Inverting the phenomenon 

I am hesitant to end with an attempt to offer concrete suggestions on what to do, partially because I do not want to give the impression that this phenomenon can be deconstructed following a certain number of steps, proposed by one individual, one who is equally susceptible to the tendencies of policy-sation. As workers in this space, we are not immune.

Instead, I hope this reflection might provoke a broader dialogue among us in the field, and also with those outside it, especially those whom we claim to represent, in order to think more critically about how we can reclaim the place of social change in the policy space. Ultimately, perhaps, our hopes for social change start with inverting the phenomenon that has strangled transformative change for far too long.

Featured image: APP Oxford meeting with policymakers, Creative Commons license