What is Policy Convergence and What Causes It? Essay

With recent economic trends gearing more towards globalization, it is becoming more and more apparent that individual corporations can no longer act solely on their interests. Moreover, there is increasing pressure to focus on the overall results and yet adopt best practices for specific operational concerns that would contribute to the achievement of the desired bottom line. On a certain level, such a trend in corporations can likewise be applied to political concerns that would affect the policy making competencies of certain states.

International relations no longer stop at the doorstep of a country’s next door neighbor.

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Mutual concerns are no longer limited to immediate boundaries. In fact, these boundaries are slowly being eroded. The concept of a preferred partner is becoming obsolete as new players with better resources regardless of geographical distance get into the fray. Globalization has broken down barriers and technological advances had made distance a matter of mere perspective. Substitute corporate for the state and best practices with policy and the coming together and assumption of these practices that best suits the state will provide you with the illustration of the concept of policy convergence.

Colin J. Bennett, in his article, What is Policy Convergence and What Causes it? (1991), posits that this illustration is merely one of the four processes that have been identified that determine convergence. Bennett pointed out that “convergence is normally associated with the range of social and economic forces produced by industrialism” (p. 215) and the illustration just given as regards global corporations did in fact support this statement. However, in matters of political and economic theories, nothing is as simple as it looks. There were different factors identified and documented as to the reasons why convergence had suddenly become a central theme.

To present these, Bennett had drawn on and referred to previous studies made and compiled four reasons as the determinants of policy convergence. It gradually becomes apparent that policy convergence is most significant only when applied to industrial societies that are economically more developed and is not much of a factor to those which have remained to be predominantly agricultural and relatively concentrated on domestic trade. This can be explained with a quote by Walt Rostow from his article The Stages of Economic Growth (1968) that “as societies adopt a progressively more industrial infrastructure, certain determinate processes are set in motion which tend over time to shape social structures, political processes and public policies in the same mould” (cited in Bennett 1991, p. 216).

Still, such a supposition led to further arguments and opposition as other theorists cannot reconcile this common denominator of industrialization because of certain implications such as the probability of a “convergence of communist and capitalistic regimes” (Brzezinski & Huntington, cited in Bennett 1991, p. 216) and that it “obscures complex political and ideological factions” (Castles & McKinlay, cited in Bennett 1991, p. 216).

Bennett rightly veered away from taking on these argumentative issues and qualified his article as being less concerned with “societal convergence” and focused instead on the “more precise concept of ‘policy convergence’” (p. 217). Be that as it may, the cases that were found in the more “advanced industrial democracies” were preferentially selected and from which were considered the different but traditional policy sectors such as education, health, environment, etc. in order to limit the scope but not constrain the analysis.

Bennett continues by defining policy convergence in the context of what it encompasses which could be of five varied categories, that is, policy goals, content, instruments, outcomes or style. Convergence may satisfy one of these categories or interface with two or more. This interaction may create the kind of impact that could lead to how these convergences are viewed and what form it takes. For instance, in one of the cases studied concerning regulation of chemicals, Brickman, et.al. (1985) had noted, “What is legislated in one country (merely) corresponds to administrative action in another” (cited in Bennett 1991, p. 218).

However, one should be wary of falling into the pitfall of declaring similarities or uniformity of policies as a true convergence. Bennett pointed this out by presenting the distinction that convergence is more of a process of  ‘becoming’ rather than a condition of ‘being’ more alike” (p. 219). He gave utmost emphasis to the dynamism of policy-making and this is oft repeated throughout the article.

In spite of apparent similarities or differences, for that matter, policy making should not be approached with a box as it is in its very nature to rely on various factors and relational perspectives before a conceptualization and subsequent implementation of these policies can even be started. It is, thus, for this reason that Bennett described the determinants of policy convergence as processes in order to delineate it against a static impression.

In order to establish if these processes are as distinct as Bennett introduced them to be, let us look closely at their prescribed differences.

The first of these processes that Bennett has identified is “convergence through emulation” (p. 220). He made use of studies and articles on comparative policy analysis to defend this selection. To lay his foundation, he quoted Siegel & Weinberg (1977) from their article Comparing Public Policies: United States, Soviet Union and Europe that “from the beginning of their existence, nations have sought to borrow and adopt structures and policies from other societies” and this was seconded by Leichter in his article Comparative Public Policy: Problem and Prospects by observing that “public policy and problem solving is an extraordinarily imitative art” (cited in Bennett 1991, p. 220).  While this is similar to the concept that is increasingly being used by multinational companies aiming to achieve operational excellence and systems by employing best-practices within the global organization or extraneously but still within the same industry, however, in the context of policy making, it does not mean outright adoption on a one to one basis.

Given the advances in technology and communication, it is not far-fetched that a state on the verge of making a decision would find or come into information about similar issues and circumstance that had already been addressed and resolved by another state. It is, therefore, probable, that lessons will be drawn from these actions and resolutions with the relevant decisions emulated to come up with one’s own policy innovation. It is for this reason that Bennett conjectured that emulation would merely account for “convergence of policy goals, of policy content or of policy instruments as it is more “the model rather than the detailed content, that is being emulated (p. 221).

Similar with multinational corporations, states are wont to emphasize distinguishing features that would set them apart from the model and make plausible claims of improvement, innovation and customization to the context for which the policy was formulated. As with corporations within the same industry assuming best practice extraneously who will never admit to emulation but instead suggest innovation, it is the same with states who for matters of national pride and for a projection of an image of autonomy,  they would not readily admit their inspirational models for their policies (p. 223).

The second process of convergence identified is “convergence through elite networking and policy communities” (p.  224).   This is driven usually by professional organizations whose specific concerns are for their industry but have impacts across boundaries, thus creating a need for policies that would likewise spread over these same boundaries. This is especially evident in the transport logistics sector where individual states are made signatories to specific conventions particularly held to set agreements regarding their sector. Customarily, an international body is established to represent this professional organization and to regulate the implementation of these agreements. Common problems are normally laid out and common solutions arrived and manifested as policies that would address these problems.

A marked difference that distinguishes this process is that this “results from an interaction and consensus amongst an elite that operates, in the first instance, above the fray of domestic policies” (p. 225). This has less to do with considerations of who will benefit and who will take the lead, but more with the establishment of regulations that all would have to abide by, thus laying down a relatively even playing field. This distinction is especially important to remember s this process tend to overlap with the third process that Bennett presented inasmuch as relations across international lines are involved.

The third process identified is “convergence through harmonization” (p. 225). As states move towards increased cooperation to achieve mutual ends, or the so-called win-win solutions, understandably there arose a need for the “existence of intergovernmental and supranational institutions (that) facilitates the shaping of a common response to common problems, to mitigate the unintended external consequences of domestic policy” (p. 225).  This common response is manifested through policies that touch on issues which could impact relations on international trade, security, communication and environment.

With international being the operative word, Bennett remarked that it is because of this tht comparative studies regularly neglect to categorize this as a determinant of policy convergence and instead classify it under international relations. He contended that these “international regimes are (in fact) a powerful determinant of policy convergence” (p. 226). Indeed, these international organizations were explicitly formed in order to form a common understanding of the needs and more importantly the formulation of resolutions that would address these needs and translate them into policies.

This is where policy convergence is most evident as members come into these organizations with different agendas and different priorities bring their own interests and yet if need be, acquiesce to compromise leading to a convergence of ideas and ultimately into policies. However, there remains the contention that the indication of sacrifice of autonomy for harmony runs contrary to the identified cause of policy convergence. Regardless, it does not argue against it explaining that in this instance convergence does occur in the sense of policy outcome (p. 224).

Lastly, the final process is identified as “convergence through penetration” (p. 227).  Siegel and Weinberg as quoted by Bennett presented a more illustrative definition of the process in stating that it is “one in which externally based actors participate in the selection of goals, the allocation of costs, and the mobilization of resources and capabilities in the domestic policy process” (p. 227). One can thus conclude that the same international regimes that promote policy convergence through harmonization may likewise exploit its collective influence to impose its own will on the minority through penalties and exclusion.

Powerful nations, such as the United States, had historically shown no qualms about driving policies that would converge with its own set of policies. Bennett made use of Jill Hill’s article Deregulating Telecoms: Competition and Control in the United States, Japan and Britain (1968) as an example which tacitly implied that the of the deregulation of telecommunications was due to the pressure exerted by the United States and which would apparently “establish a technological and economic lead in information-related services” and as well mean “an attack on protectionist government policies” all in favor of the interests of American telecommunication industry (cited in Bennett 1991, p. 228).

 Recently, stringent security policies were issued by the U.S. which trading partners or those who aspire to be were obligated to follow. Otherwise, they will never achieve recognition and be acknowledged as legitimate trading partners and consequently, goods that manage to enter the U.S. from these countries will be unquestionably destroyed. Bennet emphasized, however, that the issue here is not the weakness of capitalism but a convergence of policies that would allow for the smooth flow of good and services from one trading partner to another (p. 228).

Bennett had adequately summed up in his conclusion the distinct differences of the four processes that he presented as determinants of policy convergence. This served to further distinguish one from the other as categories on their own. At first glance, the processes may overlap given that international organizations may be seen as synonymous and that harmonization may actually seem to be more penetrative.

Bennett’s presentation of these processes in the context of exploring the conditions for its occurrence, served to adequately draw the line to set each one apart. He explained that, “Emulation is associated with collective insecurity under conditions of policy innovation; elite networking stems from the desire to share expertise; harmonization results from interdependence and the perceived need to co-operate; penetration is more an expression of power” (p. 229).

While Bennett was clear in pointing out the processes that lead to policy convergence, he was also careful to point out that it should no be taken at face value. As much literature there are available to support the policy convergence hypothessis, there are likewise as much literature available to disclaim it.

Recalling the categories used earlier to define the veracity of policy convergence, he introduced doubts by citing questions posed by its critics such as that by George Hoberg, Jr. (1986) who expressed his skepticism of policy outcomes as evidence of convergence by revealing in his paper Technology, Political Structure and Social Regulation: A Cross-National Analysis that despite perceived similarities, the processes used to produced these outcomes are actually persistently different (cited in Bennett 1991, p. 229). There was mention as well of Goldthorpe, a critic of convergence theory who stated that industrial societies are in fact taking on more divergent directions.

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