The Policy Constellation Approach: application of a critical realist public policy theory to the explanation of the UK’s drug strategy for 2021-2031
Commonly used neo-pluralist theories for analysing drug policy include the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) and the Multiple Streams Approach (MSA).
The paper uses critical realist discourse analysis of policy documents, semi-structured interviews with policy actors, and social network analysis based on these data to present and illustrate the Policy Constellations Approach (PCA). This describe and explain the processes by which power and morality affect the outcomes of policy debates. It applies these methods to the case of the new UK drug strategy to demonstrate empirically the advantages of the PCA over the ACF and MSA.
The UK’s drug strategy for 2021 – 2031 provides a rare case of direct, swift translation of an evidence-informed report (authored by Dame Carol Black) into new funding and structures for the improvement of drug treatment in England. The strategy document also includes unevidenced assertions and rhetorical distortions on policies aimed at reducing the exaggerated link between drugs and crime, and so reinvigorates a punitive approach to people who use drugs. The paper maps the constellations of policy actors who played a part in producing this contradictory policy outcome. It shows how important it is to take account of socially stratified power relations in explaining: who is able to influence policy outcomes; why they take particular moral positions; and the interplay of power and morality through networked actions of policy constellations (i.e. sets of individuals in organisations who work together in loosely concerted action to deploy various forms of power in the effort to produce policy outcomes that suit their moral preferences and material interests).
The PCA incorporates critical realist assumptions about the operation of power and morality in drug policy debates that are more theoretically coherent and empirically useful than the neo-pluralist assumptions of the ACF and the MSA.