The term ‘ecology’ literally means environment. For policy studies, it pertains to the environment under which a public policy is taken. My understanding is anchored on the idea that the environment from which a policy is generated and the environment to where it is intended to be transmitted and implemented are the same. In other words, the environment is the source and recipient of any public policy.
The formulation and implementation of public policies are influenced by several factors: political, social, cultural, environmental, among others. We cannot examine a policy process without diving into the environment where it actually takes place. First, because the demand and/or need for policy action originates in the environment. Second, the environment heavily influences what can and what cannot be done by policy actors. And finally, the effectiveness of a policy is often determined by the environment under which it is implemented.
Some time ago, I came across David Easton’s political system theory and model (Figure 1). It purports the idea that a political system operates within an environment. This environment consists of other systems such as economic and cultural systems. Inputs into the political system from the environment include demands and support.
Demands are actions made by individuals or groups to satisfy their interests whereas support is said to be present when people obey laws and accept policies undertaken in the political system as a response to their demands. These demands are then converted into outputs of the political system such as laws, rules, resolutions, etc. There is also a feedback process which influences the environment from which demands originate, as well as the structure and nature (or character) of the political system. In the outset, outputs can produce new demands (inputs) and therefore produce new outputs in the never-ending cycle of policy-making.
Using David Easton’s theory, we can infer that policy makers do not operate in a vacuum. They do their tasks in a dynamic policy environment influenced by various factors. The environment directly influences and shapes people’s values, attitudes and preferences. This leads us to the idea that policy makers and public policy are essentially products of their environment and that environmental factors can be considered determinants of policy action (or inaction) in a given political system. Thus, the environment under which a policy process is undertaken determine the content, type, and extent of policy that develops from this process.
The focus of understanding the ecology of policy development is to help identify the environment (and its elements) from which a policy is made, and to determine how to change these elements (or factors) to create a desired outcome. Policy outcomes can be better understood when looked at the lens of its ecology. When we look at ecological influences (or factors), we are led to understand that the policy environment is both an initiator and influencer of every government action or inaction. Poor understanding of the environment from which policies originate and operate makes it difficult for policy makers (and actors) to recognize future challenges with policy implementation which usually ends in policy failure.