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Studying policy change vs policy creation – policy cycle theories vs policy regime framework

Whenever anybody asks me what does a double-major in political science and human geography do in a public administration department, I tell them that I study comparative public policy and use cases of environment and resource governance to explore differences across national jurisdictions.

I am also interested in the governance of non-traditional common-pool resources (CPRs) and in the spatial, political and human dimensions of public service delivery. Potable water supply, wastewater treatment and solid waste management are all public services that need to be provided, which are regularly the responsibility of local governments and therefore an integral part of the public administration literature. But at the core, I have always studied policy change, more so than policy creation.

My first really important, empirical paper (Pacheco-Vega, 2005, “Democracy by Proxy”) examines the role of non-state actors and their coalition-building in influencing and changing domestic toxics policy. I showed how environmental non-governmental organizations, forming transnational coalitions of activists, changed the voluntary nature of the Mexican toxics release inventory from voluntary to mandatory. This was a contribution to the policy change literature.

But even before then, I had explained (with Peter Nemetz, 2001) the role of information-based voluntary programs in designing effective pollution control strategies. Voluntary or suasive policy instruments such as the toxics release inventory are considered some of the least effective, but gained a lot of prominence in the early 2000s as an alternative to regulatory, command-and-control instruments. This is a contribution to the policy creation (policy cycle) body of scholarship. These works were, as Dr. Debora VanNijnatten, what positioned me as “the policy instruments guy”. Further work I did with Dr. Kathryn Harrison and Dr. Mark Winfield looked at the role of policy transfer in disseminating ideas on how toxic release inventories should work, which is more again, on the policy cycle/policy instruments realm.

My doctoral work looked at industry responses to environmental regulatory pressure, which is also part of the policy change field (e.g. Pacheco-Vega and Dowlatabadi 2005, Pacheco-Vega 2008). And my wastewater governance research has examined and evaluated water and wastewater policies, so these contributions are definitely part of the policy cycle body of works. But even my transnational environmental activism in North America analyses (Pacheco-Vega 2015) focus on the role of policy change. I think overall my research trajectory is primarily focused on policy change.

I really love the versatility of doing interdisciplinary work, but if anybody asked me what is my specialty and wanted to peg me, I think I’d say that I am a specialist in the study of factors that drive policy changes. The policy regime literature (particularly those works which examine the impact of ideas, interests and institutions on how policies are adopted or shift goals/strategies/implementation) is particularly useful in understanding change in policies.

I’d rather be known as someone who understands how policies evolve, shift, and can fail, than someone who is an expert on agenda-setting or implementation (even though I’ve done work on both). A conversation with a current student of mine on Twitter reminded me that, to me, teaching policy analysis is relevant because it allows my students to learn how policies change, how they can fail, and what factors can be used to prevent failure. I don’t diss the policy cycle literature, I still love agenda-setting theory, and I am definitely keen on furthering my work on policy implementation (in particular, for example, what I am currently doing with the human right to water literature).

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