The Programme Approach to the Growth of Government
Published on Jan 1, 1985in British Journal of Political Science4.292
· DOI :10.1017/s000712340000404x
In order to understand the dynamics of contemporary government, we must consider what government does as well as why it grows. This is true whether theories seek to explain past growth or are hypotheses about future developments. Political science has a unique responsibility to address this problem, because it is the discipline for which government is central. Whereas economists and sociologists can produce models that treat political change as epiphenomenal, political scientists must identify what it is that changes when government changes. In the I98os the size of government gives particular importance to its dynamics. Government is already big in the resources it commands, and in its impact upon society. By almost any measure, government has grown substantially bigger in aggregate in the past quarter-century. The current scale of government is a subject of substantial political debate: proponents of welfare-state measures attack government for not doing enough, and opponents attack it for doing too much. Ironically, the debate is most intense in the United States, which, by conventional measures, has a government that is below-average in size among OECD countries. This article proposes a distinctive approach to understanding the growth of government: the programme approach. The things that most visibly change in government are its programmes; disaggregating government into programmes is therefore a meaningful and necessary way to understand its dynamics. The first section reviews familiar approaches to the growth of government, and identifies deficiencies. The second section defines the programme approach, and how the activities of government can be differentiated by the size of their claims on resources. The third section demonstrates that programmes change at very different rates, and even in opposite directions. In the fourth section, the programme approach is shown as capable of resolving confusion caused by conflicting theories of causes of growth. The conclusion reviews the conjoint implications of the programme approach for understanding the swings and roundabouts of the growth of government in aggregate.