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Work in progress: How should public policy studies change in the Asian Century?

MSoG_Horizontal_3DLogo_A4_RGB[1] copyThis is a working draft of a commentary By Sara Bice and Helen Sullivan of the Melbourne School of Government that will appear in the October issue of Governance.  Leave your comments below or email the authors directly.  The commentary will also be discussed at a roundtable at the Melbourne School of Government on May 20.  More details about the roundtable.

Update: Read the published version of the commentary here.

Western approaches defined the 20th century emergence of policy studies as a distinctive scholarly field. In the 21st century, the ‘ascendance of Asia’ will demand critical reflection on how we define public policy, administration and governance; what public policy entails; and how it is managed and implemented. Will Harold Lasswell’s post-war vision of policy studies as a cross-cutting discipline capable of informing the decisions of industrial societies maintain salience? Or do the extraordinary changes wrought by globalisation demand a new orientation for policy studies?

We argue here that the construct, content and conduct of policy studies must respond to the challenges and opportunities of the ‘Asian Century.’ At its core, the ‘Asian Century’ presents a global milieu where economic, cultural, political, environmental and social issues will be heavily influenced by growth and activities in the Asian region. Only through acknowledging and responding to these influences might policy studies equip current and future public managers with the capabilities and skills necessary to create and manage policy successfully.

We pose these concerns at a time when the rise of Asia appears both ubiquitous and inevitable. Even within this century’s opening decade, the data indicating that the Asian region is on track for economic, political and cultural dominance are copious and staggering. The Asian Development Bank tips China to assume a global economic supremacy unseen for over 300 years. By the half century, India is tacking course to become the world’s fifth largest consumer economy, with almost 300 million people egressing out of poverty into the middle class. An estimated 60 per cent of the global population now resides in the region bounded by Mongolia in the north, Indonesia in the south, Korea in the east, and Afghanistan in the west.

Sara Bice

Sara Bice

Despite the statistics and predictions of Asian ascendance, critics remain wary of proclaiming an ‘Asian Century’. Very generally, the notion of ‘Asia’ has itself been problematized as a Western construct which falsely homogenizes an extraordinarily populous and distinct grouping of countries. Michael Cox of the LSE, for example, cogently questions whether the use of the term ‘Asian Century’ belies imminent decades better described as the ‘China Century’. Australian scholar Hugh White argues that the antipodean continent must reconsider its military alignment with the United States to ward off potential troubles with China. The United States’ own foreign policy strategy is based on a ‘pivot’ to Asia, in which China is the fulcrum. Meanwhile, a vibrant force of entrepreneurs and major corporate takeovers has led commentators to coin the descriptor ‘India Inc.’ and pronounce the ‘Indian Century.’

Semantic niggles aside, a global situation in which the West is positioned as the policy centre against which all outside are ‘others’ is rapidly becoming démodé. Perhaps what can be agreed is that the ‘Asian Century’ provides a critical proxy for sparking our thinking about how globalisation and its related dissolution of boundaries and generation of network societies, socio-cultural, environmental, and migratory transmutations may affect, transform or even revolutionise public policy: How it is defined, what it addresses and how it is implemented and managed.

Within this milieu, policy education and scholarship lie at the heart of governments’ abilities to recognise, respond to and even benefit from these changes. Now is the time for new research questions. How will policy studies change in light of the ‘Asian Century’? We propose three pivotal points of evolution.

First, the largely taken-for-granted Western constructs that underpin contemporary policy studies must be re-examined and perhaps even redefined. In practical terms, this requires acknowledgement of a widespread but perhaps unconscious bias towards Western values and policy approaches. As Shamsul Haque argues, such preconceptions assume a global generalizability of core policy concepts and theories that rarely hold true for Asian or non-OECD countries. Wolfgang Dreschler, meanwhile, posits a three-paradigm—Western, Chinese and Islamic—foundation for contemporary policy studies, which acknowledges diverse values, administrative traditions and policy implementation methods. Scholars such as Mark Beeson question the usefulness of concepts like ‘good governance’ in East Asia, while Mark Turner notes the hybridised ways in which Asian public administrators understand and reconstruct Western policy models by “choosing items from the menu.”

Helen Sullivan

Helen Sullivan

Readers will note that the authors we draw on above come from a range of disciplines and fields, including international relations and development studies, as well as public administration and political science. Re-constructing policy studies in a global era requires that policy scholars cast their net much wider in search of appropriate conceptual building blocks and tools.

At the same time that Western conceptualisations of the ‘policy’ in policy studies require reconsideration, contemporary policy studies could also benefit from a purposeful examination and integration of how core policy concepts are defined and deployed by Asian nations. Daniel Bell, for example, writes powerfully about the potential that Confucian values, especially collectiveness and ‘familism’, may hold for capitalist nations. In Evan Berman’s landmark, three-volume work on Public Administration in Asia, he and his contributors detail the distinctive histories, ethics, values, practices, politics and theories that sustain public policy and administration in the region. Discussions such as these demonstrate what it is possible for public policy to be about in any given context.

This brings us to our second pivot point: the content of policy. While ‘wicked problems’ have been on the agenda for some time, many of these have been bound (in policy analysis and practice) by nation-state borders. The materialization of ‘global challenges’ diffuses these borders and expands the boundaries that must be addressed by public policy. Contemporary policy studies must therefore provide tools and solutions for global issues like climate change, the interdependence of financial markets, human rights and smouldering political tensions.

To this end, policy scholarship must itself become less parochial and more capacious. A recent scan of five leading mainstream policy studies journals in the first decade of the 21st century found only forty-nine of over 2,000 articles centrally addressing issues vital to the Asian Century. The leading comparative policy studies journals offer –perhaps unsurprisingly—a stronger focus on global issues and non-western approaches, publishing 242 relevant articles in the period. Even this cursory scan of the policy literature demonstrates widely held proclivities of Western scholars to focus inwards or adopt a ‘centre/other’ approach. Such a perspective may hobble the ability of Western policy studies to respond to global challenges and educate future policy scholars and administrators.

The continued circumscription of policy content to conventional boundaries and the relegation of such discussions to a critical but marginalised subfield of policy studies both controverts the importance of the topics covered and also reduces the ability of policy scholars – as a plenum—to become aware of and engage the debate. This must change. ‘Mainstream’ policy studies, therefore, requires a better integration of comparative perspectives —incorporating inter-country, epistemological and methodological comparisons—into the ways we research and understand policy, more generally. Only then can we address changes to the content of policy. In making this argument for more and better comparative work, we do not privilege a particular epistemological or methodological position. Policy scholars must continue to use those frameworks and methods that best help them answer the questions they are posing. But we do argue for a clearer acknowledgement of the assumptions that underpin the frameworks and methods that are used and the particular heritage of certain of the established models of policy analysis.

Recently, for example, Public Administration produced a special issue on public administration in Greater China, incorporating Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau (vol. 91, issue 2, 2013). Taken together the volume’s contents revealed the lack of Western scholarly writing on Asian public administration, especially that of China, and an innate critique of Chinese policy studies in terms of the robustness of research, methodological validity and quality. While we may debate certain positivist assumptions infused into these analyses, what is apparent is that the scholarly study of Chinese administration is a rapidly growing field, both in size and importance. A recent study in Public Administration by Professor Xun Wu and his colleagues found that the top six Chinese public administration journals published close to 3,000 articles in the decade between 1998 and 2008, more than the combined total of the top eight European journals during the same period. This represents a massive field of literature and pool of knowledge. One to which few in the West have access. These findings underline the importance of knowledge sharing between China and the West, of translation, and of the need to mainstream comparative policy studies to capture better the contemporary content of public policy. Without such concerted efforts, a substantial field of research and practice remains a mystery.

This brings us to our third pivot point for the future of policy studies: the conduct of policy and administration. Given the propensity for bureaucracy to resist change, this presents an enormous challenge. From New York City to Birmingham to Melbourne, policy scholars are busy determining the skills and competencies vital to effective and efficient 21st century public service. The dominance of Anglo, Western cultural, social, economic and political systems in recent history means that limited attention has been paid to promoting a systemic knowledge of or capability to meaningfully engage with Asian nations. A 2011 Australian Industry Group and Asialink survey of 380 respondents from diverse business sectors, for example, found that “having an appreciation of the different political and legal processes” of Asian countries was seen as the single most important factor for business success in Asia. This was followed closely by Asia-sensitive managerial skills and local cultural knowledge. The capabilities and values that come to define the ‘21st century public servant’ must therefore subvert the usual ‘West to the rest’ model. Instead, Western policy studies could benefit greatly from consideration and integration of select values and practices honed by Asian nations over centuries, not decades.

Policy studies is therefore vital to equipping future public servants with these faculties. Public policy education must deliver the graduate skills and capabilities necessary for competence in and ability to respond to the challenges of policy development and implementation within a globalised and highly networked environment. Such a shift in thinking necessitates a change in the way we study and learn public policy: prioritising new and different competencies and capabilities for the public service, reframing policy debates beyond the usual Western constructs, and integrating non-Western values and approaches to policy making and public administration. At the same time, the notion of ‘capable engagement’ with Asia is complicated by the diversity of Asian cultures, languages, societies and systems of government. To be globally capable, therefore, the 21st century public service must be agile and flexible, staffed by administrators who are less technocratic but with more generic skills, adopting perspectives and approaches that are less parochial and more worldly.

While our focus here remains squarely on policy studies and public administrators, it is important to acknowledge the parallel and pertinent shifts in global political systems. Without delving into debates about democracy, political economies or security, the Asian Century does raise important questions about potential changes to political and governance systems and the conduct of politicians in policy processes. A little over a decade ago, Frank Fischer articulated the complex interrelations between political discourse, policy-making and closely held ideologies. Like policy studies, contemporary political studies will face equally challenging crises of identity, structural change and tests of taken-for-granted systems and ideals.

The rise of Asia will be a defining feature of the 21st Century. We have argued here that policy studies must respond actively and comprehensively to the challenges and opportunities nascent in this shifting global order. Public policy studies in the ‘Asian Century’ must question taken-for-granted constructs underpinning the discipline. It must expand consideration and understanding of contemporary policy content, and seek to learn from practices and approaches beyond the usual Western suspects. Finally, policy studies must transform the conduct of public service, prioritising, building and integrating knowledge and skills which will facilitate the 21st century public service to identify, respond to and even pre-empt the global challenges we face.

Sara Bice is Research Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne.  Helen Sullivan is Director of the Melbourne School of Government.

Written by Governance

April 28, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Posted in commentary

One Response

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  1. Clearly Western policy studies have neglected Asia, especially China, and more attention should be paid to it. But to have an article this long and complex and have the word “democracy” considered only once and then in the sentence “Without delving into debates about democracy…” Quite sorry but how can one consider public administration in China without considering democracy, debates or otherwise? The very concepts of governance and public administration in the West assume democratic governance. Are the authors arguing we have to abandon democratic values to study China? Or are they saying we have to develop a discipline of public administration that doesn’t assume democracy? Was that done to study the USSR? Other non-democratic regimes? These are important questions not directly addressed.

    Ellis Krauss

    May 2, 2014 at 9:52 am


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