The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Meijer, Lofgren: Selling technology to the policy sciences: Marketing strategies for specialized scholars


Meijer, A., Utrecht University, Netherlands


What role does the Internet play in policy change? Although policy change is a key issue in policy studies, this literature generally overlooks the role of modern technologies in policy change. In well-known text books on policy studies. and subsequently policy change, such as John (1998), Hill (2005), Birkland (2005), technology is not mentioned as one of the factors influencing the direction of the policy change. Although rarely explicitly stated, most explanations focus on either changes in actors’ attitudes and convictions (cf. Sabatier and his core policy beliefs and values, 1999) or changes in institutional structures (cf. Streek & Thelen, 2005). The environment of policy systems usually only plays a role in the form of socio-economic conditions (Wilensky, 1975), diffusion or transfer of ideas (Walker, 1969; Berry & Berry, 1999) or crises/punctuated equilibriums (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993).

This failure to pay attention to technology is indeed a paradox as modern actual policy-making often refers to technology as the main impetus for policy change. It is, for example, impossible to understand the European union’s ‘Lisbon Strategy’ (EU, 2004) without taking into account the evolution of information- and communication technologies (ICTs) and how this challenges both current industrial policy, as well as the modernization of European government. Likewise, current policy debates on surveillance, biotechnologies, and to some extent also climate change, would be unthinkable without the technological element.

The important role of technology does not necessarily mean that we should adopt the same deterministic view on policy as many policy-makers do. This deterministic view is a view in which nations are subordinated to some exogenous, almost metaphysical, forces which operate beyond human control. Technology often becomes treated as a ‘black box’, developed outside of the policy system, which determines the direction of the policy change. The fact that technology also is being shaped by actors within the policy system is overlooked in a techno-deterministic perspective on technology and policy change.

While the policy studies scholars seem to adhere to a rather underdeveloped understanding of technology, students of science and technology studies (STS) and the organisational sciences have developed more sophisticated approaches to the relation between social systems and technology such as, for example, the structuration approach (Orlikowski), the technology enactment framework (Fountain), the large technical system approach (Hughes) and the social construction of technology (SCOT) (Hughes, Bijker and Pinch); and finally, the Actor-network approach (Latour). These approaches all emphasize the interrelation between technology development and social system.

However, just like traditional policy studies have been omitting technology as an element in policy-making, and could learn something from both STS-studies, the opposite observation is equally valid. Many of the STS-studies do in fact aspire to explain policy changes (e.g. Bijker’s studies of the struggle between gas and electricity in the 1930s US) but their theoretical understanding of political science concepts such as, for example, power, institution, governance and democracy are rarely well-developed. While the STS literature is alleged to be interdisciplinary, the reality is that the ‘studies’ element in STS has more to do with ‘sociology’ than political science, let alone policy studies.

This paper explores how ideas from the organizational sciences about the interrelation between technology and social system can be translated to the policy sciences to develop a theoretical perspective on the relation between the Internet and policy change. Although we recognize the shortcomings of the traditional linear stages model of policy-making, we will in line with others (Hill and Hupe, 2006) use it as map for understanding policy change. We aim to develop a theory about the relation between technology development and policy change that acknowledges this mutual shaping.

The paper is structured as follows. First, we will discuss on the basis of a literature review of some high-ranking journals within policy studies and analysis, what role ‘technology’ is given in terms of policy change. Then we will the present some of the present key approaches to social-technical issues including both STS- and organizational literature. Combining these two, we discuss how the body of STS literature we have presented can be applied to the policy sciences.

Albert Meijer, Karl Löfgren