'Why doesn’t the government do something about this?’ is a complaint often heard in legislatures, TV debates, opinion pieces, letters to the editor and cyberspace. Why do policymakers do nothing and what contributes to policy inaction?
In paper for Policy Sciences, Allan McConnell (University of Sydney) and Paul ’t Hart (Utrecht University) examine inaction in public policy. They present five types of inaction:
The authors also explore the core drivers of inaction from the perspective of individuals, public organisations, governments and networks
Policy inaction is defined as:
an instance and/or pattern of non-intervention by individual policymakers, public organisations, governments or policy networks in relation to an issue within and potentially within their jurisdiction and where other plausible potential policy interventions did not take place.
There are four aspects to this definition
There are five types of policy inaction:
Inaction can be deliberate, strategic and tactical. There may be a danger of rushing in before an issue has sufficiently matured. At times it may be better for decision makers to wait for more evidence, while buying time to gauge how ‘hot ‘the issue is liable to be.
Drivers: Inaction as product of conscious (strategic or tactical) decisions no to act, or not to act now
Plausible alternatives: Managed off the agenda
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 role in limiting the scope of government intervention.
Drivers: Inaction driven by convictions
Plausible alternatives: Ideologically out of bounds
Inaction can stem from realising that political powers, institutional realities and checks and balances mean ‘taking action’ is not feasible.
Drivers: Inaction as pragmatic acceptance that requisite support will not be obtained from powerful actors or pivotal institutions.
Plausible alternatives: Will not gain support to be approved
Inaction occurs when viable policy options, tools and resources to address a particular issue are not available. It may be that policymakers have few or no practical levers at their disposal to address the problem in hand.
Drivers: Inaction through reluctant acceptance that appropriate tools and resources are not available
Plausible alternatives: Not capable of being put into practice
Inaction can spring from policymakers’ cognitive processes.
Drivers: Inaction as a product of bounded rationality constraints and institutional blind spots
Plausible alternatives: Nowhere to be seen within frame of reference.
There are four distinct but overlapping domains of policy-making: individuals; organisations; governments; and networks. Particular types of mechanisms contribute to inaction in each of these realms. Policy inaction is most likely to occur and persevere when these domains and mechanisms overlap and reinforce one another.
Individual behaviours which bring about inaction include:
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.
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 assess what is relevant, and specialisation cultivates a culture of turf wars and lack of information sharing.
High aspirations, popular mandates and governments ‘doing stuff’ are embedded in the fabric of liberal democracies. However, the actual business of governing necessitates continual, dogged policy inaction, and avoiding multiple plausible alternatives. 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.
Many policy problems and policy solutions straddle traditional geographical, institutional, sectoral and jurisdictional boundaries. In response, joined-up government, networked and collaborative governance mechanisms have emerged.
The design of networks and the behaviour of their participants can actively contribute to not delivering on their purpose. When operating under adverse circumstances or when not productive, networks reproduce and succumb to the very coordination problems they were built to address.
In public policy, inaction is just as real as action. We need to understand how:
Inaction and public policy: understanding why policymakers ‘do nothing' – Allan McConnell and Paul ’t Hart, Policy Sciences, December 2019, Volume 52, Issue 4, pp 645–661.
This research brief originally appeared in The Mandarin as part of The Mandarin and ANZSOG's ongoing special Research Series and featured in The Drop – ANZSOG and the Mandarin’s research newsletter. Sign up to receive The Drop.