Policy change

General policy change frameworks to draw on (from MacRae and Winfield, 2016):

Many policy change frameworks are of possible value when searching for both positive and normative explanatory power[1].  Most of these frameworks are not entirely unique, sharing dimensions with others, a characteristic that can be helpful when blending frames.  The scope, scale and theoretical aspects of these frames is also variable, some having larger structural dimensions, other focused more on instrumental conditions, some highly normative, others more causal in orientation. Some, then, qualify as grand theory, others more mid-range (see discussion above). A brief description of potentially pertinent ones is provided in this section and then their application is developed in the cases that follow.  Note that because we are focused on policy change frameworks that contribute to our understanding of sustainable food policy change, we do not include all frameworks in this section. For other frames of relevance to socio-technical transitions, see Kern and Rogge (2018).

1.     The Pace of Change: Incrementalism vs. Punctuated Equilibrium/policy windows

The public policy literature generally assumes that significant changes in policy direction are difficult to achieve. Governance structures may be deeply embedded regarding the actors inside and outside of the state to include in policy-making processes and the underlying assumptions or policy paradigms on which they act (Skogstad, 2008). Dominant institutional and societal actors who feel that their interests are well served by the existing arrangements are likely to resist the entry of new actors or new ideas into the policy process.  As a result, it is generally accepted that most policy change will be incremental in nature. Major changes in direction are not the norm, rather policy is likely to be modified slowly over time in response to evident weaknesses, problems and opportunities.   Sitek (2010) cites Streeck and Thelen (2005) on the five mechanisms of incremental institutional change: “layering, which involves partial renegotiations of some elements of a given set of institutions by attaching new elements to existing ones; conversion, where institutions are redirected to new purposes; displacement, where the salience of a subordinate element of an institution rises; drift, where institutional change results from neglect of maintenance; and, finally, exhaustion, which involves the gradual withering away of a given institution over time.” A derivation of this approach is directed incrementalism (Grunwald, 2000), somewhat more consistent with the ESR transition framework.

The notion of power elites (Domhoff, 1990; Mills, 2000) suggests that incremental administrative change can be advanced by working directly with authority to make decisions or the power to influence other decision makers.  Power elites are not always officials - they may be non-state actors - but to be successful, you have to have one or more key allies in a position of formal or informal power. Stone (1989)s concept of regime theory suggests that policy change happens through the influence of a small body of powerful individuals on decision makers. These powerful individuals typically live beyond electoral processes, so are less visible to the public.  To influence policy directions, actors have to access this small body or somehow create alternate comparably powerful groups.

Other theorists have focused on the circumstances under which major changes in policy direction can take place, with previously dominant policy and governing paradigms displaced. Such changes are generally relatively rare events, requiring specific alignments of societal, institutional and circumstantial forces for them to occur. Epitomized by Kingdon’s (1984) concept of ‘policy windows’, where “the separate streams come together at certain critical times, solutions become joined to problems, and both of them are joined to favourable political forces. This coupling is most likely when policy windows (opportunities for pushing pet proposals or conceptions of problems) are open. (. . .) Windows are opened either by the appearance of compelling problems or by happenings in the political stream. (. . .) Significant movement is much more likely if problems, policy proposals, and politics are all coupled into a package”.  Kingdon (1984: 210) suggests that (policy) windows may be missed if proposals and solutions “have not already gone through the long gestation process before the window opens”.  Although Kingdon argued that the streams are quite separate, others believe that policy entrepreneurs work across all the streams to generate change (Elzen et al., 2011).

The implication of this approach is that public policy change may work more along the lines of   punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary theory, characterized by long periods of relative stability, but potential for significant policy shifts in relatively short periods of time when with new actors get involved, or when an issue receives greater media scrutiny and public attention (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993).

2.     Drivers/Causes of Change (Interplays of Ideas; Institutions; Interests; Physical, Technological, Environmental and Economic factors)

The mainstream political science and public policy literature initially placed a very strong focus on institutional structures - formal power structures and rules, such as federalism, and the features of different systems of government (e.g. cabinet parliamentary vs. separation of powers) – to understand the public policy process. More societally-oriented, pluralist approaches began to emerge in the 1950s, highlighting the importance of forces and factors outside of the state as key drivers of policy change. These approaches open possibilities of analysis through such lenses of gender, race, and class in terms of understanding the reasons for specific policy outcomes.  Recent mainstream approaches to policy change have tended to emphasize the interplay between the two streams of institutional structures and actors and societal factors.

Policy networks and communities approaches, for example, operate on the premise that policy-making unfolds through decentralized and more or less regularized and coordinated interactions between state and societal actors. Approaches that focus on formal and macro-level decision-making bodies like parliament, cabinet, and first-ministers conferences may therefore ignore the realities of the policy process and obscure the imperatives for effective and legitimate governance (Skogstad, 2008a).

Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith’s (1993) concept of coalition frameworks theorizes that policy change happens through coordinated activity among a range of actors with the same core beliefs and purposes, dependent upon a sympathetic government/administration and skilled advocates with a strongly shared goal.  In their view it is often the case that an existing administration has to be removed to create change opportunities or there are significant external events that change public opinion and socio-economic conditions.

Known as the new institutionalism and departing from some incrementalist dimensions,  “Historical institutionalists started to emphasize that institutional paths contain ambiguities, multiple layers, and competing logics, which can be used by policy actors as vehicles for experimentation, conversion, recombination, and transformation.” (Sitek, 2010) . Neo-institutionalism highlights the potential for relations between specific state and societal actors to become so deeply embedded that they become ‘institutionalized’ and difficult to disrupt or displace.

Drawing on economic approaches to understanding behaviour, Public choice/rational choice approaches emphasize the role of self-interest on the part of institutions, non-state actors and individuals in explaining their actions (Sproul-Jones, 1996). Although offering explanatory and potentially predictive potential in some cases, public choice approaches have been criticized for underplaying the complexity and range of variables potentially involved in public policy decision-making and assuming that self-interested rationality will explain behaviour in all cases.

Some recent work has re-emphasized the importance of formal Institutional arrangements. Donald Savoie’s (1999) Governing from the Centre thesis is that it is unlikely complex, multi-dimensional, and multi-departmental policy issues (such as food) will undergo substantive parliamentary discussion, given the roadblocks at all levels[2]. Such policy is unlikely to be a priority of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Cabinet participation in policy making has been eroded, so that agriculture or health ministers are not likely to bring forward significant food and agriculture legislation without PMO approval. Committee capacity to review is compromised by the complexity of most bills and by the limited resources of the committee and individual parliamentarians. MP-bureaucracy relations are generally strained because many elected officials believe public servants now have too much influence over policy development. More specifically, some parliamentarians are dismissed by their limited capacity to provide oversight on legislative implementation, especially pertinent in an era of implementation and enforcement-related cutbacks. Some parts of the civil service are now viewed as political liabilities because of their failure to respond to politicized issues in ways that remove pressure from elected officials. In turn, public servants question the competence of many elected officials, viewing them as adversaries, given civil service loyalty to the government of the day (Savoie, 2003).   Such realities have significant implications for policy change, which we elaborate on in the pesticides case study below and in MacRae et al. (2012).

Recent judicial decisions in Canada regarding the meaning of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights, particularly the meaning of aboriginal ‘title’ (Tsilhoqot’in Nation vs. British Columbia, 2014) and the establishment of the Crown’s ‘duty to consult’ with aboriginal people where their rights or interests may be affected (Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests), [2004] 3 S.C.R. 511), have also placed a renewed focus on the importance of institutional arrangements. In particular, they emphasized how changes to the formal rules of governance can fundamentally alter the power positions of institutional and societal actors. The Supreme Court’s Spraytech vs. Hudson (2001) decision has had a similar impact regarding the scope of legislative action potentially available to municipal governments in Canada.

Ideas as variables/Discourse Analysis

The dominant approaches to the study of public policy in Canada have tended to emphasize the roles of government agencies and structures, and non-state actors and forces in understanding public policy debates and the resulting policy decisions (Doern, 1996; Howlett et al., 2010). While the roles of underlying ideas, norms and assumptions in policy formulation are generally acknowledged in the study of public policy (Atkinson, 1993:1-3; Macdonald, 2007), the manner by which they shape and bound policy discourses has generally received much less attention.  In comparison, the policy literature addressing the themes of state and non-state interests and actors and their interactions through policy networks and communities and institutions is more robust (Finlayson, 2004). Ideas, norms and assumptions have tended to be dealt with through the proxies of the state and non-state actors whose actions they inform, rather than being treated as variables in their own right.

Discourse analysis places a renewed emphasis on understanding the assumptions, judgements and contentions that are the basis for analysis, agreements and disagreements among the actors involved in policy debates (Dryzek, 2013:9-10; Winfield and Dolter, 2014).

The importance of economic/physical/environmental/technological variables and factors

Similarly, the mainstream public policy and policy change literature tends to underplay (or completely ignore) the importance of the physical dimensions of public policy problems, and the economic context within which policy decisions are made. Some of the literature dealing with environmental, natural resources and energy policy cases does place more emphasis on these factors (Hessing et al., 2005: Chapter 2). For Doern and Toner (1985), the fundamental geographic realities of the distribution of Canada’s fossil fuel resources between eastern and western Canada are an essential factor in understanding the evolution and fate of the federal government’s 1980 National Energy Program. Courchene and Telmer (1998) and Winfield (2012a) highlight the centrality of structural changes to Ontario’s economy in understanding the types of issues that have come to the forefront in province’s economic, energy and environmental policies. The increasing physical manifestations of the consequences of  climate change may compel policy responses, at least in terms of adaptation, and may weaken the position of opponents of action the reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The emergence of ‘fracking’ technology over the past decade in North America and its impact on the energy sector highlights the potential for technological developments to fundamentally alter power relations among different actors and require new policy agendas to respond to their consequences.

Efforts to draw streams together

Both earlier (Doern and Toner 1985) and more recent work (Winfield, 2012a) have sought to re-integrate the four major categories of variables involved in public policy change: interests; institutional frameworks; ideas/norms/discourses; and physical and economic context. Behind these approaches is an implicit recognition that no single variable or even combination of variables is likely to be determinative in all cases. Rather, the explanations for major policy changes are typically more contingent on the particular combination of circumstances.

Within this context, institutional frameworks and physical and economic context provide ‘landscape’ conditions within which public policy decisions emerge. These variables are relatively fixed. However, if they are altered in some way, they can be ‘game changers’ that compel major shifts in policy. As noted earlier, recent judicial decisions regarding the meaning of aboriginal and treaty rights provisions of the Canadian constitution, or the scope of municipal legislative authority, provide examples of such events.  The restructuring of economies in eastern Canada away from manufacturing and resource processing and towards service and knowledge based activities provides another.  Societal forces and ideational norms are likely to be more fluid, and therefore more likely factors in driving policy change.

3.     Perspectives from Complexity Thinking: Wicked Problems, Path Dependence and Transitions

Wicked problems - according to Bancerz (2019:43-44), this conception emerged some 50 years as social problems became more complex to solve.  She cites Rittel and Webber (1973, p. 161-166) who identify  10 key characteristics of wicked problems:
"1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem;
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule (no absolute solution);
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad (no correct solution, only good or bad solutions for those affected by the problem);
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem (solutions can have negative consequences and create additional problems that are bigger than the original);
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trail-and-error, every attempt counts significantly;
6. Wicked problems do not have enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan (impossible to know all of the possible solutions);
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique;
8. Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem;
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution (no way to determine exact causes or combinations of causes of the problem, and different people have different perspectives of what created the wicked problem);
10. The planner has no right to be wrong (failure is not tolerated by the public)."

This web site is designed in part to make sense of the wickedness of food policy problems. In particular, wicked problems appear to be more profound because transition thinking, collaborative governance and a range of other conceptual tools are often not brought to bear on the problems.

Path dependence (or lock-in) – originally developed from the economic history literature, Wilsford (1994: 252) argues that “A path dependent sequence of political changes is one that is tied to previous decisions and existing institutions.  In path dependency, structural forces dominate, therefore policy movement is most likely to be incremental. Strong conjunctural forces will likely be required to move policy further away from the existing path onto a new trajectory.  It is the combination of path-dependent limits along with occasional windows of exceptional opportunity, or conjunctures, that determine the ways small or big that a political system responds to policy imperatives.”  Path dependency is vulnerable to the "black swan" phenomenon, hard-to-predict, rare, but consequential events (Taleb, 2007).

Multi-level Perspective on socio-technical regime change (Geels, 2011: 25) – to some degree building on regime theory and path dependence, Geels believes that “sustainability transitions are necessarily about interactions between technology, policy/power/politics, economics/business/markets, and culture/discourse/public opinion. Researchers therefore need theoretical approaches that address, firstly, the multi-dimensional nature of sustainability transitions, and, secondly, the dynamics of structural change. With regard to structural change the problem is that many existing (unsustainable) systems are stabilized through various lock-in mechanisms, such as scale economies, sunk investments in machines, infrastructures and competencies. Also institutional commitments, shared beliefs and discourses, power relations, and political lobbying by incumbents stabilize existing systems .... Additionally, consumer lifestyles and preferences may have become adjusted to existing technical systems. These lock-in mechanisms create path dependence and make it difficult to dislodge existing systems. So, the core analytical puzzle is to understand how environmental innovations emerge and how these can replace, transform or reconfigure existing systems.” A multilevel perspective links three scales of analysis. ‘Socio-technical niches’ form the network involving new innovations at a local scale. The ‘socio-technological regime’ is made up of the social network of infrastructures, regulations, markets, and established technical knowledge. The ‘socio-technical landscape’ is the exogenous environment of air quality, resource prices, lifestyles, and political, cultural and economic structures. The regimes are nested within and structured by landscapes, and niches are nested within and structured by regimes.

Transition management (Voss et al., 2009:284) – Part of a reflexive governance approach, “ ....  policy design in transition management comprises five main components: (1) Establishing a transition arena, (2) developing a vision, (3) pathway development through back-casting techniques, (4) experimenting with pathway options and (5) monitoring, evaluation and revisions....... For each of these components of the transition management process, a variety of societal actors are supposed to participate and provide knowledge, competences, material resources and viewpoints.”

Summarizing, the socio-technological transitions and public policy literatures touch on many common themes regarding processes and barriers to major shifts in policy direction, but have largely emerged in parallel to one another, with connections between the two only beginning to be explored recently (Hoffman, 2013; Meadowcroft, 2009; Voß and Bornemann, 2011) .

4.     Comparative studies

Comparative studies are worth brief mention.  They cut across the categories presented here because they contrast how policy changes (and explanatory frameworks) are applied in different environments.  They have been used to understand agricultural policy differences in Canadian provinces (cf. Montpetit and Coleman, 1999), international health policy change conjunctures (Wilsford, 1994) or the possibilities of paradigmatic agricultural policy change across international borders (cf. Skogstad, 2012).   They help us understand what might be more effectively executed in Canada.  The comparative method has been set out by numerous authors, including Collier (1993).


[1]  Note that there is much theoretical debate about the merits of some of these frames, arguments we do not address here.