Economic Geography and Policy

Posted by Nick Henry, Visiting Fellow, CURDS, Co-Director, Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University, 15 September 2015


After 10 years out of the academic economic geography ferment – as a public policy and evaluation consultant of EU, UK and quangocracy economic and social development programmes – I plunged back in at the 4th Global Economic Geography conference at the University of Oxford in August.

The session on ‘Economic Geography and policy: what do we have to say and to whom?’ was particularly interesting (but so were many) in asking a question that had been asked by Ron Martin, Doreen Massey and others as I left academe in the early 2000s. At that time, Ron Martin was exercised especially by both the ‘cultural turn’ and the powerful and rising policy influence of spatial economics and, for him, the seeming invisibility of geographers in public policy circles.

The good news over a decade later was that the Panellists (Susan Christopherson, Ron Martin, Jamie Peck and Andrés Rodrígues-Pose) were agreed in believing and illustrating the substantial progress that has been made by economic geographers in engaging with and influencing policy (although with greater ambivalence from Jamie Peck given his Canadian residency and period of employment in north America).

However, the Panellists exhorted also for more to be done by the sub-discipline and subsequent discussions and questions from the floor often bemoaned the difficulties, randomness and quirkiness of engagement with policymakers.

Yet for me, given my recent return to academe from the policy making arena, the debate still showed some of what still needs to be done – principally because there was only limited evidence of the room’s understanding of the policymakers ‘mindset’. A sense of less of ‘in their shoes’ than if we promote our material more strongly the ramparts of policy will fall.

I would illustrate this lack of understanding based on the seemingly simple but important statement that policymakers are ‘the machinery of government’. It implies, for example, that even as policy makers purport to be independent they will reflect the language, if not the ideology, of the government they are serving. Indeed their job is to implement ‘efficiently and effectively’ the will of the democratically elected and accountable government.

Bluntly, what it means is that some of our suggestions as economic geographers will simply not be able to be considered. Policy reflects political choices (government) and if your suggestions aren’t the right political flavour then I wouldn’t beat yourself up about ‘not being listened to’ (it’s going to be a longer-run game).

‘Machinery’ also means the processes of government; not once in a debate on policy was ‘the policy cycle’ mentioned. Yet this is the simplest of managerial tools which frames the work programme of policymakers. What is required and being sought through what (level of open) process matters a great deal dependent on the stage in the policy cycle.

Is a policy maker defining the problem or issue (and seeking evidence for it) or designing the intervention (what we know/best practice), monitoring progress (hopefully formatively) or evaluating and learning lessons as the basis for kicking off the cycle once again. The session had rare examples of positive joy that policymakers had been ‘open to new ideas’ – but they won’t be listening in such a manner if they are further through the policy cycle, and nor should they be.

For sure, policymakers do want ‘solutions’ – as was flagged by the Panel – but I might suggest also rather more insistently the point that was made that universities are now merely one knowledge provider/intermediary in the system (alongside think tanks, lobbyists, international organisations, consultancies, gurus, etc.). Many of these also are much more focused and adept at crafting their message for the policymaker, especially in the new media environment.

As academics we need to understand that we have a certain ‘market position’ in the policy machinery – defined (still) by greater independence, rigour (most of the time) and less constrained assumptions amongst other things. Notwithstanding an increasingly schizophrenic machinery of government, these attributes still have to be delivered in the right manner, and at the right juncture, if further progress with policymaking is to be reported in another decade!

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