Drowning under unintended consequences: a specific example of policy mess
Murray, David Williamson
The research focused on public policy implementation, unintended consequences of government action and policy mess, using the particular example of West Lothian College's Private Finance Initiative procured Livingstone campus as a case study. A public policy change led to the college becoming financially insecure, undermined the college's business case and the the college's ability to meet its contractual and financial obligations. If left unresolved, the college would have run out of money, defaulted on the contract and threatened the very existence of the institution. The college estate was taken into public ownership as the result of a negotiated settlement with the private sector owners of the campus. The importance of the research lay in adding to the body of knowledge around public policy implementation theory, which is not well researched or understood in the context of further education. The research design led to an in-depth interpretive, instrumental, single case study that explored, described and explained public policy implementation from the perspective of participants in a public policy network. The techniques of semi-structured interviews and documentary analysis were used. Using a policy networks approach, the research identified: how policy gets modified; how unintended consequences arose; how the unintended consequences resulted in policy mess; what policy learning took place as a result of policy mess; what policy change occurred as a result of policy mess; my role as an interested researcher and agent of change in the situation. In the West Lothian College case it was found that an ensemble of public policy had been at play rather than simply one policy. This ensemble of top-down policies comprised the UK-wide private finance initiative and two Scotland-wide further education funding policies. The research was timely as the literature suggests that policy networks are increasingly identified as an important governance mechanism in the areas of public policy implementation and new public management. The findings show that in respect of the West Lothian College case, networks have reconfigured relationship between government and other actors. They have also linked previously separate central, vertical, policy makers with an array of horizontal policy implementation actors.