I am pleased to announce that my new book with Peter John has been released. Public Policy Investment addresses one of the enduring questions of democratic government: why do governments attend to some public policies but not others? Political executives focus on a range of policy issues, such as the economy, social policy, and foreign policy, but adjust their priorities over time. Despite an extensive literature, it has proven surprisingly hard to explain policy prioritization. This book offers a new theoretical mechanism underlying observed public policy priorities, public policy investment, by which governments enhance their chances of getting reelected by managing a portfolio of public policies. Governments invest for the public, making choices about risk to yield electorally recognized returns. The public provides signals about their policy priorities that can be measured by expressed opinion in polls, and the clarity of these signals is important for a government’s public policy investment decisions. Priority-setting is thus a form of conditional representation that evaluates information about public priorities in the light of objective indicators about the state of the world that impact many policy domains in different ways; recognizes the clarity and volatility of the policy priorities of the electorate; and incorporates non-policy factors like the leadership traits of political executives and the partisanship of voters. The quality of conditional representation is captured the performance of a government’s public policy portfolio, which has an important impact on election outcomes. The book develops a quantitative strategy for capturing the performance of public policy portfolios, showing evidence in the case of Britain between 1971 and 2000 that governments with better performing portfolios are favored at the ballot box. Case studies of general elections illustrate the role of public policy investment in the statecraft practiced by prime ministers from Edward Heath to Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair. The book also challenges comparative scholars to consider public policy investment and conditional representation in a variety of political systems that incorporate the separation of powers, multiparty government, and decentralization.
Ian Budge, Bryan Jones, and Liz Gerber provided the following endorsements, for which Peter and I are very grateful.
‘This ambitious book takes a new look at party policy prioritization in government, drawing on financial theory to systematize the way decision-makers think about their political agenda. Using the language and formalizations of asset management and investment, the book gives new rigour to ideas about parties emphasising the issues they will benefit from in terms of elections and votes, which it tests out against British politics 1970-2000, using measures and interpretations suggested by the theory.
The book is not just an impressive intellectual achievement but a fresh and invigorating way of viewing politics within the rational choice tradition. This makes it of interest to political scientists and economists alike, not to mention the political practitioners whose strategies form its subject matter. A must-buy for anyone really interested in the development of political science and the forces driving contemporary British politics.’
Ian Budge, Research Professor in Government, University of Essex.
In Public Policy Investment, Tony Bertelli and Peter John have produced a major innovation in the study of policy processes that will change how we think about the linkages between public opinion and public policy. Most importantly, they view the set of policy issues currently being addressed by government as a portfolio, akin to an investment portfolio, and see public attention to those issues as signals about the relative values of priorities that government should pursue. Government must decide whether to address the issue or not; any issue addressed comes at the expense of the other issues in the portfolio. This is in stark contrast to current treatments of the linkage between policy and opinion, which take each issue separately, hence missing the inevitable trade-offs. Using data collected through the British Policy Agendas Project, they go on to study changes in the composition of the government of Britain’s policy portfolio, and address the issue of how investing in attention can pay dividends to the re-election potential of government.
Bryan D. Jones, J.J. “Jake” Pickle Regent’s Chair in Congressional Studies, Department of Government, University of Texas
Bertelli and John offer a fresh and compelling lens through which to understand one of the most consequential challenges facing governments, namely deciding which issues will be given priority on the policy agenda. Building on insights from financial economics, their theory of public policy investment posits that government leaders “invest” attention in public policies based on their assessments of the risks and returns of alternative policy portfolios. The book grounds its empirical component in modern British politics, but the concepts and insights transcend the immediate empirical setting and are broadly applicable to a wide range of policy-making environments. By focusing attention on the importance of executive leadership and the difficult business of statecraft, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in government decision-making and the public policy process.
Elisabeth R. Gerber, Jack L. Walker, Jr. Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan