Policy Responsiveness? Evidence for one side of the thermostat.

April 14, 2011, 10:03 p.m.

Policy Responsiveness? Evidence for one side of the thermostat. by Kathrin Thomas, from the University of Exeter, examines the effects of democratic responsiveness and the need for increased research on the topic.  One of the points she mentions is the fact that research up to the present has mostly focused on the United States of America.  In order to have a broad understanding of democracies as a whole it is imperative that research be done internationally focusing on many different types of democratic systems.  She looks at democratic responsiveness, issue responsiveness, and ideological responsiveness. 

Dahl has noted that “one key characteristic of a representative democracy is [...] responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens” (Dahl 1971:1) Democratic responsiveness is also one paradigm to test the quality of a democracy. The question whether or not governments respond to public wishes leads back to the core principle of representation, which teaches us that governments are the trustee of the people and, thus, are supposed to act in accordance with their preferences. The (mal) functioning of this link in representation can be tested by examining a government’s ability to respond to public wishes.

However, the relationship between public opinion and public policy is not directly linked. G. Bingham Powell has noted that “democratic responsiveness is a [rather] complex process, somewhat like a chain whose links are causally connected” (Powell 2004). Within this chain of representation, opinion translation is conditioned and constrained, especially by the institutional set-up of a country. I argue that public opinion has only got a significant impact on policy outcomes under a certain institutional design.  Hence, how effectively governments respond to public wishes depends on the conditioning effect of a combination of electoral institutions such as the type of the executive, the type of the electoral and party system as well as the vertical dispersion of powers within a state.

As I have argued earlier, continuous responsiveness research is important and necessary to test the quality of a democracy. In addition, I find a large gap in the literature concerning issue responsiveness research. This strand of research focuses mainly on the opinion-policy linkage in the USA and only few studies have considered other American or even European countries. Furthermore the effect of institutions on public opinion and responsiveness deserves some more exploration. We need to shed light on how the interplay of the various institutions effects opinion formulation and policy making. This paper contributes to some of these issues. I employ a larger country sample of 21 countries worldwide. The political systems I look at vary according to several institutional features which allows me to test in a cross-national manner the conditioning effects of the institutional design employing the comparative method. The main research questions I intend to answer in this paper is: Do governments respond to their citizens wishes? And: What institutional design conditions government responsiveness to public preferences?

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