Governments Ignore Many Serious Welfare Issues – But Bureaucrats with Technical Expertise Can Help Change This

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Leah Costik, covers the new article by Carmen Jacqueline Ho, University of Guelph, Canada, Benevolent Policies: Bureaucratic Politics and the International Dimensions of Social Policy Expansion

Social policies have the potential to improve the lives of many people. These policies could support the well-being of low-income groups, women, refugees, or migrants. They could tackle malnutrition, noncommunicable diseases, long-haul covid, post-infection syndromes, inadequate sanitation, poor oral health. Yet governments routinely overlook these policies. Why? And what could trigger government action?

According to political scientist Carmen Jacqueline Ho, governments ignore social policies that offer little political gain. In her American Political Science Review article, she calls these “benevolent policies,” explaining that this class of social policies serves groups with limited power on issues with low visibility. Governments have weak incentives to expand these policies. They need to appease powerful groups to ensure political survival, not groups with limited power. And governments must address visible issues to win votes and keep the public happy, not low visibility issues that the public often overlooks. Like the benevolent dictator who acts for the benefit of the people rather than their own personal betterment, benevolent policies advance broader population well-being rather than a government’s narrow political interests. As these policies produce minimal political gains, we often see government inaction.

Yet certain governments expand benevolent policies. What explains this? And how do these “good policies” overcome “bad politics”? The answer, Ho demonstrates, lies in the government bureaucracy. She shows how technocrats can act as a catalyst for policy change by strategically using international pressure generated by international organizations (IOs).

Ho’s research reveals that bureaucrats with professional training and technical expertise -technocrats- can use international pressure to convince executive decision makers to expand benevolent policies. Technocrats require access to executive decision makers to push expansion of social policies onto the domestic agenda. However, most technocrats lack this access. To gain executive support, technocrats leverage international pressure created by IOs.

“Ho’s article serves as a model on the execution and benefit of interdisciplinary work by bringing together scholarship from international relations, comparative politics, and public health to produce novel research.” An established body of constructivist literature shows how IOs have influenced domestic policies through a process of socialization. While many international relations scholars point to IOs as teachers of norms, Ho makes a different argument. She shows how IOs’ efforts at socialization make them “coalition magnets” when technocrats believe IOs can help them advance their agenda.  Likeminded technocrats coalesce around IO efforts, then strategically deploy international pressure to create a coalition. This coalition builds both vertical and horizontal networks within the government bureaucracy. Vertical networks link technocrats and executive decision makers. Horizontal networks link individuals across governmental ministries. Through leveraging international pressure from IOs to build a coalition that then uses horizontal and vertical networks, technocrats are able to gain the support of executive decision makers to expand social policies. The support of an executive decision maker signals that policy expansion is a priority of the government. Technocrats use this signal to “create a sense of urgency for reform and demand inter-ministerial cooperation.”

To illustrate her argument, Ho utilizes a case study to explore the Indonesian government’s sudden introduction of nutrition policies. The recommended nutrition policies serve a group with limited power (low-income women and children) and address an issue with low visibility (micronutrient malnutrition). As a result, the government has had weak incentives to expand these policies. After years of ignoring pervasive malnutrition, however, the Indonesian government suddenly sprang into action. Ho traces the origins of policy reform to technocrats who leveraged international pressure to court executive support, then coordinate across government ministries.

Her work builds upon nine months of fieldwork, including 71 interviews carried out in Indonesia as well as the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand with policy makers, nutrition experts working within IOs, and members of civil society involved in the nutrition policy making process. She also conducted informal observational research at the nutrition sector of an IO and multiple regional meetings.

Ho’s research makes a number of valuable contributions. First, she introduces “benevolent policies,” a type of social policy scholarship that the comparative welfare state has overlooked and undertheorized. Second, she highlights the important role bureaucracy and technocrats play in bringing about policy change. Third, Ho’s article serves as a model on the execution and benefit of interdisciplinary work by bringing together scholarship from international relations, comparative politics, and public health to produce novel research. Ho’s research, which demonstrates “how policies get initiated, formulated, and introduced- even when domestic pressure for reform is weak,” leaves the reader with a sense of hopefulness.