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The politics of subsystems : agenda management and policy change in education King, Conrad A.


Why is the policy status quo more resilient in some contexts than others? What are the conditions by which policy instruments can be transformed, in lieu of other degrees of change? I argue that the properties of policy design institutions have played an important role in determining the degree of policy change during recent reforms of public education in Germany and France, following from ‘PISA shocks’ in each country. The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a cross-national comparison of education systems that revealed unexpectedly poor results for Germany in 2001 and France in 2007. The subsequent (and surprising) policy change outcomes can be explained by examining sector-specific policy design institutions (i.e., policy subsystems). It is from analysis of subsystem politics in the education sector that I begin to develop an agenda-management model of policy change. More specifically, I found that the existence in Germany of a stable, consensus-oriented institution for education policy design – what I call a policy oligopoly – was critical for managing the reform agenda and for facilitating a transformation of policy instruments in lieu of greater or lesser forms of change. Furthermore, the existence in France of a conflict-ridden subsystem – an unstable monopoly for policy design – resulted in a disorderly reform episode and eventually the obstruction of many of the proposed policy changes. The research involved a comparative process tracing of educational policy-making in Germany and France, involving 58 participant and expert interviews and an intensive analysis of primary documents and secondary materials. From this evidence, I describe different types of policy change involved in each case, explain the connection between subsystem politics and forms of policy change, and evaluate the plausibility of this agenda-management model when compared to more conventional explanations, such as policy internationalization or partisan-politics. The dissertation makes a number of contributions to the literature on change in public policy. It provides a novel account for how and why certain policy-making regimes facing acute external pressure can significantly change the instrumental logic of policy yet retain aspects of the political and policy status quo, while other regimes fail in this regard.

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