Rethinking the ‘open functional’ approach: Ideas, problem pressure and reform in the contemporary welfare state

Published date01 September 2018
AuthorAdam Hannah
Date01 September 2018
Rethinking the open functionalapproach: Ideas,
problem pressure and reform in the contemporary
welfare state
Adam Hannah
School of Social and Political Sciences, The
University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria,
Adam Hannah, School of Social and Political
Sciences, Room W511, Level 4 John Medley
(Building 191), The University of Melbourne,
Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia.
Funding information
Australian Government Australian
Postgraduate Award and the University of
Melbourne Faculty of Arts Fieldwork Grant
Recognition that welfare states continue to change has fostered
debate about the relationship between ideas and policy problems
in driving governments towards reform. To move the debate for-
ward, this article proposes a modification of Barbara Vis and Kees
van Kersbergensopen functional approach. It first argues that
while policy problems may provide functional pressureto reform,
this pressure is significant only in so far as inaction would risk elec-
toral punishment. Reform pressure is hence best evaluated with
reference to contemporaneous expert advice, public opinion data
and the timing of elite and media attention. Second, it suggests that
ideas may also lead parties to act as reform seekers, using policy
problems as justification for cherished solutions or long-held pro-
grammatic goals. The modified approach is demonstrated through
comparative application to two case studies, attempts at pension
reform in Sweden and the United States.
The 1990s saw the rise of a new orthodoxy in welfare state studies. Building on path-breaking work by Paul Pierson
(1994), this new politics of the welfare stateargued that the development of large social programmes, and the sub-
sequent adaptation of citizens and interest groups, has reshaped incentives for all political actors (Swank 2001). In
general, such accounts have tended to be stability-centric, viewing change as risky and difficult, and lacking in theo-
retical tools to fully explain it (Green-Pedersen and Haverland 2002).
While far from being outright dismantled, it is now clear that welfare states have begun to respond, in a variety
of ways, to contemporary challenges, such as ageing populations, changing gender roles, rapid technological change,
and large-scale migration (Morel et al. 2012; Hemerijck 2013; Morgan 2013).
To fill the theoretical gap, scholars have made progress in outlining gradual, endogenous and ideationally driven
modes of change (Streeck and Thelen 2005; Schmidt 2008; Jacobs and Weaver 2014). However, the literature still
leaves a number of questions not fully answered. First, while scholars have established the importance of ideas, there
is still work to be done in showing exactly how they matter in relation to other key variables (Shpaizman 2014;
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12414
528 © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2018;96:528543.
Carstensen and Schmidt 2015; Parsons 2015). Second, while the new politicsscholarship has been criticized for its
stability-centric nature, its claim that welfare state reform is often difficult and risky is largely accepted(Starke 2006).
As such, it remains an open question as to exactly why governments continue to engage in reform, given the appar-
ent risks.
In this article, I argue that the open functionalapproach (OFA) proposed by Barbara Vis and Kees van Kersber-
gen (2013) represents a novel and viable approach to these questions. The OFA sees welfare state reform as being
driven by functional pressure, which is created by endogenous or exogenous policy problems that threaten the
proper functioning, and even continued existence, of a policy system. Ideas are described as being pivotal to the link-
ing of problem and solution, but provide little independent impetus for reform.
However, while a valuable advance, the OFAs initial formulation has several shortcomings. First, while Vis and
Van Kersbergen effectively describe the translation of existential threats to policy systems, with some modification
the approach could also be applied to cases of less obvious vulnerability. To do so, I build on Vis and Van Kersber-
gens earlier work on prospect theory, arguing that functional pressure is better defined as threat of electoral pun-
ishment emanating from the maintenance of a policy status quo. Second, functional pressurealso requires further
specification, especially with regard to identification and measurement. I suggest that it be identified through the
examination of contemporaneous expert advice, data on public opinion and the timing and sequence of media and
elite attention.
Third, I argue that ideas deserve a more prominent role than Vis and Van Kersbergen are willing to grant. Ideas
certainly can provide a cognitive link between problem and solution (Kingdon 1984). However, I contend that they
may also motivate leaders to take the opportunity afforded to them by policy problems, especially where parties have
previously failed to implement core policy goals. In this way, dissatisfaction with the status quo may allow for the
return of previously dormant, non-viable or unsuccessful ideas. Finally, I suggest that in seeking to explain both the
initial stimulus and the ultimate success or failure of reform, the approach is stretched too far, and risks overlooking
key mediating factors.
This modified OFA is then demonstrated through application to two case studies, from two distinctive welfare
states: Swedish pension reform in the 1990s, and the failed 2005 attempt at Social Security reform in the United
States. In both cases, while the prospect of funding shortfalls provided a degree of functional pressure, the promi-
nence of several ideas incentivized key actors to view functional pressure as an opportunity, rather than only as a
It is now well accepted in the literature that ideas have influence of their own, but not completely by them-
selves(Biernacki 1995, p. 35; in Parsons 2015). This article largely agrees with Vis and Van Kersbergens assertion
that scholars should make a greater effort to describe a material policy context that exists independently of cognitive
beliefs. However, I argue that the inverse also applies: ideas about policy may exist independently of functional pres-
sure. At times, therefore, ideas shape the influence of policy problems, and not only the other way around.
Parsimonious and transferrable approaches to policy change are (a) surprisingly rare and (b) invaluable. It is for this
reason that long-standing modes of analysis, such as Kingdons (1984) multiple streamsframework, are ubiquitous
in the literature. At the same time, there remains a need to build on these approaches to construct finer-grained
modes of analysis (John 2003). In particular, there is a need to do so in ways that shed light on the specific ongoing
debates in the public policy and welfare state literatures, such as why governments engage in welfare state reform,
the nature of the relationship between ideas and interests and the question of how exactly problem pressure is trans-
lated into action.
One promising recent attempt at producing such a framework was made by Barbara Vis and Kees van Kersber-
gen (2013) in the form of their open functionalapproach (OFA). The OFA was developed for two main purposes.

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