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Public Policy 

Heralds of change

Study addresses the role of individuals who help mobilize society and catalyze transformation

LEE WOODGATE The importance of individuals who mobilize society to favor certain ideas and agendas, catalyzing transformation, is a topic of academic studies on the genesis of public policy. Ken Livingstone, mayor of London from 2000 to 2008, is an example of such change agents, labeled policy entrepreneurs. He became an international benchmark in the debate on mobility in cities when he created the London congestion charge, a fee aimed at reducing traffic in the center of the British capital. In an article published in September in the journal Policy and Society, political scientists Felipe Gonçalves Brasil and Ana Cláudia Niedhardt Capella discuss the role of policy entrepreneurs in Brazil, citing some national examples. “Although the study of public policy has experienced a period of strong expansion in Brazil over recent decades, there is a gap in these analyses when it comes to these entrepreneurs,” says Felipe Brasil, a doctoral candidate at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCAR).

The article maps theses and dissertations defended throughout Brazil over recent years that utilize theoretical models on policy entrepreneurs, and proposes that the case of economist Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira is one that best exemplifies the pattern. Charged with administrative reform during the first term of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995–1998), Bresser-Pereira, then the Minister of Federal Administration and State Reform (MARE), adopted the theory that bureaucracy had a role in the crisis of the Brazilian state and presented a series of alternatives for confronting the problem. “Bresser disseminated the idea of managerial reform, influenced by discussions occurring in Europe,” says Ana Cláudia Capella, a professor at São Paulo State University (UNESP). The minister published articles in academic journals and in the press, and traveled around the country engaging in the discussion. Within a short time, administrative reform had entered the national debate. Bresser-Pereira recalls that although the matter wasn’t on the list of reforms proposed in Fernando Henrique’s electoral agenda, he was given carte blanche to act. “I was convinced that the problems of Brazilian public administration were incompatible with economic development and with the welfare state. I knew about the modernization experiences of state-owned enterprises in countries such as France and England, and that the government was interested in promoting certain reforms,” Bresser-Pereira adds. “I took advantage of this scenario and organized a set of ideas. In just six months, we set up the master plan for administrative reform.” Bresser-Pereira’s proposals changed the rules of public procurement, instituted results-based management, and created a frame for social organizations—non-profit private entities to which the state transferred the administration of services.

Public policy studies in which the figures of entrepreneurs appear often adopt a theoretical framework developed in the 1980s by the American political scientist John Kingdon. According to his multiple-streams model, the creation of policy is explained by the confluence of three factors. The first is the problem stream, characterized by crises and events that demonstrate the relevance of the theme. The second is the policy stream, which represent the technical and economic feasibility of ways out of the problem and their acceptance by society. The third is the political stream, understood as the combination of organized forces that drives the search for solutions. The convergence of the three opens a window of opportunity for solving the problem—and the entrepreneur’s contribution consists of taking advantage of the favorable moment and proposing the solution.

“Policy entrepreneurs are able to unite solutions, problems, and the political context, taking advantage of opportunities to implement new ideas in society and public administration,” explains Capella. Political scientist Eduardo Marques, a professor at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), explains that some theories are geared toward the individual approach, while others focus on structural analysis. “Kingdon’s model is an advancement in the sense of recognizing the role of a specific actor while also integrating that actor into the social and political context,” says Marques, who is a researcher at the Center for Metropolitan Studies, one of the Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Centers (RIDC) supported by FAPESP.

Nikolaos Zahariadis, a professor at Rhodes College in the United States, points out that studies on policy entrepreneurs help to study how ideas spread. “Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. They are defended, negotiated, and implemented by individuals or groups,” he says. An example referenced in the literature on the subject is that of the economist Alfred Kahn (1917–2010), head of the Civil Aeronautics Board under President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981), who promoted deregulation that would open the US market to low-cost airlines.

In his doctoral dissertation, defended in 2015 at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), sociologist Márcio Barcelos points to the engineer Ernesto Lopes da Fonseca Costa (1881–1953) as a Brazilian policy entrepreneur, long before the theoretical concept existed. A professor at the Polytechnic School of Rio de Janeiro and founder of the Brazilian National Institute of Technology in 1921, Fonseca Costa worked on developing a Brazilian technology for biofuel production, at the same time mobilizing politicians and authorities in the search for alternatives to oil, and promoting research on fuel alcohol at the Institute of Sugar and Alcohol during the Vargas administration. Another example cited is agronomist and ecologist José Lutzenberger (1926–2002), for his influence in drafting legislation to control the use of agrochemicals in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in 1982, later reflected in the 1989 Brazilian Pesticide Law, according to sociologist Caroline da Rocha Franco in her master’s thesis on public policy, defended in 2014 at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR). Lutzenberger would later become Secretary of the Environment under President Fernando Collor de Mello (1990–1992).

In the field of education, one standout was the group headed by Ivo Gomes, Municipal Secretary of Education for the city of Sobral, in the state of Ceará, in the early 2000s. His group was responsible for a series of experimental moves to bolster literacy in public schools that became a reference for the National Pact for Literacy at the Right Age (PNAIC), a program of the Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC). “A technically and politically cohesive group was formed in Ceará that was able to establish a change in the educational agenda, taking advantage of previous experience and creating new tools,” wrote political scientist Fernando Abrucio, a professor at the São Paulo School of Business Administration of the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV/EAESP), author of a study on the subject.

Eduardo Marques of USP points out that public policies do not always have a clearly identifiable entrepreneur. “In many cases the changes occur gradually, influenced by a variety of ideas and groups,” he says. He cites as an example the Bolsa Família (Family Allowance) program, implemented during President Lula’s first term (2003–2006). “In this case there has been a transformation in relation to the previous government. But this large, rapid change was preceded by an incremental and gradual shift during the 1990s. That’s why, in my opinion, one can’t identify the mark of a single entrepreneur behind this policy,” he says.

It may be that the entrepreneur behind a policy is also the author of the idea. However, studies show that in the majority of cases they perform the role of organizer. “A policy entrepreneur is the person who makes things happen by identifying roadblocks and articulating possible solutions,” says Paul Cairney, a public policy researcher at the University of Stirling in Scotland.

According to Felipe Gonçalves Brasil, former Minister of Education Fernando Haddad (2005–2012) can also be classified as a policy entrepreneur. “At MEC, Haddad was at the forefront of the debate about expanding university access. Although it was already a well-known challenge, he created a new vision of the problem, which could only be solved if new openings were created in higher education,” says Brasil, citing programs such as the Restructuring and Expansion of Federal Universities (REUNI) and the University for All (PROUNI). “These ideas didn’t necessarily all come from Haddad’s head. But he filtered the proposals and expanded on ideas, as well as evaluating the feasibility of the actions being proposed,” says Brasil.

Scientific Article
BRASIL, F. G. et al. Translating ideas into action: Brazilian studies of the role of the policy entrepreneur in the public policy process. Policy and Society. Published online on September 12, 2017.