Getting in touch with your practice

 For the seasoned observer of public policy, it is perhaps surprising to open any discussion with such a radical admission that we know very little of the everyday practices, routines and activities of policymakers.[1] You might expect policy analysts and researchers to have a detailed knowledge of what policy-makers actually do on a day-to-day basis in their offices and wider working environment. Yet, we tend to approach the study of policy armed with pre-existing models, patterns and guidance into which we then try and force the ‘messiness’ of the daily twists and turns that punctuate the multiplicity of norms, rules, and objects that we call ‘policy.’[2] Too often, as John Law suggests[3], we try and mobilize the ‘mess’ out of our own accounts of policy, acting, to use the very apt expression of Helen Sullivan, like ‘truth junkies’[4]. So, what if we were to try and do the opposite? What if we were to try and capture the ‘messiness’ of the practice of policy-making, of what practitioners do? What might we learn if we started from there?

 It was these very questions that a recent ESRC seminar series on policy as practice sought to answer.[5] In generating a dialogue between researchers and practitioners, the series confirmed in many ways the continuing difficulty faced by social scientists in formulating concepts of policy and practice that make sense to those we think of as policy-makers. For those involved, which included this author, it made us newly aware of the difficulty practitioners themselves – especially those at the local level – have in recognizing that what they do is to make policy. At the same time, we were exposed to ‘thicker’ conceptions of agency; accounts of making policy that surfaced the social, meaningful and affective dimension of the practices of policy-making. We rediscovered the institutional purchase and political nature of often very mundane policy instruments and artefacts of policy-making, such as white papers, meetings and minutes, and commissions of inquiry, as well as the importance of understanding the construction of particular policy ‘personages’ and their associated roles, be it the policy consultant, the evaluator or the civic entrepreneur.

What this all suggests is that we require a new way of thinking about how we study policy – one which through its focus on the practices of policy making re-engages with the benefits of empirically-driven ‘thick descriptive’ case studies and the value of practical wisdom or judgment.[6]  In so doing, we need to break down long-held distinctions between academics and policy-makers so as to generate new ways of co-producing knowledge in, and for, policy.  Such shifts in our approach hold out the prospect of developing ways of ‘talking’ policy that not only speak to, and resonate with, the daily activities of policymakers, but also begin to rebuild our trust in practitioners as collaborative partners for innovation and improvisation.[7] Rather than continuing to proclaim the new public management mantra which views practitioners as instrumental agents seeking to defect from external regulation, perhaps we might be better off appreciating practice as an active and potentially positive ingredient in the world of policy making.

See also

Should you wish to read more on the findings of the ESRC Policy as Practice seminar series, you can find a collection of articles from the series in a forthcoming special issue of Evidence & Policy put together by Richard Freeman, Steven Griggs and Annette Boaz. This blog draws heavily on this collection.


[1] Wagenaar, H. (2004) ‘’Knowing’ the rules: administrative work as practice’, Public Administration Review, 64 (6):643–56.

[2] Freeman, R., Griggs, S. and Boaz, A (2011) ‘The practice of policy making’, special issue: approaches to practice, Evidence & Policy, 7(2): 127-35.

[3] Law, J. (2006) Making a mess with method, version 19th January, available at www.

[4] Helen Sullivan uses this expression in her forthcoming article ‘‘Truth’ junkies: using evaluation in UK public policy’, see Policy & Politics.

[5] ESRC Seminar Series Policy as Practice, Award no. RES-451-26-0613. Award holders: Steven Griggs (De Monfort University), Richard Freeman (Edinburgh University), Michael Farrelly (Open University), Tim Freeman (University of Birmingham) and Mark Bramah (Association for Public Service Excellence).

[6] Flyvbjerg. B.  (2001) Making social science matter. Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Laws, D. and Hajer, M. (2006) ‘Policy as Practice’ in M. Moran, M. Rein and R.E. Goodin (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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