The status of ideas in controversies on public policy. Analyzing beliefs as dependent variables: a case study on harm reduction policies in Switzerland.

Author:Mavrot, Celine

1 Introduction

The question raised in this article is about how to theoretically and methodologically apprehend public policy controversies (1). More precisely, the role of ideas during public policy controversies between different policy coalitions is put into perspective. The starting point is the will to analytically construct ideas as dependent variables. Public policy scholars have underlined the confusion that lies at the heart of public policy analysis, where the status of ideas as causes or as variables is often blurred (Hassenteufel/Smith 2002: 60). When ideas are considered as independent variables, the analysis is likely to be more descriptive than explicative. In order to construct ideas as dependent variables, the focus has to be on the progressive formation of belief through the coalitions' adversarial activities. Hence, what will be questioned here is the process by which individuals do engage--or not-in public policy debate regarding harm reduction. We will not consider actors' engagement in a cause as unilaterally deriving from their beliefs. This line of questioning is closely linked to the ontological and epistemological choices. We assume that a processualist ontological stance is well-fitted to avoid the tautology induced by considering ideas as deja-la. By viewing militant commitment as a social and dynamic activity, a processualist focus highlights how ideas occur in the course of action (Fillieule 2001: 199-200). From this point of view, mobilized groups are by no means seen as preexisting entities driven by fixed ideas (Offerle 1994). This is particularly salient in the case of highly emotional controversies, where actors' ideas are often considered as if they had always existed. Furthermore, actors engaged in the same struggle do not necessarily share homogenous beliefs. Analyzing the heterogeneity of investments enables to understand the dynamics of the collective action (Mathieu 2004: 19). Similarly, the focus on the process of idea formation during policy controversies provides an opportunity to attain a deep understanding of the dynamics of the controversy.

Analyzing ideas as dependent variables has important methodological repercussions. It shifts the location to where the explicative factors -and hence the data- are searched. The present reflection on public policy controversies is based on a case study research on harm reduction policies in matters of drug addiction in two Swiss cantons, Vaud and Geneva. The theoretical starting point of this study is the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF). Daniel Kubler (2000) has convincingly illustrated that this particular subject is well captured with the help of ACF's theoretical framework. The formulation of harm reduction policies are regularly the scene of sharp confrontations between policy coalitions, and ACF's concepts are particularly well-suited to the analysis of the Swiss multilevel politico-administrative system. Meanwhile, the benefits of using concepts from the social movement theory (Kubler 2001: 623) or the political sociology (Hassenteufel/Smith 2002: 63) in the public policy analysis has been asserted.

The paper is structured as follows: In the first section, we review the contributions of the ACF to public policy analysis, and point out two theoretical points that appeared to be worth specification in the light of our case studies. These two points, already identified in the literature, concern the study of the long-term coalitions' birth and structuring process (Kubler 2001: 623; Schlager 1995), and the analysis of the specific arenas where the controversy takes place (Hassenteufel/Smith 2002:70-71; Muller 2006: 52). The second section is a theoretical discussion where we detail the concepts drawn from political sociology we used in our study. In the third section, we discuss the methodological operationalization of these concepts. We finally turn to the case studies on harm reduction policies.

2 Advocacy Coalition Framework

By founding the Advocacy Coalition Framework at the end of the 1980s, Paul A. Sabatier aimed at overcoming the dominant approach that viewed the public policy implementation process as an ideal-typical sequence, underpinned by a rational causal model. On the contrary, the ACF considers that the public policy formulation and implementation processes shelter a constant recreation of the whole public problem, through the struggle between opposing advocacy coalitions. The notion of policy subsystem lies at the heart of the analysis: It conceptually depicts the area in which the policy definition takes place. It offers the advantage of taking into account the different levels of action the coalitions are simultaneously distributed across, thus authorizing a multi-level dynamic analysis. Consequently, it permits to see how actors valorize in certain spheres resources that they acquired in other levels. The policy subsystem notion was also intended to overtake the top-down/bottom-up alternative, by focusing on a meso-level of analysis (Kubler 2000).

Importantly, the ACF model also wanted to revalorize the role of beliefs in the policymaking process (Kubler 2000) (2). The model aims at analyzing how different coalitions fight for imposing their solution to a public problem. The advocacy coalitions are composed of people sharing a common set of normative and causal beliefs (Bergeron/Surel/Valluy 1998: 206). The coalitions' members try to translate these beliefs into policy formulation. However, far from presupposing that social actors act according to instrumentalist strategies, the ACF argues for investigating the constitution and the evolution of actors' representations (Bergeron/Surel/Valluy 1998: 199; Sabatier 1999). In the ACF, the actors' belief systems consist of three strata, corresponding to more or less adaptable assumptions on a given theme. A coalition is considered to be stabilized when it achieves a high level of coordinated actions over a sustainable time period (Kubler 2000; Sabatier/Jenkins-Smith 1993). The aim is to analytically create collective entities (i.e., the advocacy coalitions) regrouped around the same object and ideas, fighting with each other in the policy subsystem (Bergeron/Surel/Valluy 1998: 201). Recently, the ACF models of the learning processes (Henry 2009; Weible/Sabatier 2009), as well as the analysis of the coalitions' interactions within a given subsystem (Weible 2005) have been refined.

The ACF succeeded in honing the analysis of the policymaking process. However, in order to construct ideas as dependent variables, two aspects have to be considered in deeper detail. The first concerns the process of constitution and development of coalitions. The second is linked with the need to analytically refine the location of the policymaking process, as regards the policy subsystem concept. As for the first point, we argue that a deeper analysis of the constitution and development process of coalitions is necessary for avoiding taking ideas as deja-la. This necessity has already been pointed out (Kubler 2001: 623). We will assert that retracing the coalitions' long-term genesis is the only way to deeply understand the latter controversy's dynamic. From this point of view, the existence itself of different contending coalitions is not taken as given, but problematized. Problematizing the opposing coalitions instead of considering them as invariants allows a differential analysis of the policymaking configurations. Furthermore, taking the advocacy coalitions for granted would also lead to presupposing the uniformity of their members' beliefs, presumed to be shared from the beginning of the controversy (Bergeron/Surel/Valluy 1998: 218). On the contrary, analyzing the heterogeneity of investments that prevail during the groups' birth and development permits us to better understand the dynamics of the struggle (Mathieu 2004: 19). This allows to see that one organization's -or coalition's- official position is the fruit of a collective negotiation (Offerle 1994, 2004). Indeed, as some ACF scholars have themselves already shown, neither the coalitions, nor their members' beliefs are completely preexistent to the controversy (Kubler 2000; Nohrstedt 2010).

The second point we will address is the ACF's policy subsystem concept. The location of the coalitions' activities is a crucial factor in understanding the mobilizations and the controversies. For the ACF, a public policy derives from successive confrontation and cooperation activities that are spurred by coalitions' beliefs in a given policy subsystem. The participants of the subsystem are considered as forming a relatively autonomous community around a policy theme, fighting for having their expertise in this domain recognized (Bergeron/Surel/Valluy 1998: 206). The advantages of the policy subsystem notion are that it permits taking into account the links between public and private actors at different levels of government. The policy subsystem notion is also intended to analyze the cohabitation of different belief systems in the same policy sphere. In this regard, ACF adequately rose against former approaches that neglected the importance of private actors, as well as the polycentrism of the policymaking processes (Kubler 2000). Thus, the policy subsystem is the matrix that shelters the interpretative struggle between coalitions.

However, the notion of subsystem appears to be the black box of the ACF analysis (Nohrstedt 2010: 326). Some scholars underline that this subsystem cannot be considered as a fixed frame that would be constant across decades of public action on a domain. Its conceptualization has therein to be clarified, for the boundaries of such a subsystem are continuously evolving (Bergeron/Surel/Valluy 1998: 218-219). In the same manner, the policymaking process is simultaneously split into various separate arenas. Each of these arenas constitutes a distinct scene of policy formulation (Muller 2006)...

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