Comment: This entry is prompted by the recent Report on policy innovation produced by the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture & Water Resources, ABARES. Written by Susan Whitbread, Katie Linnane and Alistair Davidson, it is entitled: Policy innovation: New thinking. New skills. New tools [Policy innovation: New thinking. New skills. New tools].
The authors and the Department are to be complemented for the breadth of perspectives they engage, from “wicked problems” (p. 11) to “deliberative democracy” (p. 29) and (indeed) to WPR (pp. 20-21). The inclusion of WPR is exciting because it suggests that this poststructural analytic strategy can be useful in on-the-ground policy deliberation. I reflect further on this point below.
The ABARES Report defends a need to break free from conventional notions of evidence and rationality that dominate mainstream policy approaches. For example, it introduces the notion of “post-normal science” where facts are uncertain (p. 13). It also puts forward a more complex understanding of human behaviour that looks beyond “the traditional view of citizens as being rational and logical in their behaviours and decisions” (p. 19). To this end it introduces the Narrative Policy Framework, which includes discourse analysis and critical theory (p. 19).
However, the Report continues to operate within a problem-solving paradigm, the focus of critique in WPR (see Bacchi, Analysing Policy, 2009). As just one example, in the Report, new tools and policy innovations are offered to “identify innovative policy instruments to solve specific policy problems” (p. 2; emphasis added). The Report identifies “wicked problems” as “resistant to straightforward solutions” (p. 11) and draws links to complexity theory (p. 12). However, as I have argued elsewhere, both “wicked problems” and “complexity theory” understand policy in terms of solving problems, which continue to be spoken of as if they simply exist – even if in these accounts “problems” are portrayed as “messy” and “fuzzy” (seeBacchi Problematizations Health Policy pp. 7-8). In addition, the goal of behaviour modification, seen in the endorsement of “nudge theory” in the Report (pp. 22-25), leaves little room to interrogate the “problems” assumed as desirable targets in this stance (see entry in Research Hub on “Nudge Theory”, 26 November 2017).
Given its remit to interrogate (rather than solve) assumed policy problems, WPR, therefore, sits as an outlier in the Report. Helpfully, the authors call upon policymakers to ask themselves the questions in the WPR approach to identify their “implicit assumptions and cognitive biases”. In this way they draw upon Step 7 in the approach, which elicits researchers and others to “Apply this list of questions to your own problem representations”. Unfortunately Step 7 is omitted from Box 7, p. 21 of the Report (compare Bacchi WPR CHART).
To increase the impact of this welcome call for “policy innovation” I suggest the need to apply WPR across the board – that is, to the theories that assume and endorse a problem-solving rationale, including “wicked problems”, “complexity” and “nudge theory” (see Lancaster et al., “More than problem-solving: Critical reflections on the ‘problematisation’ of alcohol-related violence in Kings Cross”, Drug and Alcohol Review, 2012, 31(7): 935-927).