Beyond public policy: A public action languages approach Peter Kevin Spink Edward Elgar, 2019, 256 pp., £72.00 (hbk), ISBN: 9781 78811 874 3

Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
AuthorDavid Abbott
Beyond public policy: A public action languages
Peter Kevin Spink
Edward Elgar, 2019, 256 pp., £72.00 (hbk), ISBN: 9781 78811 874 3
Peter Spink is a psychologist whose interests in organization and social action have drawn him towards interdisciplin-
ary approaches to policy studies. The book makes several key claims from the outset. The dominant discourse of
public policyis held up to reflexive scrutiny and found not to refer to an objective and uncontested reality. It is
claimed that both the term public policyand the language that it brings in train is instead best understood as a lan-
guage for social action. The language of public policy happens to be an action languagethat is shared by many peo-
ple, but we are told it is only one of many action languages in the public arena (others include the languages of
rights, systems, budgeting, finance, planning, diplomacy and laws). Furthermore, it is a historical phenomenon whose
centrality will be temporary. In the opening chapter, Spink sketches out the etymology and development of the use
of the term public policyand some of its varied meanings. Echoing the observations of Colebatch and others, Spink
concurs that the term public policyhas become synonymous with governmental action, and that this meaning of
the term has rendered it of increasingly less analytical usefulness. The state is not to be seen as synonymous with
public affairs and public action. Taking public policy as government in actionis seen to be a limiting approach.
Drawing on a wide range of theoretical sources, this book thus insists on a polycentric approach to action, insti-
tutions and organizations. As Spink points out, the term action languagesitself owes something to Hirschman and
to French pragmatic sociology; he drives home the point that his approach takes the action of citizensas of equal
importance to government action and states that citizen action creates distinctive arenas of public action. Yet while
these claims are convincing, the meaning of action languageremains less clear in this account. A whole chapter is
devoted to social languages, replete with references to some of the best and most relevant literature, yet still the
development of this argument appears somewhat muted. Perhaps the key claims could have been elaborated and set
in much clearer relief had the concept of action languagesbeen defined and argued out more fully in the context of
examination of the nexus of power, language and institutions.
It might further be argued that the list of other action languagesmentioned above begs the question of whether
what is at issue is in fact simply a matter of language, rather than one of competing logics, or political ideologies, but
this does not seem to have been considered. Presumably the point of referring to action languageis that it will lead
to a deeper analysis of both political actors and political action. However, notwithstanding the abstracted summary
of performativity in the book, it would be a rather flat view of language that discussed the language of budgetingor
the language of rightswithout including some discussion of metaphor, rhetoric, intentionality and ideology, not to
mention the institutional, structural and power relations in which language is situated. Perhaps this is not an accurate
representation of the argument, but for this reader the lack of discussion of the wider theoretical arguments made it
unclear how an appeal to action languagesadds to political analysis and precisely what the addition of publicto
that concept would contribute. Indeed, it is not clear if the plurality of this approach is intended to extend to the
concept of the public as well: are we are to conceive of both multiple publicsand multiple action languages?
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12628
Public Administration. 2019;97:965966. © 2019 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 965

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