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It is far too easy for those of us who are “policy wonks” to forget that policy decisions ultimately affect real people—often in ways that are more painful than we realize. I was forcibly reminded of this disconnect during a doctoral student’s defense of her dissertation research proposal. This particular student is getting her Ph.D. in social work; I am on her committee because her minor is policy.
The student’s research focuses on what she terms the “lived experience” of foreclosure.
Those of us who explore the policy implications of the foreclosure issue can recite our “macro” concerns: foreclosures threaten neighborhood stability, disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities, erode the benefits of public and private development in low-income communities, create an environment in which crime can flourish, discourage the formation of social capital and lead to disinvestment.
All of these negative, community-level outcomes are amply documented in the literature. What that literature fails to address, however, are the “deep meaning and symbolism” of home ownership, and the feelings of failure and shame that are a consequence of losing an important part of the “American Dream.” Our student proposes to investigate those human emotions and reactions by engaging in a technique that is all-too-rare: she proposes to identify low-income people who have gone through foreclosure and interview them.
Her goal is to understand “the particular perspectives of particular individuals in particular contexts,” and to use those understandings to inform housing policy.
In other words, rather than speculating about the theorized reactions of people unlike our academic selves to circumstances few of us encounter, she proposes to ask them how the experience made them feel. She will not send them a pre-printed questionnaire. She will not conduct a telephone survey. She will sit down with people who are willing to discuss their situations and conduct in-depth, culturally-competent interviews.
In the wake of the student’s defense of her dissertation proposal, I found myself thinking about its implications for academic disciplines other than social work, especially public administration.
It is hard to resist the temptation to review the literature and construct large-scale, abstract theories about management: we should contract out more, or we should contract out less. We should give middle-level managers more discretion, or we should more tightly control the exercise of such discretion. We should develop more collaborative, “flat” decision-making structures, or emphasize the hierarchical chains of command that simplify accountability. We should devolve more authority to local governmental units, or achieve efficiencies of scale by means of mergers and larger jurisdictions.
In the process of testing these and other theses, researchers will sometimes interview the public workers involved, although if we are honest, we will acknowledge that this particular technique of public management research is infrequent, and the questions asked are not necessarily illuminating. But we rarely, if ever, ask the citizens being served for their reactions to new and/or different public institutional arrangements.
Let me be clear: public reactions are no substitute for the sort of careful policy analysis we must continue to conduct. But those reactions to policy decisions can illuminate problems and inform and improve decision-making. Knowing how the intended constituency for a particular service experiences that service—seeing a policy decision from the perspective of the citizen-consumer—is a valuable data-point that we too frequently overlook or minimize.
In the case of the foreclosure crisis that precipitated the Great Recession, understanding how individuals internalize and make sense of that experience will help us answer some questions that we cannot otherwise answer; more importantly, perhaps, it will help us frame new ones.
Call me silly, but it seems to me that answering these and similar questions is an essential element of sound policy formation. And rather than speculating about them, we might borrow a tactic from social work and just ask the people involved.
Author: Sheila Suess Kennedy is a Professor of Law and Public Policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.