In this introduction we identify some of the core conditions surrounding research on public issues. You will become familiar with the nature of this research, as well as gain a clearer vision of your goals as a gatherer and interpreter of material on public issues. Some important distinctions will be made about terms and phrases that are to our task. This will help you avoid some common semantic pitfalls. By the end of this introduction, you should have a basic understanding of what this journey of research entails—the good, the bad and the ugly.
Research as it relates to public issues is a detailed and often hard going process. That is not to say it is without rewards. You must know that your chosen issue will have been looked into already, but also that your research, if done correctly, will present a fresh and unique perspective. This blog, while including examples of a vast array of untold legislative, governmental and corporate decisions, as well as the associative role of non-governing bodies in those decisions, will act as a guide to an effective system of research that can be applied to a diversity of public issues.
What does our kind of research involve?
- collecting government and corporate documents
- examining laws and court records
- tracking regulatory and other proceedings
- scrutinizing corporate, stakeholder and civil society groups and publications
- collecting as many records as possible from any occasion where policy was deliberated or decisions were made
- searching academic literature
- conducting interviews
In doing all this, we must play close attention. We must attune ourselves to the language of debates as a manner of studying open discourse on public issues. We must also scrutinize the material that we collect, making choices about what is useful and what is not.
This is a chance to tell your story about a given issue; others will have told theirs. You will have the opportunity to build on previous research in a constructive way.
The fifteen chapters in this blog are broken into five areas of discussion:
- an overview of the research process
- some useful definitions and a brief discussion on public issues
- a wide survey of the skills you need for doing research on public issues
- addressing the various actors, large and small, that determine or attempt to determine the fate of public issues
– “the rules of the game” and the constraining factors that determine the fate of public issues
- How to pull your research together
- How to develop your own insights and analysis
Do not hold yourself to completing all the steps outlined; even seasoned researchers with ample time and resources do not cover every base completely!
Yes, you will have to take shortcuts, but that does not mean your research will not be thorough. It will be of great benefit to familiarize yourself with the individual advantages of following each step in this blog. The steps you choose to employ may be dictated by the nature of the issue at hand. Furthermore, the chapters can always be used to reference steps which you may later realize are effective in narrowing down your subject matter.
Most chapters follow the same format and include:
- Background discussion
- Case studies
The purpose of these three facets of the chapters is to
- Give you conceptual tools for understanding the documents you find
- Illustrate the strategies outlined in this blog (i.e. case studies based on our own research)
- Illustrate the research process in general (i.e. case studies prepared by other researchers)
NOTE: definitions included in the chapters may differ from those found in textbooks, legal dictionaries, etc. We bypass debates surrounding the application of these terms. Our definitions have one goal: to help you know what to look for in your research. Adaptions of terms for our purposes will be denoted by x here refers to…
Any organizations, groups or individuals who exert power by making decisions or attempting to influence another entity in a particular way. Actors could include departments of government, committees, corporations, or individuals.
The places where deliberations and decision-making occur. Actor = who makes decisions, Institutions = Where and how decisions are made. “Where” asks about locations of institutions. “How?” asks about the rules and practices of those institutions.
We must also acquaint ourselves with the laws, conventions and expectations surrounding institutions, as well as their history and effect. It is important to note that many actors are themselves institutions. For example, if we choose study Health Canada, a physical place where decisions are made, we must not only consider its character (as an actor) but also its decision-making practices (as an institution).
Everything that happens before an actual decision is made. Legislation, conferences, assessments, committee meetings and consultations with bureaucrats, corporations, or the public.
Decisions can take multiple forms: laws, policies, recommendations, etc. In a way, the absence of any one of these forms also constitutes a decision, the “decision” having been the avoidance of making a decision where one was expected.
Showcasing decisions or the reasons they are being made. In most cases this has little to do with the actual ethics behind the decision, but rather serves the public interest of actors or institution directly or indirectly involved.
What do we mean by “public issues” as opposed to “issues.” We may simply say that a public issue is any problem that implicates more than specific individuals.
Example one: A quarrel between members of a working team within a corporation is not considered an issue for our purposes. To the extent that such a quarrel involves more than those directly involved, however, it becomes one. Thus, were we to talk instead about labor-management relations, or the work atmosphere inside the corporation or even the differentiation of skills, we would be talking about an issue.
Example two: An individual’s cancer treatment is not an issue. Were we to talk instead about the quality of cancer care, or the funding of cancer drugs or, more generally, the state of health care, we would be talking about issues.
The term “public” is a precarious one in the context of this blog. We will avoid using phrases like “public sphere” and “public space” and instead refer to institutions, advocates, the electorate, or specific groups of people (i.e. illegal immigrants).
Our use of “public” connotes an expectation that governments are now or should be playing a role (this without assuming that government always acts on public issues or that it is the only significant decision maker). A public issue is thus a matter of collective interest, where there is an expectation that governments are, should or should not be involved in decision making.
Public issue versus policy
Policy can also be a confusing term, with many conflicting definitions. Many who do research on decisions around public issues call their research “policy research.” There are many books on policy research with a different purpose and scope than this one. However, some debates about policy are related to our present discussion—let’s look at them briefly.
Writers on policy have identified what they consider the tenets of an actual policy. These tenets are:
- policy holds a special degree of formality, as opposed to other informal decision making
- something that by government to be such and formally adopted as a guide to future action
- policy is separated from law or regulation, even though law and regulation is formal and codified
- policies indicate how decisions should be made, but not what the decisions should be
We are interested in all kinds of decisions, including informal and tacit ones. All the deliberations leading up to formal policies are of importance, as well as proposed policies that failed to be approved.
Example three: We know that abortion is a public issue. However, there is no formal policy on abortion in Canada. There is no piece of paper that one could hold up and say “here is the abortion policy.” Instead, there is an accretion of decisions, large and small, made over time. There are many non-decisions also—points where a decision could have been made but wasn’t. In this example, there is also a decision by the court to strike down a previous “policy.” However, even without the piece of paper labeled “policy,” there is an underlying logic and consistency in all the current decisions. Abortions occur on a daily basis in hospitals in some but not all parts of Canada, even in the absence of a formal policy or law permitting them or explaining the variation. Surely, then, there is something that one could call “abortion policy” short of a formal policy. Better to avoid the term policy than to limit the study to formal decisions.
Some formal policies have no effect: a policy is declared, but nothing has been done to implement it, or it has been defined so vaguely that it is effectively meaningless. Casting a wide net by talking about deliberations leading to public policy is a good way to avoid the pitfall of believing that formal policy always matters, when sometimes it does not even exist!
A second notion of policy sees it as an approach, framework or guideline specific decisions. This too is problematic. In this blog, we include both the frameworks for decision-making as well as actual decisions.
Example four: With respect to abortion in Canada, no formal framework has been adopted that indicates how all decisions must be made in the future. Yet today, no one would mistake the situation with regard to abortion. The guidelines, for what is proper and to be done are well understood. Decisions taken, often on a case-by-case basis, in different locations, when taken together, reflect and implicit framework, a perspective about how such decisions should be made.
NOTE: case-by-case decision making is decision making in effect, even if the result is never declared to be “policy” or if the decisions were not made intentionally.
Policy and government: a tricky connection
The line between government and governance may not so easily be drawn as first appears…
Let’s say a department of government devolves some or all of its responsibilities to a private sector body. Are the resulting decisions “public policies” despite their being made by private sector bodies? This deserves several examples:
Example five: a non governmental law society regulates lawyers and, in Canada, a government regulator has turned over control over complaints about the content of broadcasting to a private-sector body.
Example six: a public inquiry or special investigation is intended to function independently of government in making its recommendations, but both are mandated and funded by the government.
Example seven: a stakeholders’ group charged with the task of mediating controversial issues makes recommendations to governments as if it were part of government, but its participants are usually not government personnel.
These are examples of hybrids, wherein decision-making is not confined to government, or else government seems altogether absent.
A few other reasons we reject the term “public policy”
- Focusing on public policy creates the impression that governments alone create and control the fate of public issues. Nonsense!
- Our research will suffer from the failure to factor in hybrid and self-regulation, stakeholder groups, public inquiries and devolved responsibilities, and more.
- We do not always necessarily know the extent to which governments are involved—something we should always question.
Law and policy
We include law in this blog because law effects decisions about public issues. A few distinctions between law and regulation versus policies are:
- Laws and regulations, once passed, are dealt with by courts and tribunals, while policies and decisions emanate from the legislative and executive branches of government
- Law and regulation are usually accompanied by different powers of enforcement than policy
- Some writers have considered law as “positive” (an objective, value free body of decision making logic unto itself) and policy as “normative” (containing elements of prescription and social considerations)
We are in agreement with the many authors who have proclaimed that law is only value-neutral in its creation or application in a very limited sense. It is never an island unto itself. Decisions of the legislators and courts are relevant to what you want to know, despite their being labeled (or not labeled) as policy.
More about actors
All actors have interests—something is always at stake for them. Inquiring into the interests, motives, perspective and actions of actors will strengthen your sense of why certain decisions were made, policies adopted, etc. Similarly, finding out an actors degree of control over decisions will give you an idea of how important that actor really is.
It is crucial that we adopt a depersonalized view of “actors.” When we refer to an actor’s motivations and interests, we do so in the same way as someone might say that a corporation has interests, or that government departments have mandates and motivations.
Actors differ significantly from one another, hence the importance of analyzing their individual interests and motivations. They are not all card players at a poker table, so to speak.
Finally, we must also remove the notion that everything is the sole outcome of an actors decisions. Actors operate under a wide range of constraints. “The system” (the social, political and economic pressures that make up these constraints, is a very real thing; surely you will gain a sense of “the system” over the course of your research.
What this blog doesn’t do
This is a manual for research. We are focused on how to learn about public issues, not about the specificities of those issues. For the most part, we deal only implicitly with questions of theory. The research methods presented here are pragmatic, intended for situations that can be observed or documented, as opposed to meta-topics (i.e. globalization, capitalism).
Over the course of your research, you will ostensibly develop some recommendations for policy. This is great! Be aware that part of your research is to seek out past recommendations as part of forming the basis for your own. That said, the goal of this blog is not to uncover recommendations.
Also, our kind of research is not equal to policy evaluation. Let’s clarify this important point with an example from the Kyoto Agreements:
Example eight: If the goal is policy evaluation, a researcher might want to know how much Kyoto-related measures have cost the taxpayer, or whether the countries that have taken it seriously have actually reduced their carbon footprint. A researcher might want to measure the water levels in the oceans or the annual ice melt in the Arctic. Any and all of these might indicate whether measures taken after Kyoto had had their desired effect. But measuring water levels or assessing the cost of compliance with Kyoto is not the kind of research discussed here. Evaluation of these sorts draws upon the skills of economists, natural scientists or specialists in government finance, but not those of a researcher dealing with the unfolding of public issues.
However, following the approach in this blog, you can learn about the information relied upon by governments in deciding their approach to Kyoto. You can also learn about the groups (other governments or companies) with a major stake in Kyoto-related decisions, groups exercising all the influence they can muster. Perhaps you can learn about the campaigns waged—everything from elections to media—by all kinds of groups, including those neither government nor corporate. You could then say something useful about the tenor, contours and potential outcomes of the deliberations, because they know why the various groups engaged in those debates took the positions they did. You could also gauge the potential for compromise. Your analysis would be a contribution to policy evaluation, but it would not be the usual kind of policy evaluation study.
Lastly, we have chosen not to highlight, as many studies of public issues do, public opinion and lobbying. These will be dealt with in connection with the actors and what they do. We mention these terms from time to time but do not emphasize their role, important as they may be. We leave this task for other writers.