Bridging the gap between macro-level policies and change on the ground: Are ‘generative’ policies an answer?

Policies, by their very nature can only be macro-level, envisaged for the ‘general,’ based on what has been understood about the ‘universal.’ Policies, by default, therefore, ignore the ‘differentiating principle.’  This note contends that the failure of macro-level policies to provide for differences on the field is a major shortcoming in policy-making, and this is the reason so many visionary policies disappoint when it comes to rendering real change, to the level expected.

In order to move beyond the problem and consider ways to resolve it, I suggest that rather than adopting a linear approach which operates on the premise that implementation will simply follow a policy once it is articulated, it may be useful to consider a generative approach whereby lessons learnt from multiple, micro-level field studies are continuously fed into the policy, making it a dynamic tool rather than a dead instrument.  

Case studies, interviews, quantitative analyses of administered questionnaires, quotes from focus group discussions – these are all very much part of the narratives that determine policy direction. But once the policies take the shape of programmes, why are ground-level narratives not fed back into the policies? Why cannot programmes be flexible enough to allow for ‘generativity’ – a growth with every new learning?

Indian logicians, since centuries, have talked of the unifying and differentiating principles: the samanya and the visesa.  There is a ‘unifying principle,’ but then there is too a ‘differentiating principle.’  Let me clarify … If the population of the world can be divided into nations, and nations into societies, and societies into groups, which may overlap, depending on their interests, and one keeps at this, one can see that an indefinite number of ‘universals’ can be thought of and that the sub-groups that can be formed are infinite.

Policy-makers, however diverse their background, cannot be representative of all the universals. Therein lies the first catch. And then again, there is the differentiating principle. While the diversity within ‘the’ universal itself is indefinite in number as we just saw, if we factor in the goals and the motivations and methods that propel social groups towards these goals, we will find that the interpretation of the realities and results vary within each sub-group to a great extent.  In addition, these factors also change across time, depending on both societal influences on a group as well as the individual actors’ agency impinging on the group.

To unpack that dense observation to serve the purpose of this note, debates at subaltern levels occur in languages that are different from the dominant ‘popular’ discourse and academic discussions.  These subaltern conversations are also very different from each other, group-wise.  Policy-makers can, at best, bring to the table knowledge of the dialogues that permeate a few representative subaltern groups. However, since unifying principles are indefinite in number, and differentiating principles are infinite in variety and in number, the facile appreciation of the diversity in stakeholder perception of a policy and its potential impacts is a major impediment in rolling out a successful implementation plan.  And, for this reason, the best of policies fail to result in the expected change on the ground in a sustainable manner.  But this can change if it is recognised that reasoned debates in the public arena are central to participative democracy and that the scope of ‘reasoned debates’ and ‘public arena’ should  encompass debates that occur at the subaltern levels, particularly when proposing social policy changes.   De-construction of hierarchy, open offices – they are all intended to make the organisation a participative, collaborative workplace where knowledge and ideas can move freely, unrestrained, unconstrained. By allowing for generativity in policy making, a similar collaborative participative exercise becomes possible in governance, with attendant benefits.

Am I suggesting that from being a firm framework policy making become flexible and tentative?  Indeed, yes.  Consider this:  what is a sport? What is a battle? Are they not constant negotiations with reality despite being played within a rigid framework of rules? Cannot a macro social policy, similarly, adjust to micro-level realities and constantly re-invent itself? The goal after all is to win the game, while playing by the rules. Keep the macro-level policy in tact but allow for micro-level learnings to fine-tune it. This is, of course, a continuous process: a process of harmonizing the policies with the situation on the ground and beneficiaries of the exercise in each locality region. And also feeding back these learnings into the policy, which then is no longer a dead document but a constantly rejuvenating praxis.

As Stephen Ball observes,

There is plenty of social agency and social intentionality around.  Actors are making meaning, being influential, contesting, constructing responses, dealing with contradictions, attempting representations of policy  (in Education Policy and Social Class: Selected Works, Routledge, 2006).

I ask, therefore, is it not possible to incorporate into policy making this ‘other’ of the ‘expert’ knowledge – the ‘other’ in which, in fact, the ‘expert’ knowledge arises, and to which it [the policy-making process] purports to give back?

While policies most often emerge from a deep study of the problem, the people affected by it, and the various ways to address it, policy-makers still do not have a clear notion of how their recommendations will be used on the field. Policies, ipso facto, therefore, become projections – a hope, a belief.  ‘We do not command a clear view of the use of our words,’ says Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations. Similarly, the policies that emerge from a deep study of the problem, the people affected by it, and the various ways to address it still do not have a clear notion of how their recommendations will be used on the field.  That is why a policy in most part, as it stands today, is a projection – a hope, a belief born of a sense of confidence  linked to the scholarship of the policy makers, which often leads the experts to believe in the rigour of their exercise and its near infallibility.  Indeed, these are the hazards of confidence that Daniel Kahneman writes about with such insight into the human psyche in his seminal Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The middle ground between plan and praxis is occupied by an a-logical thought process that results in an infinite number of ways of adopting, adapting or resisting policy prescriptions. This leads to a partial, or skewed adoption of policies, in select pockets, upsetting the projections of the policy-makers. The upshot of this unsatisfying ground level change is often the constitution of a new expert committee and the implementation of a new policy, with near-identical outcomes. A quick review of the Indian government’s educational policies would validate this claim: despite visionary policies, starting from 1948, with stalwarts presiding over committees and commissions on education, the problems persist with regard to medium of instruction, issues of funding, the rural-urban disjuncture, teaching the teachers, modes of assessment, and even something that appears very basic such as confusion over classification of elementary and secondary education:

I argue that it is possible to make policies more effective only if policymakers come out of their endearing belief in the inviolability of their dicta: Once articulated, it is a straight road to success; all that is required is the will to facilitate implementation in the suggested manner. However, what policy-makers fail to see is that the impediments to implementation are not external: rather, they are in-built in the very process of their policy-making exercise.

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2 thoughts on “Bridging the gap between macro-level policies and change on the ground: Are ‘generative’ policies an answer?

  1. Thank you for a wonderfully articulated, though-provoking post. I was just wondering if you are aware of any example of a policy that followed the communicative, evolving route you recommend.

  2. Thank you for taking time to pen a note of appreciation. In the essay, I have given the examples of the sports field and the battlefield – in both of which plans are constantly monitored and the processes are receptive to perpetual feedback and change. These are examples in the immediate term, unlike policies, which are medium- to long term. While there are some policies that succeed in large measure, most fail to live up to their promise. It would be interesting to apply your query to the ‘successful’ policies and see if it has been the strong monitoring and feedback loop that has been instrumental in their success.

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