The Case for a Practice-oriented Policy Science: An Old Ambition Gone Missed?

Dr. Simone Busetti

Relevance to practice is at the root of both public policy and public administration. In his foundational article, Harold Lasswell described the distinctive outlook of the policy scientist as one comprising contextuality, problem orientation, and a distinctive synthesis technique. Policy inquiry was meant to combine theory and action and solve problems in a given time and space. Frequent calls for usable knowledge (Lindblom & Cohen 1979), a social science that matters (Flyvbjerg 2001) or a paradigm for practice (Brunner 2006) testify the importance of relevance, but – most importantly – a frustration with it.
While everybody would easily agree that irrelevance is bad, practical relevance appears problematic on many respects. The literature mentions many factors that impede a practice-oriented policy analysis: a rationalistic bias ignoring political problem solving, reductionism and the search for general relations, context-independency and a revered role for prediction, an axiology of science that favours pure over applied knowledge, and even concerns for the career of practice-oriented researchers.
The paper will discuss such problems and make proposals for bridging the theory-practice gap. In doing so, it will focus on problems of knowledge production – which kind of knowledge can help practitioners in designing and implementing policies? The paper will mostly refer to the literature on policy implementation – a field naturally coterminous to practice. This review will allow to highlight problems and investigate methodological heuristics that may help boosting practical relevance.