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SKAPE: Research


Skape Meeting : John Boswell (PAIR, University of Southampton) : The Holy Grails of Good Governance: Why we need naive policymaking ideals in cynical times

Skape Meeting : John Boswell (PAIR, University of Southampton) : The Holy Grails of Good Governance: Why we need naive policymaking ideals in cynical times
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Date and Time
11th Apr 2018 12:00 - 11th Apr 2018 13:00
Meeting Room 2.15, Chrystal Macmillan Building

Cynicism is seemingly in vogue in contemporary policy scholarship. Where the policy sciences were once at the heart of efforts to systematically improve the policymaking process, they are now more often directed towards critique of any such endeavour. The orthodoxy increasingly writes off attempts to enhance the policymaking process, by making it more rational or more democratic, as misplaced and naïve. Notions that policies might be evidence-based, that government silos might be joined-up, that policy processes might be more transparent, and that citizens might be more involved in decision-making are increasingly seen to represent Holy Grails – ideals that are not just unattainable, but whose naïve pursuit may in fact be damaging to the ultimate ends of advancing human dignity.

In this talk, I take no issue with this orthodox interpretation of the pathologies and vagaries of policymaking, nor with its pessimistic account of the chances of actually realising the Holy Grails. But I begin digging beneath this cynicism in order to better understand the dynamics that underpin the continued pursuit of these apparently naïve goals. Key here is the fact that cynicism is not limited to policy scholarship—if anything, it is much more acute in the trenches of policymaking practice. Policy actors are cynical because they experience the obstacles to better governance every day: they see political expediency trump sound evidence; they make do with silos that cannot link up in practice; they know that backstage lobbying can undermine frontstage transparency; they observe public relations’ spectacles masquerading as exercises in citizen engagement. The critical stance of policy scholars to these ideas is no revelation to them. The curious thing, then, is that they typically—or at least outwardly—retain faith in the Holy Grails anyway. They continue to advocate for and strive towards policymaking ideals that they are deeply cynical about.

This talk is part of an embryonic book project focused on unpacking this apparent paradox. Why do actors retain faith in ideas to enhance policymaking that they know do not work? And what effect does this continued faith have on contemporary practices of democratic governance? Drawing on rich case material from the health sector in the UK, I propose to argue that policy actors actually have important reasons for clinging to these ideals, and that the impact of their doing so is at the very least much more ambivalent than pervasive cynicism in policy studies would suggest. I conclude, then, by arguing that policy scholars ought to be careful what they wish for in seeking to discard or displace the Holy Grails.