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Role of Institutions in Social Policy

Explore with examples the role of institutions in influencing policy outcomes.

The following will discuss the role that institutions can or may have in influencing public policy outcomes, and where relevant examples of such influences will be provided. The role of various institutions will be explored, and any differences in the amount or the importance of those organisations in influencing policy outcomes will be analysed. Included in this study of the influence upon policy outcomes that institutions have, will be an evaluation of whether that influence changes with the type of organisation that is being examined, and upon the circumstances in which the policy outcomes are reached and implemented within. How much influence the roles of institutions allow them in the determination of policy outcomes, or policy decision-making can depend on the functions and objectives of the institutions involved in the decision-making process. The influence any institutions have upon policy outcomes or policy decision-making processes varies with the expertise, knowledge, technical know how that the institutions have available, as well as the level of access these institutions have to the decision-makers that are mainly responsible for determining policy outcomes. As will be explored the decision-makers that are responsible for the framing and carrying out of policy outcomes will be more likely to be influenced by the institutions that have the most experience and expertise in the policy areas that the decision-makers are tasked with controlling and administering.

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An area of policy outcomes in which institutions have played roles in influencing the final policy decisions made and actually carried out has been in issues relating to the environment. Institutions that have been involved in studying the environment in general and environmental changes like the greenhouse effect in particular have been able to influence the policy outcomes in relation to taking measures to limit or reduce environmental damage. Academic and scientific institutions alongside environmentalist groups such as Friends of the Earth have played a significant role influencing policy outcomes. There are a few examples of policy outcomes that could be used in support of this statement, arguably strong supporting evidence as well (Jones et al, 2004 p. 600). These groups and institutions believe they can influence policy outcomes by setting the public agenda (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 p. 5). Prior to the 1960s academic and scientific institutions had a minor role in influencing policy outcomes with regard to issues concerning the environment. Policy decision-makers would contact institutions that had expertise or knowledge about environmental issues upon an ad hoc basis, for example in the 1950s when the British government wished to solve the problem of smog in the London area. On that occasion institutions gave advice as to the best way of cleaning up the air pollution that had been the cause of the smog (Jones et al, 2004 p. 600).

From the 1960s academic and scientific institutions began to suspect that human economic and industrial activities were having a profoundly detrimental affect upon the physical environment. Increased concerns over the environment led to the emergence of pressure groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, these groups have tended to attempt to influence policy outcomes by generating publicity to raise public awareness of environment issues (Jones et al, 2004 p. 695). Arguably, the combined efforts of the academic and scientific institutions and the pressure groups have raised international as well as national awareness of environmental issues. Without the publicity achieved by the environmentalist pressure groups, the academic and scientific institutions would have found it much harder to have had any kind of meaningful influence over policy outcomes relating to the environment. In turn the publicity campaigns of the environmentalist pressure groups would have a had minimal influence over policy outcomes without the strong and convincing scientific evidence of human induced climate change and environmental damage presented by the by the academic and scientific institutions. These were research findings that policy decision-makers believed they have had to react to (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 401). The universal nature and the global scope of environmental issues has meant that institutions and pressure groups have attempted to influence policy outcomes upon a regional or even a global basis as well as at the national level (Jones et al, 2004 p. 599).

Now attention needs to be turned to explore when the approach of academic and scientific institutions and environmentalist pressure groups has been able to influence policy outcomes. A good example of this happening was the problem of acid rain, which had its worst affects upon the forests of Scandinavia. Coal fired power stations in Britain were regarded as being the main culprits behind acid rain. Strong scientific evidence produced by research institutions and environmentalist pressure groups proved that this was in fact the case. Pressure from the Scandinavian governments and the European Union coupled with the evidence from academic institutions combined to persuade the British government to take action to solve the problem by cleaning up the emissions from the coal fired power stations (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 406).

Perhaps the first significant example of academic and scientific institutions having a global impact as opposed to a national impact over policy outcomes with regard to the environment was over the issue of damage to the ozone layer. During the early 1980s there was increasing scientific evidence of expanding holes in the ozone layer, which is an important barrier against the more harmful effects and forms of radiation emitted by the sun. The depletion of the ozone layer would not be harmful to peoples’ health, and it would increase the environmental damage caused by the greenhouse effect and speed up the process of global warming. Scientific research proved that the hole in the ozone layer was caused by the chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) used as coolants in fridges and freezers, as the propellants in aerosol cans, and in fast food packaging. Media coverage of the problems that the shrinking of the ozone layer was causing increased the ability of institutions to influence policy outcomes. International agreement was eventually reached that the use of CFCs would be phased out with less harmful alternatives being used instead (Jones et al, 2004 p. 600).

As the scientific evidence of the greenhouse effect grew the role of academic and scientific institutions in influencing policy outcomes has increased as well. Countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and eventually Britain have made efforts to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (Judt, 2007 p. 494). The efforts of institutions concerned with protecting the environment has also strongly affected and influenced the European Union, which has introduced legislation, regulations, and directives for its member states to take policy measures to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and achieve sustainable development. Attempts to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases culminated in the Rio Earth Summit, and the later Kyoto Protocol (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 407). Currently there are ongoing talks to renew the Kyoto Protocol. Over all policy decision-makers have to take into account the environmental affects of the policy outcomes they make decisions on (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 406).

An area in which institutions can play a major or significant role in influencing policy outcomes is in relation to medical and public health issue. Hospitals, medical centres, universities, doctors, and nursing unions are all institutions or organisations that influence or attempt to influence policy outcomes. Governments believe that they have a responsibility to ensure that their policy outcomes if possible protect and enhance public health and safety standards. Doctors, nurses, universities, and hospitals also have good reasons to promote public health issues, mainly as that is important part of their objectives as institutions and skilled professionals. When it comes down to these institutions or groups influencing policy outcomes, those that have firmly focused public health and safety objectives are more effective if they have a strong or well developed expertise in their area of specialisation. In Britain the medical institutions that are linked with, or are actually part of the National Health Service (NHS) potentially have a strong influence on health policy outcomes. For instance, doctors and the medical departments of universities have played in developing new medical treatments, diagnosing new diseases, and researching for cures to illnesses. These institutions have helped to progressively improve the quality and quantity of healthcare services and medical treatments available, allowing for increased life expectancy. For instance organ transplants, better cancer treatments, and drugs that delay the onset of the HIV / AIDS virus have all been developed since the 1960s. These medical achievements were primarily developed to prolong both life expectancy and quality, which after all is the purpose of all medical professions (Hobsbawm, 1994 p. 556).

However, universities, medical research laboratories, and pharmaceutical companies also motivated by the opportunities to raise their reputations for expertise, as well as hoping to gain substantial financial rewards (Hobsbawm, 1994 p. 556). Decision-makers that are part of publicly funded health services such as the NHS in Britain can have another major influence over policy outcomes, aside from the influence of medical institutions. That other influence is often decisive in the final determination of policy outcomes, and that is the issue of funding. The majority of the British population has high expectations of the NHS, and they expect or hope that all new medical treatments will be available to patients as soon as those treatments are required. Despite public expenditure on the NHS increasing every year, medical treatments have to be rationed out or provided on the basis of which patients need treatment the most urgently (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 p. 296). The splitting up of the NHS budget into individual budgets for each health trust unit also means that medical institutions now have to attempt to influence policy outcomes at the health unit trust level as well as at the national level. Although the introduction of health trust units was intended to improve efficiency within the NHS, it has also meant that the medical treatments that patients may or may not receive depends on which area of Britain they live in (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 p. 297). Of course those people that chose to have private healthcare there is no worry about their medical treatments being rationed or not available in some areas, all they have to do is have enough money or insurance to pay for their treatment in the first place (Moran, 2005, p. 54).

Medical institutions can have an influence over policy outcomes when they diagnose or discover new illnesses, or when they wish to change people’s behaviour to prevent illnesses. When medical institutions diagnose or discover new illnesses it can have drastic consequences, and therefore have a significant influence upon policy outcomes. A prime example of a new illness having such a significant effect on policy outcomes was over the issue of mad cow disease in Britain. The issue of mad cow disease cut across agricultural, trade, and medical areas of government policy. The origin of the crisis began with the farming practice of feeding cattle food that inadvertently used the brains of sheep infected with scrapie, and subsequently led to the emergence of mad cow disease or Bovine Sponigform Encephalopathy (BSE). Medical and scientific evidence proved that BSE could be passed on to humans through the food chain. People infected in such a way went on to develop variant CJD, for which there is currently no cure, and it invariably kills those infected. The initial reaction of the British government to the BSE crisis was slow, and seemed to ignore advice and evidence provided by agricultural and medical institutions in a vain attempt to protect the British beef industry (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003 p. 123). Indeed the slowness of the government’s reaction meant that the problem got better rather than worse. The government’s efforts to maintain public confidence in the safety of British beef proved unconvincing. The testing of cattle herds for BSE infection was too slow, leaving the culling of entire herds as the only means of tackling the problem. The government was also slow in issuing safety guidelines in the NHS which meant that blood and organs unknowingly donated by variant CJD victims was used in blood transfusions and organ transplants which therefore infected more people (Moran, 2005 p. 433).

The whole handling of the BSE issue clearly demonstrates that if politicians or policy decision-makers within the government fail to heed the advice of suitably qualified or experienced institutions that it can have disastrous consequences in terms of policy outcomes. Tackling an issue before it becomes an intractable problem can be the difference between damage limitation, and unmitigated policy failure (Moran, 2005 p. 433). The delays in tackling the BSE issue meant that peoples lives were put at risk unnecessarily, whilst the European Union ban on British beef and any of its by-products was highly damaging to the British beef industry (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003 p. 123). The measures taken to restrict and eventually got rid of BSE cases in British cattle. However the gestation period of variant CJD means that it will be some time before there are no cases at all. The BSE free status of British cattle did eventually lead to the lifting of the ban on British beef exports (Moran, 2005 p. 433).

Institutions have been able to influence policy outcomes when it comes to taking preventative health measures. For instance, reducing the number of smokers, heavy drinkers, and the number of people that have heart disease. Medical institutions have been aware for quite some time that many health problems are preventable, especially if people change their behaviour. An example of medical institutions having a strong influence on policy outcomes has been in reducing the number of smokers. Smoking has been proven to be a major cause of various types of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes. Anti-smoking groups and medical institutions have sought to influence policy outcomes to reduce the numbers of people killed by smoking related illnesses. Policy outcomes have included a ban on cigarette advertising, government health warnings on packets, and hard -hitting NHS adverts showing the consequences of smoking upon people’s health. Governments have also raised duty levels on cigarettes to persuade people to give up smoking, although this has only had limited success (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 p. 297). The Scottish Parliament took evidence about the harmful effects of smoking from medical institutions, and voted to ban smoking in public places. That decision proved to be the catalyst for the Westminster Parliament to do like likewise in 2006 (Whitaker’s, 2007 p. 1067). Data shows that increasing numbers of British smokers wish to stop, 598,600 attempting to do so in 2006 alone (Schott, 2006 p. 109).

Attempts by medical institutions and the Police to reduce heavy drinking have not been so successful. Whilst the government has tried to reduce the amount of binge drinking, most steps have been done voluntarily by the drinks industry to avoid tougher measures been taken. Medical institutions are opposed to heavy drinking due to the medical damage it does, whilst the Police can prove the link between alcohol consumption and crime. The government also decided to extend licensing so pubs could stay open for 24 hours a day, a policy outcome that seems to contradict the objective of reducing alcohol consumption levels (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 330). Britain according to research is the country with the third largest frequency of binge drinkers in the European Union, after Finland and Ireland (Schott, 2006 p. 109). In terms of reducing the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes, medical institutions seem to have had more influence with food and drinks producers than with the decision-makers that decide policy outcomes. Once again the government prefers that companies make their products healthier on a voluntarily basis. Governments also prefer not to alienate too many businesses by affecting their ability to make profits (Jones et al, 2004 p.599).

Another way in which institutions can have an influence upon policy outcomes is by being involved with organisations or committees that can determine policy decisions. Such organisations are referred to quangos or quasi-autonomous non-government organisation, and they control many areas of public decision-making and expenditure (Comfort, 1993 p. 493). The definition of quangos is now national rather than non-governmental, as they are part of the governmental structure even they are not part of departments or the civil service. Quangos have various functions and therefore levels of power and budgets. Quangos such as regional development bodies have large budgets, and community institutions could have stronger influences on policy outcomes than national institutions. Other Quangos such as regulatory bodies like Ofgem are meant to regulate private businesses rather then being influenced by institutions (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 332). Quangos therefore have a great deal of informal power, so to influence with any of them can allow institutions to gain influence over policy outcomes (Jones et al, 2004 p. 663). Potentially institutions could gain influence over policy outcomes by having some of their representatives joining any quangos that operate within their areas of interest or expertise. Alternatively quangos often have the power to award lucrative contracts, or grant funding for research or community projects, that provides further incentives for institutions to gain access to those quangos that can decide policy outcomes. There are quangos that are linked to the relevant government departments, some of which could provide institutions with the ability to communicate with ministers. Some would argue that quangos are undemocratic, and increase the chances of corruption, although ministers can make them accountable to the government if not to Parliament (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003 p.371). Both the Conservatives and New Labour have made widespread use of quangos when in government as they argued that quangos make governance more efficient (Jones et al p.664).

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Another way in which institutions are able to influence policy outcomes is through publicity campaigns, and lobbying the government to make decisions that favour their objectives. Such a mode of operation can mean that the behaviour and strategy of institutions is very similar to pressure groups (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003 p. 171). Publicity campaigns can be either positive or negative in their tone, depending on whether institutions want to encourage or discourage certain decisions (Judt, 2007 p. 544). Examples of positive campaigning include universities encouraging the introduction of tuition fees to fund increasing numbers of students, or campaigns to fund new hospitals or new medical treatments (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 p. 272). More negative campaigns have included medical institutions resisting any reforms of the NHS that they do not like. These campaigns have proved highly effective, as even the Thatcher government could not attempt to dismantle the NHS (Judt, 2007 p. 544).

Therefore it could be concluded that institutions could play a significant role in influencing policy outcomes. However, no institution is guaranteed to play a significant role in influencing policy outcomes just because it exists. The roles that institutions play in influencing policy outcomes varies with circumstances, whether the government of the day has strong ideological beliefs, the expertise, campaigning skills, and the objectives of each individual institution. Governments will naturally tend to favour the institutions whose views and objectives are similar to their own, although governments also like to pursue policies that improve their chances of re-election. However, that does not mean that governments are unwilling to hear the opinions of institutions if those institutions lobby the government to influence policy outcomes. Institutions are more likely to succeed in influencing policy outcomes if they can provide strong evidence to back up their arguments or policy suggestions. Governments prefer to adopt policies that they can convince the electorate is necessary to improve public services, could improve the standard of living, or prevent things going wrong. Examples of governments being influenced by institutions that have altered government policy include taking the environment seriously, measures to reduce smoking, and steps taken to deal with the BSE crisis. The failings that the initially inept handling of the BSE crisis demonstrated that institutions cannot always have had an influence on policy outcomes, and may only be consulted after things have gone wrong.


Coxall B, Robins L & Leach R (2003) Contemporary British Politics 4th edition, Palgrave, Basingstoke

Fisher J, Denver D, & Benyon J, (2003) Central Debates in British Politics, Longman, London

Hobsbawm, E (1994) Age of Extremes, the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London

Judt T, (2007) Post-war – A History of Europe since 1945, Pimlico, London

Moran M, (2005) Politic and Governance in the UK, Palgrave, Basingstoke

Schott B, (2006) Schott’s Almanac 2007, Bloomsbury, London

Seldon A & Kavanagh D, (2005) The Blair Effect 2001 – 5, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Whitaker’s, (2007) Whitaker’s Almanack 2007 – today’s world in one volume, A & C Black, London


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