Factors Influencing Public Policy
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Keywords: political decision making influence, evidence based decision
As for a good government, the valuable public policy, which refers to the government action or inaction to deal with particular issues, can be regarded as one of the evaluation criterions. Thus, it seems that the process of policy making, turning the government political vision into the actual programs and actions in the real world (Cabinet Office, 1999), becomes significant which should be put on much more emphasis. Especially, "good quality policy making depends on high quality information, derived from a variety of sources-expert knowledge; existing domestic and international research; existing statistics; stakeholder consultation; evaluation of previous policies and new research"(Cabinet Office, 1999). The "high quality information" here mainly refers to "evidence" which becomes more and more important part for the policy making. Even more, the increasing use of various kinds of evidence by government has determined the central role of evidence in policy making for 21st century. The term "evidence-based policymaking" naturally comes up at the same time.
Actually, the rise role of evidence in policy making does have its own reasons. As the development of modern society, the growth of well-educated and well-informed public cast their interest to the exact information provided by the government and ask why. Thus in certain distance, it facilitates the government to explore the precise data of all types with the help of developed information technology(Davies, Nutley and Smith, 2000). What's more, an increasing demand on accountability in government spurs on the significance of evidence in a democratic society. Due to the above reasons, in UK the Blair Government, who was elected on the basis of "What matters is what works", announced that " to produce policies that really deal with problems, that are forward-looking and shaped by evidence rather than a response to short-term pressure, that tackles causes; not symptoms"(Modernising Government, 1999 White Paper), and demonstrated that it was a good time for the new government to begin evidence based- approach to public policy (Gary Banks AO, 2009), At the same time, they built a new relationship between social science and government as well as pointed out that public policy had to be driven by evidence.
So, what exactly does "evidence" mean? UK Cabinet office defines it as "analysis of the outcome of consultation, costings of policy options and the results of economic or statistical modeling"(Cabinet Office, 1999) According to Chambers Dictionary, evidence consists of results of "systematic investigation towards increasing the sum of knowledge" (Davies, Nutley and Smith, 2000). Both two definitions can be divided into four kinds serving for policy making: descriptive data, analytic findings, evaluative evidence, and policy analytic forecasts(Carol Hirschon Weiss, 2001). Descriptive data is a tool to show objects' condition, location, relation and direction of change. Consider, for instance, before the Hong Kong Government introduced the environmental levy scheme on plastic shopping bags, amount of data are collected to show the increasing danger brought by the plastic bags. 3-the average number of plastic bags is used by Hong Kong people per day. 13,503-the number of tons of solid waste is disposed of at landfills per day (EPD Hong Kong, 2009). 20 to 1000-the years are needed to decompose the plastic bag. From the exact data, government could clearly see the negative environmental affect caused by the plastic bag. Thus, government's policy is made on the basis of large and comprehensive data. The second kind is analytic findings which refer to the identified information conducted by an academic research and analysis system, discovering the relationship between factors and current situations(Carol Hirschon Weiss, 2001). Also in the same policy-the environmental levy scheme on plastic shopping bags, after academic analysis, we can conclude that the low environmental consciousness of public endangers the situation of indiscriminate use of plastic bags. The analytic findings are the direction for seeking positive solutions in the process of policy making. Evaluation serves for directly examining the existing policies in other countries or places, and then selectively choosing for own use. Taiwan, as one of the pioneers in environmental protection, provides valuable experience for the Hong Kong Government enacting the plastic bag levy scheme. After evaluating positive and negative sides of Taiwan's "Restricted Use Policy on Plastic Shopping Bags and Disposable Plastic Tableware" (Our Group's Essay on Environmental Levy Scheme on Plastic Shopping Bags, 2009), the HK Government adopts the same policy of restricted use of plastic shopping bags while temporarily abandons the unavailable policy on plastic tableware. The last one is policy analytic forecasts. In common situations, analyst will calculate and predict the potential cost and benefits of the coming policy. The report of prediction will influence the final release of the new policy(Carol Hirschon Weiss, 2001). In short, these four kinds of evidence are used as the basis of the government policy making.
Nevertheless, no matter how important evidence is, in the process of policy making, its nature has several limitations and difficulties. According to Gary Banks' research on evidence-based policy making, methodology the government choose, data deficiency or overload, evidence transparency, people who research and analyze evidence, and the limited time to do the data collection are all the potential factors to influence the effectiveness of evidence used in policy making(Gary Banks AO, 2009). Sometimes, quantitative data could be collected, but that does not mean they are the real valuable data needed. The increase use of plastic shopping bags has no necessary correlation with the heavy air pollution problem. Thus, the evidence for air pollution should directly from car emission, industrial emission, waste deposition, etc. People with diverse political value or interest could be not reluctant to accept the evidence which obeys their interest. What's more, even for the policy makers, they would like to set the mode of policy first and then look for confirmation evidence. In this sense, evidence only can be regarded as one of the crucial factors in policy making. It will be much more appropriate to call that "evidence-influenced policy making"( H.K. Wong's lecture note).
In addition, other three main factors-political, economic and social factors, also have a intensive power to affect the complex process of policy making.
Politics here concerns with political system and crisis. On one hand, as we know, the stable political system determines the usual way of the government policy making. From the first beginning of policy proposal to the consultation and to the final policy making, every step complies with a certain regulate with minor change. Moreover, the same as the steady political system, political ideology and beliefs also become the major elements to force the policy made(Philip Davies, 2004). On the other hand, crisis explosion becomes the direct primacord to urge the government to enact and implement a new policy in the immediate time. After the explosion of the global financial crisis, once the economic situation in Hong Kong got worse rapidly, and the Hong Kong Government carried out series of policy to stimulate the recovery and development of economy. In the 2009-2010 Budget, the government introduced several measures "to ensure the stability of financial institutions and the market to bolster public confidence in our financial systems", including "the provision of liquidity assistance to the banking system and the establishment of a Contingent Bank Capital Facility"(The 2009-2010 Budget of Hong Kong). Meanwhile, in order to decrease the unemployment rate caused by the financial crisis, the Hong Kong Government also sustained the provision of more than 60000 employment chances, increased the recruitment of civil servants, and closely cooperated with Guangdong Province to create more jobs(The 2009-2010 Budget of Hong Kong). Thus, it seems that in some certain situations, political factors are more available than evidence which needs time to collect and analyze.
The economy is often closely connected with the politics. The long-standing development of economy should base on valuable policies. In every year's policy address, economic policy is the most important one. According to the specific economic situations, the government have emphasised their policy on different aspects. For instance, when the Hong Kong market was heavily hit by the financial tsunami, the policy emphasis are placed on how to cope with it and how to recover this year. This is why the government make great effort to "stabilize the financial system, support enterprises and preserve employment"(2009-2010 Policy Address). Comparing to the previous year, there was no financial tsunami's hitting, the Hong Kong Government focused more on 10 large-scale Infrastructure Projects which aimed to "improve Hong Kong's transportation and link up socio-cultural and business activities with more efficient transportation systems"(2007-2008 Policy Address). When talking about economic factors, we should notice that every policy is restricted within the government finance. As we know, if the budget of a policy is largely beyond the government's financial endurance after exact calculation and the cost effectiveness/efficiency system, the policy will be cut off.
Social factors here include experience and judgement of policy makers, habit and tradition, pressure groups and consultants(Philip Davies, 2004). Normally, the experience and judgement of policy makers are precious conclusion on the basis on the previous policy success or failure, embodying rational capital and tacit knowledge(Philip Davies, 2004). They are consider as an influence factor. Actually, the use of experience and judgement often appears in the condition where the evidence is incomplete or non-existent(Grimshaw, et al, 2003). It can be regarded as a complement for evidence in the process of policy making. Habit and tradition constitutes another social factor affecting policy making. Some institutions stagnate due to the unchanging habit and tradition. They refuse to make and implement new policy to stimulate the development of themselves. To a certain extent, "Changing traditional and habitual ways of doing things to accommodate the forces of rationality and modernity presents a major challenge for policy making"(Philip Davies, 2004). The last social factor-pressure groups and consultants, increasingly influence the policy making in the current days. The fast development of think tanks in society, they have already deeply penetrated into the politics. Especially when a policy contradicts with think-tanks and pressure groups' interest, their opinions are powerful enough to affect the policy making.
In a word, all the above factors come together to influence the process of policy making. Evidence, political, economic and social factors supplement with each other, preparing for the fully consideration of policy making. However, "factors come together" here does not mean that every factor should become one necessary part in a policy. In most conditions, there are only two or three factors influence the policy making. Now, I will analyze how these factors come together to affect policy making within one case.
Small Class Teaching in Hong Kong is a typical case which could prove many elements come together to influence policy making. As the development of modern knowledge-based society, more and more requirements are raised on education system and method. Especially, for the comprehensive development of younger generation, it is commonly supposed that "small class" with smaller number of students per class is much more helpful than the normal "large class" in primary and secondary school. As for the teachers in small class, they could reduce their heavy workload, pay more attention to every individual student and then teach students according to their ability. For the student, in small class they would have more opportunities to communicate with teachers and classmates, participant in class activities and get more immediate feedback of their own study from teachers(Group 2's Essay on Small Class Teaching).
Since July 1998, an oral question on "class size in primary and secondary schools" was first raised by Hon Cheung Man-kwong in the Legislative Council. Till 2007, the Chief Executive finally announced that the small class teaching would be launch in 2009/10 school year in his 2007-2008 Policy Address. During the long period of policy making, in order to collect more resource as well as considering some controversy issues concerned with the small class teaching, the government conducted a pilot study in primary school with effectiveness strategies of class and group teaching in 2003/04 school year and another scheme in primary schools with high concentration of disadvantaged pupils with effect from 2005/06 school year. During the study, amount of feedback and quantitative data have been collected from teachers and students through the way of questionnaire. Qualitative data, carefully analyzed through systematic lesson observations and case studies, get a conclusion that schools and teachers have not really benefited a lot from the small class teaching (Group 2's essay on Small Class Teaching). Even though the final result of the study has not been released to the public, from the aspect of "evidence", it can be regarded as a good way to start. In addition, the evaluation and experience-learning on the basis of overseas experience is also a kind of evidence. The United State is a successful example on the implementation of small class teaching, who conducts specific cost-effectiveness analysis and fully considers "the allocation of funds, the target popularity, the class size and so on"(Group 2's essay on Small Class Teaching).
From the aspect of social factors, most of academic and parents' representatives concurred with the policy of small class teaching with the reasons that teachers should be professionally trained and care more about individual student's need. Moreover, political parties such as Democratic Party and Liberal Party, also agreed with the implementation of this policy. Thus, a great major of stakeholders were unanimous the implementation of small class teaching which they believed students and teachers would benefit a lot from it. In this sense, the strong opinions for stakeholders have a certain impact on the whole policy process.
From the aspect of political factors, in 2002, the Consolidating High Cost and Under-utilized Primary Schools policy was introduced by Education and Manpower Bureau, leading to a threaten to amount of teachers' jobs. Thousands of teachers hold a march and protested against the policy in July 2003(SING TAO, 2003). This political pressure became one element to influence the making of small class teaching policy.
Originally, the Hong Kong Government attempted to practice evidence-based policy making by conducting the pilot study, evaluating and analyzing the research as well as learning from overseas experience. However, political and social factors partially become the elements of affecting the policy making. Thus, evidence in this case is still the most important factor and the policy of small class teaching could be called "evidence-influenced policy."
To conclude, in the complex process of policy making, evidence as well as the political, economic and social factors constitutes the influence elements. On one hand, Evidence, by means of descriptive data, analytic findings, evaluative evidence, and policy analytic forecasts, occupies the most significant position in policy making. On the other hand, to some extent, the limitations and difficulties of evidence restrict the policy's formation. It leads to the "evidence-influenced policy", instead of "evidence-based policy". Yet, the existence of the political, economic and social factors makes up the limitation of evidence in a certain distance. They all serve for the whole policy process.
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