I tend to set this simple-looking question for coursework in policy modules: what is policy, how much has it changed, and why? Students get to choose the policy issue, timeframe (and sometimes the political system), and relevant explanatory concepts.
On the face of it, it looks super-simple: A+ for everyone!
Give it a few more seconds, and you can see the difficulties:
- We spent a lot of time agreeing that it seems almost impossible to define policy (explained in 1000 Words and 500 Words)
- There are a gazillion possible measures of policy change (1000 Words and 500 Words)
- There is an almost unmanageable number of models, concepts, and theories to use to explain policy dynamics (I describe about 25 in 1000 Words each)
I try to encourage some creativity when solving this problem, but also advise students to keep their discussion as simple and jargon-free as possible (often by stretching an analogy with diving, in which a well-executed simple essay can score higher than a belly-flopped hard essay).
Choosing a format: the initial advice
- Choose a policy area (such as health) or issue (such as alcohol policy).
- Describe the nature of policy, and the extent of policy change, in a particular time period (such as in the post-war era, since UK devolution, or since a change in government).
- Select one or more policy concept or theory to help structure your discussion and help explain how and why policy has changed.
For example, a question might be: What is tobacco policy in the UK, how much has it changed since the 1980s, and why? I use this example because I try to answer that – UK and global – question myself, even though my 2007 article on the UK is too theory-packed to be a good model for an undergraduate essay.
Choosing a format: the cautionary advice
You may be surprised about how difficult it is to answer a simple question like ‘what is policy?’ and I will give you considerable credit for considering how to define and measure it, by identifying, for example, the use of legislation/ regulation, funding, staff, and ‘nodality’ and/ or by considering the difference between, say, policy as a statement of intent or a long term outcome. In turn, a good description and explanation of policy change is difficult. If you are feeling ambitious, you can go further, to compare, say, two issues (such as tobacco and alcohol) or places (such UK Government policy and the policy of another country), but sometimes a simple and narrow discussion can be as, or more, effective. Similarly, you can use many theories or concepts to aid explanation, but often one theory will do. Note that (a) your description of your research question, and your essay structure, is more important than (b) your decision on what topic to focus or concepts to use.
Choosing a topic: the ‘joined up’ advice
The wider aim is to encourage students to think about the relationship between different perspectives on policy theory and analysis. For example, in a blog and policy analysis paper they try to generate attention to a policy problem and advocate a solution. Then, they draw on policy theories and concepts to reflect on their papers, highlighting (say): the need to identify the most important audience; the importance of framing issues with a mixture of evidence and emotional appeals; and, the need to present ‘feasible’ solutions.
The reflection can provide a useful segue to the essay, since we’re already identifying important policy problems, advocating change, reflecting on how best to encourage it – such as by presenting modest objectives – and then, in the essay, trying to explain (say) why governments have not taken that advice in the past. Their interest in the policy issue can prompt interest in researching the issue further; their knowledge of the issue and the policy process can help them develop politically-aware policy analysis. All going well, it produces a virtuous circle.
Some examples from my pet subject
Let me outline how I would begin to answer the three questions with reference to UK tobacco policy. I’m offering a brief summary of each section rather than presenting a full essay with more detail (partly to hold on to that idea of creativity – I don’t want students to use this description as a blueprint).
What is modern UK tobacco policy?
Tobacco policy in the UK is now one of the most restrictive in the world. The UK government has introduced a large number of policy instruments to encourage a major reduction of smoking in the population. They include: legislation to ban smoking in public places; legislation to limit tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship; high taxes on tobacco products; unequivocal health education; regulations on tobacco ingredients; significant spending on customs and enforcement measures; and, plain packaging measures.
[Note that I selected only a few key measures to define policy. A fuller analysis might expand on why I chose them and why they are so important].
How much has policy changed since the 1980s?
Policy has changed radically since the post-war period, and most policy change began from the 1980s, but it was not until the 2000s onwards that the UK cemented its place as one of the most restrictive countries. The shift from the 1980s relates strongly to the replacement of voluntary agreements and limited measures with limited enforcement with legislative measures and stronger enforcement. The legislation to ban tobacco advertising, passed in 2002, replaced limited bans combined with voluntary agreements to (for example) keep billboards a certain distance from schools. The legislation to ban smoking in public places, passed in 2006 (2005 in Scotland), replaced voluntary measures which allowed smoking in most pubs and restaurants. Plain packaging measures, combined with large and graphic health warnings, replace branded packets which once had no warnings. Health education warnings have gone from stating the facts and inviting smokers to decide, and the promotion of harm reduction (smoke ‘low tar’), to an unequivocal message on the harms of smoking and passive smoking.
[Note that I describe these changes in broad terms. Other articles might ‘zoom’ in on specific instruments to show how exactly they changed]
Why has it changed?
This is the section of the essay in which we have to make a judgement about the type of explanation: should you choose one or many concepts; if many, do you focus on their competing or complementary insights; should you provide an extensive discussion of your chosen theory?
I normally recommend a very small number of concepts or simple discussion, largely because there is only so much you can say in an essay of 2-3000 words.
For example, a simple ‘hook’ is to ask if the main driver was the scientific evidence: did policy change as the evidence on smoking (and then passive smoking) related harm became more apparent? Is it a good case of ‘evidence based policymaking’? The answer may then note that policy change seemed to be 20-30 years behind the evidence [although I’d have to explain that statement in more depth] and set out the conditions in which this driver would have an effect.
In short, one might identify the need for a ‘policy environment’, shaped by policymakers, and conducive to a strong policy response based on the evidence of harm and a political choice to restrict tobacco use. It would relate to decisions by policymakers to: frame tobacco as a public health epidemic requiring a major government response (rather than primarily as an economic good or issue of civil liberties); place health departments or organisations at the heart of policy development; form networks with medical and public health groups at the expense of tobacco companies; and respond to greater public support for control, reduced smoking prevalence, and the diminishing economic value of tobacco.
This discussion can proceed conceptually, in a relatively straightforward way, or with the further aid of policy theories which ask further questions and help structure the answers.
For example, one might draw on punctuated equilibrium theory to help describe and explain shifts of public/media/ policymaker attention to tobacco, from low and positive in the 1950s to high and negative from the 1980s.
Or, one might draw on the ACF to explain how pro-tobacco coalitions helped slow down policy change by interpreting new scientific evidence though the ‘lens’ of well-established beliefs or approaches (examples from the 1950s include filter tips, low tar brands, and ventilation as alternatives to greater restrictions on smoking).
One might even draw on multiple streams analysis to identify a ‘window of opportunity for change (as I did when examining the adoption of bans on smoking in public places).
Any of these approaches will do, as long as you describe and justify your choice well. One cannot explain everything, so it may be better to try to explain one thing well.
Filed under 1000 words, 500 words, POLU9UK, tobacco, tobacco policy, UK politics and policy
Tagged as Policy, policy analysis, policy change, policy essay, Policy studies, Politics, tobacco policy, UK policy, UK politics and policy, what is policy?
Societies today face several kinds of problems. Issues as complicated as the high rate of criminality or others which may appear easier to deal with such as the traffic congestion in the motorways impose problems which modern societies need to deal with. Hence states form social policies which have measures to follow so as to deal with these issues in an efficient way. Also, states and governments promote social work and several social services in an active way by committing a substantial part of the annual state budget to the hiring of social workers. Muncie (2004) believes that their work is considered to be crucial for the proper functioning of a society.
The present study aims at examining the term social policy. The term will be briefly explained and the importance of social policy for modern societies will be outlined. In addition, the term social work will also be analysed. In the final part of the study, the terms social change and social control will be explained and also, ways through which social policy and social work can direct these social phenomena will be brought up. In the discussion, the importance of social policy and social work will be mentioned.
What is social policy?
Even in the ancient days people living in communities were forming social rules which established general regulations for the well-being of the community. These rules regulated people’s lives or set down services for the smooth function of the society. For instance, this was done by ensuring road security or public health inside the community. This can be observed in societies such as ancient Athens where people employed by the state were responsible of cleaning the Amphitheatres and the Market Place and in Byzantium where the state’s social policy provided the people with a police corps which patrolled the streets of Constantinople at night in order to ensure the safety of the citizens or the night travellers.
According to Malim and Birch (1998) the social policies are the factors which regulate and govern human behaviour in areas such as sexuality and general morality. It is considered to be a government’s course of action designed to influence the welfare of its citizens by dealing with social issues. Some of the issues it deals with are criminality, pollution, homelessness, poverty and public health. The establishment of social policies is what has helped societies survive through a turbulence of problematic issues (sometimes inner issues and sometimes outer ones) until today.
As we can see, social policy was a measure used by governments for thousands of years. It has benefited mankind and helped the human being establish mighty civilisations on the planet. However, the problems that governments have to deal with today seem rather different than the problems they were facing in the past. The current study will shed some light to these modern problems by looking at the actions and measurements taken by social policy.
Defining social work
At this stage of the study it is necessary to provide a sound definition for the term ” social work “. ” Social work ” is the work produced by social workers who engage in intervention and assistance to provide change in the feelings, well-being and behaviour of an individual, or a specific social group in a community (Hudson, 2000). “Social work” also means engaging in community organization, social planning, administration and research. A social worker is a professionally trained person employed in the administration of charity, social service, welfare, and poverty agencies, advocacy, or religious outreach programs (Hudson, 2000). Social workers also happen to be occupied in community health agencies. In developed countries a large number of social workers are employed by the government. Social workers provide several kinds of services designed to aid the poor and aged and to increase the welfare of children.
How can social policy and social work be used in order to promote both social change and social control?
According to Johnson et al. (2001) social change refers to acts of advocacy for the cause of changing society in a positive way. Social change is change in the way people behave and live their lives, including the changing nature of decisions relating to marriage, divorce and children. Any change in social relations that cause a change in a society or transformation of its social structure can be considered to be a social change. Usually, social changes are directed by social policy and carefully planned social work (Malim and Birch, 1998).
As Polkinghorne (2004) states, social control refers to social mechanisms that regulate individual and group behaviour, in terms of greater sanctions and rewards. It may also direct the processes of informal social control such as custom and formal social control (for instance this could be the law of deviant behaviour which falls beyond the bounds set by social norms). Cohen (2000) states that social control is present in all societies and it can be observed in the control mechanisms used to prevent the establishment of a society to fall into anarchic or even oligarchic situations (Hudson, 2000). Muncie (2004) states that a government through its social policy sets a framework of rewards and sanctions that channel behaviour. This is the set of rules, habits, and customs by which a society tries to maintain order and social policy and social work are the facilitators for this goal.Two examples which can be observed in order to better realise the way through which social policy and social work promote social change and social control are the cases of alcohol and drug trafficking.
The social policy in countries like the U.K. and the U.S.A. provides zero tolerance towards the distribution of illegal substances. People caught selling these drugs can end up facing severe charges in the court of law which can result to a multi-year imprisonment time. The penalties become severer depending on the role a person has taken in drug trafficking. The person who sells them directly may not face as strict a punishment (because most of the times that person is a user as well who is trying to make some extra money for his dose) as the person who is distributing the drugs to the people who sell them directly to users. In this way, a government promotes social control over the trafficking of hazardous substances and it also brings about social change because it discourages people from using or pushing drugs. On the other hand, governmental policies are supportive towards drug users. The use of illegal substances without medical prescription or governmental authorisation is still considered as a criminal offence in most countries; however people who are found to be addicted to these substances only face light penalties. Most of the times drug addicts are forced by the law to perform obligatory communal services (for instance cleaning parks or sidewalks) and the most important part of their “penalty” is the community’s effort to provide guidance and assistance to these persons. More often than not they are obliged to participate in drug-supportive programmes, which take place in specially designed clinics where the patients are provided with all the help they need so as to give up their addiction in the least stressful way. This public policy shows us the extent of pain and anguish lived by drug addicts. They become dependant to a substance and end up being unable to give up the use of drugs because of the fact that they become physically, mentally and emotionally dependent on that substance.
In countries like the U.K. and the U.S.A. it has been proclaimed illegal to smoke in public places, unless that place is designated as a smoking area or it is an open area. This was done because researches have shown that passive smokers (that is people who breathe the smoke which is exhaled by smokers) have a high risk of developing lung cancer without being responsible for it since they choose not to smoke so as to protect their health (Kotecki et al., 1998). What is more, adults are not allowed to smoke in places where children are present (such as schools) and the state shows no tolerance through its laws to people or organisations which sell tobacco to children or adolescents (Kotecki et al., 1998). As we can see, in spite of the fact that smoking is not considered illegal, the social policy has taken measures so as to protect the citizens from the health hazards of this phenomenon as best as possible. Another good measurement which controls the spreading of smoking is the control of smoking ads (in most countries smoking cannot be advertised through television) and also the obligatory statement in cigarette packages stating that “smoking can seriously harm a person’s health”. Thus, this is a case where societies promote through social policy the social control.
Several social problems are hard to grasp unless they are examined through a different perspective than the one we usually look at them. Most people are aware of the health issues caused to a person who is a drug addict but unless we have a look at the social policy and the measurements taken to protect the children of drug addicted parents we may fail to realise the suffering these children are going through.
What is more, the issue of public health and safety is a rather complex matter and by examining the social policies taken so as to ensure the safety and health of citizens we may never be able to realise the dangers we face from either drunk drivers or from smokers who choose to smoke in front of other people, especially children.
A state’s social policy is the main factor which keeps the human societies alive and active until today (Grinnell and Unrau, 2004). Without a social policy the feeling of community would disappear amongst people. Finally, social work is an imperative need for modern societies. It brings balance to the state and it also provides means to citizens to actively help those who cannot survive in modern societies without proper support (Hudson, 2000).
Cohen, P. (2000). In the country of the blind: youth studies and cultural studies in Britain. In Pickford, J. (ed.) Youth Justice: Theory and Practice. London: Cavendish.
Grinnell, R. and Unrau, Y. (2004) Social work research and evaluation: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hudson, B. (2000) The changing role of social care. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Johnson, C. H., Vicary, J. R., Heist, C. L. & Corneal D. A. (2001). Moderate alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy and child behavior outcomes. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 21 (3), 367 – 378.
Kotecki, J. E., Elanjian, S. I., Torabi, M. R. & Clark J. K. (1998). Pharmacists’ concerns and suggestions related to the sale of tobacco and alcohol in pharmacies. Journal of Community Health, 23 (5), 359 – 370.
Malim, M. & Birch, A. (1998). Introductory Psychology. Hampshire: Palgrave.
Muncie, J. (2004). Youth and Crime. 2nd Edition. London: Sage Publications.
Polkinghorne, D. (2004) Practice and the human sciences: The case for a judgement-based practice of care (Suny Series in the Philosophy of the social sciences). New York: New York State University Press.
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