How Does Social Capital Affect Public Policy?

How does social capital affect public policy?

Research into the nature and importance of social relations has caught wide interest among researchers. However, the orientation of the relationships as a capital is a relatively recent phenomenon. With the recent discovery of the importance of social relations, how these ties form an investment capital and the effect of these ties on public policy and programs is becoming an event of great importance (Policy Research Initiative, 2005). Many agree on the importance of social capital as a constituent of community development, given its characteristic to not only describe, but also provide an understanding towards community well-being (Baum et al, 2000; Lang & Hornburg, 1998). Social capital provides a network and connections to individuals of different expertise, experiences, ethnicities, and races, who are important in achieving desired outcomes. Therefore, social capital has a great effect on individuals and organizations, particularly those with the desire to get ahead within a community. Public policy can therefore benefit hugely from such connections, and while the policies (public) have not entirely been devoid of social capital, there is a growing inclining towards the use of social capital in shaping public policies (Adler & Seok-Woo, 2002).

The concept of social capital received popularity and expansion from the works of Robert Putnam (Horton, 2006). According to Lang and Hornburg (1998), Putnam first applied the concept on Italian regional governments, showing the differences in the success and failure of Tuscany and Sicily regional governments respectively, as a direct consequence of civic engagement. The engagement mentioned transcended politics into voluntary group participation, which included clubs and sports leagues (Lang &Hornburg, 1998). Therefore, “Tuscany’s high level of social capital elevates its standard of living. It provides the region with a social environment in which productive cooperation in all spheres of civic life is possible. Thus, social capital promotes economic growth” (Lang &Hornburg, 1998, p. 3).

Social capital in its broad perspective refers to resources available to the society/ the community from the networks of communal support, trust, obligation, and reciprocity. The resources are amassed from interactions within families, workplaces, neighborhoods, associations, and a wide array of formal and informal meetings (Policy Research Initiative, 2005). Even with such references, social capital remains widely amorphous and lacks precision as a concept, even as many social scientists continue to see it as a cure to many of the social ills that states and communities battle with in the everyday life (Smart, 2008).

Lack of consensus on the absence of precision on the concept emanates from the divergent perspectives that the first social capital theorists had on the concept of the idea. According to Smart (2008), Coleman, Bourdieu, and Putman were among the first social capital scholars (theorists). Each had a different perspective of social capital with Coleman analyzing social capital from an individual perspective, presuming rational choice theory’s concept of methodological individualism (Smart, 2008). Bourdieu’s analysis of social capital remains unclear. According to Smart (2008), Bourdieu’s analysis oscillates between “seeing the forms of capital as resources utilized by individually situated and strategic agents and as the properties and product of the field in which practices are deployed” (p. 410). This makes his idea of social capital not only complex, but also difficult to implement given its excessive concern context and content, making it inconvenient for policy implementation (Harris, 2006).

Putnam’s ideas of social capital however won masses’ approval given its convincing properties over the role of the concept in providing solutions to problems (Harris, 2006). Putnam saw social capital as a predominant characteristic of societies, making the social capital concept an interest for policy makers, given that it provides spaces under which there is subdivision of authority for policy implementation (Smart, 2008). Therefore, Putnam sees social capital as a way in which trust and solidarity forms among individuals providing a bonding capital (among family members), a bridging capital (bonds between group members), an additional bridging capital (links present between different groups) and linking capital (the relation present between the society and governmental actors and institutions)(Horton, 2006). There should be a balance among the ties given that too much bonding within particular forms of capital only encourages exclusion and insularity, while insufficient bonding is recipe to cunning individualism, which has negative effects on the communal cooperation that social capital supposedly facilitates (Leeder & Dominello, 1999; Smart, 2008).

Even in its view as a positive resource within the society, many are the concerns about the negative effects of social capital. The concern is the organization of individuals within groups and with loyalty as is the case in mafias and organized crime groups. Thus, such groupings encourage the perpetration of crimes and other heinous acts, all under the auspices of social capital as the relational bonds and links between individual and groups (Harris, 2006; Smart, 2008). It is under such concerns that there needs to be a balance between the links in the groups as a means of wadding off negative social capital. These circumstances lead to the distinction between negative and positive social capital. Thus, negative social capital facilitates an individual’s engagement in deviant behavior, while positive social capital is a consequence of individuals embedded in conventional pro-social networks (Cheung & Cheung, 2008).

Given its center on people, and the fact that social capital involves connections between individuals and groups, it has a huge impact on public policy. Although the idea of social capital and its relation to public policy is relatively new, most public policies are not devoid of social capital. In fact, social capital is already incorporated in public policies, particularly social policies (Frank, 2008). Before the indulgence on the role of social capital in public policy, it is important to look at public policy as an entity. Like social capital, there is no single definition for public policy. Maddison and Denniss (2009) however give two general understandings of policy with relation to the process of making the policies.

The first understanding is founded on the idea that policy is a consequence of authoritative choice. Governments, through a vertical and hierarchical procedure, formulate policy with an individual (minister) determining the eventual outcome of the process (Maddison & Denniss, 2009). The people in power (minister and secretaries), therefore, have to deal with problems through action or inaction, which are eventually evaluated as an assessment of the applicability and success of the policy in solving a particular problem or achieving specific objectives (Maddison &Denniss, 2009).

The second understanding looks at policy as a conception of structured interaction. The policy is produced through intricate horizontal relationships, wherein the result is a product of compromise and accommodation of divergent and competing interests (Maddison & Denniss, 2009). No single decision-making authority is responsible for making the policy; rather policy is an outcome of a range of participants together bringing the diversity of their understanding of the problem at hand, and their interactions in solving the problem. Policy therefore is an outcome of individuals’ understanding and interaction. Within the government realm, the government is only an arena on which different policy makers and stakeholders interact with an understanding and feeling of legitimacy to produce policy (Colebatch, 2006).

The idea and feeling of legitimacy is the most important aspect in reference to the second understanding of policy as an outcome of structured interaction. Legitimacy within the interaction provides power to the participants who are capable of freely expressing their views, and with that ensuring the incorporation of such feelings within the policy, or deletion of elements within the policy that they find inappropriate or threatening to their interests. A case in question for the importance of legitimacy was Australia’s community campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, a product of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member states’ negotiation between 1995 and 1998 (Maddison &Denniss, 2009). Through an online campaign organized by Stop MAI Coalition, Australians showed their disinterest and contempt of the MAI agreement, petitioning the Prime Minister and Chair to the OECD to rescind the country’s support for the agreement, given its (agreement) contentious provisions for multinationals at the cost of domestic sovereignty (Maddison & Denniss, 2009). It is safe to say that the feeling of legitimacy to the agreement through participation of the country (Australia) was the only standing that the Coalition had to initiate the campaign and petition the Prime Minister against assenting to the agreement.

The case above marks the beginning of the role of social capital in public policy. That was only through the connections, both online and within the country (Australia) that the Stop MAI Coalition was able to collect more than 500 signatures from individuals and organizations in petitioning, and therefore making known their discontentment with the MAI agreement (Maddison &Denniss, 2009). Social capital therefore affects the direction of public policy as Aldridge et al. (2002) and Johnston and Percy-Smith (2003) indicate that there is a strong general case for applying social capital thinking to a wide range of policy areas.” This is in relation to using social capital as a means of providing “useful insights into the importance of community, the social fabric and social relations at the individual, community, and societal level” (p. 73 & p. 322).

Most individuals within the society coagulate within areas of their own ethnic backgrounds. This is seen in many parts of urban centres where people of similar ethnicity form ethnic enclaves and through stable neighbourhood and multigenerational residency help sustain high homeownership rates (Lang &Hornburg, 1998). Even immigrants within an urban centre work towards the achievement of a similar connectedness as a form of security, bond, and sharing of similar ethnic experience. By attempting to understand such tendencies across the population, it is possible for policy makers to improve their capacities in the identification of social networks, which can be harnessed in response to devolution, distribution of resources, and welfare reform (Lang &Hornburg, 1998).

The role of social capital traverses different levels of the social, economic, and political well-being of the community. One of the most notable initiatives, which has also influenced public policy, is the GumalaMirnuwarni (Coming Together to Learn) Program in Australia. The policy involved the community, beginning with the children to the parents, teachers, schools, state and the Commonwealth education authorities, other educational partners, and philanthropic organisations (Policy Research Initiative, 2005). The success of the program lies on its attempt to link family, student, and school networks using reciprocity mechanisms (Policy Research Initiative, 2005). In recognition of the success of the program, the Australian government has developed into policy, the idea of compacts around the country in which education stakeholders create constructive working relationships (Policy Research Initiative, 2005).

Similarly, there was a need for tapping into social capital in South Africa at the attainment of independence. Previously, there existed mistrust between the government and its institutions and the masses. To restore the trust of the masses in the government and its institutions, both the civil society and the population were included in the policy process at the dawn of the new era that marked the end of Apartheid. Thus, within the South African constitution, political participation and consultative participation are emphasized as a means of supporting the government to gain the trust of the people. Kumlin and Rothstein (2005) add their weight on the role of social capital on policy stating, “Policies supposed to enhance social capital should not necessarily be aimed at supporting various voluntary organizations or informal networks. Instead, if governments want to invest in social capital, it is the quality of political institutions that must be increased, not least those that are responsible for the direct implementation of policies” (p. 360).

The power of the voice and numbers presented by social capital is more noticeable than a singular voice of an individual. Through the networks and connections present within a community, it is possible for such a singular voice with a mass backing to have an influence in government decisions on a particular issue (Montgomery, 2000). Through social capital, therefore, the narrow-mindedness and self-interest of individuals are eliminated, forging way for the creation of norms that support collective action, which are important in influencing public policy. Thus, like the GumalaMirnuwarni project in Australia, social capital ensures, and puts pressure on policy makers to institute and implement policies that work to the advantage of the masses.

As connections and networks between individuals, groups, and the state, social capital is an important element of any society. The connections within the society offer more than social security, transcending into the well-being of the community and its people. Such connections give voice to the community, allowing the community to influence public policy. As a structure interaction, public policy should allow adequate discourse in the society as a means of ensuring societal well-being.  Social capital therefore has an important role to play in public policy. Expressing a dissenting voice on a particular policy is enough reason to make changes on a public policy, as evidenced by the Stop MAI Coalition. Moreover, by involving the civil society in the policy process, the new South African government was attesting to the role of social capital in influencing public policy. The core of social capital is the connection in people and groups. These are powerful enough voices to influence the outcome of public policy, ensuring that the policy passed falls within the acceptable realms of the social capital.



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