Trump, Governance, and the Nature of Policy Reform

Hank C. Jenkins-Smitha, c and Samuel Workmanb, c

a National Institute for Risk and Resilience
b Center for Risk and Crisis Management
c Department of Political Science
University of Oklahoma

Contact Information:

Hank C. Jenkins-Smith:
Samuel Workman:

By design, transitions between presidential administrations alter the course of public policy, and therefore, they are of significant interest for policy scholars and citizens alike. The Trump administration has evidenced a stark break with the substantive agenda of President Obama, and a management style unique in modern presidential transitions and governance. In particular, an array of “outsider” appointees promised to reconfigure the resources, constraints and opportunities within policy subsystems. All of this calls into question the resiliency of political institutions, policy systems, and governance systems. In particular, institutions and processes, largely dormant during the presidential election, have creaked and lurched back into motion. Governance and the policy process — in some form — will continue on. To date, the administration and its strategy for governance has generated ample speculation, but for policy scholars it affords a golden opportunity to articulate theoretically informed hypotheses and expectations about how the transition will affect public policy processes, modes of governance, and policy outcomes. In broad terms, these questions are not just animated by the uniqueness of the president, the person, but by a strategy for governing that is intentionally disorienting for stalwart actors in the process.

In times like these, it is our view that scholars of public policy should occupy significant public space in the discussion of public policy and governance. And, we would note that this stands quite apart from Trump’s managerial orientation, personnel concerns, and strategies for massaging public opinion. In particular, we hope to generate reasoned, systematic commentary and debate on how policy theory informs (or should inform) our understanding of the still emerging Trump administration and its effects on governance and policymaking systems. But the arrow points two ways: how should our understanding of the new administration inform our theories and models of the policy process?

We hope to motivate commentary that is theoretically and conceptually grounded, rooted in our understanding of the policy process, has clear implications for our expectations about how these processes or systems will be affected, and how we ourselves understand public policy. We also seek to encourage commentary that addresses specific substantive policy issues (e.g., energy, the environment, national security, agriculture, etc.), but that is informed by public policy theory.

We especially seek commentary that develops clear hypotheses for governance and policymaking systems that draw upon theories of the public policy process. Our interest is in generating a set of specific expectations for policy processes and outcomes that will — or won’t — be materially altered by the administration’s approach to changing the direction of public policy. The focus should be on some aspect of a policy process or outcome for which — based on one or more policy theories — we have reasonably clear expectations about the effect of the administrations’ agenda, processes, or systems. Questions we seek to address include:

  • Which aspects of the policy process, including venues, coalitions, and the other “infrastructure” of policymaking, will be resilient and which will be altered in enduring ways?
  • Which domains of public policy will be more resilient, and which will be more pliable, in the face of the administration’s agenda and “outsider” appointees?
  • Is policy change accomplished in this way likely to be temporary or long-lasting? In other words, is there likely to be an institutional or substantive policy “trace” that scholars must account for moving forward?
  • And — importantly — how will we be sure, and what data would be required to enable us to make such assessments?

Scholars of the policy process are uniquely positioned to offer useful perspectives on the implications of the emerging administration for public policy and governance. In the forum that follows, we asked some notable policy scholars to provide short (~1000 word) entries sketching their expectations, the theoretical basis, and the data (and time-span) required to evaluate these. And we deeply thank those who were willing to put their scholarly understanding on the line in pursuit of better policy theory. In our own initial foray, we make some observations about the administration at its juncture with policy and governing systems. These lead straightforwardly to a broader set of questions about policy change that challenge and further develop existing theories of the policy process.

Focused Attention, Subsystems, and Political Institutions

Incoming presidential administrations have long prioritized specific strategies for policy change. Normally, we think of these strategies as relating to the public, Congress, or the executive branch apparatus within government. From the vantage point of political institutions, and traditional perspectives in American politics, this troika of alternatives makes sense, embodying the choices and blend of strategies, in a broad sense, available for attempting change. Nevertheless, this perspective is limiting when thinking about how presidents go about fostering substantive policy change. This is primarily because these strategies, publics, and institutions are tethered, woven together, in policy subsystems. To change policy, especially within established policy systems, requires attention to subsystems. In our view, this is an important recognition for understanding how presidents focus attention to change policy.

Typically, policy scholars think of presidential interjections in policy subsystems as creating what Jeff Worsham has called “transitory” coalitions (Worsham 1997). That is, presidents enter policy subsystems, taking the side of a given coalition, or attempting to reconfigure the coalitions altogether. Given opportunity costs of such intercessions, however, presidential participation creates transitory politics that return to equilibrium once the president turns attention elsewhere. The Trump administration so far has taken a different approach in that it seeks to intervene in subsystem politics without embedding itself within existing coalitions or reconfiguring those coalitions. Instead, it seeks to deconstruct and disorient the subsystem altogether. This strategy is meant to solve two problems: sustaining the focused attention necessary for policy change and the ability to prevent the watering-down or deflecting of reforms by the existing set of coalitions.

The administration’s stated focus is on the “swamp”—the islands comprised of these established subsystems. These arrangements present problems for instigating policy change—this is not news to scholars of public policy. They foster strong, binding, understandings of policy issues that both justify and rationalize particular directions for public policy; furthermore, these understandings are entrenched in supportive governing institutions and form the basis for beliefs undergirding approaches to policymaking (Baumgartner and Jones 2009, Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993, McCool 1990).

The popular view is that the administration would be better off providing more certainty to its partisans in Congress, and be consistent in developing a policy agenda that could move forward legislatively. To our mind, the Trump administration appears to proceed from the assumption that subsystems — the infrastructure within which policy is made — must be dealt with, and that the administration’s efforts to side-step the standard levers of policy change represents a deliberate choice that scholars, in turn, must deal with. In order to understand what we now observe, and its consequences for policy change, we must focus attention not on the Administration’s choice to intervene through institutions (e.g., legislatively) or subsystems (e.g., altering the balance of competing coalitions), but on the attempt to alter the subsystems themselves. The novel approach to subsystem deconstruction overcomes the problems associated with transitory politics, but also creates very real challenges to governance and reform in its aftermath. In a sense, we must return to our roots as field and re-examine policy change in a familiar arrangement acted on by a president with a fairly radical approach to disruption—a point to which we will return later.

The Dissolution and Reformation of Subsystems for Governance

The disruptive and disorienting approach to subsystem policymaking faces two critical challenges. First, subsystems are necessary to foster a coherent policymaking (May, Sapotichne and Workman 2006). Second, the destruction of policy subsystems makes it difficult to engage in policy reforms that require regime building (Jochim and May 2010) or trans-subsystem policy making (Jones and Jenkins-Smith 2009). The reason for this is that subsystems fuse attention to a problem, the expertise and capacity for governance (literally, the stock of expertise concerning how to do things or what is feasible), and belief systems that attach cause and effect to the problems they attend (Jenkins-Smith et al 2018). These elements of a subsystem give its inhabitants common understandings of problems, the ability to do something about those problems in terms of policy making, and the sustained attention necessary to carry reforms forward.

The problems raised by the administration’s approach to dealing with subsystems pertains directly to this fusion of attention, governance expertise, and belief systems. The Trump Administration’s efforts at policy reform may be most effective in the issue areas for which attention is the major concern. If the administration simply does not envision a role for the federal government in consumer financial protection, then simply destroying key institutional components of the subsystem may be enough to render it ineffective and incapable of moving policy forward. It is entirely possible that the federal role disappears from a lack of an institutional locus for attention to the issue. This strategy for reform is much more problematic where it meets a desire to alter policy preferences and belief systems while retaining the expertise to govern.

Subsystems fuse belief systems with expertise to govern in substantively specific policy areas. While the administration may prefer to move policy in a direction that is broadly opposed by the long-dominant coalitions within that subsystem, it cannot do so without also destroying the ability to govern—the same actors whose belief systems are being overridden are also those who have the knowledge to carry the administration’s policy reforms forward. Perhaps the starkest example of this to date is the dissolution and disorientation of the foreign relations subsystems. Traditionally, American foreign policy is a blend of diplomacy, intelligence, and military strategy. The administration has largely stripped the Department of State of equal footing with the other two communities in directing foreign policy. While this may (perhaps temporarily) advantage the administration’s preferred coalition within the policy space, it also means that diplomacy is problematic if needed. As we write, the administration lacks the experts in the Department of State to implement needed sanctions on both North Korea and Iran. When an administration rids itself of unfriendly subsystem actors, it also rids itself of expertise in governance. The fusion of attention, governance expertise, and belief systems is most problematic for issues that present these interdependencies and tradeoffs.

Problem Definition and the Bundling of Issues

The modern era is subject to several integrating forces on policy issues and their attendant subsystems. Globalization of the economy, the coupling of human and natural systems, and the fallout of these forces mean that many of the more pressing problems faced by governments and citizens alike cannot be classified neatly in terms of substantive categories. Governments bundle issues in an effort to address these tradeoffs, interdependencies, and generate information (Workman 2015). This process allows for a “tuning” of the information supply that results in adaptive problem definitions—ways of understanding a problem.

Beyond stripping a subsystem of the ability to provide expertise about governance, or destruction of the institutional infrastructure necessary to affect change, the absence of attention also means the absence of an information supply about the problem. Bureaucracies represent the central informational hub of each policy subsystem. Competition among bureaucracies yields an information supply that prevents any single agency from unilaterally determining how the policy system understands a problem. Thus, removing an agency from the mix necessarily reduces competition and tilts the balance of information. This not only favors a particular agency as the provider of information, but it also fosters problem definitions that do not incorporate all relevant dimensions of the problem. Aside from uncertainty, there are several reasons that governing systems would be better off organizing for information as much as for reform (Koski and Workman 2018). Altering the nature of this competition is a key way that politicians tune the information supply about a problem (Workman 2015, Nicholson-Crotty 2005).

Thoughts on the Architecture and Infrastructure of Subsystems

Given all this, the Trump administration’s approach to policy reform and the systematic targeting of policy subsystems raises serious questions about governance and about theoretical changes to our understanding of policy change. From the perspective of the study of subsystems, two theoretical questions concerning governance systems and policy change emerge from thinking about Trump’s focus on policy subsystems. First, is it possible to attack and attempt to purge existing belief systems from within policy subsystems without also crippling the governance structures that may forward one’s own efforts at policy reform? What might those governance or administrative systems look like? Second, is it possible to cripple a subsystem, yet maintain its attention to problems and its ability to provide vitally important information? If not, what are the consequences? Where does the information fueling policy reform then come from?

A second set of questions concerns the destruction and reformation of policy subsystems. While studies have addressed how policy subsystems are compromised, what arises in their place when they are crippled, dispersed, or otherwise disabled? The scholarly focus on hybrid systems, outsourcing, and public-private partnerships is ill-equipped to address a policy area in which subsystems have been crippled or destroyed. The Trump administration presents an ideal situation in which to develop policy theory about these phenomena, or alternatively, to extend our existing theories of the policy process, refine them, and redirect them.

For our part, we would conceptually parse two major components of policy subsystems. We distinguish between the architecture and the infrastructure of a subsystem. The architecture of a subsystem consists in the governing arrangements and politically situated actors familiar to scholars of policy theory—congressional oversight committees, interest groups, and federal bureaucracies. The lines of authority and delegation among these actors largely determine the direction of public policy. These interactions, both formal and informal, lend pluralistic legitimacy and decision-making structure to the system. This decision-making structure is, however, dependent on the infrastructure of the subsystem. The infrastructure for the subsystem includes investments in physical and human capital that lend capacity to the system—scientists and other academics, laboratories, field offices, and support personnel (both public and private)—that make policy reform feasible. Policy subsystems fuse pluralistic political arrangements with the infrastructure that gives the capacity for policy reform.

Presidential administrations choose to focus attention on the decision-making architecture of subsystems or on the infrastructure that undergirds these systems. The choice between the two will go a long way in understanding resulting policy change and transitions to different forms of governance within substantive policy areas. The destabilization of the architecture of policy subsystems is well-known as a cause of major policy reform. Nevertheless, understanding subsystem infrastructure will go a long way in helping us understand the trajectories of these destabilizations, especially what happens in the wake of subsystem dissolution and through subsequent reformation. The current Administration represents a prime opportunity to address these theoretical and conceptual issues across a whole range of substantive policy areas.


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