Universal Service?

Telecommunications Policy In Australia and People with Disabilities

By Michael J Bourk

Edited by Tom Worthington.

The Policy Formulation Process

This chapter introduces the view that policy is a multidisciplinary and multi-layered process. Policy is most usefully analysed with a methodology that reflects its eclectic nature and the variety of influences on policy decisions.

Writing about the enthusiasm with which technocentrics have greeted the ‘information society', Sussman (1991) cautions that we need to keep social history and social power configurations and conflicts in mind. While most study of telecommunications technologies comes from engineering or physical science, economic, political, or development bases, my argument is that we workers need to consider the whole picture: historical, political/legal, economic, socio-cultural, and / or psycho-ideological (Fuller, L, 1992, 156).

This work is an attempt to consider the whole picture. Political, social and scientific contexts are analysed as telecommunication policy has evolved. The three contexts (political, social and scientific) of policy are social and materially constituted (eg. legislation, technology). The various contexts of policy are not independent variables that can be individually isolated and measured for their precise impact on policy.

Policy is a multi-layered process in that it involves contributions from a number of disparate sources. As a number of policy analysts observe, policy occurs over a number of levels and power is unevenly dispersed.(See Davis et al, 1988; Fulcher, 1989; Ham and Hill, 1984). For this reason simplified top-down models of power and policy are viewed with caution as they can distort the power relations between policy levels (Davis et al, 1988, 5). As Scott and DPI(A) v Telstra proved, a relatively small community group can challenge the giants and win. A multi-level analytical approach is useful in order to illuminate the different levels at which policy forms and why.

Influences on Public Policy
Hawker in Davis et al (1988,5)Ham and Hill(1984)Synthesis
social & economic conditions material and symbolic environments
social & cultural valuessocial & cultural values
prevailing ideas influencing ideologiesinfluencing ideologies
institutions and individualsinstitutions of the stateinstitutions
technical & analytical procedures
role of science ( includes economics)
general theories about the way policy is madegeneral theories about policy
community actorscommunity actors
roles of interest groupsroles of interest groups
power aspectsdiscourse theories
Sources: Ham and Hill (1984) and Hawker et al in Davis et al (1988,5)

This analysis begins with social theories of disability, followed by a chronology of telecommunications events and macro-analysis of political and economic ideology and philosophy that have shaped those events.

These three interrelational levels of analysis are:

The value of this work approach is in its versatility of application. It can be used to analyse influences on the decision making activities of any organisation. In addition it can also be used to interrogate the theoretical and ideological perspectives which inform them and the social actors within the group. Governments, business corporations, community and pressure groups can be deconstructed to investigate how and why universal service has evolved into its present state in relation to people with disabilities. Consequently, contextual factors that influence policy are more likely to be detected. Furthermore, the impact of a singular element is less likely to be overstated. Interdependency among social variables is identified as distinct from independent variables which are measured for their individual effect (Jensen and Jankowski, 1991). Boundaries between levels are not fixed but permeable. Consequently, policy analysis based on an holistic approach discourages attempts to apply the rigid boundaries required by quantitative measurement instruments.

A Cultural Pluralist Approach

This work is informed by a cultural pluralist approach to understanding policy (See Lull, 1995, Throgmorton, 1996). In addition it recognises that policy always forms within a political context (Throgmorton, 1996; Foucault in Rabinow, 1991; Ham and Hill, 1984; Davis et al, 1985; Fulcher, 1989). However, instead of perceiving policy as the implementation of decisions made by senior politicians, it is seen as a process informed, constrained and contingent on a number of interdependent material (eg. economic conditions, legislation, technology) and cultural factors operating in a dynamic state of flux. Policy is also identified as the site of struggle where social actors wrestle for legitimacy and domination (See Lull, 1995; Ham and Hill, 1984; Davis et al, 1985; Fulcher, 1989).

There is no single cultural context that shapes policy (See Weller et al, 1989; Ham and Hill, 1984). This is because culture is not a unified phenomenon except in the sense that it is an ecology whose only constant is change:

Culture is a complex and dynamic ecology of people, things, worldviews, activities and settings that fundamentally endures but is also changed in routine communication and social interaction ...We live not in worlds composed of distinct influences which we experience in serial fashion, but in universes of overlapping, contradictory, shifting reflexive impulses that constantly require us to sort them out and work with them in order to meaningfully organise and enjoy and enjoy our lives (Lull, 1995, 66, 86).

As well as being shaped by events, policy forms within a cultural ecological system consisting of personal and collective programs and agendas. According to many political analysts, policy is not a linear progression of rational thought but a haphazard evolution (See Ham & Hill, 1984; Davis et al. 1988; Jenkins, J 1995). As Davis et al (1988, 5) point out:

Though individual actors might behave rationally in their own interest, policy formulation is a process shaped by the deliberate and the unintentional, without a necessary cohesion. Power is unevenly dispersed, authority fragmented and policy making uncertain, complex and intermittent.

A lack of cohesion or uneven dispersal of power does not imply chaos. Instead, it means that while policy may proceed in a planned direction the pace or final outcome may not be what was first envisioned or achieved by the original actors. As Ham and Hill observe, this is not to say that policies are always changing, but that the policy process itself is in a state of flux and analysts must be aware of its dynamic nature (1984, 12).

To explain state policy as the result of a governmental decision process is an oversimplification and overstates the power of governments and understates the number of bureaucratic levels at which policy is made. As Davis et al (1985, 107) observe:

Theoretically it is cabinet which has the final say, bestowing legitimacy on ‘policy'. In practice, government agencies must make administrative decisions about the allocation of resources, and may maintain or expand programs without cabinet review.

Consequently, policy processes may involve many more social actors than official policy makers. The constant contentions involved in policy making introduced by various actors and forces at various levels limit the effectiveness and frustrate the process. Speaking of the Australian state, Davis et al (1985, 107) comment that it:

is not a logically ordered set of institutions, but an amorphous mass of interlocking organisations attempting to provide for the many public service demands of a modern industrial society (Burch and Wood, 1983, 41). State institutions disagree or overlap, pursue different understandings of policy objectives and obstruct unacceptable choice. As a result policy making is inherently difficult, frustrating and only partly effective (1985, 107).

Fulcher prefers to blur the distinction between policy and implementation. According to her, drawing a distinction between the policy process and outcomes advantages political legitimacy (Fulcher, 1989, 6):

But clearly, distinguishing between policy and implementation serves political purposes, since it suggests to people that governments are in charge. This is of course why government and bureaucrats retain this language since it occludes the real politics involved and presents bureaucrats as merely administrators: it constitutes a discourse of persuasion, of maintaining the view that politicians hold real power.

To summarise, policy:

Fulcher (1989, 12) offers a final useful insight into the political complexity and normative assumptions embedded in policy:

But the evasiveness of policy, the woolliness of the term is of its essence politically: when we can't grasp an idea in clear terms we can't grapple with it. This is why I wrestled with the term conceptually, theoretically and politically: because all theories and their concepts have political implications or platforms or agendas: if you see capitalism as evil then the agenda is to change it: if you see policy as made at all levels, then the agenda includes struggling with policy in a range of arenas at all levels. (Fulcher, 1989, 12)

This chapter has argued that policy is a non - linear, multidisciplinary, multilayered and deeply politicised process that may be analysed from an holistic and culturally pluralist approach. Policy arenas are interconnected cultural sites of conflict where multiple discourses contest for dominance. In addition, material conditions influence policy processes and outcomes.

Further Information

Comments and corrections to: uso@tomw.net.au
Copyright © Michael J Bourk & Tom Worthington 2000.