23 SES 11 C, Global Education Policy
There has been a noted rise in public pessimism toward democratic government institutions and parties in recent years, as evidenced by the increasing popularity of populist parties in many countries across the world (“Declining trust in government,” 2017). Scholars, too, have become increasingly vigilant about the role of government and wider governance bodies and their influence—which is sometimes less than transparent—on education policy (Hursh, 2015). Councils in Europe, generally (Arregui, Stokman, & Thomson, 2004; Lewis, 2008; Veen, 2011), and education councils, specifically (Allison, 2018; Jungblut & Rexe, 2017; Rippner, 2017; Wallner, 2014), are good examples of influential bodies whose decision-making processes have rightfully come under scrutiny; however, many scholarly assessments have been characterized by rhetorical metaphors, concepts, and claims that focus on these bodies’ limited ability to address challenges today and in the future.
Influenced by these assessments, I conducted a qualitative, comparative case study in 2018 that investigated how Councils/Conferences of Ministers of Education in Canada, Germany, and Switzerland address national educational issues of collective interest. The resulting dataset is uniquely comprehensive (i.e., I was given access to all three Councils/Conferences), and brings a European and international dimension to my comparative focus. These Ministerial bodies offer academic and policy communities a unique perspective on system leadership and policy/program cooperation for three main reasons: (a) ministers and the subnational bodies are not accountable to a federal body, and they participate voluntarily—not out of coercion or obligation, but guided by the belief that certain challenges are best addressed collectively rather than jurisdictionally; (b) each minister advocates on behalf of a province/territory, canton, or Länder, while balancing their own political party and jurisdictional interests against the needs of the country as a whole; and (c) each subnational jurisdiction has different economies, political climates, and cultures, and these differences are brought to the Council/Conference table. In the proposed paper for presentation, I will use this unique dataset to nuance some of the influential rhetorical devices scholars have used—ones that not only seem to underestimate these bodies’ ability to solve issues, but also limit analytic possibilities.
Two key assumptions, grounded in research evidence, shaped my study’s framework: (a) institutional processes shape Council/Conference decision-making, and (b) actors’ individual engagement in these processes shape decision-making. For the purposes of this paper, institutions “[function] as ‘government structures’ of the game” (Shepsle & Bonchek, 1997, p. 311)—such as mandates, legal status, budgets, and so forth—that shape human interaction (Nørgaard, 1996). I considered both the influence of formal institutional structures, such as rules/regulations and actor roles, as well as informal institutional structures, such as informal communication mechanisms (Shepsle & Bonchek, 1997; Veen 2011). I also integrated an aspect from collective decision-making theory: the notion that actors’ decisions are influenced by an institution’s culture exchange and willingness to compromise to reach a common outcome (Arregui, Stokman, & Thomson, 2004; Lewis, 2008; Veen, 2011). Tenets of structural-functionalist theory for systems and organizational analysis also inform the study’s framework: (a) leaders view social issues as regulated conflict; (b) leaders take a regulatory (e.g., incremental, nonradical) approach to solving social problems; (c) leaders’ decision-making is grounded in a culture of consensus; and (d) leaders’ decision-making is supported by a multilevel committee structure that is organized hierarchically to manage issues (Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Pelistini, 2003).
I used a qualitative, multicase/comparative methodology (Yin, 2014) to include European and international dimensions when analyzing the complex realities of Council/Conference decision-making. Each Council/Conference is a case in the overall cross-case inquiry (Yin, 2014). There are four ministerial education Councils/Conferences among federated countries, the three included in this study are unique because they are not accountable to a federal body. Consistent with studies examining similar phenomena (Jungblut & Rexe, 2017; Rippner, 2017; Veen, 2011; Wallner, 2014), I conducted both interviews and document analysis. For the interviews, I sent invitations to participate in the study to each Council/Conference Secretariat; each agreed to participate, with the approval process varying quite widely. In Canada, the study invitation was reviewed internally by Secretariat leaders and then formally sent to all 13 substate jurisdictions to decide; for Germany and Switzerland, the decision was made internally by Secretariat leaders. Each Secretariat was asked to nominate official representatives who could represent the voice of Council/Conference in light of the study’s aims. Again, each Council/Conference interpreted this nomination differently: in Canada, this included the executive director and senior directors of the Secretariat, as well as 10 representatives from various jurisdictions; in Germany, the director general accompanied by a senior staff member; in Switzerland, the head of the international relations unit. I conducted individual and group semistructured interviews with 17 Council/Conference Secretariat leaders and jurisdictional representatives. For the document analysis, I conducted a thorough literature review, including each Council/Conference organizational website and any additional documentation submitted by study participants. In total, I reviewed over 30 artefacts, including an internal comparative scan conducted by the Councils/Conferences on their institutional features. Prior to beginning our analysis, my team developed initial codes for organizing our data by drawing from the literature review, the study’s theoretical framework, and our main research question. Early into analysis, we ranked the codes for their relevancy and grouped them to form primary code and subcode categories as warranted. We used Dedoose, a qualitative analysis software program, to code the interview data and artefacts; we then individually analyzed the data collected for each case before conducting any cross-case analysis. We triangulated using multirespondent and multimethod data sources for each case and, using a constant comparative strategy, we identified themes first within and then subsequently across each case with the aim of identifying metathemes.
I was able to relate a number of my findings back to the influential rhetorical devices that previous and current researchers have used to support highly persuasive scholarly assessments of these Ministerial bodies’ abilities. In this paper, I nuance—and sometimes challenge—these rhetorical devices and assessments. For example, certain scholars have viewed Council decision-making as an “eastonian blackbox” (Veen, 2011). I alternatively consider the process as a sophisticated mechanism for converting decision-making inputs to outputs that is, unfortunately, out of public view. I also nuance the view that ministers’ decision-making role is “precooked” or “rubber stamped” (Veen, 2011) and present a view of ministers operating as (mostly) active agents during meetings. I challenge the perspective that issue-vetting processes are structurally weak because conflicting issues are not placed on the common agenda (Bolleyer, 2006), and consider them as structurally efficient, effective, and accountable triaging processes. I counter the perception that councils’ ability to bind states is limited because of unanimous or consensus decision-making (Bolleyer, 2006; Jungblut & Rexe, 2017), and present a view of their decision-making as time-consuming but equally capable of binding states, as the decisions ultimately reflect the collective political will and legacy of leaders. Finally, I corroborate other scholars’ view of Councils/Conferences as able to effectively address educational issues of national importance (Bakvis, 2013; Wallner, 2014) and whose decision-making processes can inform other bodies that operate collaboratively. By pushing against and questioning these boundaries, my aim is to refine these theoretically rhetorical tools in ways that will expand the boundaries of knowledge in this area. I hope to provide balanced insight that can counter the increasing public pessimism toward social institutions and leaders in democratic societies—pessimism which, if left unchecked, has the potential to further contribute to the rise of populism in the Western world.
Allison, J. (2018). The Council of Ministers in the 1980s: Education policy innovator or broken cog? Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 187, 78–90. Arregui, J., Stokman, F., & Thomson, R. (2004). Bargaining in the European Union and shifts in actors’ policy positions. European Union Politics, 5(1), 47–72. Bakvis, H. (2013). “In the shadows of hierarchy”: Intergovernmental governance in Canada and European Union. Canadian Public Administration / Administration Public du Canada, 56(2), 203–218. Bolleyer, N. (2006). Federal dynamics in Canada, the United States, and Switzerland: How substates’ internal organization affects intergovernmental relations. The Journal of Federalism, 36(4), 471–502. Burrell, G., & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis: Elements of the sociology of corporate life. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Company. Retrieved from http://sonify.psych.gatech.edu/~ben/references/burrell_sociological_paradigms_and_organisational_analysis.pdf Declining trust in government is denting democracy. (2017, January 25). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2017/01/25/declining-trust-in-government-is-denting-democracy Hursh, D. (2015) The end of public schools: The corporate reform agenda to privatize education. New York, NY: Routledge. Jungblut, J., & Rexe, D. (2017). Higher education policy in Canada and Germany: Assessing multi-level multi-actor coordination bodies for policymaking in federal systems. Policy & Society, 36(1), 49–66. Lewis, J. (2008). Strategic bargaining, norms and deliberation. In D. Naurin & H. Wallace (Eds.), Unveiling the Council of the European Union: Games governments play in Brussels (pp. 165–186). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. Nørgaard, A. S. (1996) Rediscovering reasonable rationality in institutional analysis. European Journal of Political Research, 29(1), 31–57. Palestini, R. H. (2003). The human touch in educational leadership: A post-positivist approach to understanding educational leadership. Oxford, UK: Scarecrow Education Press. Rippner, J. (2017). State P-20 councils and collaboration between K-12 and higher education. Educational Policy, 31(1), 3–38. Shepsle, K. A., & Bonchek, M. (1997). Analyzing politics: Rationality, behavior, and institutions. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. Veen, T. (2011). Analysing collective decision-making in the Council: A research design. In T. Veen (Ed.), The political economy of collective decision making: Conflicts and coalitions in the Council of the European Union. London, UK: Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg. Wallner, J. (2014). Learning to school: Federalism and public schooling in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press. Yin, R. (2014). Case study research design and methods (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
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