by Richard Freeman
24th October 2019

Previously published on the Policy & Politics blog.

What do policy makers do? The question is important, because making policy engages a great number of people one way or another, and what they do they might do well or badly. Our standard answers are rather hazy, not least because policy making entails such great numbers of people doing a great number of things. 

The literature tends to have addressed the question in functional terms, outlining and defining – and endlessly debating – different sets of activities such as advocacy and agenda-setting, formulating and decision making, implementing and evaluating.

But what if we were to begin somewhere else, to explore policy as a set of human actions, as a form of work, as real-time, practical and physical ‘doings and sayings‘? What do policy makers really do? What does their work entail?

The answer is surprisingly simple:

‘The two things that civil servants do is write papers and have meetings. Because that’s what we do. From that, things happen. Extraordinary though it might seem’ (quote from a senior civil servant)

‘When someone asks me what I do at work … I read, write and have meetings, that’s what I do’ (quote from a policy manager)

The question now is why: what is policy, if this is what it involves? What are these things such that they constitute policy?

The work of policy is done in writing. The document seems to be at the heart of policy, its principal material instrument or artefact. Just as for Weber the file was central to bureaucracy, so the strategy, plan, White Paper, memorandum and report are intrinsic to policy. If asked what or where is the policy, practitioners will invariably point to a document of some kind.

But why documents, why writing? Where do documents come from and where do they go? They come from and to meetings; before and after the document is some kind of collective talk. The role of the document is arguably to connect one meeting to the next, to record the understandings reached and agreements made in one time and place and make them available for discussion in another time and place.

For policy makers don’t just read and write, they talk. Their reading and writing is predicated on meetings of different kinds: not just in committees, but in appointments with the minister, in parliament or in council, in briefings and press conferences, workshops and consultations. The work of the document is to fix the elusive and ephemeral process and outcome of talk in such a way that it can be joined by others. It stabilises meaning – the sense of a problem and what might be done about it – at least temporarily, and puts it into motion, to be printed and distributed or simply attached to email, to be read and discussed among others.

Then why do meetings happen? Is policy actually all about meeting?  Not all – for there are reports to be written before and afterward, as we know – but meetings are essentially about policy; policy is made in meeting.  There are many ways of explaining why, but one of the most powerful lies in Hannah Arendt‘s concept of plurality. Plurality is intrinsic to the human condition: ‘the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world’. And because we are plural, we must confront our significant problems in interaction with each other, including those problems derived from our very plurality.

This grounding of policy and politics in plurality is an epistemological as well as an ontological claim. Plurality is not only what is there, what is real, but the means by which we know what is real: ‘To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all’. We must constantly calibrate what we think we know against what others seem to know, and we do that by talking in meeting.

What we know as policy, then, is made in communicative interaction about matters of common concern, which is why policy makers spend their time in reading and writing, meeting and talking – extraordinary as it may seem.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Freeman, R. (2019) ‘Meeting, talk and text: policy and politics in practice‘, Policy & Politics 47(2): 371-388.

Image credit: Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash