The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Institutions and Public Policy in Western Europe and the United States

Mon, August 17, 2009

Since the 1980s, the study of institutions has dominated political science. In its crudest form, this
means that countries with different institutions – a federal government with a bicameral legislature
and a unitary government with a parliamentary system, for example – are expected to yield different
political outcomes, and, in turn, the discipline has explained differences in outcomes by reference to
institutional variation. The influence institutions wield in affecting political behavior, and
consequent outcomes, is undeniable. However, segments within political science have always been
skeptical of institutional theories, finding a general claim that ‘institutions matter’ ultimately
inane, while insisting that certain political forces transcend manipulation through institutional

Bryan Jones and six co-authors, in “Punctuated Equilibrium in Comparative Perspective,” which appeared
in the July issue of the American Journal of Political Science, have thrown some of the heaviest
empirical evidence into these issues to date, and they find that certain features of public
policymaking operate similarly across countries despite vast institutional differences.

Four stages of the policy cycle are identified: social processes, political inputs, policy processing,
and outputs. Social processes are any things going on in the world that are or may become the subject
of public policy. Political inputs are data about social processes that become the subject of
government attention. Policy processing is the decision-making stage – social processes become
political inputs, and governments then decide what and what not to do. Outputs are the decisions that
governments make.

All four stages of the policy process may be characterized by given levels of change. The theory of
punctuated equilibrium predicts that periodically public policies will be marked by inordinate levels
of change, levels much too high given the social processes that begat them. This results from friction,
meaning that institutional designs prevent policymakers from efficiently responding to problems;
therefore, pressures in the system build up, and when decisions finally are made, policymakers
overreact in compensation for their previous failures to do so.

Jones and his co-authors find that not only does this model of punctuated equilibrium hold across three
countries with very different institutions – the United States, Belgium, and Denmark, but the model
holds through the life of the policy process within each country. In all three countries, the levels of
change in specific stages of policymaking are more disjointed at the later stages of the policy cycle,
where institutional barriers to efficient policymaking are highest.

Based on this research, it appears that whatever impact institutions have on the ultimate content of
public policies in Western Europe and the United States, the process of making those policies operates
very much the same, regardless of the institutions in which they are made. Further, in “A General
Empirical Law of Public Budgets: A Comparative Analysis,” which will appear in the October issue of the
American Journal of Political Science, Jones and 12 co-authors expand their analysis to include Canada,
Danish local governments, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and U.S. states, and the theory holds.
However, they also find that institutional variation affects the policy cycle by degree. In countries
marked by low institutional friction, such as the UK, the punctuated model accurately captures the
policymaking process, but to a lesser degree than in countries with high institutional friction, such
as the United States.

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