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The social construction of change: Why deliberation matters

Randall F. Clemens

I originally published this blog on July 17, 2010.

Collaboration and stakeholder involvement are catchphrases frequently bandied about during policy design. The words connote democracy and shared decision-making. True deliberation, unfortunately, rarely occurs. Instead, we are entrenched in an age of symbolic rhetoric, not authentic participation, when talk about participation far exceeds actual involvement.

Never more has the inclusion of varied participants been more important: Communities are increasingly diverse, but also segregated. Educational outcomes are abhorrent for students belonging to non-dominant groups.  And amidst a 100-year blitzkrieg of ineffectual education trends and reforms, the likelihood for educational change is dubious. True deliberation, however, provides the opportunity for innovative and meaningful reform, reform that influences numerous target populations.

The core of public policy design is problem identification, which introduces several issues. First, how do we identify problems? And second, once identified, how do we obtain and allocate limited resources in order to mollify the problem?

The identification of social problems is complex and political. Problems do not exist a priori; they are not independent of individuals. In general, three factors impact problem identification: Indicators, focusing events, and feedback (Kingdon, 2003). First, indicators are most often concrete evidence of a problem; consider, for instance, graduation rates, unemployment rates, or the percent of working poor in a city. All are indicators of some social problem. Second, focusing events can occur in numerous forms and at unexpected times. September 11th, for example, spurred a focus on terrorism. California’s Prop 8, which bans gay marriage, caused a widespread polemic about civil and constitutional rights. Third and last, feedback can occur in formal modes, such as program evaluations, or informal, such as citizen feedback. Of the three factors, feedback is the most useful for citizen involvement; it is also the least influential in the education policy process.

In a policy context, problem identification alone is insufficient. Action is necessary. The War on Poverty was a response to the nation’s high poverty rate. After 9/11, with a changed national tenor, the Bush administration created the Department for Homeland Security and enforced strict border control policies. In each case, politicians leveraged the national mood as well as their own political cache to instantiate change.

How do social construction and deliberation relate to policy design? Through a discursive process, social construction influences the ways in which individuals perceive and interpret social problems. Politics and power are critical factors to the identification of and reaction to social problems. However, power is not equally distributed and decisions do not always represent all. Up until now, policy design has mostly included dominant groups, which has resulted in mis-representative and poorly conceived policy.

Social construction occurs differently at various levels and is dependent on social hierarchies and positions. The way I understood welfare when I began teaching at a school in an impoverished community was not the same way many of my students’ parents understood welfare. Similarly, the way a policy-maker understands the needs of a community may differ from the way a community understands their needs. To assume one viewpoint is right and the other is wrong is mistaken. Like looking at a hologram from different perspectives, no two angles provide the same view; no one angle, however, is right. Similarly, no two individuals view problems or create solutions in exactly the same way. Through the inclusion of multiple parties involved in recursive dialogue, we may be able to approximate more accurately truth and, in doing so, socially construct change that benefits all.