It was not too long ago that I found myself elbow deep in articles with titles such as “Toward a theory of the political entrepreneur” and “A general theory of entrepreneurship.” I was becoming more and more convinced that policy entrepreneurship–as a powerful and potentially disruptive kind of 21st century leadership–was becoming more relevant than ever in International Relations.
Definitions of “policy entrepreneurship” have often highlighted the qualities of risk-taking, the ability to introduce new ideas, and a willingness to work with unique resources and methods that other actors ignore. In addition to these traits, I have found it important to highlight the qualities of alertness and creative discovery.
In my own research on Japanese defense politics, I saw the “entrepreneurial spirit” in many of the endeavors of former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro. His bold political strategy allowed him to overcome significant political obstacles and implement important changes in the US-Japan security relationship and to achieve his chief political goal of postal reform. Few who watched Japanese news at this time will forget reports of Koizumi serenading President George W. Bush with Elvis’s “I Need You, I Want You, I Love You”.
I could see a similar appetite for risk and the use of unusual resources in the activities of Ishihara Shintaro, former governor of Tokyo. Ishara’s attempt to purchase several of the Senkaku islands from their private owners in 2012 spurred the national government to nationalize the islands before he could get his hands on them. This action in turn has sparked increased hostilities with China that have led to spiraling nationalism in both countries.
Perhaps this was simply a case of a researcher diagnosing a phenomenon where he we looking for it, and I had to caution myself against over-estimating the influence of these upstarts.
I am still convinced, however, that the current era is ripe for policy entrepreneurs. Whether the current period is still the “post Cold War,” or whether we have entered the Asian Century or a post-international world or a new interwar period, one thing is certain—policy entrepreneurs are more relevant in times of uncertainty. Their appetite for risk, their ability to recognize and exploit hitherto underutilized resources, to stir the pot and try to open up new policy spaces can have consequences–both good and bad.
Policy entrepreneurs will be just as influential through their dramatic failures as they will through their dramatic successes.
Nevertheless, against the backdrop of this increasing policy entrepreneurship, I remain skeptical that policy entrepreneurs can or should be theorized, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I’m skeptical that they can be theorized beyond a certain point. At a basic level, this observation follows logically from a definition of the subject matter. Policy entrepreneurs are interesting because of their differences. They are often products of very unique environments, thus our ability to generalize about them across different policy contexts may be limited even within their unique subgroup.
I also draw my skepticism and pessimism from the attempts of others who have written in the field of leadership more broadly. As James MacGregor Burns wrote in his book Leadership (1978):
Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.
Or, as Patricia Maclachlan wrote in a paper presented at the Stanford Conference on Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Japan in 2010:
Leadership matters deeply in political studies, but the social scientist who cares about theory and methodological purity would be well advised not to touch it. As most scholars would agree, the definition, causes, and consequences of political leadership are conditioned by a complicated web of variables ranging from the leader’s individual psychological characteristics and his relationship with his political constituency, to the structure of the institutional arena in which he operates.
To an extent, theorizing about policy entrepreneurs has not been a completely fruitless affair. Principles developed thus far in leadership studies more generally will be relevant to understanding policy entrepreneurs. Authors have been able to hypothesize (and find solid evidence) for several general principles: that leaders matter more in times of crisis; that leaders matter most when they are more risk-accepting; and that the more dramatic the means by which leaders come to power, the more potential for dramatic impact once they are in power.
However, rather than seeing policy entrepreneurs as objects of theorization and hypothesis testing, perhaps it is better to view them as sources of new insights about the world. Thus, rather trying to explain the emergence of policy entrepreneurs or identify their constitutive features, researchers may find it more useful to ask questions such as: “What motivated policy entrepreneur A to try action B? Was the actor acting irrationally or capriciously, as others contend, or was there another underlying motivation?”
Since alertness and creative discovery are key qualities of policy entrepreneurs, their bold new actions can often serve as natural experiments. Not all of these experiments succeed, of course. But even an exploration of failed policy entrepreneurship can yield insights into how policy environments are evolving or what opportunities leaders expect to see in the future. Paying close attention to why they act, what assumptions drive their actions, and what limitations they are testing can yield valuable new insights about the policy space they inhabit.
In addition, attempting to “see the world like a policy entrepreneur” may provide the habits of mind that can more easily bridge the gap between policy and research.
This was a guest post by Daniel Clausen, who is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations. He graduated from the University of Miami with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and American Studies. His research has been published in Strategic Insights, Asian Politics and Policy, Culture and Conflict Review, and the Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies. You can follow Daniel’s work at Academia.edu.