Public Policy: A View from the South
By Vishal Narain
Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Public policy as a discipline is primarily interested in the legitimation of social action and inaction. At the personal level, individuals tackle social conditions to resolve problems in their everyday lives. But if decisions are made on behalf of a group of individuals, the task becomes a lot more complex. When the group concerned is large, the course of action may encounter several unexpected barriers. Framed within a legal system, these measures become policies or rules that govern lives.
These policies affect the social environment and are also affected by it. Both state and non-state institutions play a role in shaping policies. As diverse cultural groups in the Global South come into the ambit of highly complex bureaucracies, public policy becomes ever-more challenging. With such a vast range of influences — from prevalent values, customs and norms — how do public institutions outline action plans that result in expected outcomes?
Demystifying Public Policy
In Public Policy: A View from the South, Vishal Narain attempts to “demystify” the study of public policy. The aim is to ground practitioners in theory that cuts across disciplines. Distinguishing scientific, analytical and theoretical perspectives, the author illuminates the fluid boundaries of policy perspectives such as the New Institutionalist and Legal Pluralistic frameworks.
The first chapter argues against the expectation that every policy study should result in a policy prescription. Policies may unfold in unexpected ways when they encounter conditions on the ground. From his research on irrigation in Northwest India, Narain offers the example of bhaichara (brotherhood), a non-legal system of rules that emerged among the farmers in response to warabandi, an irrigation scheme widely applied in Northwest India and Pakistan.1,2 Farmers adopted bhaichara (meaning brotherhood) as a flexible system of water-sharing based on mutual consent, even though it goes against the rules set by the warabandi policy. Under bhaichara, farmers exchange assigned warabandi time slots. The prevailing policy thus took an unexpected turn under a different system of rules.
The author points to the need for policy studies to shift its emphasis from analysis ‘for’ policy to an analysis ‘of’ policy. The subsequent chapter reviews the evolution of policy analysis and policy science. It shines a light on the process and procedural dimensions of policy-making, against the usual emphasis on structural facets. Borrowing relevant ideas from economics, political science, management, anthropology and sociology, Narain affirms the importance of inter-disciplinary research into policy processes. Going beyond rationalistic perspectives, the chapter offers alternative analytical models to study policy. It favours more descriptive approaches that take into account the social and economic diversity of countries like India. Delineating a variety of models of policy processes and the social groups that impact them, it calls for a deeper understanding of the processes behind the policy.
The author points to the need for policy studies to shift its emphasis from analysis ‘for’ policy to an analysis ‘of’ policy.
The third chapter examines the differences between policy-making in developed and developing countries. It interrogates the dominant prescriptive and descriptive narratives of good governance. The following discussion situates the global context for policy-making against the landscape of international governmental and non-governmental institutions. Citing his own research into large-scale irrigation systems in India, the author explains the influence of multilateral institutions such as the World Bank on government policy-making. Examining the different agents that influence policy, Narain considers the example of water privatisation in Bengaluru to demonstrate how multilateral institutions and transnational NGOs can influence policy at the cost of marginalised sections.
The fourth chapter offers an evaluation of the challenges that underlie policy implementation. If implementation is an integral component of policy-making processes, what frameworks can be used for its analysis? Invoking the legal pluralism paradigm, Narain explicates the difficulties that policies face on the ground. Taking into account all agents who influence the implementation processes is very crucial. If all potential effects are not anticipated, a policy can be affected by several unexpected reactions from the ground that cost the policymakers their vision. For example, the cultural notion of maryada (dignity) which confines Indian women to the household may clash with an equal rights policy that seeks to improve their participation in public life.
If implementation is an integral component of policy-making processes, what frameworks can be used for its analysis?
The final chapter deals with the evaluation of policy, which is not the same as the monitoring of policy implementation. An evaluation can be performed at any stage from policy conception; indeed at anytime where intervention can better policy impact. Distinguishing policy outputs (actions of the government) from policy outcomes (impact of a policy, both tangible and intangible), the author calls attention to the dynamics and processes that influence policy outcomes. The chapter presents various models for evaluation.
For example, the cultural notion of maryada (dignity) which confines Indian women to the household may clash with an equal rights policy that seeks to improve their participation in public life.
Policy is more than prescription
The book concludes by making a case for an informed evaluation of policy. Moreover, the author alerts the readers against an approach to policy that is ridden with an overemphasis on guidelines, directives or desired states of being. Viewing policy as guidelines or directives makes it overly prescriptive.
A policy study must investigate how policy shapes outcomes, beyond its original web of decisions. Such a pluralistic examination must recognize the background research involved, the goals, intentions, planning. It must combine impact assessment and analysis of the process itself. This book helps clarify these aspects even for a lay reader interested in learning about public policy.
Viewing policy as guidelines or directives makes it overly prescriptive.
The author’s extensive experience in teaching at the Management Development Institute in Gurugram and training policy practitioners has aided the book in its wide scope and appeal. Narain’s expertise comes from his rich practical knowledge in inter-disciplinary research in fields such as rural development, water management and peri-urban governance.
Even though it provides an extremely useful overview, the book only taps into the surface of several debatable subtopics in the area. Other edited volumes on public policy in the global south have examined case studies of issues relevant to the global south in the areas of poverty, environmental policy, technology use, bureaucracy, legislation, lobbying and administrative reforms, or others. Narain does not visit the analysis of policy-making or policy studies from the standpoint of their history or the watershed moments that shaped them.
The goal is to address the ‘implementation gap’ that appears due to a disconnect between the practice and theory of public policy.
While the volume does not analyse in-depth the sub-disciplines of public policy, it can still be a valuable handbook for both researchers and practitioners. Narain’s aim is not to expand the scholarship in policy in the global south. Instead, the goal is to address the ‘implementation gap’ that appears due to a disconnect between the practice and theory of public policy.
The author succeeds in giving a comprehensive overview of the discipline by urging the reader to consider the key paradigms that inform it. The reader is persuaded to consider a multifaceted point of view towards public policy. To those who seek an educative introduction to policy studies, this book is a compelling start.