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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Why is Political Science so.....irrelevant?

The last 5 posts were sparked off by some articles in "The Political Quarterly" conducting a preliminary post-mortem on government performance during the Covid pandemic - and what that said about the strength (and weaknesses) of the UK, Swedish and New Zealand government systems and/or leadership. The posts wandered a bit - covering such issues as
- the role and scope of individual action
- and "character",
- the role of the state,
- intellectual fashions,
- blunders in government and
- the meaning of the word "governance".
I thought therefore it would be useful to try to tie things together more coherently in this post

British and American political scientists have had from the 1970s a consistent (if intermittent) interest in the issue of what they have variously labelled as government "overload", "disasters" or "blunders" - as you will see from the long bibliography of the Comparing Blunders in government (2016) article

To the extent that they have had anything to say about government per se, it has generally been to suggest that globalisation and other supranational forces have been undermining the significance of that particular system of ultimate authority. 
American political scientists, notoriously, have in recent decades been plagued by a form of penis-envy - namely "economist envy" and have become fixated on quantitative/statistical treatment (of elections etc).

British political science may like to think it's different but a cursory look at any of the flagship political science journals would demonstrate that they don't deal with "big" or important political issues. Political scientists have, for example, been generally missing from discussions about the location of power in the UK. Indeed this has been the subject of some provocative addresses in recent years eg Matt Flinder's "The Future of Political Science" (2016)
And just look at the titles of some of the books in the reading list at the end.... 
This article "Covid19 and the policy sciences" by well-known policy analysts Paul Cairney, Diana Stone et al gives a good sense of how various strands in that related field are dealing with the issue

But it's taken a Professor of Military Strategy to produce the first definitive study (50pp) of the performance of the British Government during the initial 4 months of the pandemic - Strategy for a Pandemic - the UK and Covid19  by Lawrence Freedman
And it takes a rare and brave soul to offer anything about government strategy-making which might be found useful by practitioners - but one of those rarities is Creating Public Value in Practice – advancing the common good in a ….noone in charge world ; ed J Bryson et al (2015),  an update of their fantastic book for 20 years earlier Leadership for the Common Good which can be accessed in full by clicking the title.
Such books tend to be written by those with detailed experience of the management of government policies and practice who will tend to come from the less-highly regarded field of public administration and.or management.

And it is one such author's book which has just come to my attention "Strategies for Governing - reinventing public administration for a dangerous century"  (2019)
In the United States, the field of public administration was launched almost a century ago by people with bold aspirations. They were not interested only in the efficiency of government offices; they wanted a thorough overhaul of the creaking American state so that it could manage the pressures of modern-day life.
Unfortunately, this expansive view of the field’s purpose has been lost. Over the last four decades in particular, the focus within the field has been mainly on smaller problems of management within the public sector. This narrowing of focus might have made sense in the United States and a few other advanced democracies in the waning decades of the twentieth century, but it does not make sense today.
As we shall see, many people have recently protested this shrinking of ambitions.
It is time for a change of direction. We need to recover an expansive view of the field, and I propose a way to do so. We must recover the capacity to talk about the fundamentals of government, because the fundamentals matter immensely.
Right now, there are billions of people on this planet who suffer terribly because governments cannot perform basic functions properly. People live in fear because governments cannot protect their homes from war and crime. They live in poverty because governments cannot create the conditions for trade and commerce to thrive. They live in pain because governments cannot stop the spread of disease. And they live in ignorance because governments do not provide opportunities for education. The expectations that we hold of our leaders can be stated simply: They should protect us from foreign enemies, maintain internal order, increase prosperity, improve well-being, and provide justice.
Even in the twenty-first century, most governments on this planet fail to do this.
I've ordered the book and will let you know whether it lives up to expectations

Conclusion; I had assumed that this post would wrap up the mini-series of the past week but realise that it does not even begin to answer the question of why political science is so irrelevant.....

Studies Critical of Political Science  
Defending Politics - Democracy in the 21st Century; Matt Flinders (2012)
The Political Imagination – a rallying call to university professors of politics (Flinders 2014)
Bridging the Relevance Gap ; Matthew Wood (2014)
Human Wellbeing and the lost relevance of political science ; Bo Rothstein (2014)
The relevance of political science ; Stoker, Pierre and Peters (2015)
Why Politics Matters – making democracy work; Gerry Stoker  (2004; 2016)
Why We Hate Politics ; Colin Hay (2007)

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