Enza Lissandrello , PhD in planning and public policies, is associate professor and coordinator of the urban planning and mobility research group at Aalborg University in Denmark. She is leading interdisciplinary social science research in urban planning, innovations and transitions, reflexive planning and governance. Her research focuses on socio-political aspects of urban planning and mobilities and on the performance, progress and restructuration of contemporary planning actions and their institutional context.
Keywords Planning practitioners. Inaction as product of conscious strategic or tactical decisions no to act, or not to act now.
Inaction as pragmatic acceptance that requisite support will not be obtained from powerful actors or pivotal institutions. Inaction through reluctant acceptance that appropriate tools and resources are not available. Inaction as a product of bounded rationality constraints and institutional blind spots.
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Not acknowledging moral, social or political imperatives to address a particular issue. Policy paralysis through stalemates in formal decision-making bodies or among partners needed for a coordinated effort. Lack of policy instruments that are demonstrably effective in ameliorating the problem at hand. We need to preface our typology by recognising that portrayal of inaction as calculated, reluctant or inadvertent is often a contestable issue, rather than a matter of unambiguous fact. We might be tempted, for example, to view organisational biases and blind spots to emerging issues and threats as inadvertent.
Yet as Bach and Wegrich argue, the marginalisation of some issues is intentionally boundedly rational for public organisations working in a political context and striving to achieve their goals amid multiple constraints. Framing the motives of inaction is a contestable issue. Our rationale here is not to offer testable hypotheses in line with some recent debates on causation within the social sciences. Inaction can be deliberate, strategic and tactical.
There may be a danger of rushing in before an issue has sufficiently matured. Decision makers may also try to protect core goals and minimise risks to these goals. Risk calculations and risk management are a fact of institutional life in all areas of public policy-making Althaus Ideology and values can shape purposeful inaction.
Ideological stances about the role of the state versus other mechanisms of public problem-solving may play a significant role in limiting the scope of and sympathy for governmental and public intervention. The same applies to ideas about where to draw the line between the private sphere of individual liberty that should remain exempt from public regulation and matters affecting the public interest where government action is appropriate and needed Pesch ; Peeters A lack of legal or financial levers to act may be blunted by powerful blocking coalitions.
The institutional architectures of some political systems—separation of powers, federal, and multiparty coalition systems—bear greater risks of policy deadlock than those of others. Furthermore, specific institutional devices such as corrective referendums or the decision-making procedures of some international organisations also create ample opportunities for effective veto-playing Cameron ; Tsebelis Inaction may occur when viable policy options, tools and resources to address a particular issue are simply not available.
Likewise, the ups and downs of the economic and fiscal cycles sometimes create perfect storms where economic conditions require public sectors to do a lot while their fiscal positions are bad and worsening because of these very conditions Offe Going further, it may be that policymakers have few or no practical levers at their disposal to actually address the problem in hand, hence leading to reluctantly taking a step back from concerted action.
This phenomenon is well recognised in cognitive psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics.
One possible consequence of this is that a discrepant event, condition or trend may not be considered important enough to warrant serious attention. Not just individual policymakers but entire organisations Seibel ; Bach and Wegrich and institutional cultures Douglas and Wildavsky ; Schwarz and Thompson can display these problem-negating cognitive biases. If these are the most manifestations of policy inaction, what are their most prominent drivers? We explore this question and suggest key mechanisms operating at four analytically distinct but in practice overlapping loci of policy-making: individuals; organisations; governments; and networks.
We surmise that particular types of mechanisms conduce inaction in each of these realms and that policy inaction is most likely to occur and persevere when these loci and mechanisms overlap and reinforce one another. Unconflicted adherence to the status quo, by selective attention to information about past, present or future conditions and selective interpretation and forgetting of information that conflicts with their benign interpretation of the status quo;. Bolstering decisions already taken in the past by rationalising away the need to reconsider them;.
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Procrastination, i. Gathering, receiving, interpreting, creating, communicating and disseminating information is at the heart of the work that public organisations do. How they process information determines how they act—and whether they act. They require information to help inform their direction and operations, as well as to rationalise pathways not taken and issues not addressed Bach and Wegrich While in some senses public organisations may seem to confirm classic Weberian notions of bureaucratic inevitability and dominance, they do not necessarily equate with ideal-type efficiency and effectiveness in information handling Hood Issues that plausibly could or should be within the frame of public organisations to act upon can linger on the fringes of their attention spans.
Wilensky , for example, famously demonstrated that hierarchy is conducive to concealment and misrepresentation of relevant issues; centralisation can produce out-of-touch and overloaded leaders who do not have enough information, interest or capacity to reliably assess what is relevant, and specialisation cultivates a culture of turf wars and lack of information sharing. An organisation may also be so focused on particular priorities that it blinds itself to other issues—in effect forgetting how to see, interpret and act upon them Vetzberger ; Stark In countries such as Pakistan, for example, fatalistic beliefs have proved a formidable barrier to the enhancement of road safety, especially participation in health-promoting and injury prevention behaviours Kayani et al.
In practice, however, the actual business of governing necessitates continual, dogged policy inaction, and the eschewing of multiple plausible alternatives Baumgartner and Jones Policies of abstention or termination, deregulation, liberalisation have been at the heart of neoliberal party manifestos and government programmes throughout and beyond the OECD during much of the s—s. To a considerable extent its ideological appeal has withstood even the force global financial crisis which according to many observers occurred precisely as a result of the hands-off, minimal regulation stances that governments had adopted as a result of their neoliberal commitments North Importantly, ideologically driven inaction can occur on all shades of the political spectrum.
The Liberal prime minister and founding father of the Dutch constitution, Jan-Rudolph Thorbecke, took the principled view that government has no role to play in shaping the arts, and made sure the party and the governments he led came nowhere near doing so, and his successors have maintained this stance and extended it to areas like media policy Winsemius In addition to purposeful governmental inaction, the pragmatic demands of governing means that inaction is also a coping mechanism.
Governments have limited attention spans and do not have the time or space to provide equal and sustained attention to all issues Downs and consequently deprioritising issues is a fact of life Jones and Baumgartner ; Baumgartner and Jones Also, no government or policymaker can ever win all the policy debates they are involved in at any given point in time—and so they slice policy conundrums into manageable bits and pace their attempts to get things done, meaning some aspects get addressed first and others are not acted upon until the stars align.
Whatever pathway governments forge, and whatever plausible policy alternatives are cast to the margins of agendas, both involve an element of risk Althaus Hence, inaction on emerging risks was legitimised by an ideology and mindsets that risks were symptomatic of the natural operation of markets, and remediable through market correction. It is increasingly difficult to find policy problems and a range of viable policy solutions that do not in some ways straddle traditional geographical, institutional, sectoral and jurisdictional boundaries.
In response, joined-up government, networked and collaborative governance have become the new aspiration Head Much can be achieved by cross-silo working, not least because it can involve the pooling of knowledge, expertise and resources Carey and Crammond It follows that when such fortuitous confluence of preconditions and relations does not occur, such structures of interactive governance may become arenas in which miscommunication, mistrust, interagency politicking and other forms of centrifugal behaviour produce policy stalemates or non-realisation of shared service delivery and co-production ambitions Klijn and Koppenjan ; Bach and Wegrich The mere fact that network structures are often designed to overcome collective action problems does not mean they succeed in doing so.
Paradoxically, both the design of networks themselves and the behaviour of their participants in networks can actively contribute to their non-delivering on their purpose. When labouring under adverse circumstances or when not managed with a view towards their becoming productive, networks in fact reproduce and succumb to the very coordination problems they were built to address. In the s and s, Schattschneider , Edelman , , Bachrach and Baratz , Lukes and Cobb and Elder sought to redirect our attention towards ways in which initial post-war, public policy and planning aspirations in the USA and presumably other western countries had been partly blunted by systemic power biases, agenda control, symbolic gestures and continued exclusion of minorities and marginalised groups.
Today, several decades into the era of neo-liberalism and globalisation there is firm evidence that social inequalities have risen rather than declined, not just in terms of key economic, health, safety and well-being indicators World Inequality Lab , but also regarding access to and participation in the democratic process Bovens and Wille Arguably therefore, there is an urgent need to revive the power-critical agenda of the policy sciences.
In public policy, inaction is just as real a phenomenon as action—at least to those who are prepared to acknowledge its existence. Policy scientists need to examine how in the policy processes avenues of problem inquiry get closed off, the range of policy options that are considered get narrowed, soft and critical voices in public policy conversations go unheard, and non-acting gets institutionalised and legitimised. To be able to do so, they need undiminished awareness of the fundamentally political character of their enterprise Botterill and Fenna Brandsen et al.
At the same time, it would seem important to develop this needed focus on policy inaction as a political phenomenon unencumbered by heavy-handed assumptions about the existence of a coherent, conspiratorial and self-evidently controlling power elite. The study of inaction should be an even-handed intellectual enterprise, not a political crusade.
Going down this path will lead us to come to terms with complex and sometimes paradoxical phenomena: the weight of silences amidst all the talk in public policy conversations; the power of looking away amidst all the policy analysis that is routinely performed in and around government; the selectivity of the emotions—indignation, enthusiasm, fear, hope—that drive policy agendas.
To set some direction for the efforts we hope our colleagues will agree might be needed, we close this essay by proposing three pivotal areas of inquiry.
A good example of such work employing different methodologies to be emulated includes studies of the notable—and consequential—differences between what could be called active-responsive versus reluctant—abstentionist policy approaches to the occurrence of Aids Perrow and Guillen ; Bovens et al. Many explanatory avenues can be derived from the putative drivers of inaction in policymakers, organisations, governments and networks presented above.
That entire section can be read as a bundle of propositions awaiting systematic study, and we shall not belabour them here. In addition, however, a pivotal cluster of researchable issues centres around the question of when, how and why policy inaction begins and ends. Just as they do with regard to the programmes that they do adopt and implement, governments and networks can be forced to consider terminating their policies of inaction. When do signals about the growing costs and risks of inaction become so strong that hitherto blindsided policymakers and unresponsive institutions start paying attention to issues they could not or would not deal with previously?
To what extent do the same actors and mechanisms—such as pro-reform and anti-termination coalitions, negative feedback and escalation of commitment play a part in causing policies of laissez-faire to give way to policies of intervention, for example. Historical—comparative studies of how and why poverty, housing, the use of alcohol and various forms of recreational drug use became subjects of state regulation fit this mould De Swaan Also, why were some states and non-state actors noticeably earlier than others in stopping to treat the internet as a fundamentally benign self-governing space?
Hofmann et al. Breen and Doyle From the preceding pages, readers may have formed the impression that inaction is more often than not a negative phenomenon triggered by the tricks our brains play upon us, insidious pathologies of organisational life or the flawed functioning of political institutions and processes.
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This certainly has not been our intent. There is, we think, no a priori reason to value action over inaction. As we noted, inaction is sometimes purposefully pursued and enacted, and for a variety of reasons.
In that sense alone, it cannot be treated as not just a product of inadvertence and dysfunction. However, what is really needed is systematic evaluative research. Just as policy-as-action can be assessed as a success, failure or somewhere in-between in view of programmatic, process and political criteria AUTHOR , so can policy-as-inaction once we have managed to unearth it. Again, comparative studies of active and inactive responses to similar policy challenges, e. We hope that by pursuing these three pathways of inquiry, policy scholars will begin to open up questions about the flip side of its standard object of analysis policy-as-inaction that all too often remain un-asked and un-investigated.
The knowledge they will gain and disseminate as a result may sometimes be awkward but it is, we believe, potentially important in our ongoing quest to keep speaking truth to and about power. And who ever said that life as policy analyst was meant to be easy? Skip to main content Skip to sections. Advertisement Hide. Download PDF. Policy Sciences pp 1—17 Cite as. Open Access. First Online: 08 November Most forms of inaction will be readily placed in one of these categories, although there are several variations of each, as will be discussed. Individual-driven inaction In his constraints model of policy decision-making, Janis posited that individuals and groups employ cognitive, affiliative and self-serving rules, designed to keep in check the inner conflicts they experience, their sense of self-esteem and the relations they maintain with significant others.
These rules serve their equanimity in the sense of keeping the stress they experience in their roles of decision makers, at levels they can tolerate. But, as Janis and countless other decision theorists have since demonstrated time and again, these coping behaviours can come at the price of a capacity for reality testing and can indeed immobilise them in the face of mounting warning signals about imminent threats to important values and interests.
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