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. A Policy Framework: Three Levels of Decision Making Policy making affecting families and children is, as we anticipated when we initiated the case studies, time- consuming, polycentric, and complex; this much is obvious to participants and observers alike. The panel sought to go beyond these observations to create an analytic account of the policy formation process that would draw on exist- ing scientific understanding of policy determination, resonate with the panel's experience and expertise, and be capable of yielding prescriptions for practitioners. The panel's search for explanatory frameworks was guided by certain predilections. First, policy making is not only time-consuming but is also sequential, specific events being significantly shaped by what has occurred before and virtually never ending. Second, policy making seems to occur at several distinct hierarchical levels of government--from the top political leadership to middle- level program officials--with horizontal interactions among participants at each level and with policy-making activity at the different levels taking place concur- rently. Third, the character of policy making differs depending on the kind of government action being con- templated--for example, whether the issue involves the tax code and the tax-writing committees of Congress or whether it involves direct expenditure programs and, consequently, authorizing committees of Congress. A large, rapidly growing, and richly diverse body of research exists on public policy formation. We judged it to be beyond the scope of this report to present a compre- hensive survey of this literature. We reached the conclu- sion, however, that no single model or approach presented in existing literature adequately captures the cumulative "feel" of the cases and the types of policy making they represent. Thus we were led to use the information in 58
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59 the cases to derive an analytic framework, the application of which would fulfill the criteria outlined at the beginning of this chapter. From our examination of the case studies we observed distinguishable patterns of interactions among components of the policy formation process. These patterns reflect the dynamic relationships among the nature of the policy issue, the participants who are involved in the policy debate, and the types of resulting government action. We describe these relationships according to an analytic framework involving levels of decision making that are distinguished by what issues are to be resolved, who is typically involved in resolving them, and how they are resolved. This framework may be usefully expressed in terms of a game metaphor. Its analytic appeal derives largely from its capacity to depict complex problem-solving phenomena involving participants who employ strategies to maximize their positions in contexts constrained by agreed-on rules, laws, and conditions. We believe the framework presented below provides a useful basis for formulating conjectures about the complex relationships among observable elements of the policy formation process. We stress that this presentation is designed to be suggestive in interpreting complex policy developments; it is not a definitive statement of testable or tested propositions. Considerable further work is needed before such a statement is possible. THE POLICY FRAMEWORK We believe that policy making in the federal government can be described as occurring at different levels, and, for purposes of analysis, we postulate three levels: high, middle, and low. They differ along three major dimensions: the nature of the issues in question, the participants who are involved, and the types of government action that can result. The nature of policy issues can vary from highly value laden--for example, whether govern- ment should mandate and support preschool education for all children--to essentially technical--for example, how to most effectively and efficiently immunize children against polio once a decision to immunize has been made. In addition, the degree of consensus among participants in the decision-making process over a policy issue may vary. At each level, decision making involves a large _ ~, _ _ _ ,
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60 . number of participants who can be distinguished by their goals and the resources available to them. These resources include their position or office, expertise, information, and time. Moreover, the types of resulting Some may involve major alterations In the existing social order--for example, mandatory employment of all welfare mothers. Others may involve less dramatic initiatives, such as expanding the Head Start budget. At each level of decision making the role of various components of policy formation--contextual factors, constituency pressure, media presentations, and research--and their interactions change. The high level essentially involves deciding whether government action is warranted and appropriate. The middle level involves deciding more concretely what the government's role should be. The low level involves the precise design of that role and selecting the details of its execution. These three levels of decision making represent dist- inct arenas in which certain actors in the process have greater control and advantage. Depending on the level of activity, different strategies are more or less appropri- ate for different actors. In addition, the levels of decision making presented in this schema do not represent a hierarchy. Policy making at the high level, although more visible, is not necessarily more significant or more essential than policy making at the middle or the low level. The stakes may be equally great at all levels. The three levels of decision making suggest a logical priority for determining the nature of a social problem, agreeing on a programmatic response, and finally estab- lishing the legal regulations and guidelines to implement it. government action may also vary. ~ . . . . . . . The High Level At the high level, decision making involves the definition of social conditions as social problems, the formulation of solutions to those problems, and the resolution of major conflicts in societal values. The high level represents the contest to make an issue political--that is, a legitimate object for government action. Policy making at this level addresses major questions concerning the nature of social goals. Does society have a problem that requires government action? What is the nature of that problem? Is more or less government intervention warranted? Why? The debate is about philosophies of
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61 government, the fundamental responsibilities of institu- tions, and basic principles of social justice. Intense controversy is likely, often fueled by the actions of single-issue constituencies or powerful elites. Policy proposals generally involve significant alterations of the existing social order--for example, the nature and extent of government involvement in the lives of American children and their families. The principal governmental actors are the President, the congressional leadership, and the Supreme Court. Powerful private interests are also significant participants. Among the components of policy formation, media presentations, influential leaders, and large coalitions of interests are predomin- ant. Often, new visions wrought by economic, demographic, or cultural changes are principal components at the high level. Research is less significant. Although it may serve to illuminate high-level issues, it rarely settles them. The original School Lunch Act of 1947 represents a classic example of decision making at the high level. The major issue was whether the federal government had responsibility to ensure that children are adequately nourished. It entailed defining a role for the federal government in ~ordinary" times--no war and no depression-- that it had never had previously. Large coalitions of education and farm interests supported the measure. The President and leaders of Congress made it a legislative goal. Though television was not yet a major force, other media presentations examined and editorialized the issue. Research on the medical etiology of men rejected from military service illuminated the problem. Similarly, the hunger crisis of 1967-1968 also involved decision making at the high level. A mass media expose on malnourished children and adults ignited widespread public response and focused presidential attention on the problem. It helped define a new goal for the federal government--the elimination of hunger in America. Research illuminated the issues. Large coalitions of interest groups and the public at large, led by influ- ential individuals in the Senate, pressed for congres- sional action. The decision-making process at the high level ended when the elimination of hunger became an accepted national goal and a federal responsibility. a
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62 The Middle Level . The middle level of decision making involves the choice of means to achieve high-level goals. It is a contest over the allocation of authority and resources to attain an agreed-on objective. Since government must act, what type of action should it take? How should responsibility be assigned among levels of government and government agencies? How much should be spent on what types of benefits and services? Policy proposals generally represent programmatic responses to acknowledged social problems--for example, the establishment of the Child Abuse and Neglect Program to help deal with the problems of physical and psychological abuse of children by family members. The debate is about the results of alternative government actions--i.e., their effectiveness and efficiency, their fairness, costs, and distributional effects, and the administrative competence of alternative agencies. The principal participants are presidential appointees, members of Congress, and the designees of either group. Among policy components, the media are less prominent than in the high arena. Interests are more parochial and coalitions smaller. Ideas and visions are more technocratic and focused; they deal in probabili- ties, not possibilities. The choices made are among existing options and structures of values. Research frequently can help resolve middle-level issues. Although it is in some senses more political than decision making at the high level, reasoned compromises are frequently easier to reach. The policy debate surrounding the child care tax deduction/credit centered at the middle level of decision making and concerned the equitable distribution of the tax burden. It was a contest among members of Congress and presidential appointees. Media presentations influ- enced the decision making infrequently. With the excep- tion of the issue of women's equality, which touched many politically sensitive issues besides the deduction, there was little presidential involvement. Changes among major contextual factors--for example, changing patterns of women's labor force participation, particularly among those with young children--and visions of equal treatment for women in the marketplace were high-level issues, but their ramifications for the tax system were not. Consti- tuency pressure was parochial: unions with women in their membership, employer organizations with a high percentage of women workers, and some professional legal associations
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63 concerned with the integrity of the tax code. Research was significant in revealing the effects of various proposals for child care tax benefits and in preventing the passage of some measures that projected significant revenue losses. The Low Level The low level of decision making involves the design of means chosen at the middle level to achieve an end deter- mined at the high level. It is a technical contest over how best to implement an agreed-on approach to a problem. Since government must act and the type of action has been determined, how precisely should that action be imple- mented? How will eligibility, standards, or exceptions and exclusions be defined? How will compliance be deter- mined, monitored, and enforced? How will vendors be selected and funds transferred? The answers to these questions reflect the judgments of specialists and tech Cans concerning factors such as the feasibility of . . . - administration, legal sufficiency, costs, etc. Decision making at the low level involves the fine-grained processes of government and tends to reflect the concerns of those with fiscal (budgeting, enforcement, auditing) or programmatic (administration, staffing, efficacy) responsibilities. The principal participants, therefore, are the staffs of Congress and the executive branch agencies. Media presentations and vision are less significant at the low level. Constituency pressure is very specific and targeted--often involving the use of technical experts in a particular area. Research and evaluation generally loom large in decision making at this level as arbiters of disputes over the effectiveness and efficiency of alternative plans. Throughout most of the process of regulation writing, the development of the Federal Interagency Day Care Requirements involved decision making at the low level. The issue was technical: govern federal day care Programs. how to design requirements to The principal actors were federal agency staff members. Media and contextual factors had no discernible impact. Consitituency pressures by a few advocacy groups were narrowly focused. Research was very important, if only in the form of advice from experts on what was in the best interests of children.
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64 . In many respects the nature of an issue is the key to determining the level of decision making. If the issue involves the intrinsically value-laden question of what the role of government is, decision making must take place at the high level. If it involves the more tech- nical question of how the government shall act, decision making usually takes place at the middle level. If it involves the question of how a policy or program shall be designed, decision making is generally centered at the low level. In short, an issue involving social values is resolved at the high level, an issue involving equity at the middle level, and an issue involving efficiency at the low level. Although the existence of an issue is the basis of decision making at each level, it does not necessarily have to involve conflict. Decision making takes place regardless of whether there is a dispute concerning appropriate government action. It is not the magnitude of agreement or disagreement that distinguishes the level of policy making, but rather the character of the agreement or disagreement. Similarly, although many participants take part in federal policy making, the level is distinguished by the actor who is capable of resolving the issue. For example, an OMB budget examiner participates, as a rule, in decision making at the low level, but he or she might prepare an analysis of congressionally approved legisla- tion that significantly influences a presidential veto. If the legislation involved an issue of social justice, the budget examiner would in effect have participated at the high level. The President alone, however, is capable of resolving the issue by exercising veto power. The presence of the President in conjunction with other factors distinguishes the level of decision making as high. Certain actors are typical to each decision-making level. Actors who participate at a level other than their typical one take greater risks, expend more resources, cannot participate alone, and often perform ineffectively. A President, for example, who becomes involved in regulation writing is participating at the low level--not the typical level. The President expends more resources--namely, time--to deal with regulation writers, who are generally technocrats, and frequently performs poorly at this level, lacking the technical expertise and the necessary amount of time to participate effectively.
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65 The stakes or potential outcomes of policy making vary according to the level of decision making because possible types of governmental action at each level differ. Their significance and ultimate impact are not necessarily greater at the high level than at the middle or low level. Congress and the President agreed, for example, that handicapped children should have equitable access to educational opportunities and passed a law mandating the provision of special facilities and services to all handi- capped children of public school age (P.L. 94-142). The crux of the issue and the greatest stakes, however, rested on the regulations promulgated to effect that high-level end. Whether federal regulations would mandate states and localities to spend billions of dollars on special transportation systems, teachers, and other facilities for the handicapped was in fact the crucial question and involved the highest stakes. Decision making at the low level, therefore, does not necessarily involve low stakes. As we suggested earlier, no hierarchy is necessarily implied among the decision-making levels, although there is a logical priority. A broad social issue is resolved into a programmatic issue of how to execute the decision made at the high level; the resolution of a programmatic issue requires a decision of how best to implement an agreed-on initiative. Policy making, however, rarely reflects this smooth linear flow. The policy process is often characterized by solutions looking for problems, rather than problems looking for solutions. Policy makers do not always reach agreement first on broad goals, then on programs, and finally on details of implementation. Policy making is a dynamic, convoluted process of conflict resolution, in which consensus at the high level can easily be destroyed at the middle or low levels, where programmatic and implementation issues are addressed. In addition, because policy making is a fluid and dynamic process, events and participants can shift the level of decision making. And a given policy issue may involve decision making at more than one level simultaneously. In the WIC case we observed that once the elimination of hunger became a national goal, the policy debate shifted from the high level to the middle level. There the contest involved choosing among available program- matic means: direct distribution, food stamps, the provision of supplemental food, and other possible programs to reach the goal. More parochial interests surfaced over which vehicle would most benefit particular constituencies, including farmers, the schools, and the
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66 . poor. Members of the cabinet, the subcabinet, and congressional committees debated the size of appropria- tions and the expansion Of specific Programs. Targeting food assistance to pregnant women, infants, and young children appeared as an attractive strategy in part because of the findings of several research studies that explored the physical and developmental effects of mal- nutrition on infants and vouno children. Of means was resolved, the debate shifted again to the low level, where the major concern was for the precise design of a targeted supplemental food program. New issues arose over the purchase price of food stamps, the contents of a supplemental food package, and the require- ments governing program participation. Staffs dealt with these questions; middle-level participants approved their answers. An expert from a nongovernmental antipoverty group advised on a regulation. A research study of the nutritional needs of pregnant women was influential in determining the contents of the food packages. The ~r~yram was ~mp~emencea ana over time expanded. The media accorded little or no attention to issues and decisions at this level. Decision making at the low level in the development of the Federal Interagency Day Care Requirements was disrupted continually by the middle- and even high-level issues that embroiled it. It is worth noting that when the requirements were moved into the middle or high level, the interests, ideas, and actors changed substantially. Child-staff ratios that agency heads and their staffs could agree on became one of untenable once threats of their enforcement created new, unresolved conflicts at the middle or high level. The issue became one of whether the federal government should regulate and standardize care for Preschool children and, if so, by _ _ After the issue ~ . . . ~ what measure and to what extent. The interests, ideas, and research that had sustained the requirements at the low level simply could not carry it at the middle level. In vetoing the Mondale-Brademus bill, President Nixon transformed a middle-level issue of program design to a high-level issue of government interference in the family. Whether Nixon actually believed that the Comprehensive Child Development Act threatened the sanctity of family life and promoted communal approaches to childrearing, the administration was dissatisfied with the legislation, particularly its administrative provision--reauthorizing the Office of Economic Opportunity and establishing a network of community-based prime sponsors. Philosophical
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67 issues concerning the child development program were in fact never raised during the congressional debate over the legislation. Nixon's use of inflammatory language in his veto message suggests that the administration realized its only hope of defeating the legislation was to elevate it from a middle-level debate over programmatic means to a high-level debate over social values. The political costs of trying to override the veto were too great for most members of Congress to risk, and the bill died. The case studies provide numerous instances of decision In each making at all three levels of the policy schema. situation the nature of the issue, the goals and resources of the involved actors, and the objectives of the policy proposal determined the level of decision making. Yet in ammo -=cmc__f~r "x~mn1 e. the drafting of the day care requirements and the negotiations surrounding the Compre- hensive Child Development Act, we observe that the level of decision making shifted in response to events in the policy process and the specific and conscious actions of key participants to achieve their goals. These actions and their consequences for policy outcomes suggest that not only is our analytic framework helpful in explaining past events but also that it has operational significance for participants in future federal policy making as well. OPERATIONAL IMPLICATIONS The analytic framework provides a means of bringing order to complex phenomena and of drawing lessons about effec- tive participation in the policy formation process. At each level of decision making, a number of conditions exist that affect the potential roles of the components of policy making, the options available to different actors in the process, and the possible policy outputs. Understanding the nature of these conditions and their influence on policy making suggests certain strategic opportunities or levers that are available at each level to aid participants. As previously noted, certain actors are typical, even necessary, to decision making at each level and therefore have positional advantage. At the high level, issues can be resolved only by the President, selected members of the congressional leadership, and the Supreme Court. At the middle level, decision making requires the participa- tion of members of Congress, cabinet members, and other presidential appointees or their designees, but not
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68 necessarily the President. At the low level the principal actors are congressional staffs and officials in the executive branch agencies. Nongovernmental interests can participate at all levels of decision making, but to be most effective they must involve strong and visible coalitions at the high level and more specific political advantage and technical expertise at the middle and low levels. Although all of these actors operate to some extent at each level, they are most effective at their typical level. For all participants there are costs associated with participation at levels other than their typical ones. They must build effective ties, develop relationships, and often trade favors, all of which require the expenditure of resources, especially time. Without such ties and relationships, a participant is less likely to succeed. One important aspect of effective participation at any level of decision making is access to the key participants who are necessary to the resolution of the issue in question. The high level is most difficult to penetrate for the average participant in federal policy making because he or she must enlist the support of a few, largely inaccessible key actors. Strategic opportunities are principally a matter of access: to the most visible, high-level policy makers in government; to powerful non- governmental interests; to the mass media, which are integral tools for mobilizing the public and interest groups; and to institutional controls, such as high-level appointments, legislative vetoes, and the authority to rule existing laws and statutes unconstitutional. Because there are more actors who typically participate at the middle and low levels, these arenas are more easily entered by outsiders. Another important aspect of effective participation is recognizing how and when changing social, economic, demo- graphic, and political factors create conditions that are favorable to new policy initiatives. The changing socio- economic status of women and their rapid entry into the labor force stimulated the establishment of the child care tax deduction/credit. Similarly, the civil rights movement contributed to the social awareness that created a favorable climate for nutrition programs, compensatory education programs, and other initiatives designed to overcome poverty. Contextual factors frequently present windows for change. At each level of decision making, actors who recognize these opportunities and act on them can significantly advance their causes.
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69 Power at the high level, it has been noted, is largely the power to persuade and to dramatize. It is the power to shape public opinion and define or redefine social goals. To achieve success at the high level requires an understanding of broad currents of public opinion, of the larger strategic issues of national politics, and of the large strategic power blocs. It also requires greater political support or consensus than at other levels. Therefore, participants seeking access to policy making at this level usually do so through coalitions and alliances. Although necessary to effect change, such alliances generally involve compromises among interests and often result in the distortion of an idea or policy initiative from its original form. They frequently require a significant commitment of time to build and a great deal of energy to maintain. Because of its visibility, decision making at the high level is very seductive, yet it can also be very costly for partici- pants who lack the essential strategic opportunities and resources. Many short-term political appointees and elected officials, for example, find it difficult and impractical to enter the high level of decision making. Because of their generally brief tenure of office (just over two years on the average), they can accomplish more on behalf of a particular constituency and have greater influence over federal policy initiatives at the middle and low levels, which are their typical arenas. Under normal circumstances, only when especially favorable opportunities present themselves can such actors effec- tively participate in decision making at the high level. At the middle level of decision making, strategic opportunities are more concrete. They involve access to individuals and institutions with the power to initiate and enact legislation affecting the authorization of programs and agency structures and the appropriation of funds. Power at the middle level is the power to control programs, personnel, and budgets. It is not the power to shape public opinion or define public goals, but rather to design and initiate programmatic means to achieve them. To achieve success at the middle level requires a different type of political support than at the high level. It requires continuous political interaction with other participants and frequently creates problems of divided loyalties. In contrast to the high level, effective participation at the middle level is a matter of establishing effective working relationships with committee and subcommittee chairmen, program officials,
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70 . and the executive staffs of interest groups with high stakes in specific outcomes. Coalitions of interests may be smaller than at the high level and have more specific goals--for example, the enactment of a program or the expansion of an appropriation that does not involve issues or conflicts concerning fundamental social values. Decision making at the middle level is less visible and therefore participants are less concerned with access to the media than access to researchers and other profes- sional communities having knowledge and strong interests in program content and size. Information about program- matic content, effects, and political feasibility as well as organizational control over the structure of programs and administering agencies are far more essential levers to decision making at this level than visibility. Effec- tive participation requires a sense of timing, maneuver, opportunism, and an instinct for identifying trade-offs and fashioning compromises. Though middle-level decision making is frequently a prolonged process, it is generally less time-consuming than decision making at the high level. For that reason, many elected officials and political appointees find they can be more productive by participating at this level. They can frequently wield significant influence by introducing a bill, adding an item to the President's budget, or instituting an agency reorganization. At the low level, the primary strategic opportunity or lever is expertise. Power at the low level resides in regulation writing and project management--the implementa- tion of policies and programs established at the high and middle levels. Technical knowledge is essential to achieving success. Research results, especially those of evaluation studies, are frequently influential in the design of delivery systems, the establishment of eligi- bility requirements, or the drafting of specific regula- tions and guidelines. Effective participation at the low level is a matter of communicating with experts and tech- nicians. It requires a sense of how specialists work, of how long it takes for them to produce answers to ques- tions, and of the limitations on their perspectives. Political support is also significant in decision making at the low level, though generally it is much more specifically targeted than at the high or middle levels "11U uses non usually require One establishment of large coalitions among interests. Public visibility generally offers no advantage. In fact, participants at this level generally believe their position is enhanced by not
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71 attracting broad attention. · . . . / When attention is drawn to low-level decision making, unresolved middle- and high-level issues are likely to surface and shift the policy-making arena as well as introduce new key actors. As we have noted, the level of decision making is generally determined by the nature of the issue in question, the goals and resources of the participants, and the objectives of the policy proposal. From time to time, however, actors may decide to shift the level of decision making in order to advance their cause, particu- larly as a means of blocking a particular policy initia- tive. By shifting the level of decision making a partici- pant not only introduces new issues into the debate but opens the process to new participants. Resolution depends on the strength and support of a new group of key actors. In the defeat of the Mondale-Brademus bill, this strategy was successful. The President vetoed the bill, and congressional proponents could not muster the votes to override. Nevertheless, without assured support and control at a higher or lower level, a move to shift the level of decision making can be risky. In general, it is a less effective strategy for initiating a new policy proposal than for blocking one already under consider- ation. In summary, a major lesson emerges from our application of the analytic framework to the concrete instances presented in the case studies: To enhance one's position in the policy formation process, a participant must under- stand the conditions and constraints of decision making at each level. He or she must recognize the typical level at which different types of issues can feasibly be resolved and with what possible policy outcomes. Similarly, a participant must recognize the level of decision making at which he or she has the greatest positional advantage and concentrate his or her energies there. When there is cause to shift the level of decision making, a participant must carefully assess the costs and the risks associated with operating at a different level. If one can gain access to key actors and can attract the necessary political support, visibility, administrative control, and expertise to participate effectively, the change may produce a desired outcome; if not, it is likely to result in failure. In the next chapter we apply these general principles to participation in federal policy formation affecting children and families.
Representative terms from entire chapter: