Only rape! : an examination of the power of ideology and discourse in the policy process with a focus on policy pertaining to refugee women

Publication Type:
Thesis
Issue Date:
2001
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During a long career as a policy analyst, I have noticed that government policy often fails to achieve its stated aims. This dissertation seeks to identify why this happens, and how actors external to government can intervene in the policy process and influence policy outcomes. The study focused on policy addressing the needs of refugee women. It involved my taking a leading role in an action research project which lasted for seven years. The aims of the project were to bring about change in government policy and outcomes in relation to refugee women, and to seek a theoretical understanding of the process in which I was involved. The project was undertaken with a small non-government organisation, the Australian National Consultative Committee on Refugee Women and comprised five loops or cycles of action research. It involved working at both local and international levels as links were made between human rights instruments, international law, domestic legislation and refugee policy. For the purpose of the thesis, policy literature was grouped into three conceptually discrete frameworks, the Rationalist, the Political and the Critical. At each stage of the action research project, writings from three frameworks of policy theory were tested to seek explanations for the activities described. Knowledge gained from theoretical analysis in each reflective phase was applied and used to inform the next stage of research. The outcomes of these five stages produced a theory of policy development and enactment which emerged from the progressive iterative reflections in each of the five cycles. The theory proposed is that policy often fails to achieve its stated aims because policy actors do not have a discursive understanding of the policy process in which they are involved. It is argued that in order to achieve the level of understanding required to facilitate effective change, it is necessary to take a 'critical distance' from the policy process and identify the ideologically based assumptions which inform it, and how these impact on and shape the social reality of the policy actors involved. It is necessary to understand the power and role of discourse in structuring that reality. In order to bring about change, the discourses which produce and are produced by the policy process have to be challenged and new discourses introduced. The non-government sector can play an active and an informed role by identifying the dynamics driving the process, by using theoretical analysis as a tool to identify and to address the root causes of problems in the policy process, and by realising their power to effect change. It is argued that the insights gained through the analysis of this action research project have established both guidelines for practice, and theoretical principles which are generalisable to a range of policy domains and policy analysis.
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