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Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Challenge: Unsustainable policies

Metaphor Project

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1. Policy fashions

Policies and issues move into and out of fashion according to the vagaries of the political process and the priorities of the moment. This is true even within the international community, as noted by Johan Galtung. There is a "flavour-of-the-month" quality to policy-making, however serious the long-term issues may appear to be. Governance suffers in consequence through lack of any conceptual continuity. Past policy flavours within the international community, according to Galtung, include basic needs, self-reliance, new international economic order, appropriate technology, health-for-all, community participation, primary health care and common heritage of mankind. The current flavour is sustainable development. It is useful to ask how sustainable is the concept of sustainable development, and what dimensions does it fail to take into account.

2. Sustainability of "sustainable development"

In the light of the series of integrative foci of the past decades, "sustainable development" can be considered humanity's best and latest effort to reconceptualize "the good, the true and the beautiful" for the international community. Given the responses to past efforts, notably the Brandt Commission, it is fruitful to ask how sustainable over time is the concept of "sustainable development". Already there is evidence of multiple interpretations (Pezzey, 1989), some of them quite incompatible, just as has been the case with "development" alone. In any policy forum, such differences are immediately apparent through the factions and coalitions to which they give rise. As with past foci, there are those who perceive it to be totally legitimate to "milk" a concept to their own benefit whilst it still has "mileage" left in it. Johan Galtung has described the life cycle of such concepts in relation to the international community. The position in the life cycle determines how themes are handled by policy agendas.

3. Unsustainable policy assumptions

It is not fruitful to view such concept cycles cynically, although exposure to them can justify this. The challenge is to identify how the development of any such insight can be sustained, especially in a policy forum. The difficulty lies in assumptions made by those actively involved in promoting or clarifying such an insight. These include:

(a) Monopoly of validity: A tendency to consider it the only valid integrative concept that has ever been formulated. This ignores the history of previous concepts that have created the context for the emergence of this latest one. It also ignores what happened to the previous ones and the nature of the relationships they established with other competing policy concepts.

(b) Non-emergence of more valid concepts: A tendency to consider that no further valid integrative concepts will emerge to replace the current one. This structures reflection on the concept to preclude the future emergence of more appropriate concepts. It engenders dogmatism and identification of heresies. (Do the advocates of sustainable development have the right conceptual posture to respond appropriately to the policy insight that will succeed it -- or will there be no such innovation?)

(c) Inherent credibility and attractiveness: A tendency to believe that the concept is inherently credible and desirable to those who have not been involved in its formulation. The next step is to assume that they should be persuaded to that conviction if they are not.

(d) Integrable within a single policy framework: A tendency to believe that policy insights of requisite variety can be adequately embodied within a single policy framework.

(e) Universal acceptance of legitimating information: A tendency to fail to recognize that groups are sensitive to quite different forms of information in relation to any issue, and frequently consider other forms as having marginal significance, if any.

As more people and groups are touched by the insight, they reinterpret it to better reflect their own understanding. This leads to factionalism and multiple interpretations that may be highly critical of each other, even to the point of subverting each other's initiatives in competition for resources. "Sustainable development" has to survive in this environment. To be of any significance, policy forums must respond effectively to such factionalism -- whether or not they are effectively represented at any forum.

4. Sustaining policy through imagery and metaphor

There is little need to remake points concerning the role of the media in politics or the problems of information overload. In such a context a vitally important issue for policy acceptance is the process whereby policy proposals are communicated for clarification and approbation. The constraints and opportunities are most evident in the case of politicians and political parties concerned to "get a message across". The same may be said concerning the communication of any proposal in a policy forum (Majone, 1989).

Much has been written about the deliberate cultivation of an image by politicians and their increasing investment in media consultants and image makers, following the example of corporations. It has been argued that image is becoming as important as content in politics, if not more important. The need for visionary leadership is stressed (Dror, 1988a). Given the intimate relationship between policies and the politicians presenting them, it is appropriate to ask to what degree policy-making is now "image-led" as opposed to "content-led". For whilst it is possible to formulate policies based on the most appropriate scientific models and the greatest of expertise, it is increasingly recognized that if such policies do not communicate well they have little chance of being either understood or approved.

These points are made, not in order to denigrate sophisticated models and conscientiously articulated policies, but in order to suggest that the leading edge of the policy approval process is now the image through which the policy is envisioned and presented. But although these are clear examples of the extensive use of metaphor in relation to governance or in support of it, the question remains whether the role of metaphor is limited to a public relations function, namely, to the communication function noted earlier. Metaphors may affect the way people think about the governance of complex issues (e.g. references to Reagan's "John Wayne"/"Rambo" approach to governance), but do they affect the processes of governance itself and the way choices are made? The literature cited above provides ample evidence of the use of metaphor by politicians in parliamentary debate to clarify an issue or attack the position of the opposition. Criticism of Thatcher's policy of privatization was recently given a very sharp focus through former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's phrase "selling off the family silver". Thatcher's subsequent reply in justifying and reiterating that policy was "selling the family silver back to the family". This is a good example of policy clarification at the metaphoric level.

But such examples, even though significant in parliamentary debate, do not indicate whether metaphors are used in the initiation, elaboration or long-term guidance policy. This is the difference between cabinet level debate and parliamentary debate. But even cabinet level debate is about policies already outlined in draft form through the services of secretariat professionals who normally make great effort to avoid metaphor in an effort to present texts "professionally". However such secretariats are supposedly the infrastructure of governance, so the question remains how actively metaphor is used in the "smoke filled rooms" where policy options are conceived and mulled over, prior to being formulated on paper and in feasibility studies. What are the conceptual processes through which policy options are conceived by those taking new initiatives in governance? And what part does metaphor play in such processes?

In the case of President Reagan, it has frequently been pointed out that he preferred to receive information in the form of video films and imagery in general, rather then through briefing documents. Is it possible that the kinds of policy that he supported were limited by the kinds of metaphors to which he was sensitive? Would more appropriate policies have become credible if their conception could have been supported by richer metaphors?


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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