Chapter Three: Policy and Politics

3.10 What Factors Influence Policy-Making?

The evidence is that most political decisions are influenced by many factors. We can identify four broad categories of influence on decisions: political, economic, ideological, and pragmatic.

Political influences concern who is in favour of, or opposed to, a particular position, without necessarily considering the merits of their position. When making a decision, both elected officials and employed staff must weigh who is for or against it, and how intense the opposition may be. Provincial and federal governments may take opinion polls, or they may pay attention to letters, phone calls, and emails. A school board will assess its perception of the balance of opinion in its community. A school principal will think about how staff members and parents feel about any given issue, and about how those with different opinions might be won over. The weighing of opinion before making a decision is a reasonable and universal political practice.

Some people criticize government bodies for making decisions based on their popularity. The use of public-opinion polls to shape government policy is one manifestation of this tendency. While polls can be used and policies can be endorsed simply to favour what is popular, the issue is not so simple. After all, we elect governments to do the things we prefer; it is hardly logical, then, to criticize them for taking our views into account before making decisions! It is unlikely that people would be more satisfied if decisions were made without regard to their views.

An alternative influence to the use of polls or other opinion measurements lies in the pressures brought to bear by various groups, as discussed earlier. This has its own problems, as the best-organized and loudest lobbies may be representative of quite small numbers of people. Policy decisions are also affected by economic considerations. No matter what people say about taxes and public spending, political choices will always be constrained by financial realities and by the possible effects of policy choices on the economy as a whole (In Chapter 5, we discuss more fully the way in which the availability of money affects what choices are possible). Much of the current debate in Canada about education policy, for example, is framed in terms of how education can contribute to economic growth, even though this is only one purpose of education.

Ideology plays a critical role in shaping politics and policy choices. By ideology we mean people’s deep-seated beliefs about how the world is and how it ought to be, beliefs that are held at such a deep level that they are rarely called into question. Everyone has such beliefs, many of which were inculcated when we were young (partly through the schools, it might be added). Although we sometimes use the term “ideology” to disparage those with whom we disagree, ideology is what shapes, in large part, the agenda of political parties and of all of us as individuals. If one begins with the belief that people will not work unless they are policed and compelled to do so, then one is inclined toward policies such as more testing of students or closer evaluation of teachers. If one believes that poverty is an underlying cause of educational problems, one will be inclined to support programs and activities that reduce or ameliorate some of the effects of poverty, such as school nutrition programs or preschool programs. The ideology of individuals and groups will have a critical effect on many policy decisions, chiefly by shaping the alternatives that are considered in the first place.

Ideology intersects with pragmatic considerations, however. What we want to do has to be matched with what we think can be done. Each of us takes for granted certain assumptions about what is possible, assumptions that also shape our political proposals. Whatever our ideological convictions, we don’t propose what we believe to be impossible. An election commitment to eliminate winter storms in Canada would be popular if anyone believed it could be done, but because it isn’t possible it never gets on the agenda. To take a less fanciful example, a proposal to ensure that all students should take advanced mathematics in high schools, while perhaps seen as desirable, might also be seen as impossible, and hence command less political support. Goals have to be fitted against capacities in designing policies.

Policy choices are also constrained by the range of options that people are aware of in the first place. This is one reason why policy ideas seem to move across boundaries, so that what is done in one place is often copied in other places. An initiative adopted in one state or province may get picked up by the media or communicated at various national or international meetings and conferences. If the idea appeals to leaders in other settings, it may be taken up there as well. An example would be the move by many provinces in the 1990s to reduce the number of school boards, so that over a 10-year period, eight of the provinces took steps in this direction. Levin (1998) suggests that these movements in policy may be comparable to the spread of diseases. However, there is also evidence that the movement of policy ideas across jurisdictions is shaped by cultural, historical, and institutional factors as well as by political demands (Levin, 2001).