The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning

The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning

by Frank Fischer

Public policy is made of language. Whether in written or oral form, argument is central to all parts of the policy process. As simple as this insight appears, its implications for policy analysis and planning are profound. Drawing from recent work on language and argumentation and referring to such theorists as Wittgenstein, Habermas, Toulmin, and Foucault, these…  See more details below


Public policy is made of language. Whether in written or oral form, argument is central to all parts of the policy process. As simple as this insight appears, its implications for policy analysis and planning are profound. Drawing from recent work on language and argumentation and referring to such theorists as Wittgenstein, Habermas, Toulmin, and Foucault, these essays explore the interplay of language, action, and power in both the practice and the theory of policy-making.
The contributors, scholars of international renown who range across the theoretical spectrum, emphasize the political nature of the policy planner's work and stress the role of persuasive arguments in practical decision making. Recognizing the rhetorical, communicative character of policy and planning deliberations, they show that policy arguments are necessarily selective, both shaping and being shaped by relations of power. These essays reveal the practices of policy analysts and planners in powerful new ways--as matters of practical argumentation in complex, highly political environments. They also make an important contribution to contemporary debates over postempiricism in the social and policy sciences.

Contributors. John S. Dryzek, William N. Dunn, Frank Fischer, John Forester, Maarten Hajer, Patsy Healey, Robert Hoppe, Bruce Jennings, Thomas J. Kaplan, Duncan MacRae, Jr., Martin Rein, Donald Schon, J. A. Throgmorton

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Editorial Reviews

A dozen studies contribute to the emerging argumentation approach to understanding policy analysis and planning, considering both practical and political aspects of argument without trying to reduce the whole profession to a practice in textual interpretation. Among the topics are discourse coalitions and the institutionalization of practice in the case of acid rain in Great Britain, the priority of practical judgement, and guidelines for consensual versus adversarial discourse. Paper edition (unseen), $19.95. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From the Publisher

"This book has the potential to be important in the field, the leading statement for a movement. It does not call merely for words to balance the statistics, as in the tired debate between the humanities and the sciences. On the contrary, it argues that the words and the statistics are all part of the argument. The contributors apply theories of judgment ranging from classical rhetoric to modern theories of narrative to see the judging whole. The book proposes a new way to see old debates. . . . In short, the book is excellent."—Donald N. McCloskey, University of Iowa

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The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning

By Frank Fischer, John Forester

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8181-5


The Argumentative Turn: Policy Institutions and Practices


Policy Discourse and the Politics of Washington Think Tanks

Frank Fischer

Much of the discussion about arguments in public policy analysis derives from epistemological and methodological considerations, particularly those raised by criticism of the discipline's technocratic tendencies. By contrast, far too little attention has focused on the political regime shifts that have contributed to the argumentative turn. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, methodological shifts in policy analysis have often been influenced by basic shifts in the control of government (Fischer 1987). The failure to recognize the relationship between basic political changes and the practices of policy analysis has led to overly narrow interpretations of the discipline and its development. Too often understood within the confines of scientific terminology, policy analysis has frequently failed to perceive the deeper political forces that in many ways have given shape to the disciplinary project. The purpose of this essay is to illustrate how the argumentative turn emerges as much from larger political and institutional conflicts in the society as from methodological issues.

The first three sections focus on the critiques, both radical and conservative, of the Great Society of the Johnson administration, seen to be the paradigm case of the liberal technocratic strategy. My purpose is to illustrate the liberal strategy's reliance on policy experts and their technical discourses and to identify specific ways in which these discourses functioned to shape the Democratic party's reform agenda. Focusing in particular on the uses of policy analysis, the critics argued that it represented far more than a value-neutral scientific methodology designed to supply better information to liberal policymakers. More fundamentally, critics saw policy analysis as a key element of a technocratic strategy that served—both wittingly and unwittingly—to supplant the everyday, less sophisticated opinions of the common citizen with liberal "new class" arguments disguised and legitimated in the languages of technical discourses. According to the harshest critics, a growing emphasis on technocratic methodologies increasingly undercuts ordinary political discourse with the specialized languages of the social sciences (Banfield 1980:1).

The essay then examines the conservative political response to a liberal-technocratic reform strategy. As a direct challenge to the liberals' strategy, the conservative politics of the middle 1970s and the 1980s instituted an alternative policy approach that—rhetoric aside—can be interpreted as a conservative version of the liberal reform strategy. Contrary to the stated objectives of the conservative challenge—namely, to sever the political link between liberal politicians and leading policy experts—the primary result has been to politicize rather than eliminate the uses of policy analysis. I conclude with an assessment of the implications of this politicization of policy argumentation for the discipline of policy analysis.

Technocratic Discourse and the New Class

The theory of technocracy, a variant of elite theory, refers to a governance process dominated by technically trained knowledge elites. The function of the technocratic elite is to replace or control democratic deliberation and decision-making processes (based on conflicting interests) with a more technocratically informed discourse (based on scientific decision-making techniques). The result is the transformation of political issues into technically defined ends than can be pursued through administrative means.

The technocratic approach to policy-making emerged most visibly in the United States during the years of the Democratic party's Great Society and the Vietnam War. Critiques of this period, especially those of the radical Left, singled out the corporate welfare/warfare state and its managerial ideologies of expertise as fundamental political problems. During these years, the Left elevated concerns about the role of experts and intellectuals to a central position in its critique of society. Managerial and policy experts were seen as a "technical intelligentsia" who provided much more than a purely technical service to politicians, as suggested by mainstream interpretations. Indeed, writers such as Alvin Gouldner (1970), Noam Chomsky (1971), and Bertram Gross (1980) portrayed experts as a driving force behind the political process itself.

According to the radical version of the technocracy thesis, managerial and policy experts constituted nothing less than a new technocratic class or cadre striving for political power. Moreover, the ascent of this technocratic class was analyzed as a central governance strategy of the liberal corporate welfare state. Technocratic experts were portrayed, in fact, as the social engineers of a liberal political-economic formation fundamentally aligned with the political organization that ruled in its name, the Democratic party. Consider Gouldner's (1970, 500) words: "In the context of the burgeoning Welfare-Warfare State ... liberal ideologues serve ... to increase the centralized control of an ever-growing Federal Administrative Class and of the master institutions on behalf of which it operates." As technical cadres of a central governing strategy, these liberal technocrats produced "information and theories that serve to bind the poor and the working classes to the state apparatus and the political machinery of the Democratic party."

Every bit as interesting was the fact that somewhat later in the decade (and continuing well into the 1980s), remarkably similar refrains could be heard from the political Right, particularly from the so-called neoconservatives, who were largely disheartened Great Society liberals. Especially important here were such writers as Irving Kristol, Edward Banfield, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Nathan Glazer, and Samuel Beer (Steinfels 1979).

Neoconservatives were deeply disturbed by the uses (or misuses) of the social sciences in the Great Society era. Adhering largely to the tenets of traditional democratic theory, they singled out policy experts as a fundamental threat to the future of representative government. Although they distanced themselves from their radical counterparts, neoconservatives also spoke of an emerging technocratic system of government dominated by a new class: the technical intelligentsia. Banfield (1980:5) put it this way: Policy science developed during "a long series of efforts by the Progressive Movement and its heirs to change the character of the American political system—to transfer power from the corrupt, the ignorant, and the self-serving to the virtuous, the educated, and the public spirited." Such motives "inspired proposals to replace politicians with experts in the legislatures and to do away with political parties." Samuel Beer (1978:44) went so far as to describe the phenomenon as a "technocratic takeover." While on its surface the idea of a new class takeover of the policy process is difficult to take seriously, the argument had substantial clout. Indeed, it helped to carry Ronald Reagan into the White House.

What can be made of such arguments? In and of itself, the technocracy–new class thesis tells us very little about the actual role of expertise in policy-making or the struggles that have shaped its role. In significant part, the problem is due to ideological excesses. Too often the intent has been limited to scapegoating a "technocratic class" as the impediment to either free-market capitalism (the argument of the political Right) or democratic socialism (that of the Left). Stripped of its polemical baggage, however, the thesis does correctly point to a new and more powerful role of experts and expert discourses in the policy-making processes of U.S. government. In fact, the increasing importance of the expert discourses of policy professionals are beginning to reflect a new policy-making style—a kind of politics of expertise—that is emerging as part of contemporary governance strategies. In an effort to move from the abstractions of these ideological critiques to a more concrete understanding of this phenomenon, let us first locate the contemporary origins of this new policy role for experts in the governance strategies of the Democratic administrations of the 1960s, particularly Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

The Great Society as Technocratic Politics

The Great Society is widely seen as a primary political phenomenon that spurred the contemporary restructuring of policy processes. The technocratic discourse of the period has been widely discussed (Straussman 1978). It was a period that took seriously, in some form or another, the "end of ideology" thesis that Daniel Bell had put forward a few years earlier (Waxman 1968); and numerous technocratic, "apolitical" approaches were indeed introduced during these years. Among the most important was the experimentation with Keynesian tax cuts, which were seen to signify real progress toward the technical—if not scientific—management of economic affairs. During these years, in fact, the economics profession was dubbed the "new priesthood" by Time magazine.

Another major technocratic thrust was the introduction in all federal agencies of the Planning-Programming-Budgeting-Systems decision-making technique (PPBS), based on the latest thinking in managerial science. This technique was designed to guide policy deliberation and program evaluation. Lyndon Johnson once described PPBS as the management technique that made possible the Great Society's programmatic assault on poverty (Fischer 1990:152).

Throughout this period the development and implementation of the liberal political agenda was shaped by the contributions of "policy intellectuals" and the tools of the social sciences. Theodore White (1967) captured this for Life magazine in three articles that portray the period as the "Golden Age of the action intellectuals." White described what he saw as nothing less than the appearance of a new system of power in U.S. politics. These new intellectuals, acting in concert with political leaders in both the White House and Congress, were the "driving wheels" of the Great Society. This new generation with special problem-solving skills sought "to shape our defenses, guide our foreign policy, redesign our cities, eliminate poverty, reorganize our schools, and more." Policy professionals represented a "bridge across the gulf between government and the primary producers of really good ideas." The White House served as "a transmission belt, packaging and processing scholars' ideas to be sold to Congress as programs."

Research foundations and academic journals celebrated the significance of this "professionalization of reform" (Moynihan 1965). In the process, policy research became a growth industry for think tanks, university research institutes, and management consulting firms (Dickson 1971). In turn, this promoted the development of the discipline of policy analysis, which emerged as a new and central research focus in the social sciences. Moreover, the strategy set into motion a revolving door that linked the major research universities, government agencies, and Washington think tanks, particularly the Brookings Institution (which is largely identified with the Democratic party administrations of this period).

But beyond the mass influx of economists and social scientists, how was the policy-making process in Washington actually changing? Extending the work of Barry Karl (1975) brings into view a specific political formula, a kind of "liberal reform strategy" somewhat similar to patterns found in earlier periods such as the Progressive era and the New Deal.

Basically, the liberal reform strategy can be delineated in five interrelated steps: (1) a group of experts, mainly social scientists, is assembled by a reform-minded president; (2) the experts devote their time to defining and articulating a social or economic problem and spelling out the need for specific political reforms; (3) a larger group of journalists, philanthropists, and business leaders is then gathered to discuss the problem and to develop a consensus capable of broadening the reform coalition; (4) following these exchanges, a report is produced containing all the assumptions, information, and arguments on which the reform program would be designed and implemented; and (5) finally, with considerable fanfare the report is communicated to the public as a reform agenda from the "pulpit" of the presidency and through the mass media.

On its surface, this pattern seems to be consistent with the standard conceptualization of the policy expert's role (i.e., to provide information to political leaders). But closer observation reveals that the specific dynamics of this reform methodology play a much greater role in determining the political agenda than the conventional model would suggest. In fact, this central role in the reform strategy provides policy experts with very real opportunities to shape the course of political events.

The Technical Framing of Political Reality

Both radicals and neoconservatives perceived a significant departure from accepted policy-making practices during the Great Society. According to the standard interpretation of representative government, policy-making is primarily geared to the demands and struggles of competing political parties and interest groups. In sharp contrast, these writers began to depict a process in which political leaders and their experts operated more and more independently of public pressures. They saw a much more technocratic, elitist policy discourse and decision process divorced in very significant ways from the public, interest groups, and political parties (Moynihan 1965:7; Fischer 1990:153–55). Two sources of technocratic influence were identified in the liberal reform strategy, one concerned with the elevation of experts to a much more powerful position in the decision-making hierarchy, the other emphasizing the nature of their modes of decision making. With regard to the first point, the degree to which this new elite actually had final decision-making authority is open to debate. However, one need not subscribe to the new class thesis to recognize the substantial role played by experts in both the development of the War on Poverty agenda and the planning of its implementation.


Excerpted from The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning by Frank Fischer, John Forester. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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