The Academic-Policy Nexus: a few more thoughts

26 December 2012, 2345 EST

Regarding my previous post and the very useful comments, first the matter of what do we do once we realize that a policy problem in search of a policy solution is the equivalent of a social scientific puzzle in search of an explanation, for both the solution and the explanation are outcomes. In other words, Step One is to identify the policy problem in question.  Step Two is to search the academic literature for a published study (in book or article form) whose puzzle is essentially identical to the policy problem. For example, the problem of how to end a civil war in Country X is equivalent to the puzzle of how to do so in an academic study.

The explanation of the study is the academic hook to hang the policy solution on. In other words, if there is a published study that explains the outcome of bringing civil wars to an end, this means that the study contains the cause of the outcome and has the evidence to back up the argument thereby matching the cause to the outcome.  Once a study is found it is on to the next step.

Step Three is to look for the cause in the study that explains the successful conclusion of civil wars. The scholar has successfully identified a pattern, perhaps examining all previous civil wars and finding that a single cause explained every successful outcome. Step Four is for policymakers to adopt this cause as the policy solution, perhaps a UN armed intervention (leading to a successful peace plan).

As one person commented on my previous post, “OK so what about the real policy process?”  In other words, I’ve only shone a bright light on how policymakers can find solutions to many of their toughest policy problems, ones that often go without finding a viable solution for years.  I am convinced, having worked both as an academic who has published studies and a diplomat/policymaker who has implemented policies, that professionals on both sides often are not even aware of the policy problems for which viable solutions have already been identified by academics.

But the answer to the commenter’s question is the next step, which is like any other policymaking process, only now the policymaker knows s/he has a viable policy solution in hand (which often is not the case in typical policymaking processes).  A policymaker who has a viable solution in hand now needs to do what any policymaker with a “good idea” has to do any day.

First this person’s boss has to be convinced, and perhaps that person’s boss as well.  Then any other bureau that has a stake in the policy patch that includes Country X has to be convinced.  If no other bureau has a stake, or no other agency, the policy can be implemented upon coordination with the U.S. embassy in Country X (as long as there is no Administration preference for a different policy).  Let’s say the State Department has chosen a policy solution it would like to implement, but two other agencies have a stake:  DOD and USAID.  If this is the case, then they both have to be convinced.  If they agree, State is a go.

If they don’t, and there is a fight, then either they forge a compromise or the issue gets kicked up the chain.  Let’s say USAID concurs but DOD does not, then the dispute gets kicked up to the political appointees–meaning Deputy Secretaries or Principal Deputy Secretaries (or, if the dispute is already at that level, then it’s up to Assistant Secretaries or cabinet level Secretaries and their immediate deputies).  If the fight makes it all the way to the Cabinet, without the Administration intervening at any prior stage, then the President himself will decide.  This rarely happens, for normally officials from the National Security Staff intervene earlier down chain to break ties (the understanding being that no one higher than them in the NSS all the way up to the President would disagree).

That’s nothing other than the typical policymaking process, with all the fights there typically are.  When I was in government I enjoyed telling European diplomats that really we have just as difficult as they do–our large powerful government foreign policy agencies all protect their turf like the end times are around the corner.  Because we are so much larger, our internal government sausage making is akin to the European Union’s external sausage making when different EU governments disagree such as we have recently seen with the rest of the EU finally ganging up on Germany’s poor leadership during the Euro crisis after the elections in France, Italy, and elsewhere  (watch for a post to come in which I have a little fun with all those Americans who have predicted doom and gloom in Europe beyond its deep recession, i.e. the collapse of the Eurozone or the EU itself).

Another pertinent comment argued that the town and gown divide often is the fault of academics who obfuscate with theoretical and methodological overload and turn off policymakers.  She is correct, as my last post failed to lay the blame in equal proportions.  But there is more to it than the use of abstruse theory (when policymakers may at most recollect only the theoretical foundations of IR theory but not the advances in it) or the hieroglyphics of quantitative methodology (who can blame policymakers for averting their eyes from a statistical fog or the haze of a formal model’s math).  For even when academics avoid these two things, which are in fact particularly important to establishing a putative cause as successfully explaining the puzzle of a given study, policymakers still are not likely to latch onto the study that actually contains the policy solution they are looking for.

This is because they aren’t looking in academia to begin with, as they simply do not have time.  In fact, even if a scholar knows a slew of policymakers personally, and sends her study to all of them, odds are they won’t have time to read it.  So there are two additional problems here:  the lack of overlapping social networks and the lack of time on the part of policymakers.  They only read documents that are three pages or less on average, and they better get right to the point (ugh, the quality of writing in government is atrocious at times in part because of this).  Just the facts, thank you very much.

Naturally I make a few assumptions here, for I don’t speak of resource limitations, or limitations that emanate from Country X, or the frequent limitations from trying to line up the UN Security Council, to name a few.

But the major point is this:  it’s not that policymakers and academics can’t talk to each other, or that when they do they can’t have a substantive conversation; rather, when I wrote that “they don’t speak each other’s language” I literally meant they don’t find each other very useful for all the above reasons, when in fact they should.  So short of ensuring the policymakers go far enough in graduate programs that they get to know academic literature in depth, what we need in the foreign policy sphere is what I advocated in my previous post:  an Academic-Policy Center.  We could supplement this with resources that would allow for the regular embedding of academics in our various foreign policy agencies for at least a year at a time.