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Researching public policy and public administration: are Australian academics on the right track?

By Jenny Stewart - posted Tuesday, 27 May 2014

As academics, we don’t often acknowledge that the phenomena we choose to study and the way we go about the task represent the results of processes of academic agenda-formation. In the social sciences, where ‘frontiers’ for research are more difficult to define than in the natural sciences, these processes are likely to be of particular significance.

Moreover, for those of us who write and research in public policy and public administration, I believe it is particularly important to tease out the implications of the relationships between knowledge and context, because they affect (in both positive and negative ways) the productiveness and incisiveness of Australian-based public policy analysis. I want to suggest that Australian-based researchers are in danger of losing their way, and that the current preoccupations of research-funding agencies and of universities are making the problem worse.

The argument


Point one: the origins of academic agendas

Our ways of knowing, and of generating and validating knowledge in the study of public policy and public management, are derived largely from the inductive study of specific systems.  These theories (or models, frameworks or lenses) are, to a considerable extent, specific to the study of the national systems in which they originated.  Because most scholars in the English-speaking world work in the UK or the US, it is the analysis of these systems that predominates.

This should not be a surprise, and if the ambit of these models were routinely subjected to critical scrutiny from outside their countries of origin, there would be less likelihood of their being used inappropriately.  But this is not the case. While work in comparative public policy and public administration shows how little generalisability there is, the models themselves continue on, apparently unscathed. They remain centerpieces of every literature review, regardless of where the research is carried out, unless and until they are superseded by newer versions.

In fact, the older models are not so much disproved, as bypassed. Thus academic agendas change over time – because the world changes, and because there is a premium on being the person to come up with the ‘viral meme’: the concept that catches on. But whether concepts are new or not, it is important to remind ourselves of the limitations of knowledge in our fields, or to put the case more positively, to celebrate the fact that our first duty is to understand and explain the systems we know the most about.

Point two: the implications of academic agendas

It might be argued that, even if models are not generalisable, this should not be a cause for concern, because scholars will choose which to use and which not to use, to suit their purpose. However I will argue that this is not the case.  Whether you work in Sardinia or Sydney, if you write about administrative reform/change/development, you have to write about (or at least pay your respects to) ‘new public management’ – or its more recent forms such as ‘new public governance’.


If you are interested in public policy processes, you will need to discuss, or look for, one or other of networks, path dependence, policy windows, or even punctuated equilibria. In earlier times, you would have discussed public choice theory or institutionalism or the advocacy coalition framework.  And before that, neo Marxian or post-structuralist interpretations.

Sometimes these approaches will be illuminating, other times not. But it seems highly probable that there will be distortions in the way research is done in the non-hegemonic countries. To the extent that they use theory explicitly, Australian and New Zealand scholars will be grappling with ways of applying these frameworks which, very often, simply do not fit the situations they are observing. More concerningly, they may miss phenomena in their own polities because they are so keen to follow-up on leads from the international literature.

To illustrate, let me give an example of this phenomenon one drawn from the study of public administration:  ‘new public management’ from the United Kingdom.

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About the Author

Dr Jenny Stewart is Professor of Public Policy in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jenny Stewart

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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