From the operation of a functioning health care system and the protection of the environment to the provision of jobs, social benefits and decent housing – citizens demand a lot from their elected governments. And in order to uphold their legitimacy in the eyes of the population, political leaders in all democratic political systems have been keen to respond to these societal demands by adopting new laws and regulations. In our new book Policy Accumulation and the Democratic Reponsiveness Trap, we show that this pattern of “policy accumulation” is highly consistent and universal. In a nutshell, governments produce more new policies than they abolish.

Yet, what are the consequences of this trend? Let us start with the positive aspect. Laws and regulations have made the lives of many people better. Although far from perfect, today’s environmental regulations are much more advanced than those of the 1950s. In addition, people receive child benefits, unemployment benefits, pensions and sometimes even subsidies for buying certain types of cars. For the most part, these measures, which have accumulated over the past decades, are a direct reflection of human progress and modernization.

Unfortunately, there are also three important downsides of policy accumulation. First, while policy-makers are happy once they get a certain reform proposal passed, the reform then lands on the desks of those who are supposed to implement and enforce it. As policy accumulation continues, this task becomes increasingly challenging, leading to a higher probability of implementation deficits and delays. Second, policy accumulation also entails more interdependencies between individual measures, which poses severe challenges for the public to debate the pros and cons of any policy reform in a way that does justice to the complexity of the subject matter. As a result of this rise in complexity, expert discourses will become increasingly detached from the public arena. Finally, these interdependencies between political measures also reduce our ability to evaluate the success of any single policy instrument. To use an example, policy accumulation means that we are no longer able to tell whether a reduction in smoking prevalence among youth is due to warning signs on tobacco products, smoking prohibitions in certain places, higher age restrictions, prevention programs, or any combination of these measures.

Due to the inherently ambivalent nature of policy accumulation, attempts to reverse this general trend and to engage in large-scale deregulation are misguided. Instead of joining widespread calls for deregulation, we argue that the stability of democratic systems will depend on their ability to make this process of policy accumulation sustainable. Among other things, this requires adequate investments into the public sector, increasing efforts of policy-based education in schools and more contextualized policy evaluations. If, however, democracies take an unsustainable path of policy accumulation, their attempts to respond to societal demands by accumulating more and more policies will slowly but surely undermine their perceived legitimacy and stability, since administrative backlog and selective implementation, the absence of policy substance from political discourse, and the lack of understanding of policy evaluations will leave uninformed citizens angry and frustrated with the process of democratic policy making.

 

Policy Accumulation and the Democratic Reponsiveness Trap is available now.

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