Focus and Be Flexible: an Interview of Prof. Michiel de Vries

Michiel de Vries, Professor of Public Administration at the Radboud University, wrote a book about recurrent trends in governance, titled “The Importance of neglect in policy-making”. It was published recently in the IIAS Governance and Management series of Palgrave.

Could you explain the title?

This book offers a theory which argues that it is not only possible to explain when policy change is likely to occur, but also to predict the direction. It argues that what is neglected at present is likely to become dominant in the policies of the near future. Crucial is that the means available to policy makers are always less than needed in order to balance different demands. Therefore, one cannot address all demands placed on public policy making si­multaneously; instead, some aspects have to be emphasized while others are neglected. The core of a fundamental policy change is always concerned with a shift of attention toward those aspects of problems that were the most chronically neglected in the previous policy. Furthermore it argues that with the birth of a new policy generation, a convergence towards meeting the dominant value of that generation will be noticeable in all policy areas. Therefore there is great importance in what is neglected in policy-making.

Based on what idea did you write this book?

Scholars have come a long way in explaining policy change. Recent investi­gations have identified many factors and characteristics of actors that explain why fun­damental policy change occurs and when it is likely to occur. How­ever, we are still unable to predict in which direction the nature of the change goes. This book argues that research into that question is a feasible next step in the process of trying to understand policy change. Furthermore, it argues that in order to explain and predict the nature of policy change, one should not only investigate and extrapolate what is prioritized at present, but especially search for what is neglected, and not only analyze the contents of preceding policies, but rather the non-contents thereof. The central hypothesis is about identifying periods in which, irrespective of the policy field, the newly developed policies all emphasize the same aspect, that is, the one neglected most before. This makes it possible to discuss policy generations.

Are these policy generations visible in practice?

Such policy generations are visible in the development of the main goals of public policies, the dominant use of specific policy instruments, and the role of societal actors in policymaking processes.

So what did you see?

The policy generations are visible in the developments in public policies in the Netherlands in the period between 1945 and 2000. I distinguished five policy generations: reactive missionaries just after the Second World War; caring technocrats between 1951 and 1963; polarized spenders between 1963 and 1980; efficient managers from 1982 until 1994; and new missionaries from 1994 until 2006. I argue that each generation indeed emphasized one aspect of policymaking and neglected the other functions. Each one of the policy generations was successful in accomplishing what they intended to accomplish, although they were severely criticized for neglecting what became dominant in the subsequent period.

The book has a clear focus on the Netherlands. What is so special about that country?

This book explains how the small country called the Netherlands – almost totally destroyed during WW II, being very poor and judged to be primitive at that time – could become one of the wealthiest, democratic and modern countries in the World? It is a success story. In the book I argue that respective Dutch governments, consciously or unconsciously, opted for an efficient and effective solution of focus and flexibility. Instead of trying to accomplish everything at once, they chose to achieve one goal at a time. These goals altered when the previous ones had been achieved and the focus turned to other problems that had been neglected previously.

Is there a normative side to the story?

The book calls for selective attention by governments. Do not try to solve all problems simultaneously but rather proceed sequentially. It calls for focus and flexibility.

Although this still needs further investigation, the idea of selective attention might also be interesting from a normative point of view. Sequential optimization implies “focus and flexibility”, which might be much more efficient, effective, democratic and able to achieve more goals than trying to accomplish all these dimensions of policies simultaneously. It releases governments from the strain caused by the impossibility of getting it all at once, and makes successful policies (in terms of the one-sided goals) more feasible. Second, it avoids the consequences of the dilemmas in the multiple demands placed on policies. Trying to balance the dilemmas in order to achieve an optimum outcome in all four often results in half-hearted policies resulting in insufficient results in every respect.

So what should policy makers do?

In the book I argue that one-sided policies present a pragmatic answer to the theoretical problem raised by classic scholars in political science and public administration, namely that many de­mands placed on the policy making process pose dilemmas. Maximizing one may be achieved only at the expense of minimizing another equally important feature of public policies.

Isn’t that contrary to the basic idea in Public Administration that policies should be balanced?

In theory, public policies should seek a balance between these de­mands. However, this analysis suggests that it might not be so awkward to try to balance them sequentially instead of simultane­ously. When we incorporate the time dimension, it is possible to develop policies that through time are able to conform to each of the demands, although every period is characterized by the protracted neglect of at least one of the demands.

Michiel de Vries is Professor of Public Administration at the Radboud University inNijmegen.

Contact details:

prof. dr. Michiel S. de Vries
Radboud University Nijmegen
dept. of Public Administration
Thomas van Aquinostraat 5
P.O. Box 9108
6500 HK Nijmegen
The Netherlands

tel: 00 31 24 3615691

Importance of Neglect The Importance of Neglect in Policy-Making

Edited by Prof. Michiel S. De Vries
January 2010
Price: £57,50

Order the book: Palgrave Macmillan