The Formation of Consumer Policies in the Public Domain: a Conceptual Overview

Saul Barry Wax, Massachusetts Consumers' Council
ABSTRACT - One intent of the panel was to suggest that the public and private sectors should be thought of as parts of a whole, and not distinct entities unto themselves. The result of this conceptual schema is to recognize the formation of consumer policies as a more consensual and less adversarial activity. Another objective of the panel was to clarify the ways in which social scientists could have input into the policy-making process. Both of the objectives were met. In addition, it is suggested that the linkage of the public and private sectors provides a fertile opportunity for social scientists to utilize their professional skills and help influence and direct the creation and implementation of consumer public policies.
[ to cite ]:
Saul Barry Wax (1976) ,"The Formation of Consumer Policies in the Public Domain: a Conceptual Overview", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 276-277.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 276-277

THE FORMATION OF CONSUMER POLICIES IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN: A CONCEPTUAL OVERVIEW

Saul Barry Wax, Massachusetts Consumers' Council

ABSTRACT -

One intent of the panel was to suggest that the public and private sectors should be thought of as parts of a whole, and not distinct entities unto themselves. The result of this conceptual schema is to recognize the formation of consumer policies as a more consensual and less adversarial activity. Another objective of the panel was to clarify the ways in which social scientists could have input into the policy-making process. Both of the objectives were met. In addition, it is suggested that the linkage of the public and private sectors provides a fertile opportunity for social scientists to utilize their professional skills and help influence and direct the creation and implementation of consumer public policies.

There are two major issues which I hoped this panel would illuminate: the increasing linkage between the public and private sectors, and that social scientists could and should have a larger role in the explication and resolution of public policy issues. I am pleased to report that my objectives were realized, due in large part to the participants in this panel, and their respective presentations.

As a policy analyst working for a public agency which attempts to influence, shape and direct public policy, especially in the consumer field, it has become very apparent in recent years that the conventional conceptual distinctions between the public (governmental) and private (business) domains is increasingly less accurate as well as less useful for understanding the formulation of consumer policies. There are several reasons for this change and I will briefly discuss them here.

Insofar as accuracy is concerned, a sketchy replay of immediate past events shows that the public and private sectors are not distinct. First, we have the obvious movement of industry personnel to the governmental sector. Both the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture are frequently referred to as "service agencies" for their respective clientele groups. And officials from affected or concerned firms frequently take governmental jobs, a tour of duty so to speak, and then return to their companies. The recent grain sales to the Soviet Union starkly illuminated the movement of government officials to the grain companies.

The distinction between the public and private sectors is not really accurate for a second reason: the problems which occur in the private sector are often resolved by the public sector on terms favorable to the private sector entity. Indeed, if the two sectors were, in any sense, adversaries, then one might expect that certain concessions and prohibitions might be extracted from the private sector. But the Lockheed case suggests otherwise. And the New York City fiscal situation is equally revealing. The operant concern about New York expressed by public officials in Washington is that the banks not be injured nor the stockholders lose their investment. Federal aid is thus available to avert that possibility.

In yet a third respect the distinction between the two domains is not accurate. Not only when responding to crisis situations, e.g., Lockheed, New York City, is the symbolic relationship between the public and private sectors apparent, but on a day-to-day basis the linkage is equally if not more present. At least five Cabinet Secretaries (Federal) are directly responsible for funding and maintaining large segments of the nominally "private" sector.

Department of Defense              Defense or defense related industries

Department of Housing and Urban Development             Construction and related business

Department of Agriculture          Agribusiness firms and producers

Department of Commerce          Business firms (general) with concern with international trade

Department of Health, Education and Welfare          Supports social welfare programs and firms (including schools)

In effect, normal operating procedure includes the ongoing support of numerous private sector firms. With so many synapses between the two, it might be preferable to recognize that the "public" and "private" sectors are really segments of the same organism, and if any part of the whole becomes ill, it could damage the entire system. Thus, as a routine, steps are taken to try and insure that "illnesses" will not occur.

A final reason for the inaccuracy of the distinction is that arguing that there are public and private sectors involves, at least implicitly, recognizing the existence of public and private interests. Yet when the failure of a Lockheed or New York City bank threatens the welfare of a massive number of people, is it not in the public interest for the government to respond?

I am not arguing that there are no clear and distinguishable public versus private interests. Rather, I believe that in at least some instances even the concepts of "public" and "private" interests cannot accurately be affixed to particular outcomes.

In addition to being of questionable accuracy, the distinction between public and private sectors is not especially useful for increasing our understanding about the formation of consumer policies for two reasons. First, policies which affect the public emanate from the "public" as well as "private" domains. When policies come from the government, such as constructing an office building, they are called public and when they come from the private sector, as in the case of supermarket check-out equipment, the term "business policies'' is affixed to them. But if they both affect the mass publics, it might be more appropriate to classify a policy in terms of its impact and not its genesis. Thus, all segments of the society can affect and influence the consumer regardless through the policies they establish.

The second reason is that neither segment of the society will function well apart from or without the other: for example, the government needs Lockheed and the latter surely needs government. The Federal Reserve Bank serves the banking industry. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine any single segment of the society carrying on in vacuuo. Consequently, the distinction between public and private becomes all the more arbitrary and not useful in understanding how consumer policies are formed.

As an alternative to the public/private sector distinction, I suggest that the society be conceived of as a systematic whole. Further, that consumer policies reflect the needs of the entire system. In effect, consumer policies are far less adversarial than accommodating. And it is here where the social scientist can come into his/her own.

Assuming that policies are created in the "cooperative" (for lack of a better term) framework described above, it is also arguable that an objective and clear explication of the components of a policy issue are necessary to its resolution. And since we're talking about policies which affect mass publics and thus society, then social scientists should be unusually well equipped to be of assistance. This situation is all the more probable with the increasing complexity of the issues and the concomitant growing demand for information.

Both the Denney and Russo papers provide keen insight into how social scientists can become involved in and influence the formation of public policies. Denney looks at social science information being fed into business concerns, while Russo takes the same task with respect to government. Together the papers serve to illuminate the kind of environment within social scientists may act, and the way in which they may have access and impact.

Note: the views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not in any way reflect or represent the attitude, belief, or policy position of the Massachusetts Consumer's Council.

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