Why do bureaucrats and politicians engage in policy learning?

By: Mira Kuswini – Canberra

Bureaucrats and politicians inevitably engage with policy. It is true that not all bureaucrats are policy decision-makers, but the duties they performed in their daily work are related to policy as part of the implementation process. On the other hand, politicians, whether in office or governing party opposition, consciously and continuously advocate their policy goals to achieve their political party triumph. In order to make good policy, both bureaucrats and politicians, engage with policy learning. Policy learning is activities carried out by the policy-makers to make better policy goals, policy making process, and policy implementation. Bennett and Howelett (1992) defines learning as multi-level conditions that can influence decision-making institutions and processes, particular programs and means used to implement policy, and/or the policy purposes. Hall (cited in Bennett & Howelet 1992) argues that learning is intended effort to alter the purposes or ways of policy due to the effect of former policy and to gain new knowledge in order to improve the primary goals of governance. This paper will argue that the engagement of bureaucrats and politicians in policy learning is different and the circumstances for their involvement are influenced by endogenous and exogenous factors. Bureaucrats are likely to engage in policy learning because they are bound hierarchically with their duties to improve their performance, while politicians engage in policy learning because of the demand to achieve political goals set up by their political party. However, bureaucrats and politicians are likely driven to policy learning when predetermine goals are unaccomplished and have created problems.

Bureaucrats and politicians are likely to engage in policy learning when goals are unaccomplished and have created problems. The problem exists when there is a gap between achievement and goals. Rose (1991) terms this situation as ‘dissatisfaction’, which urge bureaucrats and politicians as policy-makers to take measure immediately. Nevile (2002) argues that policy-makers involve in policy learning due to find solutions to certain problem. The need for dispelling ‘dissatisfaction’ causes policy-makers to search for effective solutions. When crisis happen or a perception of crisis exist, there is pressure for policy-makers to take immediate actions or to avoid a crisis being happened. Grindle and Thomas (1991) point out that perception of crisis has influenced the feature of decision-making process by the appearance of ‘pressure to act, high stakes, high-level decision makers, major changes from existing policy, and urgency’. However, policy learning is also likely to happen during non-crisis situation as a part of government agenda, in order to improve current policy or overall performance of government (Grindle & Thomas 1991). Etheredge (cited in Bennett & Howelett 1992) argue that ‘learning takes place solely during the intra-governmental stages of the policy cycle and emphasize the actions and activities of autonomous state official’. Furthermore, the changes in economic and social environment has called for learning action to establish better response to deal with changes’ associated problems (Nevile 2002). Another stimulus for learning is progress in information technology and globalization that make learning become easier across time and space (Mossberger & Wolman 2003). All conditions were mentioned above leads to the involvement of bureaucrats and politicians in policy learning which is gaining knowledge they do not know before.

Bureaucrats engage in policy learning because their duties are bound with hierarchical structure of government. They require to continuously improving organizational and individual performance. Etheredge (cited in Bennett & Howelett 1992) constructs government learning to describe the activity by which government extend their intelligence and experience to increase the effective of actions. Government reform has been introduced as one may countries important agenda. Grindle and Thomas (1991) point out that ‘Planning reform was an initiative introduces by a new administration as part of a general effort to improve the performance of government’. Nevile (2002) argues that bureaucrats can advance individual career by inventing new solutions to difficult problems. Therefore, policy learning has become one of bureaucrat’s means to achieve good performance.

Politicians’ engagement in policy learning divided into two categories based on their position. First, there are politicians whose political party has won an election and hold political power in the government, and the second is opposition politicians. These two groups have different motivations and goals in terms of their engagement in policy learning. In office politicians engage in policy learning in order to sustain their political party power by creating good government programmes and responsive to problems. Rose (1991) points out that elected politicians are really concerned about the successful of government programmes and this leads them to policy learning by which they seek for new knowledge from different time and space to improve government current programmes. He also argues that learning is taken place as a response to dissatisfaction with current situation (cited in Bennett & Howelett 1992). Policy-makers who do not pay attention to dissatisfaction are risked with programmes failure and lost support (Rose 1991). On the other hand, for the opposition politicians, their engagement in policy learning is due to the need to improve their capabilities to be able to criticize current government strongly and actively. Bennett and Howelett (1992) points out, ‘It is also true that learning by government is often a function of current active political conflict and the public adversary processes by which opponents of established policy do research that ultimately makes government more intelligent’. Competitions among politicians create a conducive environment for knowledge search and improve their capabilities. ‘Politicians compete for office by propounding new solutions to collective problems that they believe will appeal to voters’ (Nevile 2002). They strive to discredit their political opponent by attacking government policy, so that they can seize substantial public supports and finally bring their political party to win the next election.

To conclude, it is clear that both bureaucrats and politicians are engaged in policy learning and made it become part of their way of life.  Their engagement in policy learning is influenced by endogenous and exogenous factors. The occurrence or the perception of problems and government agenda are endogenous factors. Socio-economic changes, information advance, and globalization are exogenous contributed factors in policy learning. However, the reason of bureaucrats and politicians’ engagement in policy learning is differ. Bureaucrats are engaged in policy learning because they are bound with government goals to improve their performance while politicians are bound with their political party goals to become the highest authority in the country.


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