Interview with Professor Leslie A. Pal:
Public Policy Analysis, Global Transformations and Their Problems Today
As Politika, İnovasyon, Tasarım ve Gelişim Merkezi (PİTGEM), we had an exclusive interview with Professor Leslie A. Pal, one of the world’s leading international scholars on public policy and public administration. Leslie A. Pal is one of the few experts in the world in the field of public policy analysis, public administration and public management reforms, governance, and information technologies.
Prof. Leslie A. Pal has been a faculty member at the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University in Canada since 1992. He has been the Director of the Center for Governance and Public Business at Carleton University since 2007. He was the Director of the School of Public Policy and Management at Carleton University from 2001 to 2005. Prof. Pal is also the Founding Dean of the College of Public Policy, Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar. He is currently the Dean of the College of Public Policy, Hamad Bin Khalifa University. He has also worked as visiting professor at many universities. For example, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore in Singapore; University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia; Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) in Moscow, Russia, and the University of the Higher School of Economics in Russia are some of the places where he worked recently.
Leslie A. Pal has also provided consultancy and management training to many ministries and departments in the Canadian government. He has also served as a consultant to the World Bank (WB), Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and many other international institutions. Pal was elected as one of the Vice Presidents of the International Public Policy Association (IIPA) in January 2020 and as Treasurer in 2022. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Association for Middle Eastern Public Policy and Administration (AMEPPA).
Prof. Leslie A. Pal is the author, co-author, and editor of more than 30 books. Pal has also published over 90 articles and book chapters. He has published widely on public policy and management, information technologies, European integration, international human rights, and international public management reforms.
His most recent books include Informing Action: Higher Education Countering Violent Extremism (2021), The Future of the Policy Sciences (2021), Global Governance and Muslim Organizations (2019), Policy Transfer: Micro-Dynamics and Macro-Effects (2017), Policy Making in a Transformative State: The Case of Qatar (2016), Frontiers of Governance: The OECD and Global Public Management Reform (2012), and Beyond Policy Analysis: Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times (6th edition, 2020). His articles have appeared in journals such as Governance, Policy Sciences, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis, Canadian Political Science Review, Political Studies Review, and Policy and Society. He was the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis from 2015 to 2020 and is currently a member of the editorial board of the International Review of Public Policy and the Journal of Economic Policy Reform.
Summary of the Interview:
“The new key features that characterize contemporary public policy analysis; a renewed emphasis on how a shifting value system colors policy choices, a shift from the traditional style of policy making to a sustained crisis management mode, and a now greater emphasis on agility in policy design and implementation.”
“The ‘normal’ mode of policy making has become ‘crisis’. We can now speak of ‘policy cyclones’ rather than ‘policy cycles’.”
“In the past, global pressures had a weight on domestic policy-making processes. This global dimension is not ending, but it is changing.”
“The neo-liberal consensus and global institutions that have shaped many globalization discourses are now under attack. They are not attacking, but instead they are on the defensive.”
“We can say that in the ongoing transformation process, there are competing models rather than the development of new public administration paradigms.”
“One of the advantages of policy making today, compared to, say, 30 years ago, is that data and research are fully accessible. We should have been in a better position now in the analysis of every subject. But we are not!”
“Having better data and information does not mean that it gets better aggregated, sifted and applied better.”
“Trust in experts, including policy experts, has diminished. The current ways of channeling expert advice in policy process need to change.”
“It is important to distinguish between types of international organizations. International organizations are linked with many national and local NGOs, think tanks and research organizations. For this reason, it has become quite complex to distinguish between international organizations and national and local organizations or to analyze all their connections.”
“Global networks organized around specific policy issues have become more important than international organizations. It is a more correct approach to look at their impact on national and local policies.”
“The most important channels and mechanisms of policy diffusion are international law and agreements. Another important mechanism is money.”
“International institutions that fund public sector reform projects essentially expect the NGOs they support to work and defend democratic reforms and human rights issues (as understood by those organizations).”
“Using correct language, developing certain standards and soft law are also effective channels in policy diffusion.”
“Academic communities train the next generation of public servants (and sometimes political leaders) in public policy. When they progress to influential positions, they often apply what they learn as policy initiatives.”
“The epicenters of the academic disciplines of public policy and public administration are still in the West, or more broadly in OECD countries. This sometimes has negative consequences for other countries.”
“Irrespective of their level of development, the societal pressures to deliver certain public services at a certain standard level in all countries are the same.”
“There is a broad difference of institutional capacity gap between OECD countries and non-OECD countries. However, that difference seems to be diminishing day by day.”
“It is useful to have ‘good practices’ in mind when doing policy. It provides a benchmark and maybe some aspirational goals.”
“It becomes a serious problem if ‘good practices’ become single and rigid models, instead of inspiring policy making.”
“As policy issues become more complex, there will continue to be demand for academia, public policy analysts and public managers in this field.”
“Turkish institutions and the policy-making process in Turkey have recently been driven by two major forces: Turkey’s geopolitical position, with the coup attempt in 2016 and the subsequent shift to the Presidential System in 2017.”
“Turkey’s geopolitical position exposes it to important external forces. Turkey is a NATO member, but it plays a separate role.”
“In the last decade, institutional changes in countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region after the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ were ultimately minimal or inconsequential, or that things returned to the status quo.”
“The ‘ruling bargain’ that prevailed or is still going on in the MENA region can still be seen as the most important variable in explaining the changes there.”
“The energy crisis could be a massive rupture in European countries. The consequences of the war between Russia and Ukraine could lead to serious changes in policy making processes.”
“With the impact of the pandemic after the COVID-19 crisis, it is no longer as likely as before to expect a serious transformation in public policy systems in the world.”
“In the new era, we could be seeing some strange and unusual combinations of regional hegemons, de-globalization, looming global economic recession, bulging populations in Africa and MENA that are going to keep moving north, populist reactions, and turbulence.”
“What we considered “normal policy making” may have to give way to processes that are routinely more turbulent. As I like to say, we may move from “policy cycles” to “policy cyclones.”
Full Text of the Interview:
Interview with Professor Leslie A. Pal:
Public Policy Analysis, Global Transformations and Their Problems Today
Professor Leslie Pal, first of all, as the Politika, İnovasyon, Tasarım ve Gelişim Merkezi (PİTGEM), thank you for accepting our interview request. In this interview, we would like to discuss with you the theoretical and practical issues in public policy and public administration. We will also be pleased to receive your views on various developments in the world and the administration processes in Turkey, Europe, and the Middle East. Let’s start with a general question: What do you think are the main features of contemporary public policy analysis?
“The ‘normal’ mode of policy making has become ‘crisis’. Now we can talk about ‘policy cyclones’, not ‘policy cycles‘”
Thank you very much. I am very happy to have this interview with you. As for your question, I think there are three main features that mark contemporary analysis. First, there is a renewed emphasis on understanding how value positions color policy options. These days, policy debates do not occur against a backdrop of shared values and principles, everything is being questioned. Second, the ‘normal’ mode of policy making has become ‘crisis’. Forget the ‘policy cycle’ and start thinking of ‘policy cyclones.’ Third, in tune with the first two features, there is an approach that promotes agility in policy design and implementation.
What does your research tell us about key issues of contemporary public policy? Is contemporary public policy undergoing a new transformation?
My work in the past years has been on global public policy making, and the weight of global pressures on domestic policy making. Globalization discourses and pressures have become one of the main issues and determining factors in domestic policy making processes. This global dimension is not ending, but it is changing. The neo-liberal consensus and global institutions that have shaped many globalization discourses are now under attack. The neo-liberal consensus and global institutions are on the defensive, not on the offensive. We need to understand how this struggle is going to play out. We need to see what the impact are on global policy networks and global coordination, standard-setting etc.
“In the new transformation process, paradigms like New Public Management and Governance are not emerging. There are now competing management models”
Is there a new paradigm like New Public Management and Governance emerging in this transformation process?
I am not aware about the emergence of any new, neat and comprehensive paradigm so far. In fact, we can say that there are more competing models, but not paradigms as such. For example, there is still a lot of work going on around behavioral psychology and adjustment issues, but there is new interest as well, focusing on “emotions” and how the public responds public responds to policy initiatives at a visceral level. The old Marxist or political economy approaches have now resurfaced as new lenses for policy analysis under the guise of inclusion and equity. In other words, there are now lots of models to choose from.
For a very long time, you have done a lot of work in public policy analysis in terms of theory and practice, both as an academic and as an expert. What do you think are the advantages and limitations of current public policy analysis?
One of the advantages of policy making today, compared to, say, 30 years ago, is the sheer availability of data and research. Also, our capacity to manage and analyze data on the natural environment (regarding climate change, for example), economic transactions and human behavior patterns has become almost endless and continues to grow. So, in principle, we should be getting better at everything from environmental policy to urban planning.
“Change is needed in advisory systems and how these systems channel expert advice into the policy process”
But given the current state of politics and public policy debates and practices, we don’t seem to be getting better and better at analysis. What do you think about this?
It is a good question. Why aren’t we getting that much better? One constraint is knowledge and advisory systems. Just having better information and better data does not mean that it gets aggregated, sifted and applied any better. Therefore, some work needs to be done on advisory systems and how they channel advice into the policy process. Another constraint of course is the diminishing trust in experts, including policy experts. And that goes not just for the general public, but political leaders (at least some of them) as well.
“It has become quite complex to distinguish between international organizations and national and local organizations, or to analyze all their connections. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to understand global networks organized around specific policy issues and focus on their impact on national and local policies, rather than international institutions”
As you stated earlier, one of your main areas of study was global policy making and how and to what extent global pressures affect domestic policy making. How do international organizations interact with national organizations and governments? What are the policy diffusion channels or mechanisms used by national and international organizations?
It is important to distinguish different types of “international organizations”. In my own research, I have focused on international governmental organizations, such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Bank, the United Nations (UN). I am also very interested in international networks, and a wide variety of organizations can belong to these networks. If you take the Open Society Foundation for example, it includes NGOs, think tanks, research organizations, and liaises with international governmental organizations. The OECD is strictly speaking an intergovernmental organization, but it has also wide connections in the private sector as well as civil society organizations. For this reason, it has become quite complex to distinguish between international organizations and national and local organizations or to analyze all their connections. So, I think the better way to come at this is not to think of international organizations as such, but global networks around specific policy issues. Then we see a wide variety of actors from almost every sector within a network.
“Monetary support is one of the most significant policy diffusion channels. International organizations that provide financial support to NGOs in countries, those who defend their democratic reforms and human rights projects as they understand it”
Do you use the channels or ways of usage policies of these networks?
On policy diffusion channels, of course, at the highest level, we have international law and international agreements. Another mechanism is money. I have previously done a study on how the EU, World Bank and OECD finance public sector reform projects in the Islamic world (including the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Central and Southeast Asia). I found hundreds of projects. All these projects were either trying to change the public administration in a technical sense in those countries or actually supporting the efforts of civil society organizations (especially youth) in pushing for democratic reforms and human rights (as understood by these organizations). It is clear that monetary support is one of the most significant policy diffusion channels.
Are there other channels of policy diffusion? For example, applied at a more informal level?
One of the underappreciated channels of policy diffusion is actually language. It is very effective in opening the channels of dissemination that frame policy issues. In addition, developing certain standards and soft law practices are also important in diffusion.
Could you articulate on this a bit more?
Certainly. For example, the invention of the notion of ‘sustainable development’ also provided the conceptual basis for the establishment of ‘Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’ everywhere. The SDGs also have a massive apparatus of tracking and measuring through over150 indicators. Therefore, in modern global policy discussions, it would be unthinkable not to be aware of sustainability, SDGs, and not to have an idea of who the leading and lagging countries are in achieving these goals. That can impel policy diffusion in remarkable ways, at least over the long term.
What are your thoughts on the use of academic knowledge in public policy-making processes? How do you think academic communities contribute to national and international policy-making processes?
The conventional answer, of course, is that academic communities contribute to these processes through teaching and research. For example, the Master of Public Policy (MPP) and Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs usually train the next generation of public servants (and sometimes political leaders). The ideas they acquire in those programs are often put into practice as policy initiatives when they progress to influential positions after graduation. The other conventional answer is research and evidence. But I am less confident that this ends up making a difference in the wider policy process, with all the other (often political) influences in play.
“The epicenters of the academic disciplines of public policy and public administration are still in the West, or more broadly in OECD countries. This sometimes causes negative consequences for other countries”
What could be your unconventional answers?
Then let me try to give two unusual answers. As academic communities have become globalized and networked in the last twenty years, there is a remarkable convergence in academic and research programs on public policy around the world. My students here at Hamad Bin Khalifa University could drop in an attend a policy analysis class in Turkey or any of the leading schools in Asia or Europe, and probably recognize some of the readings in the curriculum. As a result, we facilitate a coherence to global conversations (even if people disagree, they are operating in a similar conceptual space).
A second unusual contribution, perhaps not so positive, is that the epicenters of the academic disciplines of public policy and public administration are still in the West, or more broadly in OECD countries. There are some value propositions that filter into academic discourse from these epicenters, often unspoken. In other words, some blind spots are forming.
Could you give an example?
For example, I am now working in Qatar. And I have been reminded to what extent our academic discipline has taken on liberal-democratic form of governance and thus policy making. And yet, as an Islamic monarchy, there are elections held in Qatar, there are parliamentary (majilis) traditions for consultation, there are cultural norms and expectations appropriate to this society. Yet this country still enthusiastically embraces modern standards (e.g., health) in policy delivery.
You have extensive knowledge of countries other than early industrialized countries. How do these countries’ public policy processes work? Do you observe certain differences and similarities between the early industrialized countries and these “new” countries?
I wouldn’t claim to be an expert, but I have some closer knowledge of Qatar and Gulf states, and some MENA countries, as a result of working here now. Through my work on the OECD and public sector reform movements, I have a sense of how these “newer” countries look from the perspective of an international organization (like the OECD or the World Bank).
Of course, it’s impossible to generalize across all of these countries with very different political and policy systems, but let me highlight a couple of broad similarities, and a few key differences. One of the similarities is that irrespective of level of development, the pressures to deliver certain services (e.g., health or education or public transport) at a certain standard level are the same everywhere. Another similarity is that they all have an appetite for policy advice. Policy advice is also often difficult to source domestically, and so there is a reliance on international organizations of one sort or another on these policy issues.
“There is a significant difference between OECD and non-OECD countries in terms of financial resources, public service capacity (both at the level of thinking and doing) and institutional capacity (resilience and checks-and-balances)”
What differences do you observe?
A big and broad difference is the capacity gap between OECD countries and non-OECD countries. There is a significant difference between OECD and non-OECD countries in terms of both financial resources and public service capacity (both at the level of thinking and doing) and institutional capacity (resilience and checks-and-balances). But as others have noted, that difference seems to be diminishing. In fact, some western countries are currently as dysfunctional as so-called “developing” countries. Just look at the early pandemic response in the early pandemic period. Countries that you thought would have done well actually did not, while the ones that you thought might have underperformed, actually did better.
Do you think international best practices are beneficial for countries? What opportunities do these practices present and what are their limits in public policy making?
To avoid the idea that there is one best way of doing things, the language of “best” practice has now been changed to “good” practice. That said, I think it is useful to have “good practices” in mind when doing policy. It provides a benchmark and maybe some aspirational goals. We can’t all “get to Denmark” as they say, but it’s useful to have signposts and indicators to help us along the way.
A good example is the Qatar National Development Strategy. It is full of comparisons to international good practices on human services, sustainability and the environment in key countries. Also, the Development Strategy makes references to benchmark countries in different areas.
The obvious downside to these practices is if they become single and rigid models instead of inspirations. Context will always matter, and any practice has to be adapted to local circumstances.
You said that we have so much data now compared to the past. Nowadays, we have many open-source databases for different policy areas. What are the implications of open-source databases for comparative public policy research?
These are all positive developments, but this positivity also depends on the quality and the source of the data and the databases. Otherwise, it can lead to negative consequences.
Could we also get your thoughts on the public administration and public policy departments? What is the future of public administration and public policy departments, especially in universities? Also, do you observe different public administration traditions in universities in other countries?
Different countries have different traditions, and that affects the fortunes of public administration and public policy departments. The European tradition (copied in some other countries) is to have a national school of some sort for civil service training. University departments become feeders for these national schools. In the North American tradition, without these big national civil service training institutions, there is more scope for universities to carve out niches.
As policy issues become more complex (think about sustainability and what that means a whole range of policy areas), there will continue to be demand for public policy analysts and for public managers. However, I do not see that demand growing exponentially in the next decades, anywhere in the world. Countries that do not have policy of administration schools will probably develop them, but the surge in growth in this sector was in the past 20-30 years in most countries. From a purely demographic point of view, university enrollments are softening throughout North America and Europe. The post-COVID educational landscape is also shifting, and there is serious debate about whether there are better ways to deliver programs rather than through traditional on-site attendance at very expensive institutions.
But the good news is that current and cadres of civil servants and managers will need continuous training and up-skilling, precisely because of the rapidly shifting context and complexity of policy issues, and university departments can help and support that.
“The most important driving forces directing the policy making process and institutions in Turkey in the recent period: The coup attempt in 2016, the transition to the Presidential System in 2017 and the conditions brought by Turkey’s geopolitical position”
We would also like to ask you some questions about more current public policy issues in Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Europe. Have you been able to follow the public policy processes in Turkey in the last ten years? If so, do you think that policy reforms and practices in Turkey are often based on external factors such as policy learning, policy imitation, policy transfers or rather external factors such as other countries or international or supranational organizations (e.g., EU, OECD, IMF, World Bank)? Are internal factors and dynamics also effective in determining policies in Turkey?
I am not an expert on Turkish politics or policy making. I am just an observer in the neighborhood. But it would seem to me that the Turkish institutions (and hence policy making) have been driven by two big forces in the past decade or less. One is the attempted coup in 2016. That led to a strong reaction by the President, a state of emergency imposed for about two years. There were also purges among civil servants, the military and academe. And then in 2017 there was the shift to a Presidential system that further consolidated power. The second force is the geopolitical positioning of the country. A simple, historical, and brute fact is that that Turkey’s geopolitical position exposes it to considerable external forces. Turkey is a member of NATO, but it carves out a distinct role. It has played a complicated trade-off in the Russian-Ukrainian war by supplying Ukraine with military hardware but also helping negotiate Ukrainian grain shipments. There is also a constant maneuvering with the Gulf states (especially Saudi Arabia), Syria, and Iran.
How do you assess the new institutional restructuring and policy reforms in the MENA countries especially such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and the other countries affected from the chaotic conflicts and protests usually described as ‘Arab Spring’ in the last decade? Do you think they signal a long-lasting change in their government structures and policy systems?
The general assessment of the Arab Spring was, of course occurred now about a decade ago, that in almost all cases (even Tunisia now, and of course Egypt) the institutional changes were ultimately minimal or inconsequential, or that things returned to the status quo. This is at least in terms of institutional change in the direction of more democratic participation, elections, and broader regime change. Another way to think about the big picture is in terms of the “ruling bargain” (to cite Mehran Kamrava) that prevailed (prevails?) in the MENA region. Populations in this region give up on participatory politics in exchange for material benefits (welfare states, social protection, and jobs). In some MENA countries (especially Gulf states like KSA, Qatar, UAE), the current oil prices can sustain the bargain. In others, ruling bargain is under pressure, especially given the job-seeking young population and people (we are talking of estimates of up to 50 million new jobs needed in the Arab world).
What do you think of the recent governance crisis in Europe, including the energy crisis that emerged after the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine? Will European policy systems change tremendously in the next decade in response to this crisis? Or was Britain’s exit from the EU (Brexit) a harbinger of the impending crisis in Europe?
The energy crisis could be a massive rupture. Most EU states now have to subsidize energy costs now. And winter is coming, too. In the next year, depending on how long the war lasts and what the result is, there will have to be a shift away from Russian supplies, either supplanted by foreign oil and gas supplies (but these are limited), or burning more coal or going nuclear (not a likely option in Germany, but possibly France). Climate change and emissions targets, a one big policy area, will take a hit. It is going to be interesting to watch how all this ripples through policymaking systems.
“In the new era, we could be seeing some strange and unusual combinations of regional hegemons, de-globalization, looming global economic recession, bulging populations in Africa and MENA that are going to keep moving north, populist reactions, and turbulence”
About a year ago I thought that COVID and the responses to it were going to be the big drivers in policy making systems. I co-edited a book on this topic: The Future of the Policy Sciences. I am not so sure now. Of course, unless of course we get some new variant that is even more lethal and spreads more easily, I think COVID is becoming normalized. It did have effects in terms of surveillance systems and tracking and travel (just try flying anywhere these days), and elevated public health experts to the head of the policy table, next to lawyers and economists. But I am reading more and more arguments on de-globalization (the end of the neo-liberal era with US dominance and willingness to be the world’s policeman), demographic decline and even collapse (especially of China, which I didn’t realize), and more zero-sum geopolitical calculations. We could be seeing some strange and unusual combination of regional hegemons, de-globalization, looming global economic recession, bulging populations in Africa and MENA that are going to keep moving north, populist reactions and turbulence. What we considered “normal policy making” may have to give way to processes that are routinely more turbulent. As I like to say, we may move from “policy cycles” to “policy cyclones.”
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions on a wide variety of public policy issues, Professor Pal. It was a very informative interview.
I thank you. I wish you success in your studies focused on public policy, public policy analysis, management systems, design, and innovation.
Note: You are welcome to read PİTGEM’s interview republished in Turkish at the following link