Professor Siobhan Stevenson at First Monday explains what critical policy analysis is, and then applies it to the way Gates Foundation bridges the Digital Divide - with Microsoft products rather than open source products, or free software. (Via Lucy Bernholz.)
Critical policy analyses focus on the role of power within the public policy process. Contrary to more conservative approaches which conceive of the policy environment as essentially pluralistic, the major assumption underlying critical analyses is that of a public arena within which power is not equally distributed. Further, as public policy involves the allocation of society’s resources, the public policy arena represents a central site of social struggle and contestation. Throughout the policy–making process (problem identification, program development and implementation, and program evaluation), differently situated social identities, such as the state, capital, workers, citizens, and consumers, etc., engage in a power struggle to define what constitutes a social problem and, by extension, how it is to be resolved. Success is the creation of policy agendas that resonate with, and reproduce an identity’s particular worldview and corresponding set of values. Ultimately, these are ideological struggles, most often discursive in nature and, although never fully realized, the goal is hegemonic achievement.
Within the United States, private philanthropies represent one such identity. Further, by virtue of their private status, they are able to operate outside the regular public policy process, and yet, given their resources (wealth, expertise, and the status and connections of their founders), they play a powerful role in shaping policy directions and decisions.
I have been reading Joel Fleishman's, The Foundation: The Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World. He dismisses Marxist-inspired criticism of foundations with a wave of the hand, as tedious and predictable. The Gates example, though, is particularly well-chosen. Open Source as a gift economy versus Microsoft as monopolist is a pretty stark contrast. Not surprisingly the giving of Gates is in line with the interests of the company he founded. The founders of Open Source, by contrast, don't make tons of money and so cannot advance their gift economy through philanthropy, nor through lobbying for that matter, nor think tanks, nor advertising and paid punditry. It may that the economy of love will prevail among the ruins when our current, corporatized system runs its course. Meanwhile, let us join Bill Clinton in saluting Bill Gates.