53 Critical policy studies

Nicholas Bromfield

Key terms/names

critical policy studies, critical theory, democracy, Harold Lasswell, Indigenous public policy, interpretative policy studies, Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, policy discourses, post-structuralist policy studies, power, Robodebt, sexual and gender based violence, social construction, technocracy


Thomas R. Dye’s much cited definition of public policy as whatever governments choose to do or not do – that is,  government action and inaction – helps us to understand the parameters of what policy is but says very little about the dynamics that produce government policy choice.[1] The field of critical policy studies[2] offers one way to understand these dynamics, the power relations that produce them and a means to evaluate policy against democratic and social justice values. Critical policy studies is different from more rationalist forms of policy analysis in that it rejects the notion that policy can be designed and implemented in a neutral and scientific fashion, free from interests, values and ideologies. This claim, and scholarly focus, is important to note as it underpins the research themes of critical policy studies – the analysis of the social construction of policies to unpack common knowledge, perceptions, values, ideologies and power relations, and evaluate them against social justice and democratic ideals and values.

The chapter proceeds in three main sections. Firstly, the origins of critical policy studies are examined and critical policy studies is defined. The relation, and reaction, of critical policy studies to the work of Harold Lasswell and the policy sciences is especially examined. Secondly, the relation of critical theory to critical policy studies is unpacked, sketching the links between Marxist theory to present-day critical theory. In the third section, three common critical policy studies themes are analysed: technocratic policy, power and democracy; social construction in the policy process; and policy discourses. The chapter concludes by drawing out key themes for students of critical policy studies to use in their own analyses and evaluations of policy.

What is critical policy studies?

Critical policy studies is a diverse and multidisciplinary approach to the study of the policy process.[3] It therefore lacks a key text that has engendered a subsequent public policy research agenda, like Kingdon’s multiple streams analysis or Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory.[4] Critical policy studies emerged in reaction to the development of the ‘policy sciences’, especially in postwar American political science, and to the socio-political environment of the 1960s and 1970s. As such, we need to know a little about this background to understand critical policy studies.

Most accounts of the historical roots of the study of public policy trace its emergence to the American political scientist Harold Lasswell.[5] Lasswell wrote about many topics, but his influence on the study of public policy can be most linked to a 1951 essay where he characterised the orientation of the field as the ‘policy sciences’.[6]

For Lasswell, the policy sciences could be defined as ‘the disciplines concerned with explaining the policy-making and policy-executing process, and with locating data and providing interpretations which are relevant to the policy problems of a given period’.[7] There are two key ideas encapsulated in this definition; firstly, that we can best understand the policy process with an objectively empirical, and scientific, focus on data and evidence; and secondly, that these findings could be usefully applied to key political and social problems.

This was a popular and modern notion during this period – that social and political improvement could be achieved by rationally applying the scientific method to problems to solve their puzzles. The ideal result of this application of the scientific method would be technical and evidence-based solutions for policy makers that stood ‘outside’ political, ideological and, therefore, contested, policy decision making.[8] Lasswell, like many scholars of the time, was especially concerned to improve democratic decision making to avoid a repeat of fascism, which had only just been defeated.[9] Lasswell’s scientific and problem-solving orientation remains influential in many public policy studies today.[10]

Critical policy studies emerged as an approach informed by the radical ‘new left’ politics of the 1960s and 1970s and was sceptical of the policy sciences approach. Public policy scholarship during this era was informed by the social movement struggle over the war in Vietnam, civil rights movement, women’s and gay and lesbian liberation, and environmental movement, amongst others. Both new social movements and public policy scholarship critiqued the objectivity of the Lasswellian policy sciences model, questioning instead how issues were selected for attention and action. This challenged the ‘rational model’ of policy analysis and the way it created a fact–value separation, with critics arguing ‘that the problems confronting society were lodged in underlying value conflicts that were not readily accessible to [scientific] empiricist methods’.[11] Classic early work, like Bachrach and Baratz’s 1970 study of the policy agenda in Baltimore, USA, instead found that the selection of which issues were addressed on the policy agenda reflected the racialised power dynamics of American society. They found that white issues were consistently on the city agenda, while African-American issues were regularly ignored.[12] Policy action was not an objective and neutral selection of the most pressing problems by governments, nor was it supporting democratic values and rights.

Critical policy studies subsequently emerged from this turn away from the rationalist policy sciences model. While a variety of theories and methods now characterises the field, three main approaches are particularly prevalent: interpretive, critical and post-structuralist.[13]

  • Interpretive: interpretive approaches to policy analysis reject the rationalism and purported objectivity of the policy sciences. Interpretive policy analysis argues that facts are not simply ‘found’ by dispassionate and neutral scholars. Instead, the meaning of these facts is situated by history, context and human subjectivity. Unpacking these situated meanings can help us know how different groups of people understand and experience the policy process, unintended consequences and potentially offer new solutions to policy problems.
  • Critical: critical approaches to policy analysis are similar to interpretive approaches, in that they reject rationalism and objectivity. They build upon this insight, arguing interpretation is a necessary, but not sufficient, approach to investigate the policy process. Critical approaches therefore add analysis of the underlying power structures that produce commonsense understanding of facts and the policy process. The goal here is normative and emancipatory – to work towards social justice ends.
  • Post-structuralist: post-structuralist approaches begin from the same critique of objective and rationalist approaches that interpretive and critical perspectives do. But, following Foucault, they instead argue that government is not simply achieved through the state. It is also produced by a diffuse network – texts, actors, institutions – that collectively produces ‘discourse’: a system of language and knowledge that constitutes our social and political world. Post-structuralist approaches to policy analysis therefore especially investigate how policy reflects and reproduces power relations and ‘discipline’ of policy targets via discourse.

We should note that these approaches to critical policy studies are ‘ideal types’ – abstracted categories for the purposes of typology and analysis. But when we examine the critical policy studies field, we usually see overlap and tendencies towards these categories rather than strict adherence. What brings them together is that all these approaches challenge the rationalist policy studies theories and methods that still characterise much of the study of public policy today.

So, how to define critical policy studies? Critical policy studies begins from the rejection of the policy sciences – that policy studies can be objective, scientific and rationalist. Nor do facts simply exist out there ‘in the wild’ waiting to be discovered. Instead, critical policy studies posits that we analyse the construction of policies, discover the common understandings, discourses, values and power relations that underpin these constructions, and evaluate them against normative criteria like ‘social justice, democracy and empowerment’.[14]

In sum, critical policy studies can be defined as: the analysis of the policy process for the social construction of policy, in order to interpret, deconstruct and evaluate underlying common understandings, discourses, values and power relations against normative democratic and social justice criteria.

The connection between critical theory and critical policy studies

The previous section defined critical policy studies by framing its place within the wider policy studies field. This section will deepen our knowledge of critical policy studies by examining its link to critical theory. The diversity of critical policy studies is also a feature of critical theory, making a neat definition difficult and imperfect. We will sketch the link from Marx, through Gramsci and the Frankfurt School to Habermas, as a brief introduction to the diversity and breadth of critical theory.

Critical theory’s origins can be traced to the works of Marx and Engels. Whilst Marx’s original theory now plays ‘second fiddle’ in the contemporary study of critical theory,[15] it is useful to trace these threads to understand what critical theory is and how it has informed critical policy studies. Very simply and briefly, Marx sought to understand history, politics and economics from the standpoint of class, and class struggle and conflict, under capitalism. This focus was famously captured in The Communist Manifesto in 1848: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’[16] Marx was a materialist, meaning that he thought the most important causal processes had to be tangible, concrete forces, especially economic forces, rather than philosophical ideas. Marx thought that the material contradictions of capitalism – exploitation and inequality, while profits were maximised and concentrated with the capital-owning few – would inevitably rub up against class resistance and struggle. The friction caused by this material struggle between classes would therefore produce socialist revolution and new, socialist, modes of production.

Western Marxist thought, as it developed through the 20th century, sought to understand why Marx’s predictions of inevitable revolution never came to pass in the exemplar European capitalist societies Marx sought to analyse. Marx’s materialism came under particular scrutiny and many Western Marxist thinkers were drawn to ideas-based explanations for this failure. A prominent example of this was Antonio Gramsci, an Italian socialist who developed the idea of hegemony. Imprisoned by Italian fascists, Gramsci sketched hegemony through his Prison Notebooks; it can be summarised as ‘political leadership based on the consent of the led, a consent which is secured by the diffusion and popularization of the world view of the ruling class’.[17] According to Gramsci, capitalist society was ruled by a partnership between ‘political society’ (or the state and its coercive arms) and ‘civil society’ (or the church, education institutions and so on). Political society used material and institutional tools of domination, while the civil society employed ideas as their means of power. Gramsci’s recognition that the reproduction of capitalism relied upon ideas and culture, as well as economic forces, opened up new forms of class analysis beyond the simple and reductive orthodox Marxist conception of class as material capital–labour relations.[18]

The recognition that ideas and culture could also produce power relations between classes informed the work of a group of 20th-century Western Marxist theorists known as the Frankfurt School. Originally affiliated as an institute with Universität Frankfurt am Main in 1923, the Frankfurt School drew upon the ideas of Marx, Freud, Hegel and Weber to formulate what we now know as critical theory. In a broad sense, critical theory seeks to ‘think against’ the world: ‘It is an attempt to brush against its grain to reveal its foundation in historically specific social relations’.[19] Critical theory thinks against the world to reveal and enlighten, but also to emancipate – to create conditions for newer, more just social and political possibilities.

Critical theory can be defined as: a reflective approach to the study of social, political and cultural practice. Critical theory is both enlightening and emancipatory, in that its socially grounded and informed approach aims to expose, critique and challenge power relations.[20]

This brief sketch collapses the enormous diversity of works from the Frankfurt School. But one later figure has been particularly important to the development of critical policy studies: Jürgen Habermas. Habermas first published in the 1950s and is still publishing in 2022, again making it impossible to convey the breadth of this thought. But there are two of his key ideas that have been influential on critical policy studies:[21]

  • theories of society: Habermas’ thought reoriented the Frankfurt School, which earlier had drawn upon Marxist theory to criticise bourgeois society as innately barbarous and unfree. Early Frankfurt scholars therefore viewed society under capitalism as irredeemable, something to be prevented or resisted. Habermas, drawing upon enlightenment ideas, instead theorised and demanded the further development and improvement of the present beyond its current strictures.[22] This less radical orientation to social progress has had a broader impact on contemporary critical policy studies than the early Frankfurt School’s explicit Marxism.
  • democratic theory: Habermas has theorised widely, but one of his main contributions to contemporary social and political ideas, and to critical policy studies, has been his democratic theory. Habermas has been a theorist of participatory democracy, in particular synthesising democratic and communication theory to argue that mutual understanding of political problems requires freedom from domination. Habermas proposed that a free ‘ideal speech situation’ could provide a standard against which political consensus could be judged as reasonable or false.[23] These ideas have influenced the normative standards of critical policy studies, evaluating policy against participatory and egalitarian standards.[24]

What can we take away from this survey? Critical theory, and in particular Habermas, has provided tools for studying, theorising and practising public policy with a normative focus. It has also provided a framework for analysing policy against enlightenment and emancipatory goals, and practical tools for policy participation. These are important and useful themes to keep in mind as we progress through the remainder of the chapter.

The research themes of critical policy studies

Now that we have defined critical policy studies and briefly surveyed its influences, we can turn to some of its core research themes. This section examines three themes: technocratic policy, power and democracy; social construction in the policy process; and policy discourses. It provides three case studies from Australian politics and policy to illustrate the study of these themes, centred on issues of class, race and gender.

Technocratic policy, power and democracy

The rationalist policy sciences’ urge to produce evidence-based solutions that avoided the political contest of ideology and interests can be labelled ‘technocratic’. Critical policy studies has long challenged the power of technocratic experts ‘regarding them as advancing both an unrealistic promise and a threat to practical knowledge and democratic governance’.[25] Two concerns are identified in this quote: firstly, that the postwar policy reforms prompted by experts had failed to substantively solve deeply complex policy problems like poverty or violence. Secondly, experts were (and remain) largely unexposed, unknown and unaccountable to the public via normal democratic processes like consultative public forums or elections. More recently, concerns about the role of experts have arisen due to their role in engendering a ‘democratic deficit’ in advanced democracies – the notion that the actual on-the-ground practice of democracy falls short of how the public expects democracy to operate.[26] Critical policy studies scholars have studied how activists and social movements have arisen to challenge the power of technocratic experts and enhance participatory democratic practice.

Clearly power is at play in these dynamics, but how might we understand this power? Power can be a difficult concept to pin down and many scholars have theorised widely regarding its nature. I suggest that feminist power theorist Amy Allen’s notion of power-over and power-to captures the dynamics of the power of experts over the policy process and the contestation of affected communities, activists and, more broadly, social movements. Allen defines power-over as an ability to constrain the choices of others and power-to as the ability of actors to attain their desired ends.[27] Policy actors here have enormous potential power to constrain but individuals, activists and social movements also have the power to challenge.

The agency–structure problem is another way to conceive power that gets at similar themes as Allen. Some power theories or analyses preference agency – the power of individuals or collectives to act and affect matters. Other power theories preference structure – the constraining power of political institutions and social structures, like class, race or gender – that limit individual or collective ability to affect matters. The agency–structure problem, then, is what theoretical weight we give to each end of the agency–structure spectrum when we critically assess the policy process? A recent example of this difficulty has been COVID-19 governance in Australia. What evaluative weight do we give to the agency of individual policy decision makers like prime ministers and premiers versus the institutional structures these individuals had to work with, like public service capability shortfalls, or the very real governance difficulties posed by structural social inequality and general noncompliance?[28]

Critical policy studies scholars have grappled with these theoretical problems, often drawing upon critical theory’s roots by engaging and developing Gramsci’s concept of hegemony – the power of ideas. Power theorist and critical policy studies scholar David Howarth offers one example of this approach, arguing that hegemony in policy practice has two related faces.[29] The first face of hegemony is the political practice of coalition building, linking together different demands into a coalition that can contest policies or even produce forms of rule. The second, related, face of hegemony acts as a form of rule or governance whereby the successful coalition building of the first face wins the consent or compliance of individuals to the policy practice.

Empirical work investigating the solidification and contestation of hegemonic power in the policy process has demonstrated similar processes in practice. Seemingly low-power communities can build evidence, act with others and be empowered in the policy process to challenge hegemonic technocratic expertise and persuade policy makers to produce new forms of governance and practice.[30] This scholarship on hegemony in critical policy studies demonstrates that power in its agentic and structural forms is dynamic and contextual, rather than given or fixed, and that even seemingly secure policy certainties can be unsettled, challenged and overturned given the right counter-hegemonic dynamics.

Class, power and Robodebt

Australia is popularly represented as being a country of egalitarianism, where the ‘fair go’ ensures material security for all those who undertake paid work. These representations perpetuate a myth of classless relations in Australia, where material class stratification is muted or even absent.[31] These cultural myths stand in contrast to Australia’s policy settings that govern those who cannot participate in paid work, due to unemployment, caring responsibilities or disability. Welfare policy is harsh for those unable to undertake or out of paid work and Australia has the fourth-lowest spending on welfare cash benefits in OECD countries.[32] These policy settings shape Australia’s cultural norms regarding welfare recipients (see also the social construction of target populations later in this chapter).[33]

Robodebt was a policy initiative of the Australian federal Liberal–National Coalition government that ran in the form discussed here from 2016 to 2020. Robodebt was created to recover welfare overpayments by matching data between an individual’s welfare payments and annual income tax return to identify discrepancies between the two.[34] The ‘robo’ (robotic) part of the policy was the unsophisticated method of calculation that simply divided annual income by 26 to create an average fortnightly income that matched the fortnightly benefits payment schedule. This simple algorithm failed to account for the fluctuations in income that casual, part-time or irregular work produces and that many social security recipients manage.

This aspect of Robodebt’s design was significant because people issued with a Robodebt might have perfectly met their fortnightly income assessments but were flagged because of the averaging of their annual income into fortnights. This averaging might have been acceptable as an assessment first-step, but the policy also removed human oversight of the process and automatically sent debt letters to social security recipients once detected by the algorithmic data matching. Further, the policy reversed the onus of proof and compelled recipients to prove that they did not owe money. Proving innocence was made difficult since the policy was applied retroactively to 2010 and pay slips and other employment documents had often been lost or never issued or businesses had folded.

This technocratic policy initiative, mobilising big data and a highly burdensome compliance process, was impenetrable to the average individual and caused considerable distress and, alarmingly, potentially deaths by self-harm.[35] The hegemonic power-over of the state and its form of punitive governance of social security recipients enforced and reproduced stratified class relations. This is Howarth’s second face of hegemony – the winning of the consent and complicity of individuals, and wider society, to a form of policy practice. The Coalition government was able to do so because of Australia’s cultural norms surrounding work and welfare, combined with the relative powerlessness of social security recipients.

But the government was not able to do so without opposition and contestation. By late 2016 and early 2017 complaints began to emerge, which were picked up by media and independent federal MP Andrew Wilkie. At the same time, the NotMyDebt Twitter account and website was set up to gather Robodebt stories and act as a hub of activism and resistance. Critics have argued that the advocacy sector was slow to act to support affected individuals due to an environment of shrinking government funding of legal aid and advocacy organisations. But by 2019 this sector eventually mobilised test cases in the Federal Court, which found that Robodebt rules regarding income averaging and penalty fines were unlawful. By late 2020, a Robodebt class action was settled ‘with costs totalling $1.2 billion, comprising refunds of $721 million to 373,000 people, $112 million in compensation and $398 million in cancelled debts’.[36] This massive win demonstrates the second face of hegemony – using participatory democratic power-to in order to build counter-hegemonic coalitions to hold governments to account, change existing policy and begin to repair the damage to democratic norms of good governance and trust in the integrity of government.[37]

Social construction in the policy process

Social construction approaches to critical policy studies are closely linked to interpretivist perspectives of the policy process. Social construction approaches argue that the way problems are defined is of particular importance because, as in interpretivism, problems are viewed as socially, politically and historically situated.[38] This means that we cannot understand policy problems without understanding the particular context that produced them. In contrast, the policy sciences approach tended to view the emergence of policy problems as an automatic occurrence external to the policy process. Problems, under this view, emerge for policy makers to deal with.

Social construction approaches unsettle this simple view of issue emergence, arguing policy makers also contribute to the emergence of problems. Social constructivists commonly focus on how problems come to be on the agenda, how these problems are defined, who is targeted by policy solutions, whether those solutions produce benefits or burdens for those targeted, and what power dynamics produce these results. Three prominent ways to enact answers to these questions have included problem definition, policy framing and the social construction of target populations.

Problem definition describes the way policy issues transform from matters in a state of nature, outside human control, to ones changeable by human action.[39] This process is inherently political, in that policy actors shape the perception of a policy problem and its (potential) solution via their definitions of the problem, and do so to benefit their political position.[40] Deborah A. Stone describes problem definitions as ‘causal stories’: ‘a process of image making, where the images have to do fundamentally with attributing cause, blame, and responsibility’.[41] These definitional images have profound influence on the way policy is designed.

Policy frames, on the other hand, broaden out from the analysis of a particular definition of a policy problem. Frames can be thought of as a way to interpret a complex social reality by selection and interpretation, as the framing process selects some aspects of reality while neglecting or ignoring others.[42] Framing therefore builds upon problem definition by expanding the analysis beyond micro-level frames that define individual problems to macro-level worldviews, values and ideologies that shape perceptions of the way the world works, and make explicit the connection between these micro and macro levels. Frames therefore operate at multiple levels to provide a common understanding of different policy problems by decision makers or policy advocates.

The social construction of target populations approach, building upon the insights of problem definition and framing, asks who is targeted by policy for benefits or burdens. Schneider and Ingram defined this approach as the value-laden ‘cultural characterizations or popular images of the persons or groups whose behavior and well-being are affected by public policy’ that helps set the policy agenda and influences the design of policy.[43] The social construction of target populations approach argues that politicians prioritise and articulate value judgements about target populations and make policy choices about who should or should not benefit from policy based upon these value judgements. These value judgements have a self-reinforcing and feed-forward effect, as politicians respond to wider problem definitions and public framings about target populations, and sometimes even use these definitions and framings to encourage or manipulate public opinion. The public often responds to and absorbs these definitions and framings, and feeds them back to politicians, creating a feedback loop. This impacts on citizens and groups, who participate more or less in politics according to how they are characterised and affected by government agendas and policies.

Schneider and Ingram created a typology (see Figure 1) to classify target populations by their positive or negative constructions and the strength and weakness of their power. Importantly, these categories are dynamic, meaning that while the construction or power of target populations is relatively sticky and consistent, these constructions can shift and change over time. A prominent example of these sticky, but shifting, constructions is the treatment of gay couples. Australian gay couples were targeted by policy makers with laws that constructed and criminalised their sexual relationships as deviant as late as the 1990s (the last state to repeal laws that made consensual sex between adult men illegal was Tasmania in 1997). Changing social attitudes and shifting constructions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) relationships have progressed to the point where more recent policy developments have legitimised LGBT relationships and legalised same-sex marriage in Australia. But the unusual choice not to legislate for this change in parliament, as per normal practice, and instead to conduct an expensive national plebiscite on the change, also reflected the stickiness of social constructions regarding homosexuality amongst politicians and a status quo reluctance to drive change from policy makers.[44]

Figure 1 Social construction of target populations typology. Source: Figure adapted from Schneider and Ingram 1993.

Gendered and sexually based violence and party differences in policy definitions, framing and social construction of target populations

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a contentious policy issue. Policy makers and activists frequently dispute the definition and framing of SGBV, particularly the underlying role of gender as a cause and gender’s role in policy solutions.[45] When framing SGBV, there is a spectrum of acceptance of gendered explanations to contesting, anti-feminist, frames:

  • ‘structural’ framing sees SGBV as a problem embedded in inequitable gendered societal structures.

  • ‘women-centred’ framing acknowledges disproportionate impacts on women but does not link that to wider structural factors.

  • ‘individualised’ framing centres individual causes –  e.g. mental illness – and degenders SGBV.

  • ‘contesting’ frames adopt anti-feminist explanations, explicitly contesting gender as a cause of SGBV or part of its solution.[46]

In the Australian context, policy settings have more or less focused on the gendered nature of SGBV by political party. The Australian Labor Party has more often adopted a structural frame of the problem, while the Coalition has more often adopted individualised and contesting frames.

The Hawke–Keating Labor governments of 1983–1996 accepted that SGBV was a human rights issue ‘arising from and reinforcing systemic gender inequalities in the distribution of power and resources’.[47] The Hawke–Keating governments used this language when setting up extensive policy machinery, at the national level and in cooperation with the states, to combat SGBV. The Howard-led Liberal–National Coalitions governments of 1996–2007, on the other hand, adopted individualised frames of ‘protective masculinity’, where ‘strong men were meant to protect women and children in a family situation and not hurt them’.[48] The Howard governments also focused on individual factors like family dysfunction and mental illness as causes of SGBV, rather than wider social structures, and gave space to anti-feminist men’s rights activists in framing SGBV. This framing reflected the Howard governments’ de-prioritisation of cooperative relations with the states in SGBV policy, sidelining of SGBV non-government organisations and greater emphasis on perpetrator programs.[49] Researchers have identified that these party framings broadly continued under the Labor Rudd–Gillard governments of 2007–2013 and the 2013–2022 Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison Coalition governments, even if the Coalition found it increasingly difficult to maintain these frames due to SGBV scandals, public pressure and changing social attitudes.[50]

We can examine SGBV policy with the social construction of target populations, too. The adoption of structural, individualised or contesting frames constructs women and children subjected to SGBV in different ways, especially along the agency–structure power spectrum. A structural frame accepts the framing of the feminist policy ecosystem, consisting of bureaucrats, researchers, activists and community organisations, and constructs them as legitimate contributors to the co-production of SGBV policy. This enhances their power-to in the policy process and over the material impacts of policy. Individualised and contesting frames limit the power of SGBV victims. These frames contest and reject the framing of the SGBV policy ecosystem, construct victims of SGBV as potential contributors to their violence through frames like family dysfunction and disempowers them by marginalising them from the policy process. But who gets to deploy these frames and who is disciplined by them also intersects with race and class. For example, white victims of SGBV like Rosie Batty and Grace Tame have been afforded prominent media platforms and national honours for their activism, whilst violence against First Nations women barely appears in the national media and consciousness. These social constructions therefore have real material effects regarding the power of women in the policy process and policy outcomes for women.

Policy discourses

The study of policy discourses draws upon the post-structuralist strand of critical policy studies, especially the work of Michel Foucault. Foucault asked how questions, rather than offering ‘any new universal ground for critical social theorizing’.[51] For Foucault, there were no universal or a priori social or political forces that stood outside history or context. Discourses, the key object of study for Foucault, were contextual, and therefore contingent upon that context. But what distinguishes discourse from social construction is the decentring of the state to focus instead on the way that discourses diffuse through our social and political world. Foucault was interested in knowing how discourses operated in this context, by what techniques discourses were operationalised, and what social and political effects discourses had on constituting individuals and their worlds.

Of particular importance to understanding how discourse constitutes the individual has been the concept of governmentality. Governmentality describes the ‘conduct of conduct’: the first conduct meaning steering, guiding or directing; and the second conduct meaning individual behaviour.[52] To explain further, remember that ‘government’ is more than the state and is operationalised by texts, actors and non-governmental institutions via discourse. Instead of pure power-over domination via the coercive power of the state, governmentality describes how the power of discourse acts through the consent of the individual to shape their own behaviour and therefore shape their being. Power, in this sense, is a middle point between absolute agency and liberty and absolute structure and domination because discourse acts as an influence on the form conduct takes (in both senses of steering and behaviour). Ultimately, it is the individual who enacts their conduct.

Governmentality has been used by critical policy studies scholars to analyse how the policy process has produced various logics and discourses that act through individuals and shaped their governing of self. This tradition has been explored in an Australian context regarding the way welfare policies ask individuals to govern themselves in particular ways, like participating in work-for-the-dole and welfare-to-work schemes.[53] These schemes steer the conduct of social security recipients not simply by coercively requiring them to participate in work programs, but also by seeking to inculcate a discourse and a sense of self that embeds paid work as a value to be pursued by social security recipients.

The second main strand of Foucault’s thought that has been influential in critical policy studies is the concept of problematisation – how relatively systematic discourses of government come to discover and question things (behaviour, processes and so on) as problems.[54] Problems are not self-evident, nor can they be understood by a pre-given ideology or understanding of the world.[55] Discourse scholars, along with social construction researchers, frequently begin their policy analyses by investigating and setting out the particular logics and practices that constitute a policy problem and site of (potential) policy action. A good example of critical policy studies problematisation is the ‘What’s the Problem’ approach.[56] Developed by Carol Lee Bacchi, the What’s the Problem approach questions what the problem is represented to be in a (proposed) policy, unpacks what is ‘implied or taken for granted’ in this representation and critically examines what material consequences emerge from these representations.[57] Bacchi’s questions that a researcher adopting the What’s the Problem approach would ask are outlined in the list below.

  1. What is the problem represented to be in a policy debate or policy proposal?
  2. What presuppositions or assumptions underlie this representation?
  3. What material effects are produced by this representation?
  4. What is left unproblematic in this representation?
  5. How would responses differ if the problem were represented differently?[58]

In sum, discourses permeate, and constitute, the policy process. The influence of discourse can be linked to all stages in the classic policy sciences model of the policy cycle. Discourses problematise issues for the policy agenda, shape the logic of policy formulation, permeate conduct during policy implementation and administration, and further shape the problematisation that occurs during evaluation.

Whiteness, Indigenous public policy and COVID-19 governance

The foundation of the contemporary Australian state was made possible only after the violent subjugation of First Nations peoples. At the beginning of the 20th century, Federation saw the introduction of policies that ensured the white control of the nation-state. Moreton-Robinson calls this the white possessive logic: ‘operationalized within discourses to circulate sets of meanings about ownership of the nation, as part of commonsense knowledge decision making, and socially produced conventions’.[59] Relatedly, the white possessive discourse operates in the present day alongside deficit discourses of Indigeneity, which characterise First Nations peoples as lacking and dysfunctional. These discourses, Moreton-Robinson notes, link to the material practices of white possession in Australia and to the denial of Indigenous sovereignties.

These discourses are reproduced in the Australian policy process. Research into the Australian Public Service has noted the ‘absent presence of racism’ in the sector, with myths of meritocracy, Indigenous deficit, pathology of cultural values and denial of racism all prevalent.[60] Similarly, research into Indigenous health policy notes the paternalism that permeates the area, with solutions like ‘income management plans and alcohol restrictions, welfare cards, and a mainstreaming agenda which drastically undermines the Indigenous community-controlled sector’.[61] These paternalistic policies make material discourses that ultimately fail to recognise the root cause of health inequality – race and racism – and the way it reproduces.

When COVID-19 arrived in Australia in early 2020, the Indigenous health sector and its peak body, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), lobbied the Federal government to issue a determination to restrict travel into remote communities in Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia.[62] While this was initially successful in keeping cases in these communities low, and was characterised by the active participation of the Indigenous sector in decision making, it also reproduced the discourses about First Nations peoples identified above regarding their lack and vulnerability and the need for paternalistic and controlling policy responses by the state. First Nations individuals lost the agency to make their own decisions about their health and protection and were subjected to a law-and-order response by police to enforce the determination. This both reflected established policy discourses about First Nations people and also reproduced them materially in policy implementation.


This chapter has defined and explored the field of critical policy studies. It did so by first explaining the emergence of critical policy studies in the 1970s and 1980s as a reaction to the rationalism and technocracy of postwar policy sciences. It then sketched a map of critical theory and linked these foundational ideas to the research agenda of critical policy studies. It finally unpacked three themes of critical policy studies with three Australian case studies, to demonstrate the field’s current research priorities and how critical policy studies might be used to understand contemporary issues in Australian politics and policy.

A key theme of the chapter has been that the operation of the policy process cannot be taken for granted. Instead, issue attention, agenda setting, problem definition, policy design, implementation and evaluation are processes permeated with interests, values and ideologies. They are also products of power relations and contestation that produce social constructions and discourses. Critical policy studies provides us with tools to recognise, analyse and evaluate these social constructions and discourses for democratic and social justice improvement. Students of critical policy studies can utilise these tools in their own critical thinking about policy issues and the operation of the policy process.


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About the author

Nicholas Bromfield is a lecturer with the Centre of Social Impact at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Nicholas is a public policy, administration and governance researcher with a background in political science. His research agenda diagnoses and provides solutions to issues of crisis, identity and their social impact via public policy from Australian and comparative perspectives.

His recent research projects have focused on Australia and New Zealand and the COVID-19 crisis, with interests in crisis administration, policy evidence, and civil society and third-sector participation. He also researches issues of Australian identity and their effect on policy and rhetoric.

  1. Dye 2013.
  2. Bromfield, Nicholas (2024). Critical policy studies. In Nicholas Barry, Alan Fenna, Zareh Ghazarian, Yvonne Haigh and Diana Perche, eds. Australian politics and policy: 2024. Sydney: Sydney University Press. DOI: 10.30722/sup.9781743329542.
  3. Mulderrig, Montessori and Farrelly 2019, 4–5.
  4. Kingdon 2003 [1984]; Baumgartner and Jones 1993.
  5. DeLeon 2008.
  6. Lasswell 2003 [1951].
  7. Lasswell 2003 [1951], 102–3.
  8. DeLeon 2008; Turnbull 2008.
  9. DeLeon 2008.
  10. Turnbull 2008, 73.
  11. Fisher et al. 2015, 3.
  12. Bachrach and Baratz 1970.
  13. Fisher et al. 2015, 8.
  14. Fisher et al. 2015, 1.
  15. Hoff 2018, 1145.
  16. Dryzek and Dunleavy 2009; Marx and Engels 2019 [1848].
  17. Bates 1975, 352.
  18. Houseman 2018, 700–2.
  19. Best, Bonefeld and O’Kane 2018, 2.
  20. Adapted from Geuss 1981, 1–2.
  21. Buchstein 2010.
  22. Buchstein 2010; Best, Bonefeld and O’Kane 2018.
  23. Saretzki 2015, 81–7.
  24. Buchstein 2010.
  25. Fisher et al. 2015, 1.
  26. Norris 2011.
  27. Allen 1998.
  28. Bromfield and McConnell 2021; Chodor and Hameiri 2022.
  29. Howarth 2010.
  30. Ojha 2013.
  31. Bromfield and Page 2020.
  32. Carney 2019; Whiteford 2021, 12.
  33. Carney 2019.
  34. Whiteford 2021, 1.
  35. Whiteford 2021.
  36. Whiteford 2021, 6–7.
  37. Braithwaite 2020.
  38. Barbehön, Münch and Lamping 2015, 246.
  39. Stone 1989.
  40. Stone 1989; Rochefort and Cobb 1994; Bacchi 1999.
  41. Stone 1989, 282.
  42. Barbehön, Münch and Lamping 2015, 248.
  43. Schneider and Ingram 1993, 334.
  44. Carson, Ratcliff, and Dufresne 2017.
  45. Yates 2020.
  46. Yates 2020, 5.
  47. Harris Rimmer and Sawer 2016, 748; Chappell and Costello 2011, 639.
  48. Johnson 2019, 208.
  49. Harris Rimmer and Sawer 2016.
  50. Harris Rimmer and Sawer 2016; Johnson 2019, 2022.
  51. Lövbrand and Stripple 2015, 93. Emphasis added.
  52. Dean 2001.
  53. Dean 2001; Brady 2011.
  54. Dean 2001.
  55. Lövbrand and Stripple 2015.
  56. Bacchi 1999.
  57. Bacchi 1999, 2.
  58. Adapted from Bacchi 1999, 12–13.
  59. Moreton-Robinson 2015, xii.
  60. Bargallie 2020.
  61. Watego and Singh 2020, 198.
  62. Donohue and McDowall 2021.


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