The Dynamics of Public Policy
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The Dynamics of Public Policy

Theory and Evidence

Adrian Kay

In The Dynamics of Public Policy, Adrian Kay sets out the crucial methodological, theoretical and empirical implications of two important trends in the social sciences: a frequently expressed ambition for analysis of ‘movies not stills’ and the regular observation that policy, politics and governance is becoming more complex.
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Chapter 3: Path Dependency

Adrian Kay


The emergence of a ‘new’ institutionalism across the social sciences has coincided with the increased interest in temporality, change and history in social and political analysis. Institutions are structures that trace a path through state space; they endure, have a history and can be used to link temporally events and processes. The concept of path dependency has been used within political science almost exclusively within a broad institutionalist framework. It is institutions that are path dependent; as Raadschelders (1998, p. 569) states: ‘whatever the discipline … contemporary neo-institutional analysis has one feature in common: the notion of path dependency’. The widespread and cross-disciplinary use of path dependency for the analysis of institutional ‘stickiness’ makes the concept an obvious starting point for the examination of concepts, metaphors and theories that might be used to structure narratives of policy dynamics. Indeed, the concept appeals as a label for the simplest of policy dynamics: that past policy decisions act as a constraint on the options available to current policymakers; or to use the language of dynamics from Chapter 1, that past policy decisions act to circumscribe or foreclose parts of policy space. This basic dynamic raises the question of how robust paths are over time and through changes in the policy environment, and supports the interest in evolutionary thinking developed in Chapter 4. Further, the refinement of the concept of path dependency in response to complaints of determinism and an inability to accommodate change introduces the discussion of the methodology of structuring narratives of...

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