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Semiotic Analysis and Public Policy: Connecting Theory and Practice



Semiotic Analysis and Public Policy evaluates several key areas of public policy that are dependent on narrative, naming, sign, and branding to create meaning. Semiotic analysis, drawing on the work of Saussure, Peirce, and others, allows for creation of a case-oriented model of brand versus product, and of medium compared with message. Using a critical Habermasian lens, Atkinson convincingly exposes approaches focusing too heavily on instrumentality and rhetoric that claims a resolution of complex societal dilemmas. Rooted in the literature on public policy and semiotics, Atkinson creates an opportunity to delve more fully into the creation of narratives and meaning in policy, and the origins and maintenance of public programs. Evaluation of such programs shows various levels of disconnect between popular understanding of public considerations, political outcomes, and what results from the administrative/regulatory process in support of the law. This book will be of interest for scholars and researchers of public policy, policy analysis, public administration, public management, and policy implementation.
Semiotic Analysis and Public
Semiotic Analysis and Public Policy evaluates several key areas of public
policy that are dependent on narrative, naming, sign, and branding to
create meaning. Semiotic analysis, drawing on the work of Saussure,
Peirce, and others, allows for creation of a case-oriented model of brand
versus product, and of medium compared with message.
Using a critical Habermasian lens, Atkinson convincingly exposes
approaches focusing too heavily on instrumentality and rhetoric that
claims a resolution of complex societal dilemmas. Rooted in the litera-
ture on public policy and semiotics, Atkinson creates an opportunity to
delve more fully into the creation of narratives and meaning in policy,
and the origins and maintenance of public programs. Evaluation of such
programs shows various levels of disconnect between popular under-
standing of public considerations, political outcomes, and what results
from the administrative/regulatory process in support of the law.
This book will be of interest for scholars and researchers of public
policy, policy analysis, public administration, public management, and
policy implementation.
Christopher L. Atkinson is Assistant Professor in the Public Administra-
tion program at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida,
USA. He serves as contributing faculty in the doctoral program at
Walden University and has taught courses in the School of Public
Administration at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida,
and at Unity College, Unity, Maine. He received his PhD from Florida
Atlantic University, and BA and MPA degrees from George Washi ngton
University in Washington, DC. His research interests include public
management and policy studies, public budgeting and procurement, reg-
ulation, and emergency management.
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32 Decentring Urban Governance
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33 Hybrid Public Policy Innovations
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34 Semiotic Analysis and Public Policy
Connecting Theory and Practice
Christopher L. Atkinson
For more information about this series, please visit: https://www.routledge.
Semiotic Analysis and Public
Connecting Theory and Practice
Christopher L. Atkinson
First published 2019
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Atkinson, Christopher L., editor.
Title: Semiotic ana lysis and public policy : connecting theory
and practice / edited by Christopher Atkinson.
Desc ription: New York, NY : Routledge, 2019. |
Series: Routledge studies in governanc e and public policy ; 34 |
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identiers: LCCN 2018056893 (print) |
LCCN 2019004012 (ebook) | ISBN 9781351205993 (Master) |
ISBN 9781351205986 (Adobe) | ISBN 9781351205962 (ePub3)|
ISBN 9781351205979 (Mobi) | ISBN 9780815383475 (hbk) |
ISBN 9781351205993 (ebk)
Subjects: LCSH: Policy sciences—Case studies. | Political
planning—Case stud ies. | Sem iotics—Political aspects—
Case studies.
Classication: LCC H97 (ebook) | LCC H97 .S46 2019 (pr int) |
DDC 320.601/4—dc23
LC record available at https://lcc
ISBN: 978-0-8153-8347-5 (hbk)
ISB N: 97 8-1-351-205 99-3 (eb k)
Typeset in Times New Roman
by codeMantra
To Debra Atkinson, my mom, for her work ethic,
To Janet Smith, my grandmother, retired postmaster of
St.David, Illinois, USA, and exemplar of public service.
List of Figures ix
List of Tables xi
Preface: The Words Fail Us xiii
Acknowledgments xxv
1 Introduction 1
2 Semiotic Analysis and Public Policy: Theory and Practice 24
3 On Filth: Food Regulation, Enforcement, and Cheese 47
4 A Semiotic Analysis of Green Public Procurement 75
5 New York City’s Conicts of Interest Law:
Compliance versus Ethical Capacity 97
6 Symbol and Substance in Local Government
Workforce Development: First Source’ Hiring Programs 117
7 By Soil, Blood, and Administration: A Narrative
Analysis of German Immigration Law 141
8 Reforming the Affordable Care Act: A Semiotic
Analysis of Tweets Using LIWC 165
9 Economic and Energy Development and the Goal of
Sustainability in Thailand: An Argumentation Analysis 192
10 Bridging the Gap between Intent and Practice 220
Index 237
1.1 Reference, symbol, and referent (after Eco, 1976, p. 59) 19
3.1 Mimolette, aged 12 months 57
3.2 US FDA Dunbar letter, 1940 62
3.3 Volume of instances of import refusal, by year 67
4.1 Semiotic square, green products and scal responsibility,
based on Greimas and Courtâes (1982, pp. 309–310) 84
4.2 Network, General, public-centered websites, EU, Green
Public Procurement 87
4.3 Network Legal and policy framework websites, EU,
Green Public Procurement 88
6.1 Relationship between reference, symbol, and referent in
First Source programs, using Eco model (1976, p. 59) 122
6.2 Comparison of unemployment rates, District of
Columbia, Providence, RI, and USA (Data from Bureau
of Labor Statistics, 2015) 129
7.1 Wo rd cloud for Act on the Residence, Economic Activity
and Integration of Foreigners in the Federal Territory
(translation) 152
7.2 Network analysis map, use of term foreigners in German
Residence Act 155
8.1 Bag of Words, Word Cloud for McCain tweets 180
8.2 Tweets, McCain Subgroup, August 25 to October 26, 2017 181
8.3 Tweets, LIWC2015 Results, ACA/Obamacare Tweets,
McCain Subgroup 18 4
9.1 Thai purchasing power in Thai Baht, per capita, by region 203
9.2 Thailand, energy consumption compared with
population, 2000–2018 206
9.3 Thailand, geographical features and terrain 207
9.4 Thailand Power Development Plan network analysis
using CATPAC (Pony) 210
9.5 EGAT network analysis using CATPAC (Pony) 211
9.6 Gulf Electric network analysis using CATPAC (Pony) 212
9.7 Thailand EEC network analysis using CATPAC (Pony) 214
List of Figures
3.1 Rationale for import refusal, by cumulative use in
import refusal system 63
3.2 Frequency of import refusal, by country 67
4.1 Topic and inuential word analysis, EU green
procurement websites 89
5.1 Potential textual sources for comparative analysis at the
legislative, regulative, and interpretive levels 107
5.2 Contrast table comparing document analysis of Blue
Book and Orange Book 108
6.1 Major laws and themes of the District of Columbia First
Source Program 131
6.2 Major laws and themes of the Providence, Rhode Island
First Source Program 134
7.1 Total-Degree Centrality, ORA, of Residence Act 153
8.1 LIWC, Tweets on ACA involving Senator John McCain,
compared with ambient Twitter background levels 182
9.1 Focus on sustainable development, public-private
focus,of Thailand Ministry of Energy, EGAT,
GulfElectric, and EEC 214
10.1 Overview of public policy areas, methodological
approaches, and general ndings 221
List of Tables
In the introductory editorial of a 2018 issue of Public Administration
Review (PAR), Jeremy Hall and R. Paul Battaglio lamented recent US
federal government dismissals of evidence- and science-based budgeting
and policy. “This was shocking to those of us who believe in professional
public management and support practices, policies, and management ap-
proaches that are evidence-informed or evidence-based” (Hall & Batta-
glio, 2018, p. 181). They went on to warn of how the term ‘evidence-based’
could be employed symbolically in an environment characterized by vot-
ers motivated by values and beliefs – that using the term in this way might
game the system, appealing to bias. They claimed that the PAR “plays
a central role in this debate…in transferring knowledge to practitioners
on the front line who can make immediate use of our ndings across all
levels of government and international boundaries” (p. 182).
Hall and Battaglio are surely correct about the use of terms in sym-
bolic ways. Throwing the net wide, public administration includes a host
of disciplines, touching social and natural sciences. Meaning and seek-
ing after knowledge can get lost amid the political context, where beliefs
might be as important as facts in determining an outcome.
Public practitioners are busier than ever throughout the world, with
government increasingly expected to do more with less under often- hostile
political and practical circumstances. While I read PAR and generally
enjoy the articles, the assertion of PAR’s central role is overcondent, if
taken as the voice of public administration as an academic discipline. It
is a sound question whether most frontline practitioners read PAR, or
most academic work in public administration or its related disciplines
for that matter. One might be able to make a case for the membership
in the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) as benecial
for a government job, because of ASPA’s valuable practitioner- oriented
webinars on program evaluation, human resources, and other career-
oriented concerns. Most public administrators work outside a context
when they have the luxury of time to read academic journals, even if
journals were written precisely to their interest and potential use.
I was once asked by a student how they should bring theory into the
public workplace. I measured my words: Bring it in carefully, because
The Words Fail Us
Christopher L. Atkinson
xiv Preface
the modern public workplace is busy and performance is essential to sur-
vival. Public-sector leadership is ideology-driven and aware of how sym-
bols might trump evidence. It seems as though the academy is sometimes
not aware of this, given its tendency to maintain a steady focus on pro-
duction of work that is, sorry to write, irrelevant to most practitioners.
The more the academy asserts its relevance, the more practice might
be tempted to waive off public administration as a discipline, let alone
a profession. It is more important than ever before that administrators,
and the eld’s academics, not talk down or be seen as speaking in a con-
descending way to the public. It is essential that there be an increase in
recognition that the reality of public administration’s work is, for the
public espousing it, their reality, whether positive or negative. The pub-
lic is (mostly) outside of its government and suspicious of it; it needs to
be welcomed back in. The separation between practice and research in
the academy is real, and possibly widening. There is a question of prior-
ity: Closed theory-space that excludes and limits participation, or open
theory- space, less constrained, comfortable with debate, and able to ad-
dress and possibly even include opposing voices? (Abel, 2017).
For the public’s part, people have plenty of reasons to question and
doubt policy and programs; in the name of a supposed systematic, objec-
tive orientation, programs sweep in, supposedly offering tremendous im-
provements beneting all concerned, only to leave questionable processes
and outcomes in their wake. Science is misunderstood; its potential errors
are not taken into account. The rigors of method and pretensions to ob-
jectivity do not stand up to practical application in the real world, across
the spectrum of human experience. The concern with “true, objective
knowledge” ignores the idea that interpretation is required to make sense
of data; facts are derived as a consequence of both the person considering
and the consideration. There is a need to balance the philosophical and
methodological in policy studies, and to have respect for both; percep-
tion and theory guide development of what is construed to be fact– data
themselves do not create facts or truths, or even lead to understanding,
which is a better goal (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2018).
The potential success told in narrative ultimately outweighs the practi-
cality of implementation, at least initially, and in the minds of many not
well acquainted with a public program. The story of potential success
in a program is not even a pure description of what is likely, because the
telling of the story is wrapped up in the self-reexivity of the storyteller
(Kim, 2016). We may be receiving not only the intent for a program, but
also what the sender of the message feels about the client community,
whether they understand the community well at all, or how condent the
policymaker is in the solution being offered. Through stories, as Kim
notes (2016), we are also reminded that there is more than one way to look
at a situation.
Preface xv
Public administration’s best role is to host this discourse and engage
the public with integrity and attention to the consequence of the public’s
viewpoint. If public ofcials are good subject matter experts, that is one
aspect of the work, but interacting and communicating with the public in
a fruitful way is the primary work. Whats more, it is a privilege.
Barring constructive interaction, segments of the public and leader-
ship in the public sector may display a certain conceit, and speak with
supposed authority about matters which they know little. Public admin-
istrators may do the same thing, in a public forum, and have their lack
of understanding demonstrated to them by members of the public who
know better. About government, the public may charge corruption or
incompetence, and still suggest the presence of vast conspiracies, of a
sort that would require near-perfect knowledge and timing from both
individuals and institutions. Sometimes, when government fails to work,
it is not because there was any intent or calculation at all. When we are
incompetent, we are sometimes unable to gure that out; still, citizens
may be blissfully unaware of the folly of their reasoning or assertions
about public matters, especially when the assumptions come from a place
of misunderstanding. Of course, there are times when the intent is for
programs to fail, and program failure is not incompetence so much as is
willful nonfeasance or negligence that does serve specic interests other
than those of a program’s intended clients. It is important to be critical
enough in regular evaluations of public matters to know the difference;
in any case, there is wisdom in foregoing a position of superiority, be-
cause we may not be entitled to it.
The assumptions being made about public bureaucracy – that public
employees as a group are incompetent or worse – are especially foolish,
in light of the fact that the public employs these people. These comments
come from an uninformed place. By taking such an accusatorial view
of public employees, based on unapprised, biased, and self-interested
rhetoric from elected ofcials or media outlets, the public is generally
taking a pass on its truest, best role: participating, fully informed and
constructively, in the public sphere. For some, high-placed concepts of
civic-mindedness were swapped out for consumerism and individual
pursuits, and service in the public interest for government-as-product or
entitlement. Too many assumptions are made about the validity of con-
structs in the public sphere, as if willful ignorance were a badge of honor.
Not only is the public manipulated – it might even be happy about it,
with the assumption that the surface action – a favored candidate win-
ning, or a crooked gure eliminated – has much at all to do with their
individual lives. Rather than focusing on our pressing challenges as a
society, the public may participate in fashioning others’ ego-driven sto-
ries of conquest, and views of attaining the ‘public interest,’ like extras
in a reality television show. When these activities come to naught, the
xvi Preface
public demands action, change, reform, or even revenge. But this is a
poor excuse for public involvement, and by that time, the opportunity for
intervention and correction has passed.
How did we get here? Can we hope for something better, or are we stuck
with tribal brutishness, accusations of incompetence and ill- in formed
claims of superiority, and huge scores of people who need and deserve
better service from their government, and frankly, from their society as
a whole?
Public policy has been dened as “the study of government decisions
and actions designed to deal with a matter of public concern” and are
purposive courses of action devised in response to a perceived problem
(Cochran & Malone, 2014, p. 3, emphasis mine). Policies are expressions
of the will of the people, passed through an often-elaborate system of
interpretation, and are expressions of how society and its government
are changing to serve the public. Because this dynamic takes place in a
public setting, the policies and programs may be taken to be represen-
tative of the public on some level, in the sense that public policy is not
only about government choice in action but also about choosing among
options, some that are more ethical or appropriate than others. The line
between market values and morality perhaps has become blurred (Co-
chran & Malone, 2014). Absent individual efforts, the natural road to
intervention in the public sphere has been through policy and institution
of public programs.
While people become less engaged in certain respects, such as attend-
ing live public meetings of governing bodies, they have become more ac-
tive online, through social networks and other virtual venues. While new
forms of airing grievances are always welcome, it is questionable whether
this participation amounts to much, when not accompanied by other
forms of action. Where society could focus on obligations it has, the dis-
cussion too often rests on rights to one’s apathy and the place of individ-
uals, each utterly alone on millions of islands connected by smartphones.
Meanwhile, the world of public policy moves forward, sometimes refer-
ring largely to itself, or to illustrations of a need to return to times long
gone, in favored ideations of problems and their solutions. Meanwhile,
much public work is being done, but for what ends?
Instrumental rationality and the legal tradition cannot hope to save
us without help, even if society hinges largely on means and goals; as
Habermas suggested, technology has become an ideology of its own,
able to conceal hidden agendas, rather than serving as means to an end
(Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2018). Rather than being a vehicle for accom-
plishing important public ends, the law may be obliging in concealing
the real intent behind inscrutable, unapproachable language and pro-
cess. Administrators may cover their actions with technological blather.
It is a structuralist position that there are expectations of how law and
policy are structured, to be considered the law. It is possible within this
Preface xvii
structure to bury intent. The image painted by law is not a mirror of the
actual world; rather, it references “concepts in our mind” (Tyson, 2006,
p. 214). The more we have structured the world in the form of legal frame-
works, denitions, and the like, the more we might feel condent that
the world created via the law is stable and unchanging, even if its basis
is weak and lacking coherence with an actual, lived experience. Our ex-
perience of the world in policy is directed in some sense by how words
are used in law – it is a mediation, and decisions are made for us about
what we see or do not see. What law ‘tells’ us through such portrayals
is accomplished via a system of rules, structures, and rudiments, and
emphasis, and the presence or absence of certain facets, becomes very
important to uncovering meaning (Tyson, 2006).
These are difcult times, and leadership is conspicuously absent in
many instances; it may be that people want power without the responsi-
bility. If “leaders think that they are special, that ordinary rules do not
apply for them, and that followers should be expected to do as the leader
says, not as the leader does” (Price, 2006, p. 1), where does this leave
public policy in practice, obligations of the process and its implementers
to the public, and any expectations the public may reasonably have for
involvement in the public sphere? Actions of leaders may be attributable
to their “belief and knowledge” rather than simple selshness (Price,
2006, p. 1). Leaders in the public sector may not even fully comprehend
what is expected of them from an ethical standpoint; a lack of knowl-
edge and belief in one’s base of understanding and need to act may lead
to decisions that are not in the public interest, but because the leader is
simply not aware, the decision’s power to achieve positive change is fet-
tered (Price, 2006). Attributing broad, near-total knowledge of the policy
environment and the information needed to make decisions with full un-
derstanding to leaders is, on the face of it, absurd.
But, this is not a text that seeks to identify villains. Hopefully, lead-
ers do the best with what they have, given their bounded rationality; the
monochrome portrayal of people as entirely good or bad, for purposes of
advancing policy beliefs, serves only to push differing sides further apart.
As the level of leadership increases, so does the potential for leaders to
lose the detail of the operation, and to act in a way that they feel is justi-
ed, even though others viewing such interactions may have an entirely
different view. If leaders have no interest in carefully exploring data and
analyses, and reviewing competing narratives, then the chance for mal-
administration is even higher.
The place of public administration is all the more important when we
take stock of the realities of public-sector leadership. The public at-large
might settle for agreeing with a leader, absent sufcient information by
which to make an informed decision, simply because the individual seems
nice, or is seen as a successful person. There is no real critical evaluation
of policy positions or potential of same for attainment, most of the time.
xviii Preface
What might make these times more difcult than others is the immedi-
acy of response, the polarization of thought and the gap between sides in
debates, and the need to tell stories, replete with heroes, villains, victims,
all tied together with a happy ending to t within the connes accorded
by the 24/7 media cycle, reality or not. This holds at least until the next
big story comes along. Critical insight, and attention to the use of signs,
symbols, and myths, has never been more necessary to maintain coher-
ence in the public sphere. People need to talk and move forward with one
another, and to create more appropriate, tolerant, and inviting contexts.
The need for faux-naïvety (Hair, 2011) and hiding of intellectual ability,
to avoid harsh interaction with public stubbornness, similarly must end.
For many, there exists a need for “perpetuation of the past and serving
the ends of an evanescent order” (Wellmer, 1974, p. 11), and challenges to
this worldview, including critical theory, are thus met with disapproval.
There is potential for liberation from this preferred path, but one must
realize that the control on the collective viewpoint is more or less total,
from an early age. One’s acquisition of language, as Wellmer observed, is
a training in social life that shapes how one sees reality, and constructs it.
Not only are most unaware of the nature of this imposition from a critical
standpoint, but they also do not interpret the meaning of what is going
on around them, the communication exchanges, systems, and process, in
any more than a cursory manner. It is a game, but many involved with
this game are not aware that a game is being played. The supposed objec-
tiveness of our daily reality is nothing of the sort; there is a domination
of the masses, but it is not experienced as coercion as much as it is not
experienced at all. We may not feel repressed by this system, so have no
interest in being saved from it. Because there is little consciousness, pat-
terns of reason can remain inexible; if only through a bit more emphasis
on instrumental rationality, we can achieve a just society (Wellmer, 1974).
One answers the impossible with the farcical. Even in closely analyzing a
scenario, there is a risk that a depiction of reality, socially constructed,
is a mere fabrication, lacking the detail and nuance of the actual circum-
stance (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2018).
The concern with staying within or rebuilding a traditional policy en-
vironment is that these are pretensions and articialities, not unlike the
rebuilding of a historical environment (Jackson, 1980). Recent interpre-
tations may not result in the ‘original landscape’ or even an approxima-
tion, and are not the ‘image of creation’ (Jackson, 1980, p. 101). What
is especially worrisome is that desired outcomes are anachronistic – a
return to a halcyon period might be viewed as a return to the ‘bad-old
days’ of prejudice or misunderstanding. It is as much ‘what’ with a pol-
icy as ‘when.’ There is nothing particularly sacred about any of it. Pol-
icies are tied to their historical present, created in the now as they are
interpreted, even as they are, like the things the Smithsonian collects,
bits and pieces of a vernacular past – considered and possibly cherished
Preface xix
alongside the trappings of their contexts (Jackson, 1980). What might be
otherwise considered a string of questionable assumptions and decisions
makes more sense when considered in context. In reality, people want
both: sentimentalization and a return to a Golden Age, and government
and policies that make sense for today. Hand-crafted, on-trend, artisanal
public administration; government-as-product, citizen-as-consumer, all
imagined to work better with fewer resources and increasing demands,
with convenient bureaucratic scapegoats when programs fail to achieve
their objectives. When, if ever, is it something real?
There is not a set of generic ideas that allow comfort, upon which we
may all agree. As a result, we may not remain within a false space of
comfort, where competing ideas are not voiced, and those that disagree
are not afforded the opportunity to share their views. The more atten-
tion one pays to protesting the right of others to speak, the more atten-
tion might be paid to the offending party and their words. Instead of
an opportunity to disagree, society is becoming more inclined to trade
discourse for opportunities to voice rage that is sometimes ill-informed,
sometimes ineffectual against prevailing societal trends. The result can
be that the potential for engagement from passionate participants in a
discourse, which should be encouraged, is torn asunder by entropy. In-
stead of engaging ideas individually and offering individual voice, there
is a sense that a shortcut is good enough – if the loudest voices in the
room believe a certain concept, then it might be true more or less, and
supporting it certainly is more appropriate than doing nothing, or allow-
ing nonsensical, disagreeable, or appalling speech to be aired at all.
Symbols are paramount. Jung addressed this concern: “it is folly to
dismiss [cultural symbols] because…they seem to be absurd or irrele-
vant.They are important constituents of our mental makeup and vital
forces in the building up of human society, and…cannot be eradicated
without serious loss. Where they are repressed…their specic energy dis-
appears…with unaccountable consequences” (Jung, 1968, p. 83). What
makes more sense is to attack ideas that give one discomfort on their
merits, and argue against them forcefully with evidence. Debates become
about performance of emotion and the power of the affront to one’s sen-
sibilities as a statement, and symbol itself, valid or not. This is dangerous
because it reduces the opportunity for a robust, engaging public sphere,
and because critical thinking is absent, revenge-taking may substitute
for disagreement and growth. There are too many problems that require
the public’s cooperation and engagement, to move toward and achieve
The answer we seek probably does not lie on the periphery, either right
or left. The public should be thinking for itself, and not be lulled into the
idea that capitalism, conservatism, or progressivism have it ‘all gured
out’ for us. What power has gured out is an ability to perpetuate itself
and use people toward the ends of those in power. The public is prone to
xx Preface
distortions, due to communication failures and intentional obfuscation,
and is regularly and predictably distracted by pseudo-events. “By har-
boring, nourishing, and even enlarging our extravagant expectations we
create the demand for the illusions with which we deceive ourselves. And
which we pay others to make to deceive us” (Boorstin, 1992, p. 5).
When it comes to measures taken to reform programs, it is the pro-
grams themselves that are expected to carry out reforms, by and large.
Bureaucratic organizations are resilient and meet such challenges fairly
well but we should not be so unmindful of the cumulative impact of
such “reformist” agendas over time, particularly those based in ideo-
logical notions of the failure of government to achieve efciency or ef-
fectiveness. It is worth considering that public-sector employees do a
commendable job carrying out the public’s business as a general rule,
and this is true even when their efforts are compared with those of the
private sector (Caiden, 2001). This may lead us to the idea that “reform”
and trashing of the public sector for political points in election cycles
serves exactly that purpose, and worse, the damage such activity inicts
upon the public sector is doubtless ruinous over the long term, both to
careerists in public service and to those who may consider a career in
However, the text of policy in its law form might be illusory, bearing
little if any resemblance to the reality of the problem or issue its cre-
ation is intended to address. It could be vague, seeking after the exper-
tise and detailed understanding of the other, in administration, to effect
some sense of comprehension to the concern in play. This imperfect con-
struct in the public sphere seeks to impersonate and then modify a car-
icature version of reality, though the body politics fails to understand
well enough all players and machinations in place to actually achieve
much of anything, most of the time. Because the system is not actually
based so much upon the closeness of t between policy and reality or ac-
complishment in outcomes, but rather on stability and creating the right
conditions for operation of markets, the lack of movement makes little
difference. The disconnect is hardly noticeable: “Government itself had
become too big, had taken too much upon itself as insurer and guarantor
of economy and society, manager of natural and human resources, and
sponsor of intellectual and cultural talent…beyond its…capacity to real-
ize” (Caiden, 2001, p. 655).
Our desire for progress is in some aspect how we are getting stuck; it is
a priority inversion – where a low priority item takes over our resources,
taking away from the larger task in context. The fact is, the small aspects
are important, and how larger aims are achieved. A policy is often con-
strained by precedent. Efforts to achieve ‘effectiveness’ fail because there
is too much attention to the efciency of certain components. Those
components can be ne-tuned, with not much benet to the effective-
ness of the system. Further, there is a tendency to want to address the
Preface xxi
one most important factor, even when the problem at hand might have
a multi-factor cause, and necessitate a more complex design in terms of
solution (Christian & Grifths, 2016). The need for the simple, quick-hit
answer is popular in politics because it can make someone appear a ge-
nius, but real resolution is more often with the details overlooked in an
oversimplied model.
This b ook engages inst ances of regu lation, policy, and public c onstructs
through semiotics and lenses of critical theory. It was written with both
academics and practitioners in mind. I began writing this book with the
general concept that words fail us (a play on Murray Edelman’s 1977 book
titled Political language: Words that succeed and policies that fail ). The
prescriptions and pronouncements alone do not accomplish the difcult
work of government or of engaging the complexity of the public sphere,
even though they might accomplish a connotative, vision- forming, and
branding task (Berger, 2019). Rhetoric does not build bridges between
groups or heal wounds; rhetoric is self-interested, and through its efforts
to persuade, creates winners and losers, heroes and villains, and stories
that are as serviceable, if not more saleable to mass audiences for con-
stituting reality, as indicators of social change. The words do not have
to accomplish anything other than to create belief and spur desired ac-
tions that lead either directly to processes that produce preferred policy
options, or become a self-referential validation for such action. Even in
the presence of considerable scientic evidence, symbols and stories may
capture the public’s imagination, driving citizens from the cold, dismal
world of reality into a place where everything is possible, where they are
important, and perhaps most vitally, where they were absolutely right all
along. This fantasy can be made real by decisive action in some identied
area – made possible through laws, executive statements, program design
and implementation, empanelment of blue-ribbon committees, and the
like. The more one locks into a preferred way of thinking, the more the
rest of the world, with its differing opinions and interpretations, seems
to fall away.
The purpose is to examine why accomplishment in policy is sometimes
arguable or absent, even in instances of grandiose policy pronounce-
ment and celebration of great social-political effect. A further intent
is to encourage readers to take time to engage policy rhetoric and the
instruments of policy critically, to identify the breakdowns between
thought and action that jeopardize not only the success of intended pol-
icy schemes, but also the trust placed in government institutions by the
public. When people are caught up in a public role with the possibility
of reform for its own sake, or in dismantling institutional structures for
the purpose of doing that, without fully understanding original purpose
and practical use, would-be change agents are engaging in behavior that
is self-serving and harms the public interest. It is not only unfair to prey
upon the unfamiliarity of the public on a policy issue, it is wrong. This is
xxii Preface
so even if the intended outcome is supposedly, in the mind of the acting
ofcial, in the public interest. Ideology and statements of broad positive
intent are means that belie cold facts to the contrary. The public may be-
lieve that altruism informs ofcial behavior, but likely a primary driver
is the attaining and keeping of power, or achievement of private benet;
the two do not need to be mutually exclusive, but differences in problem
denition create public programs that could be doomed to failure. If one
evaluates statements and text on their own, as self-referencing objects,
and then in context, as part of the legal tradition, or larger policy dis-
cussion, one may nd divides that demand discussion. The statement of
policy may not align with the outcome, and the simple fact of the matter
is that this is because it does not have to, to accomplish the intended
policy ends. Still, “ofcials bear the responsibility for turning goals into
realities – without them, policies remain only promises” (Riggs, 2001,
p.vii). Promises are not enough.
I am asking questions and viewing cases in which some in authority
positions have no interest. I have no illusions about the value of this
volume or its inherent worth, other than to hope that it will contribute
to the larger literature, extend understanding, and lead to more dis-
cussions and debate. Any role I have as critic of program and process
is intended to invite discourse, and to offset this seeming natural ten-
dency to welcome into public policy debates only those that already
agree with pre-determined notions. I consider the passage and an-
nouncement of policies and programs, lacking appropriate subsequent
implementation and review, or the disconnect between stated intent
and implementation, as pervasive deviations (Avesson & Sköldberg,
2018) in the public sector. I recognize, though, that the systems that
supposedly exist to serve such programs might exist for other reasons –
individual ego aggrandizement and wealth-creation, for example – and
so intent might well be a serviceable cover for perpetuating an all-too-
common public lie.
For policy students, the cases in this book might be taken as a warn-
ing to avoid assuming much about intent from public pronouncements,
and about the need to follow the logic of how a program is supposed to
achieve stated goals, and whether any success achieved is measurable.
Where knowledge and interest exists, citizens should be involved in pub-
lic policy processes; where interest and knowledge are lacking, society
must do a better job of addressing that, even if it means that leaders may
nd it more difcult to engage in self-serving policy behaviors toward
scripted outcomes. People are not only entitled to involvement – they
are entitled to liberation and to lead their own way out from constraint.
They are entitled in the public space to not be customers in a self- service
checkout line; they are allowed to be burdened with the difculty of
thinking about public matters and the potential that they have been mis-
led by their understanding of policy processes.
Preface xxiii
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Alvesson, M., & Sköldberg, K. (2018). Reexive methodology: New vistas for qual-
itative research, 3rd edition. London: Sage Publications.
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Boorstin, D. J. (1992, orig. 1962). The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America.
New York: Vintage.
Caiden, G. E. (2001). Administrative reform. In A. Farazmand (Ed.), Handbook
of comparative and development public administration, 2nd edition, revised and
expanded, 655– 667. New York: Marcel Dekker.
Christian, B., & Grifths, T. (2016). Algorithms to live by: The computer science of
human decisions. New York: Henry Holt.
Cochran, C. L., & Malone, E. F. (2014). Public policy: Perspectives and choices,
5th edition. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Edelman, M. (1977). Political language: Words that succeed and policies that fail.
New York: Academic Press.
Hair, R. (2011). ‘Local color’: Ronald Johnson, Charles Ives, and America. Com-
parative American Studies, 9(2), 131–145.
Hall, J. L., & Battaglio, R. P. (2018). Research, evidence, and decision making:
Charting PAR’s role in evidence-based management. Public Administration
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of Massachusetts Press.
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(E ds.), Man and his symbols, 1– 94. New York: Dell.
Kim, J. (2016). Understanding narrative inquiry: The crafting and analysis of sto-
ries as research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Price, T. L. (2006). Understanding ethical failures in leadership. New York: Cam-
bridge University Press.
Riggs, F. W. (2001). Prologue. In A. Farazmand (Ed.), Handbook of comparative
and development public administration, 2nd edition, revised and expanded, vii–
viii. New York: Marcel Dekker.
Tyson, L. (2006). Critical theory today: A user-friendly guide, 2nd edition. New
York: Routledge.
Wellmer, A. (1974). Critical theory of society (J. Cumming, Trans). New York:
Se ab ury.
I am grateful to Natalja Mortensen, Senior Acquisitions Editor and
her team at Routledge, for the opportunity to pursue this book project.
Without them, this book would not be possible. Thanks to anonymous
reviewers who provided excellent critique and valuable advice in the
book’s commissioning stage. I also offer my appreciation to the staff at
codeMantra for their editing work.
Special thanks to my wife Allison and my children for their patience
and encouragement. I could not have completed this project without
their support.
Professor Joseph Woelfel (University at Buffalo, The State Univer-
sity of New York) provided me a copy of the CATPAC software, which I
have used here to analyze communication in Thailand energy policy and
sustainable development. Thanks to Public Integrity for permission to
use two previously published articles, here presented in updated form;
both are copyright © the American Society for Public Administration,, reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd, http:// on behalf of the American Society for Public
• Christopher L. Atkinson (2015). New York City’s conicts of inter-
est law: Compliance versus ethical capacity. Public Integrity, 17(3),
• Christopher L. Atkinson (2016). Symbol and substance in local gov-
ernment workforce development: First source hiring programs. Pub-
lic Integrity, 19(4), 374–393.
I presented a draft of Chapter 8, on reforming the Affordable Care Act,
at the Southeastern Conference for Public Administration (SECoPA) in
Birmingham, Alabama, in September 2018. I am obliged for the oppor-
tunity to present, as well as the feedback received.
Great thanks to Professors Ali Farazmand, Cliff McCue, and Alka Sa-
pat at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, for being such tremen-
dous mentors as I have worked toward an academic career. Thanks to my
new colleagues at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, who have
xxvi Acknowledgments
provided me a welcoming scholarly home. Thanks to Ms. Cheryl Roberts
for discussions about the use of social networking and implications for
policy, and Dr. Steven Tinsley for our discussions about symbolic use
of language in an economic development context. Thanks to Broward
County, Florida government, for offering formative career opportuni-
ties. Best regards to students in my courses past and present: fair winds
and following seas.
With a project of this scope, errors of commission or omission may
have occurred – those errors are mine with apology given in advance.
CLA, 9/30/2018
Public policy is value-laden, contested territory; its processes and results
are seldom objective, and frequently the actors i nvolved cannot even ag ree
on the nature of the policy problem in question, let alone a rm denition
sufcient for construction of a program with clear evaluation criteria.
When ofcial actors do agree, the outcomes may be decidedly different
from what is claimed in the language of politics and policy. There is a
need to comprehend the actions of policy analysts, politicians, and other
actors as they encounter the policy process; this work of communication
within the policy process bears a product – whether a law, program, reg-
ulation, or form – and this may have considerable bearing on the public
interest. To the extent that public rhetoric has a claim on reecting some
concept of the public interest, it is valid to challenge not only the policies
themselves, but also the denitions of problems and the very rhetoric that
results in policy action. Even as people seek to achieve some reasoned
conclusion, there are abstract shortcuts made. Symbol sometimes acts
as a proxy for meaningful involvement. What is acceptable in terms of
policy may result in very little of practical import, when the story of pol-
icy, its process, and seeking to serve the public interest is itself a moving
discourse with value of its own (Fischer & Gottweis, 2012).
When a concept is thought of as universally revered, there is a possi-
bility for ambiguity in policy design and implementation, and in how one
may evaluate the success of policy endeavors. There is genuine danger
in becoming captivated by the possibility of helping an affected group,
without understanding the group’s context or what group members need
to be successful. If there is hubris in public policy, it may have an abode
in policy where a rich diversity of publics of varying needs and means
are painted with the broad brush of ‘the people,’ and common forms of
help, thought to assist in achieving presumed goals or meeting needs,
may have little to do with reality. What is needed is considered and fre-
quent attention to the connections between intent, symbol, outcome, and
the potential for manipulation in policy; this attention is not just from
policy analysts and academics, but from those who work in policy and
encounter it as consumers.
1 Introduction
2 Introduction
In political discourse, the importance of economic growth, fairness
in the justice system, environmental stewardship, and public health are
longstanding norms with considerable shared approval. Calls for re-
sponsibility and clarity also gure heavily in politics and public policy –
administrators as well as elected ofcials have a need to be accountable,
or at least be seen as accountable, in their public semblances. The role, if
not myth, of accountability and transparency span and even transcend
partisan politics and administrative notions of efciency and effective-
ness. Well-intentioned, nonspecic policy, created through an elaborate,
misunderstood system of agenda setting and access, has great value, but
the nature of that value is not always well understood.
Brown noted that “contemporary bureaucracies favor the ‘objectivity’
of instrumental rationality to the ‘subjectivity’ of moral commitment…ra-
tionality thereby becomes the ideological catchword for the mystication
of a curtailed individual participation in public affairs and for the parallel
political dominance of existing elites” (2005, p. 161). The stated goals of
public policy may be abstract, in some cases, but are possibly useful in
their vagueness. It is then all the more important that pause be given to the
great weight afforded such abstractions – in popular culture, policy, and
society broadly. Semiotics, the science of signs, affords such opportunity
for fruitful exploration – to understand how a fascination with instrumen-
tal rationality might not save policy from its own hubris, to uncover un-
derlying assumptions, and to lay bare conventional wisdom for what it is.
This introductory chapter rst considers the notion of failure in public
policy. The public sphere and the idea of instrumentality are then dis-
cussed, followed by a connecting of values and instrumentality in policy.
Because public policy centers on legitimacy and consent, these aspects
are featured next. Having set a foundation in relevant critical literature,
the chapter shifts to semiotics and public policy – specically focusing
on metaphor, symbol, and implications for government’s role. The plan
of the book nishes out this chapter.
On Failure in Public Policy
This is a book about failure, in the sense that it touches on issues related
to the “neglect or omission of expected or required action” (Stevenson &
Waite, 2011, p. 511). In a larger sense, its chapters explore the widening
gulf between what is expected and what is realized in public policy –
between image or reality-building, and consequence to the public benet.
There has been an unacceptable erosion in trust in the public sphere. The
ceaseless chipping away at the public sector’s project of legitimation has
resulted not in reform and improvement, but a triumph of image and
appearance over broad obligations.
Evaluation in the public sector is often misunderstood. Because the
public already is predisposed to distrust government efforts, for right
Introduction 3
or wrong reasons, the tendency is to believe government has somehow
botched its efforts, even when it is doing a reasonably good job. Govern-
ment is necessary – it has the capacity to inuence through its coercive
power, cajoling the public into doing what it should be doing; while this
limits individual freedom, it constrains individual behavior so that oth-
ers’ rights may be maintained (Hacker & Pierson, 2016). Yet, government
is approached cynically by the public; the public is apathetic to becoming
more involved in the public sphere, and it would appear that they have a
good reason for their apathy. Gilens and Page (2014) found that policies
that are supported by the afuent become law; the inuence of average
citizens on such outcomes is practically nil, and business groups are,
expectedly, most dominant. Where lower- and middle-income groups
support policies that become law, it is where that would have happened
anyway. What might look like failure, or triumph, is not that at all – it
could just be a matter of perspective.
It is not a secret that some with inuential power would just as soon
have a clearing out of the public sphere, in favor of monied interests,
including supporting schemes where voting rights would equal levels
of taxation, and those with no resources would have no voice at all.
The public at large is reduced largely to being “mad as hell” on Elec-
tion Day (Hacker & Pierson, 2016, p. 341). Many lack a strong under-
standing of public policy, but, given the above – what would be the
point of learning and engaging in public discourse if it did not matter?
Whether government or policy failed depends on how one denes fail-
ure, and it simply has not mattered what most people think about that.
Being ‘mad as hell’ – against incumbents, major media outlets, being
ignored, losing jobs because of suboptimal trade deals, or a litany of
other reasons – is impotent, useless rage. It accomplishes nothing be-
cause decisions to be made, even if they give voice to the rage, almost
never benet the people sustaining the anger. Policy likely worked, and
exactly as planned – just for someone else. Citizens should not need
to be livid to want to become involved with government and policy;
involvement should matter.
While many do not care about how government works, they care very
much about what it does. People know that they need certain services
from government, like a passport for instance, and from a pragmatic
perspective want that assistance (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). They do
not necessarily worry about the processes, or the levels of review and au-
thority, or the checks and balances that ensure fairness and accuracy, or
of the care and concern devoted to monitoring and reporting of perfor-
mance. Levels of knowledge differ between citizens and public adminis-
tration practitioners. Even within public administration, there are ranks
of knowledge and emphases of expertise. Where we work frequently with
some particular material or issue, we may be expected to be more com-
fortable with discussion and use of the substance. The rest of it – the sum
4 Introduction
total of the constructed reality of the world, and its accompanying public
policy universe – perhaps does not even enter our minds.
Out in the hostile ame of the public space, personal opinions of all sorts
have become a proxy for bad behavior and warrant for the use of govern-
mental might as a blunt instrument. The ego of individual actors within
the political system has been allowed, or perhaps invited, to speak once,
simply, and for all about endishly complex topics, despite the fact that
they may not be well prepared for the conversation. Debate and discourse
are regularly, prematurely concluded in the interest of some supposed but
nonexistent consensus. Trust in individual knowledge in public policy cir-
cles, as actors seek to put their stamp upon the government, may know no
bounds. A bystander might suppose that belief is as good as fact, when po-
litical interests can challenge science with a simple retort: “Can you prove
that 100%?” – knowing that science simply does not work that way. Science
denial efforts have gained prominence (Strauss, 2017) as knowledge that
confronts identity is rejected (Krauss, 2015). Doubt, science’s best friend, is
sacrilege in politics; doubt loses elections – it looks suspiciously like failure.
It is no wonder that the public is confused, though it is out of fashion
to admit puzzlement. Internet search capacity is taken for wisdom far too
regularly. Appeals to persuasion are frequent; power, in the public sphere
and elsewhere, is entwined with rhetoric, and specically the ability to
cause a stir and drive the news cycle. These rhetorical appeals can take
the form of rich imagery and thick use of symbols, to create and rene a
preferred reality for those perceiving such communications. Meanwhile,
discourse in the public sphere might be described as hollow or inane
(Branstetter, 2011). Facts need not necessarily have anything to do with
the exchange. There is an apparent divergence between the ability of ac-
tors in the public sphere to create beautiful pictures of desirable futures,
and the capacity to turn those pictures into reality. The actual translation
and implementation can be particularly unpleasant, fraught with unin-
tended consequences, or simply result in an inability to attain the desired
result. A policy hubris and attendant ego – a gritty belief in the power of
the individual to effect change – runs time and again into the seeming
permanence of wicked policy problems. Oversimplied policy denitions
and soundbites, unsurprisingly, prove ineffective at changing policy real-
ity, but are effective in the public discourse. People will vote for candidates
who seem to understand their frustrations and particular worldview, re-
spect or appear to respect them, and show concern for how truly awful it is
to feel ignored for so long; the appeal to authenticity in an age of inauthen-
ticity is real. The motivation may be little more than that (Lindsay, 2017).
The Public Sphere and Instrumentality
Is there truth to the idea that those in the public sector have the will
to engage in solving a public policy problem, and to follow rules of
Introduction 5
communication so that discourse is understandable, so that decision-
making is rational? Is this effort sincere? (Kemp, 1985). Is there a genu-
ine effort to encourage “learning, participation, and self- determination”
(Forester, 1985b, p. 203). Or, are there efforts to intentionally mystify the
public? We may be driven to ask (and will ask throughout the course of
this book): Does the current emphasis on instrumentality in public pol-
icy undermine the values it purports to uphold?
The work of Jürgen Habermas on legitimation in the public sphere
is instructive for this discussion of sign, symbol, and public policy. As
Habermas dened it, the public sphere is
a realm of social life in which something approaching public opin-
ion can be formed…[where citizens can] confer in an unrestricted
fashion– that is, with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and as-
sociation and the freedom to express and publish their opinions –
about matters of general interest.
(Quoted in Held, 1980, p. 260)
There is little discussion of whether the public opinion, once developed,
would have a hearing with government or if government should do any-
thing specic with it. The creation of a collective public opinion contrasts
with how government works most of the time. Government solves techni-
cal problems with instrumental solutions. It is not regularly a builder of
shared vision. It may occasionally nd itself acting in a capture capacity
to secure rights for the building of private-sector wealth. Sometimes it is
the keeper of the rules, hopefully to lower transaction costs in a manner
that benets society broadly. Administration, in particular, has a ten-
dency to hide behind masks of objectivity, when policies themselves are
not objectively developed.
Society is marked by its attention to process and instrumentality. Ra-
tionality has been extended to all corners of the living of one’s life. This
shift has transcended values in many instances (Held, 1980). Even where
discourse is values-oriented – in public rhetoric for example – the tools of
the trade for implementation and administration remain in instrumen-
tality. This is a fundamental break and is a constraint upon the public
sphere in practice: Intent, voiced in a normative frame, does not neces-
sarily equal written law, and this, in turn, does not necessarily yield mea-
surable objective fact in output or outcome. Yet, administration relies
upon instrumentality as a source of its legitimacy, in prized form as tech-
nical expertise: unapproachable, unyielding, and sphinxlike. Adminis-
trators are holders of a supposed objective rationality, and given this,
there is little reason for the public to follow up on what is arguably one
of its greatest obligations: to hold government to account. If the public
cannot hold government to account, thinking critically about the policies
introduced, programs offered, and outcomes created, then we have little
6 Introduction
reason to believe that the public’s contribution to active discussion or
deliberation will be consequential.
It is worth contemplating that the intent of the public sphere to pro-
vide for a venue aimed at deliberative democracy, in the interest of the
ultimate legitimacy of political and administrative forces that serve as
government, has been damaged due to distortion of reality in public dis-
course. These distortions may be either unintentional or systematic; they
serve to cloud discourse, undermining freedom and attainment of active
deliberation by the public in the public sphere. Culture itself is infused
with preferred ideology. There has been a placement of individual needs
rst, before those of the collective, and yet, individuals within this system
are no less functionary as economic mechanisms serving elite interests
than they ever were (Held, 1980). The divide between elite classes and
everyone else has grown, and the public imagination, at least in the US,
centers on the hope that this gap will not only be reduced but fully tran-
scended (Freeland, 2011). Institutions have not succeeded in reducing the
gap; governmental institutions might be broadening this break. Instead
of being part of society as individuals with the ability to become self-
actualized, today’s workers are still primarily tied in identity to jobs and
functions. They are their jobs as far as society is concerned. Processes
that install them in society insulate them from the processes of govern-
ment and governance, as those routines are handled by others. The ratio-
nalization and instrumentalization of society leave little understanding
for most people about the public sphere, of which they should rightly be a
part, nor the information they require to become involved and to be good
fellow stewards of the ship of state.
As Habermas suggested, the goal of instrumentalization and power
centralization can be to extend power, exclude along demographic lines,
promote the illusion that government can easily solve complex societal
dilemmas, and restrict involvement in the public sphere as a general mat-
ter. Programs can exist strictly to render legitimacy to government, with-
out any consideration of actual performance (Forester, 1985b). We might
end up with “distortions of pretense, misrepresentation, dependency-
creation, and ideology…with immobilizing depoliticizing, and subtly but
effectively disabling consequences” (Forester, 1985b, p. 204). We lose out
on “politically unobstructed discussion and common sense” and instead
accept unaccountable and exclusionary government as legitimate. This
poor result comes from ignorance and distrust, and ignorance and dis-
trust fuel acceptance of such an end as conclusive.
Even with its belief in technical solutions to problems, government
must admit that it cannot guarantee progress, however dened. Crises
of rationality and legitimacy occur when government appeals to compet-
ing interests and fails to meet demands. Legitimacy of the enterprise can
be withdrawn. With classes taking advantage of one another, and more
appeals being made to disparate ends of the class spectrum, it becomes
Introduction 7
more difcult for government to hold on its own legitimacy (Held, 1980)
meeting expectations for a large enough group of ‘the public’ without
them ever becoming involved in a considerable way. Since it increasingly
cannot succeed, failure becomes normalized.
As much as public administration has historically prided itself on its
role as a source of technical subject matter expertise, this role has been
more and more loathed by a public sick of being told what it does not un-
derstand. Public administration might be thought to be hiding behind its
intelligence, accosted by politicians currying favor from the electorate,
and unable to address real-world issues at street level. Even if the public
does not understand, the time has probably come that the public will
no longer allow for that to be a reason for non-action. Still, considering
that “public business ought to be the business of the public” (O’Neill,
1985, p. 63), the public is either uninvolved or, when they seek to become
involved, their involvement is seen as something of an affront to elites.
Attempts at involvement may be met with apathy, unctuous appeals to
listening, or half-hearted thanks for comments. For its part, instead of
being a means to allow citizens to play a needed and vital role in the pub-
lic sphere, “education, like the mass media and ultimately the market, is
part of an organized system to subvert the critical powers of insight and
imagination” (Misgeld, 1985, p. 80).
In public policy, statements are made about what constitutes a problem
and how society might best respond to it. For a moment, at least, there
is a relationship between the person reading or hearing about the prob-
lem and the proposed policy, and something of an invitation to consider
the issue from a given standpoint. However, as matters are formalized in
public discourse and eventually law, they become more settled. There is
less room to debate what is settled, from the perspective of a citizen. The
problem is as it has been dened. The solution has a stamp of authority,
having been worked through by government in its technical-instrumental
capacity. What would be the point of discussing it further? This perhaps
engenders cynicism in an already-withdrawn public, when problems are
dened errantly, solutions fail to accomplish expected results, or prac-
tices result in unanticipated, and deleterious consequences. The myth
that instrumental approaches by a team of experts are here to help re-
solve a problem is challenged. The ability for government to transform
political rhetoric into “rational authority” (Kemp, 1985, p. 182) through
design and implementation of a program is impaired.
Connecting Values and Instrumental Rationality
Governmental institutions have values that are ethical and normative
as a result of the people within them, their leaders, and the society
around them. We depend upon civil servants to be fair and honest, and
to treat the public with civility. However, if they are not also in some
8 Introduction
sense business-like, with attention to the bottom line and defensive of
their positions, they may nd themselves ousted in a power grab (West&
Dav is, 2011).
Bainbridge emphasized that the importance of law to modernity rests
in the “continuing maintenance of order and certainty” (2006, p. 157).
While law and the legitimacy of the state are closely linked, law as a sig-
nier has shifted from the rule of law to a vague concept of quest to
protect varying conceptions of justice (Bainbridge, 2006), which might
mean many different things to diverse people at distinct times. While the
rule of law is a sturdy basis for reason and action, a wobbly impression
of justice can act as a strong justication for action even if widespread
agreement on the particular meaning does not exist in a given instance.
The counterfeiting of truth in politics makes public communication
much more like marketing to consumers, with voting power more like
buying a product. Efforts to involve the public have occasionally seemed
limited to agitation, which, unlike propaganda, might use the same term
repeatedly (Bove, 2014), to drive home a point and whip the crowd into a
frenzy. It is more difcult to involve the public in deliberative democracy,
and it is clear enough that the political benet of the public’s involvement,
while most likely not their full consent to govern, can be had through
agitation. This allows the machinery of governmentality to continue to
turn, even if not necessarily in the public interest, because government it-
self might know that it does not possess the ability to solve the problems.
“If you cannot change a situation, the next best thing is to make it look as
if you are” (Bove, 2014, p. 122).
Following this thinking, “complexity is simplied into operating
procedures and performance measures. These components substitute,
in turn, for desired outcomes. Thus, partnership stands for good gov-
ernance; passive public consultation exercises stand for substantive de-
mocracy; competition stands for efciency and so on” (West & Davis,
2011, p. 233). There is arguably too much attention to instrumental mat-
ters, such as the scheduling and timing of deliberations about processes,
and not enough time spent on review of the outcomes of such processes
(Swindal, 1994). Public ofcials have the responsibility to check to en-
sure that program outcomes match expectations, and that those program
expectations match broader societal expectations (Koivisto, 2014). The
system should not reect only processes or values, but both of these.
The language of government and law has long been a battleeld, prone
to violent display. It can be reasonably stated that this language is not
colorful by accident or for its own sake. There is purpose in such image-
making. It has been offered that describing state functions in combative
language is common; because word choice is not a value-free matter, and
use of certain terminology has ideological trappings, such language does
not describe the world as much as actively make it. Boshoff wrote that
“the law is a system of signs that turns reality into speech, but…also
Introduction 9
turns speech into reality” (2013, p. 426); extending this thought, “lan-
guage does not reect reality, it does not even distort reality; it creates
reality” (p. 433). The language of law, policy, and the products of the pub-
lic sphere as a whole are not ‘neutral’ – and we should not accept them
as neutral, merely reective of whatever baggage we have brought to the
discussion ourselves. These artifacts are ushed with efforts to make not
only meaning in a context-specic way, but to effect a reality upon the
environment and circumstance to those listening. This may be a valid,
legitimate effort to make meaning with common elements of truth, or it
may be an evasive effort that purports to be something that it is not, for
all manner of goals that undermine liberty and freedom, both individu-
ally and societally.
Legitimacy and Consent
Legitimacy was dened by Suchman as a “generalized perception or as-
sumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropri-
ate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs,
and denitions” (1995, p. 574). “Legitimacy is not a commodity to be pos-
sessed or exchanged but a condition reecting cultural alignment, nor-
mative support, or consonance with relevant rules or laws” (Scott, 1995,
p. 45). In administrative context, legitimacy rests with three ideals: “the
rule of law, sound public policy, and democracy” (Arkush, 2012, p. 611).
John Locke wrote that “all peaceful beginnings of government have been
laid in the consent of the people” (1690), and the giving of this consent is
associated with care on the part of government in supporting those ide-
als. Pauker emphasized: “What is actually legitimate in a well-developed,
advanced society is the rule of law – the mechanisms, the procedures that
have been established to govern it” (1973, p. 3).
“Public s ervants must atte nd to law, communit y values, politi cal norms,
professional standards, and citizen interests” (Denhardt & Denhardt,
2000, p. 554). However, “[administrative agencies’] preoccupation with
the low arts of organizational survival blinds them to the brighter angels
of their nature” (Rohr, 1986, p. 182). When public administration loses
sight of its larger cause for being, its actions may serve only to “legitimize
existing structures of rationality and power” (Denhardt & Denhardt,
1979, p. 114), “leaving people who desperately need to play a role in the
public sphere out of the discussion and uninvolved, and the larger goal of
a democratic and representative government, at best, a ction useful for
its narrative value” (Atkinson, 2017).
A major question undergirding the consideration of symbol in public
policy is the gaining of consent. Increasingly, citizens have been seen as
consumers by governments, as if they are using public services as any
other commodity or product, and neglecting the essential nature of the in-
teraction between people and government that is part of the maintenance
10 Introduction
of a healthy public sphere (Forester, 1985a). It might be agreed that com-
munication has become increasingly distorted, but it is worth asking: To
what purpose or end has it become distorted, in particular interests and
generally? What might be the long-term effect of allowing such societal
dynamics to continue unchecked? What are benets, if any, of turning
away from this approach to governance, in terms of not only improved
communication but also improvements in citizenship as well?
The importance of image has been greatly enhanced, from commodi-
cation and marketing in consumer sectors to the shaping of ideals and
political preferences in the public sphere. Reality might be termed effaced
by cultural shift, relying upon circular cultural references and ultimately
forming representations and simulacra, indicative of a hyperreality as
suggested by Baudrillard (Corazza, Scagnelli, & Mio, 2017). As the shift
moves from ideas to images, the focus becomes more heavily weighted
against a public capable of critical judgment. Politics are thin, and dis-
cussion is weak (Simon, 2000). Instead of acting as an engaged citizenry,
the public is likely to ‘consume programs’ like commodities, disrupting
the potential for citizenship behaviors.
Szerszynski (2002) suggested that environmental protests were heavily
dependent on images – “connotative meanings and visual rhetorics” –
rather than “the narrow denition of fact and analysis” (pp. 54–55). Le-
gitimacy does not stem as much from the validity of a claim as it does from
a demonstrator’s earnestness and apparent level of commitment to their
cause. The symbolic nature of protest is ritualized in many instances, in
the guise of David taking on a Goliath of one form or another, and the
weak but righteous defeating the powerful (Cohen, 2008). The specic
players matter little in the grand scheme of the narrative as it plays out
because the protests themselves have become ritualized, with various ac-
tors playing roles with scripts that have precise expectations. Protecting
one tree is protection of all trees, or saving one river is safeguarding of
all water, in a feat of synecdoche. The ritualization and use of symbols
might be taken as cultivation of a mythos of organization. None of this
is unique to environmentalism, as these constructs and tendencies nd
resonance in other public organizations, public policy endeavors, and the
public sphere. The use of symbols – to elaborate and summarize belief –
can be quite effective in extending a preferred theme or construct of an
organization, but institutional aptitude in this respect limits discourse
and questioning of validity (Szerszynski, 2002).
What might the public dene as good? As with the problem of de-
ning what constitutes a problem suitable for public sector-based solu-
tions, dening what constitutes doing good in the public sector is also
difcult. It might be reasonably expected that certain aspects of ‘good’
include “requirements of transparency, openness, the rule of law, de-
mocracy, participation, and accountability” (Koivisto, 2014, p. 592).
We might take these at face value, even though it is probably useful to
Introduction 11
consider rst why they too are so readily taken as good. There are other
questions to ask: Is good government merely a government doing well
that which is desired by the majority of the public? Is serving the desire
of the majority that voted enough? What about the strange netherworld
of Electoral College and popular vote comparisons in the US? What
if such public policy outcomes of a government, anywhere and at any
time, are fundamentally unacceptable or objectionable? Who decides
what those words mean? For those sorts of reasons, which raise ethi-
cal considerations, we cannot assume efciency and effectiveness as the
only foci for public administrators. How we dene problems, solutions,
and success all say much about organizational culture, institutions, and
society (Koivisto, 2014). Public administration has found itself engaged
in a project centered on its legitimacy as a eld of practice and study
for some time, and intractable questions like these do not make matters
easier or more soluble.
While people think little about government and the nature and use
of governmental power, governmental power permeates society. When
pushed to think about it, we might like to believe that the use of this
power has less to do with domination, or a Foucaultian estimation of se-
vere restriction, something to be actively resisted, and relatively more to
do with liberty (Hindess, 2004). The position that government is situated
to protect liberty rather than to keep order, dominating where necessary
to protect the interests of a decreasing minority of those holding power
within a society, becomes less defensible perhaps when signs point to
priorities other than inclusiveness and participation. Endeavors toward
inclusiveness within government processes would tend, on their face, to
suggest some level of attention to preservation and sharing of individual
entitlement to liberty and direction of government on the public’s behalf.
Where the tear exists between image and reality is when the image of in-
volvement bears no effect on the outcome, and any pretension toward in-
volvement exists simply to keep order and direct power toward an agenda
of the particular.
The concept of legitimacy as individually centered, then, is not essen-
tially important to the modern government; the point of government is
to conduct “the affairs of the population in the interests of the whole”
( Hindess, 2004, p. 42). This view, essential to Foucault, is central – it
means that it is not just government that inuences the population –
many other institutions public and private also inuence the conduct of
society. If the public is self-directing at all, then this capacity is to be
used for governmental ends. Individual liberty might exist, but it exists
in a form to sustain society – not to provide for the increase or happiness
of individuals, necessarily. It is, in this conception, perfectly ne if in-
dividual groups believe that government is serving them specically or
especially well, as long as the whole or collective is receiving the best deal
for the common interest (Hindess, 2004).
12 Introduction
For such reasons, the state stakes out the issues it nds most relevant
or useful for its purposes. People are invited to involve themselves in the
debate within this cordoned-off area, but effectively restrained from ven-
turing beyond the identied boundaries. Even new movements are kept
within the margins described by the existing social discourse, as not only
government but also other institutions help reign in any legitimately free
thinking inside the lifeworld. The faux lifeworld of the present, exceed-
ingly dumbed down as it is, plays as intense real life to the public, where
reality and reality TV intermingle with one another and become indistin-
guishable (Roberts & Crossley, 2004).
What does exist, as noted by Cohen (1995, orig. 1975), are attempts to
foster equilibrium out of disorder. In such a context, legitimacy within
the public enterprise is indeed a scarce resource, and politics itself is
agonized with the notion of legitimacy: gaining power and creating le-
gitimacy for those in power through the use of such power. Inasmuch
as power is concerned with apportionment of values for the populace–
whether or not those decisions themselves are arbitrary – this distribu-
tion is a one-way street. Politics decides what values come to the fore, and
what comes to the agenda. Attempts to overturn the essential logic of the
political superstructure are derailed, because all power utilization, and
even the pretensions to public involvement, is strategic and by design.
With power unequally distributed, symbols, or myths, may be needed
to keep the public in line with the selected program, and comfortable with
the idea of acting within the established constraints. The effort may be in-
tended to reduce the cognitive dissonance between what the public thinks
it wants, with all of its individual beliefs, desires, and biases, and what it
will ultimately get, meaning what the government needs the public to be-
lieve about the issue. Meaning is ascribed to symbols or myths, as may be
necessary to accomplish the outcome intended by those in political power.
In the end, the machinery of government, its administration, and those
that act as gatekeepers, are largely unapproachable by the vast majority
of the public (Cohen, 1995, orig. 1975). Where participation happens, it is
ritualized, pro forma, and may have little effect on the outcome. It is en-
tirely possible that when the goal is to maintain a stable societal narrative
and quell unrest, a Potemkin policy structure – one just for show – would
be as good as any. In an era of social networking and a virtual world of
public discourse, this is a particularly important concern, especially if the
public mistakenly believes that their interactions online are necessarily
impactful upon a discussion and choice made in the physical world.
A problem is that power in society skews relationships between decision-
makers, administrators, and citizens of various levels of involvement.
There are profound differences in the population in capacity to become
involved in public matters and knowledge of public issues. Disagreements
exist on how public problems are dened. It could be suggested that these
disagreements and disparities are used to shape belief, and maintain power
Introduction 13
and an approximation of consent to govern. Such behavior may even be
commonplace, but ultimately, it undermines the legitimacy of governance.
Government looks legitimate and people believe that it is legitimate, but
the reality of the situation is that power is only being held because commu-
nications are so distorted, and issues and beliefs so fragmented, that the
vast majority of the population knows no better. The discourse is illusory
(Forester, 1985a).
Take as an example the political use of small business programs. Some
small business programs, such as those that provide technical assistance,
can be quite useful to small business owners by passing along informa-
tion about business ownership, contracts and bidding on solicitations,
marketing and using social media, and a host of other topics. Political
rhetoric, though, can become narrowly focused on a group of symbolic
program aspects that may have little to do with reality or what business
owners need. Government policy may claim to support small businesses
because they are job-producers, but policies may fail to do much because
they do not target rms with the greatest chance for growth; the language
of policy proposals in this area tends to center on reducing barriers or
undoing regulatory red-tape. The image of certain political leaders cut-
ting burdensome regulations and helping small businesses achieve their
dreams is still visually stimulating; the voting audience can see the matter
conceptually and stories about businesses and how programs will help
them are saleable to a voting program desirous of change and hope. Em-
pirical forms of evidence, or crafting solutions that may have broader
benet, are hardly the point. An evidence basis is not needed to support
such programs when the existing framework has already shown to be
valid for political purposes (Wapshott & Mallett, 2017).
“Elitists argue democracy simply acts as a cover for the domination of
a ruling class. Pluralists counter that no such cohesive minority exists”
(Bellamy, 2004, p. 21); even majorities are just coalitions of minorities, so
the possibility of competitive equilibrium exists that prevents dictator-
ship (Bellamy, 2004). Nevertheless, the existence of competitive equilib-
rium or even pluralism in exerting pressure on public systems does not
mean that domination of a ruling class does not exist, or that processes
in a democracy do not serve as a concealment for duplicitousness. We
may have reason to believe in such dominance, because even as the pub-
lic sphere shows much dynamic activity, so little movement is occurring
for vast segments of society that are supposedly the intended targets of
these social programs. If the program is instituted for a specic purpose,
it is right to challenge whether this purpose has been achieved, on behalf
of the intended clients of these programs, whether the clients are under-
served citizens, migrants, the environment, or any other client group the
government purports to serve.
Barring that, what is lost is a chance at the legitimacy of government,
in one respect, but also the chance at freedom for individuals in the larger
14 Introduction
sense. Freedom cannot be attained in an inauthentic public sphere, where
truthfulness is fugitive and citizens are merely customers of a retail gov-
ernment. Government concerns itself with what it believes to be trans-
parency and accountability – impressing upon the public the superiority
of its instrumental might. It may be that what is not needed are endless
tables of performance measurement data, which are ill-understood and
mostly ignored, but a more dutiful attempt at increasing understanding.
Legitimacy is a long-term project within public administration as an
academic discipline and as a career. As White and McSwain suggested,
an apparent conclusory position on legitimacy is agencies
serve as the focal point for creating (where creation is needed), and
for maintaining (against the increasingly invasive and intensive im-
pacts of technological, socio-cultural, and other types of change),
the community units that form the glue, the substantive, solidarity,
that must exist to hold any society together.
(1993, p. 20)
Signication and narrative are identity-creating, and developing of the
self, even if the process does not make us feel any better about the quality
of our decision-making or of the paths we choose (White & McSwain,
1993). There is an increasing awareness through the immediacy of social
media and other avenues of communication and mass participation that
government, despite its assumed edice of common voice, mindset, and
action, is more reective of the public at large – confused sometimes,
conicted (perhaps deeply so), though more often than not infused with
a sense of motivation to serve the larger public interest, however that is
being dened in that context, at that time.
Connecting Semiotics and Public Policy
A sign is “something that stands for something else,” and following Sauss-
ure, is a “unity of word-object, known as a signier with a corresponding
culturally prescribed content or meaning, known as a signied” (Berger,
2010, p. 3). The view of the sign as Charles Sanders Peirce envisioned it
is “rst, a sign is not a thing; second, that everything can become a sign;
and third, that things must act upon each other to create meaning” (Van
Fleet, 2011, p. 59). Amusingly, Eco suggested that “Semiotics,” the inves-
tigation and science of signs,
is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used
in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely
it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell”
at all.
(1976, p. 7)
Introduction 15
Society is composed of efforts to understand, produce, and discern the
signs of others. Culture is made up of signs and provides a structure upon
which a system of meaning-conveyance can function. One can examine
signs and texts (as groups of signs) “to understand how the larger en-
tity, culture, operates” (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1993, p. 17). Mikhail Bakhtin
suggested that “only active understanding can apprehend the theme…
all understanding is dialogical…the encounter of two texts: the already
given text and the reacting text being created” (Todorov, 1984, pp. 22–23).
Weunderstand as we produce understanding (Todorov, 1984).
Beyond a footing in the literature on semiotics, this present work is
rooted in the wider public policy literature, specically the garbage can
model of decision-making and the later Multiple Streams Approach
(MSA). The garbage can model was based on a series of conceptual
streams and assumptions for processing interactions: choices, prob-
lems, “a rate of ow of solutions,” and “a stream of energy from partici-
pants” (Cohen, March, & Olsen, 1972, p. 3). This initial study suggested
that decisions were most often made through oversight or ight, rather
than resolution. Classical models of decision-making may fail because
they depend upon rational approaches; when organizations and policy
actors are burdened with complex problems and a multitude of pres-
sures, the tendency is for options to be selected based upon “the mix
of choices available at any one time, the mix of problems that have ac-
cess to the organization, the mix of solutions looking for problems, and
the outside demands on the decision makers” (Cohen, March, & Olsen,
1972, p. 16).
Related to the garbage can model is MSA, and its inclusion of ambi-
guity as a primary and dening contextual feature in the policymaking
environment. The MSA framework includes three streams – problems,
policies, and a political stream. The problem stream must cut through
the noise of ambiguity, along with the presence of the ‘right’ policy and
the most advantageous political environment, to open a window for pol-
icy action (Kingdon, 2003). Zahariadis (2014) notes that MSA is suitable
in navigating ambiguity through its attention to manipulation related to
symbol utilization. He suggests that “the process of interpretation in-
herent in ambiguous situations and the power of discretion enable pol-
icymakers to legitimately deviate from established norms…overlook
negative experiential learning that contradicts preferred policy…or cre-
ate fantasy documents…to cope with high-risk situations” (Zahariadis,
2014, p. 31). However, even though MSA is useful as metaphor for visu-
alizing the complexity of the policy process and the strategic activities of
policy entrepreneurs, it has been criticized for too much focus on policy
entrepreneurs as individual actors and not enough focus on institutional
arrangements (Zahariadis, 2014). There is room for additional focus on
processes, language, and structure, and the choices that are made in for-
malizing such arrangements.
16 Introduction
Metaphor and Symbol in Policy
Edelman proposed that “political history is an account of mass violence
and of the expenditure of vast resources to cope with mythical fears and
hopes…large groups of people remain quiescent under noxiously oppres-
sive conditions” (1971, p. 1), and occasionally these burdened individuals
even defend the system that keeps them down. Notably, people are more
accepting of systems with occasional violent outbursts if they display
what appear to be normal, passive attributes most of the time. People
need comfort. If people can be comforted through manipulation, by sym-
bols and the playing upon of emotions, then other non-public-centered
plans and strategies can move forward. It might give people hope to think
that government is centered on what they want – that what government
does is rationally related to the desires of the broader public – but hope
does not make it so. It is easier for government to create beliefs about
what is possible and even what is acceptable to discuss, rather than to
entertain the full range of human potential and possibility when most
of that is not relevant to desired strategic ends (Edelman, 1971). Gov-
ernment will tell the public, through political rhetoric, what it wants or
the options from which it may choose. The public will choose and adjust
its perspectives as necessary to avoid dissonance in thought and belief,
even if there is no benet to the options or even in deciding one way or
the other.
In policy, words and actions are therefore purpose-driven: Short state-
ments with open meaning are effectively small containers with outsized
content; even one word (for example, change) can mean everything to a
voting public. Narratives of objectivity and efciency (Farmer, 1995) are
means of control, and sometimes are pretensions that appeal to various
underserved communities without actually representing their interests or
improving their prospects.
Certain words and combinations of words, placed in public context,
are taken as signs of credibility or validity for policy functions. As Ev-
ans suggested, metaphors hold great value in creation of meaning gener-
ally (2015), echoing Kingdon (2003) and they hold value in policy circles
as well. There is a universality to some policy metaphors – this makes
them easily grasped by a large segment of the population (people that
vote), and these people are likely to support these metaphors because
they sound like concepts that evoke certain beliefs and feelings that are
consonant with their experiences.
Kingdon suggested that symbols in policy act “as reinforcement for
something already taking place and as something that rather powerfully
focuses attention, rather than as a prime mover in agenda setting” (2003,
p. 97). Stone (2012) also raised the value of symbols in public policy, iden-
tifying stories, synecdoche, and metaphor as devices used in politics in the
construction of problems. She noted ambiguity as the chief characteristic
Introduction 17
of symbols and made a generally positive argument for the place of am-
biguous symbols in political rhetoric, which “enable the transformation
of individual intentions and actions into collective results and purposes”
(2012, p. 178). While Stone noted that coalitions built upon ambiguity
may fall apart as inner conicts come to the fore later in policy processes,
she nevertheless suggested that because symbols can convert personal
preferences into shared actions, people can become unied by their ide-
als through symbols. At the same time, Stone allowed that symbols “exist
outside the realm of the practical and the real” and “allow us to believe
we are authors of our own destiny” (2012, p. 182).
In reviewing Stone’s outline of the functional purposes of ambiguity
and strategies for its use, it might be troubling that symbol is so readily
taken as given and strategically valuable for political purposes, ground-
less though it often is, free to play in meaning and denition with little
apparent demand for a rmer foundation. Stone wrote that “by portray-
ing a decision one way in press releases, speeches, preambles, or sur-
rounding language, yet executing it in another, leaders can perform the
political magic of making two different decisions at once” (2012, p. 181).
The statement may be true taking a cynical view, but there is danger in
comfort with such relativism. Such political magic might be more com-
monly referred to as lying. Popular agreement with a vague symbol may
incite political action, but the players in such popular uprisings might
be assenting to the symbol, however they have individually authored it,
and not necessarily to the resulting policy. The work done in the name of
the public writ large, based on the use/abuse of symbol, might be based
upon a false consent of the people – a consent not freely given – because
the people failed to understand the resulting policy or the actual intent
of the ofcial actors. An art of this sort to public policy might be akin
to a condence game. Words and phrases in the public sphere might not
be best lazily left as expedient ideographs to extend political fortunes.
While symbols might present a chance for people to write themselves into
a policy story, the only narrative that matters is the one yielding formal-
ized policy, and made law.
How a public gure uses a metaphor, in political rhetoric, for exam-
ple, says much about what was originally meant by the speaker and the
intended inuence upon the hearing public, in terms of manipulation – it
may say decidedly less about the possible policy outcome or what may
come of any enacted policy, once implemented. Rhetoric has been sug-
gested to be interpretive as well as productive, and it is intended to be
persuasive (Selzer, 2004); rhetoric tells where politics would like the pol-
icy to go and also how politics denes the issue. The creation of the policy
concept is one matter, the program derived from the concept is another,
and the two may have little to do with one another.
Further, the policy concept’s loud birth may be enough for politi-
cal purposes in the public sphere. The existence of the concept, having
18 Introduction
served certain purposes, may yield most of the intended results, making
policy implementation and evaluation irrelevant to political purposes.
To the public, the feelings and beliefs are real, after all, and that is real
enough. What is worse, the people involved in the public sphere have,
either through commission or omission, agreed on the state of things and
the nature of discourse as participants in it. Reality, constructed as it is,
and any meaning existing in the system, has been devised by those pres-
ent. If it is consistent over time and does not work, it has failed the public
for no good reason, even if it is relatively simple to point to individual
reasons for inaction, or reication of systems that do not achieve positive
social change.
Kingdon (2003) included in his classic text on MSA a section on ori-
gins for policy initiatives, but found that “origins of initiatives does not
make for very complete theory about agenda setting or alternative speci-
cation…[because] (1) ideas can come from anywhere; (2) tracing origins
involves one in an innite regress; and (3) nobody leads anybody else”
(p.71). This paper does not necessarily seek to trace the origin of an idea,
mostly because ideas can become distorted, or mutated and recombined
(Kingdon, 2003). Rather, the origin of the idea is less important than the
intent of law and policy, something that can be discerned as it becomes
formalized in law and procedure, and how the intent and its foundational
rhetoric and the resultant policy environment and its outcomes may be-
come increasingly estranged from one another. It is suggested here that
it is at least possible to know what was originally intended in policy and
how the consequential policy differs. Analysts may be able to separate
the symbol from a formalized policy as a sign from its signied, through
use of the materials of the policy itself, where ofcial actors retain con-
trol of the products and deducing social/political construction is not the
primary consideration. Areas of public policy are heavily dependent on
narrative, naming, sign, and branding to create meaning – these are in-
terpretive turns. Refusing to take the value of public policies as given, we
may become more aware of the purely symbolic benet to such programs
and, setting it aside, arrive at a deeper understanding of what is a disturb-
ing break between the sometimes smug brashness of policy, in announce-
ment, proclamation, formalization, and the bricolage of administrative
rulemaking, and outcomes, or lack thereof.
Semiotics and the Role of Government
In describing privacy being sacriced to increasing public space,
Leeds-Hurwitz offered the model of parlorization, where certain expres-
sive ne ‘appointments’ of the traditional parlor tell others “what we
would have others think of us, while real personal and individual con-
tent is devalued and displaced, shoved behind the scenes” (1993, p. xxvi).
In applying this to the public sphere, discourse about public policy and
Introduction 19
values, down to the agenda process itself, may be a form of parlorization,
where society’s statements of policy are meant symbolically, to express
what we want others to know and believe about us, even though the par-
lor may bear little resemblance to the rest of the house.
What can be done to identify the source of meaning in political rhet-
oric, and the varied lives of symbol that supply the laboratory of public
policy? Is it possible to discern authenticity? Methodologically, Krebs
and Jackson cautioned that scholars should “avoid centering causal ac-
counts on unanswerable questions about actors’ true motives and to fo-
cus instead on what actors say, in what contexts, and to what audiences”
(2007, p. 36). One might propose a conceptual model of semiotic analysis
for public policy connecting reference, symbol, and referent. This appli-
cation to policy to policy is fashioned after Eco’s 1976 model; while the
policy applications have been left as generic issues, it is clear enough how
a misalignment between symbol and reference can occur. This is not to
suggest that a symbol cannot be meaningful, but from a public policy
perspective, outcomes might be reasonably expected from programs af-
ter the warm glow of successful passage of law has worn off (Figure 1.1).
Methodological approaches associated with the semiotic analysis are
myriad. Here, as an exploratory effort for applications in public policy, it
is possible to focus on three basic levels of interaction within the public
sphere: the alignment between legislative intent, enacted program, and
program outcomes or lack thereof; the connection between enacting au-
thority, administrative code, and ofcial guidance; and the agreement
between political rhetoric and program language. Among all the cases re-
viewed, there is an initial effort to answer a basic research question: Does
the current emphasis on instrumentality in public policy undermine the
values it purports to uphold? As corollary items to this question, does
this analysis suggest a general trend toward invalid truth claims in public
policy in the cases studied, in stated intent compared with performance,
Law (statutes,
codes, procedures)
as text
Referent: Verifiable an
documentable outcomes.
Improvements in service
or quality that may be
discerned through
equality; clean
environment as a
rhetorical device;
service to citizens; a
successful economy
Figure 1.1 Reference, symbol, and referent (after Eco, 1976, p. 59).
Source: Create d by C.A., based upon Eco, 1976.
20 Introduction
for example? If there are invalid truth claims, which group(s) benet(s)
from such claims?
The cases explored in this book are unied in philosophical and method-
ological orientation toward the semiotic view – in uncovering hidden mean-
ing in word use in policy. The illustrative and critical case analyses have the
intent of moving beyond observation of phenomena to at least an initial
application that is explanatory and possibly even predictive of behaviors
and outcomes observed in public policy situations (Holton & Walsh, 2017).
The Plan of the Book
Chapter 2 follows with a further theoretical discussion of the relationship
between sign and signied in public policy, with particular focus on this
relationship in the guise of law. Chapter 3 is an illustrative case, reviewing
an enforcement action under the US Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic
Act and addressing a breakdown between intent and outcome in imple-
mentation of policy. Chapter 4 focuses on a conceptual example– green
public procurement – through the use of a Greimas square to uncover
values associated with such policies. Chapter 5 provides an analysis of
the literature on public-sector ethics programs and pursues a critical un-
derstanding of the break between the topic in theory and practice. What
ethical aspects are emphasized by government codes and training, and
what do such programs suggest about the understanding that exists be-
tween government and the public?
Chapter 6 analyzes workforce development programs, including those
that engage in activities to spur interviewing/hiring of hard-to-hire or
disadvantaged individuals. There is potential for community benet in
such programs, but ambiguity in detailing expectations and program
processes might lead to underwhelming results, even though passage or
existence of the program might be enough for advocate groups. Chapter
7 examines the immigration laws of Germany. Of particular interest is
the 2016 Integration Act, in the context of the previous action to encour-
age immigration due to declining population, and its motto “Support
and demand.” This is a fervently contested area of policy inquiry, and
semiotic analysis is especially appropriate to increase understanding of
denotations, connotations, and construction of systems of meaning upon
which immigration structures are built.
Chapter 8 considers, through a sentiment analysis of tweets, the re-
form of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P. L. 111–148),
often referred to in the popular press as the Affordable Care Act, ACA,
or Obamacare. This contentious policy debate is of tremendous impor-
tance to many Americans, who are torn by political allegiances and the
reality of skyrocketing medical costs. Chapter 9 looks at the term “sus-
tainability” in an applied context, exploring energy policy in Thailand
and implications for reication of the term. Imprecision in the term’s
Introduction 21
use undermines its benet to society in policy terms. Finally, Chapter
10 concludes the book; case analyses challenge pervasive thinking in
public policy, where appearance, symbol, and data are given as a substi-
tute for outcome orientation. Attention is paid to the idea of deliberative
democracy – bringing the book full circle to the separation between what
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