POLICY AND POLITICS: ‘I read, write and have meetings’ – what do policy makers really do?

POLICY AND POLITICS: ‘I read, write and have meetings’ – what do policy makers really do?

Richard Freeman

This section of Discover Society is provided in collaboration with the journal, Policy and Politics. It is curated by Sarah Brown.


What do policy makers do?  The question is important because making policy engages a great number of people one way or another, and what they do they might do well or badly.  Our standard answers are rather hazy, not least because policy making entails such great numbers of people doing a great number of things.  The literature tends to have addressed the question in functional terms, outlining and defining – and endlessly debating – different sets of activities such as advocacy and agenda-setting, formulating and decision making, implementing and evaluating.

But what if we were to begin somewhere else, to explore policy as a set of human actions, as a form of work, as real-time, practical and physical ‘doings and sayings‘?  What do policy makers really do?  What does their work entail?  The answer is surprisingly simple:

‘The two things that civil servants do is write papers and have meetings. Because that’s what we do. From that, things happen. Extraordinary though it might seem’ (senior civil servant)

‘When someone asks me what I do at work … I read, write and have meetings, that’s what I do’ (policy manager)

The question now is why: what is policy, if this is what it involves?  What are these things such that they constitute policy?

The work of policy is done in writing.  The document seems to be at the heart of policy, its principal material instrument or artefact.  Just as for Weber the file was central to bureaucracy, so the strategy, plan, White Paper, memorandum and report are intrinsic to policy.  If asked what or where is the policy, practitioners will invariably point to a document of some kind.

For the document has particular characteristics essential to policy making.  The first is an effect of the apparent authority of the written word.  The relations between writing (active) and reading (passive), at least as conventionally understood, are such that authorship seems to construct and confer agency, if not authority.  Policy documents are written by officials and clerks, but authored by an office, position, committee or department.  They are institutional, collective if also partial statements, to be interpreted and discussed in turn by multiple, collective readers.  In this way, the authority of the policy maker is constructed in relation to the document: the policy maker, in the end, is he or she who authors and approves the text, not he or she who simply reads and talks.

A further characteristic of the document is its simple materiality, which holds even and perhaps especially when it circulates virtually, in electronic form.  The work of the document is to fix the elusive and ephemeral process and outcome of talk in such a way that it can be joined by others.  It stabilises meaning – the sense of a problem and what might be done about it – at least temporarily, and puts it into motion, to be printed and distributed or simply attached to email, to be read and discussed among others.

But why documents, why writing?  Where do documents come from and where do they go?  They come from and to meetings; before and after the document is some kind of collective interaction in talk. The role of the document is arguably to connect one meeting to the next, to record the understandings reached and agreements made in one time and place and make them available for discussion in another time and place.

Policy makers don’t just read and write, they talk.  Their reading and writing is predicated on meetings of different kinds: not just in committees, but in appointments with the minister, in parliament or in council, in briefings and press conferences, workshops and consultations.

These meetings do two fundamental things, which matter very much for policy.  Their first function is sensemaking, establishing or amending a shared understanding of the topic or problem the collective confronts, and what might be done about it.  Sometimes, sensemaking leads to decision making, yet whether it does so or not, the need for sensemaking will remain and recur from one meeting to the next, as the situation develops and the effect of decisions taken or not taken are assessed.  The other function of meeting is to rehearse and usually reinforce understandings of the nature and working of the collective itself, including its scope and extent, its interests and organisation: who’s responsible for what, who’s in charge, who must be listened to and who might be ignored.

The language of the meeting has much in common with the language of the document, and not only because it is invariably a document which a meeting is being held to discuss.  Policy talk and policy writing are done in a world apart from the world or worlds to which they refer and on which they intend to act; they have none of the indexicality of ordinary interaction on which to draw.  And both meetings and documents mean to have effect in more than one instance, for categories and groups and over time: their grammar and vocabulary are consequently abstract and generic.  The essential practices of policy making, that is to say – writing and meeting – deal invariably and inevitably in generality (which is also why individuals tend to find them alienating, boring or frustrating).

Policy, of course, is a matter not just of reporting a meeting, but of many documents and many meetings generated over time, and this multiplicity is a principal source of its complexity.

For documents invoke others: the authority of any given document is invariably established and expressed in citing other, previous documents.  That document, similarly, will require others to be drafted in turn, as the claims and statements it makes are refined, countered or put into practice.  What we think of as policy is articulated in a set of documents each of which, implicitly or explicitly, makes reference to one or more others: meaning is borne not by any single text but by what literary theorists refer to as the intertext.

Likewise, what is at issue in any given meeting – what is ‘on the table’ – is not just a set of documents, but a set of understandings of them gleaned from a range of other meetings in which its participants have been involved.  The relationship between any given document and any given meeting is always open to interpretation and sometimes to negotiation, as is the meaning or purpose of any given meeting or document itself.  Policy is not simply what is embedded in a set of documents, but the sense of those present of the meaning which has been or might be made of them in other related recent and likely future meetings.

Such sets of documents and meetings, separately and together, are produced in sequence or series.  They have a specific temporality: their logic and purpose is defined in relation to what has come before and what is intended to come after.  Yet they are more like nodes than links in a chain: documents and meetings are networked objects, better imagined as knots of multiple threads (our word ‘text’ has a significant shared etymology with ‘texture’ and weaving).  Configurations of documents and meetings are no more or less linear than the policy process, and that’s because in many respects they are the policy process.

In this light, we might reimagine our key institutions of policy making – parliament, ministries and local councils, public service agencies and NGOs, on the one hand as filing systems, and on the other as arrangements for meeting.

But why, in the end, why all these documents, why all these meetings, why policy?  There are many ways of explaining why, but one of the most powerful lies in Hannah Arendt‘s concept of plurality.  Plurality is intrinsic to the human condition: ‘the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world’.  And because we are plural, we must confront our significant problems in interaction with each other, including those problems derived from our very plurality.

This grounding of policy and politics in plurality is an epistemological as well as an ontological claim.  Plurality is not only what is there, what is real, but the means by which we know what is real: ‘To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all’.  We must constantly calibrate what we think we know against what others seem to know, and we do so by talking in meeting and reifying that talk in writing.

What we know as policy, then, is made in communicative interaction about matters of common concern, which is why policy makers spend their time in reading and writing, meeting and talking – extraordinary as it may seem.


Richard Freeman is Professor of Professor of Social Science and Public Policy in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.