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Institutionalisation of Political Parties: Comparative Cases. Edited by Robert Harmel and Lars G. Svasand

'Public Support' and the End of Conflict. Why Public Support is Impossible to Attain and Problematic to Aspire

Conflict
 
Public Administration
 
Policy-Making
 
Presenter
Eva Wolf
Universiteit Antwerpen
Authors
Eva Wolf
Universiteit Antwerpen
Wouter Van Dooren
Universiteit Antwerpen

Abstract
Large infrastructure projects often face cost and time overruns, amongst others due to public opposition. In response, governments invest substantive resources in building up public support for public policies they wish to implement. By means of stakeholder-consultation, communication campaigns or citizen participation, public administrators hope to convince the general public of the value of their policy positions. Policy-makers expect that once public support is secured, frictionless implementation lies ahead.

This paper criticizes the idea that policies are ready for implementation once public support has been obtained. Through a case-study of the conflict over the Oosterweelconnection highway in Antwerp, it argues that public administrators who seek public support in order to manufacture a stable foundation under their preferred policies are destined to fail. This is because there is no such thing as a general public that can approve of a policy. Instead, a policy process activates many different and continually shifting democratic publics. Not only is it impossible to obtain support from a general public, we argue that the aspiration to obtain public support is problematic in and of itself. The perception of having acquired public support can put a premature end to policy controversies. Policy-makers can claim that their proposal has the public support that counter-proposals lack and that they are therefore warranted to continue the planning process despite public resistance. In this way, the public support argument justifies efforts of policy-makers to ignore or disengage from policy conflict. Instead of trying to avoid conflict by futilely trying to obtain the support of a non-existent general public, our paper argues that disagreement over policies should be taken advantage of as opportunities to make better policies.
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