POLITICAL INNOVATION IN AMERICA: The Politics of Policy Initiation by Nelson W. Polsby

POLITICAL INNOVATION IN AMERICA: The Politics of Policy Initiation

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A confusingly titled--and rather pointless--foray into the study of public policy formation. Employing published sources and graduate assistants, Berkeley political scientist Polsby (Presidential Elections, Consequences of Party Reform) has put together a series of ""case studies"" to see how foreign and domestic policy decisions come about. The proclamation of the Truman Doctrine, the establishment of the Peace Corps, the creation of the National Science Foundation, and the institution of Medicare are among the cases examined. For each case, Polsby offers a thumbnail sketch--with attention to the constituencies involved, the resources available, and the political machinations of executive, legislative, and interest groups. Then he presents a summary, in the form of a catalogue of types, that reconstitutes the case in generalities--which seldom succeed in going beyond the cases presented. Thus, policy-innovations are classified as ""acute"" when the idea comes from sources close to the responsible agencies, when there is a relatively high degree of consensus and a restricted set of alternatives, and when, consequently, the whole thing doesn't take very long from idea to execution. The Truman Doctrine, the establishment of community action programs, and the introduction of civilian control of atomic energy fall into this class. The alternative, ""incubated"" innovation, is characterized, predictably, by ideas that aren't formulated close to responsible power, that entail lengthy research into disputed alternatives, and that therefore get bogged down. Medicare, the Peace Corps, and formation of the Council of Economic Advisers are among Polsby's examples. The Peace Corps only fits his time-criterion, however, because he links it to much earlier ideas about national service and voluntary youth groups; once candidate Kennedy sensed college students' response to the idea, fortuitously inserted into a speech at the U. of Michigan, it took on a life of its own and was quickly implemented. Even assuming that the idea had been around and was then politically exploited, that fact seems irrelevant. And Polsby's concentration on ""decision makers"" leaves him wondering how to account for antipoverty legislation in the 1960s when no problem seemed to exist. (Structural unemployment is cited by Polsby as the kind of problem that crops up only in periods of economic prosperity.) Perhaps, he considers, it was because of Michael Harrington's book The Other America--an already overtrod (and undermined) explanatory path. The case studies suffer from an excessively narrow focus, and the summary doesn't help. Albert Romasco's recent study of New Deal policy formation, The Politics of Recovery (p. 293), is a far more illuminating work.

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 1983
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press