The Devil Is in the Details

Understanding the Causes of Policy Specificity and Ambiguity

By Rachel VanSickle-Ward

Subjects: Political Science, Legislative Process, Politics
Paperback : 9781438449227, 243 pages, January 2015
Hardcover : 9781438449234, 243 pages, January 2014

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Table of contents

List of Figures and Tables
1. Introduction: The Political Story of Policy Precision
2. The Puzzle of Statute Specificity
3. Perspectives of Policy-Making Elites
4. Policy Specificity in a High-Salience Context: Mental Health Parity
5. Policy Specificity in a Low-Salience Context: Individual Development Accounts
6. Fragmentation and Policy Specificity in California Legislation
7. Conclusion
Appendix A. Coding Scheme for Mental Health Parity (Chapter 4)
Appendix B. Coding Scheme for Individual Development Accounts (Chapter 5)
Appendix C. Coding Scheme for California Bills (Chapter 6)
Appendix D. California Bills by Code Selection
Appendix E. Split Salience Models (Chapter 6)
Appendix F. Interview Protocol (Chapter 3)
Appendix G. Bills Considered

Seeks to explain the causes of ambiguously worded state legislation.


The level of detail in a given law can have dramatic consequences for how that law is interpreted and applied. In The Devil Is in the Details, Rachel VanSickle-Ward focuses on the dynamics of social policy construction in the United States in order to better understand why the wording of legislation can range from the specific to the ambiguous. When policies are high salience, the fissures produced by partisan discord, interest group diversity, and pluralistic executive branches promote ambiguous policy. When policies are lower profile, this relationship is more tenuous and, at times, inverted, with contention producing more policy detail. Put simply, on important and controversial legislation, ambiguity serves as a vehicle for compromise when key participants disagree over details. Moreover, fragmentation is a more powerful driver of ambiguity than limits in technical expertise or legislative capacity. This multi-method investigation is the first to measure statute specificity directly. VanSickle-Ward combines comprehensive content analysis of more than 250 health and welfare bills passed in 44 states in the 1990s and 2000s with in-depth interviews of policy-making elites.

Rachel VanSickle-Ward is Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Pitzer College.


"VanSickle-Ward's book is concise and well organized … her findings and analysis are compelling and have significant implications … This book is well suited for general academic and academic law libraries, especially those with strong public policy collections." — Law Library Journal

"…a thorough quantitative analysis that sheds light on a fundamental question about the public policy process." — CHOICE