Policy Theories for Turbulent Times: Comparing Old and New

Want to read my conference paper but don’t like proper formatting or PDF files? Then this is the post for you. Otherwise, you can get the paper here.

Political Studies Association Annual Conference, Cardiff, March 2013

Public Administration Panel 3: New Theory for Turbulent Times I http://www.psa.ac.uk/2013/PanelDetails.aspx?PanelID=102

Policy Theories for Turbulent Times: Comparing Old and New


The postwar period has seen a major shift in the discussion of policy theory, from a focus on policy cycles and ordered stages towards theories that recognise the messy and unpredictable nature of politics and policymaking.  However, it is more difficult to detect that shift when we examine the role of academic policy advice and the models that governments use to organise policymaking.  Despite recognition that policymaking does not operate in discrete stages, there is still a residual (but by no means exclusive) attachment to stages based policymaking models in government (often reinforced by a ‘Westminster model’ approach in which governments assume that power is concentrated at the centre).  Part of the explanation is that new theories may be more realistic but less amenable to policy advice.  The paper explores this problem by examining the practical value of complexity theory.  It shows that although many (largely think tank) recommendations have been made in the name of complexity (including, for example, using more randomised control trials), few new models are as directly applicable or understandable as the old. It outlines two attempts by the author to address this problem in academic-practitioner exchanges.


This paper updates my argument from last year (Cairney, 2012a, which provides most of the background references), based on experience of knowledge exchange in two areas, outlined below. It is necessarily a ‘rougher’ draft than I would normally provide, largely because it discusses material produced for a practitioner conference on the 14th March.

The original paper argues, first, that the postwar period has seen a major shift in the discussion of policy theory, from a focus on policy cycles and ordered stages towards theories that recognise the messy and unpredictable nature of politics and policymaking.  Our object of study has changed somewhat and new approaches have developed to conceptualise that new world.  Modern accounts do not support the idea of top-down decision making pursued by a sole central actor (an assumption which is central to early discussions of concepts such as comprehensive rationality and policy cycles).  Rather, they situate such action within a more complex policy process (note, at this stage, that ‘complex’ is used widely, perhaps as shorthand for ‘complicated’). We have witnessed a shift towards a more fragmented system with many more policy participants; power has dispersed from a single central actor towards many organisations and sources of authority and influence.  The policy environment now seems more complex and potentially unstable, populated by more fragmented governments and many participants with different values, perceptions and preferences (Sabatier, 2007: 3-4). Consequently, the way that we describe and explain public policy has changed significantly.  A new and often esoteric language has emerged to describe policy processes. 

However, second, it is more difficult to detect that shift when we examine the role of academic policy advice and the models that governments use to organise policymaking.  Despite recognition that policymaking does not operate in discrete stages, there is still a residual (but by no means exclusive) attachment to stages based policymaking models in government, often reinforced by a ‘Westminster model’ approach in which governments assume that power is concentrated at the centre. 

The paper then argued that, for new theories to work, they have to be translated into a language that is meaningful for policy practitioners.  Practitioners also have to be open to that advice; there has to be some sort of demand for new ways of thinking analytically about how we understand and seek to solve policy problems. Since 2012, I have made two attempts to do this: (1) through regular Scottish Government policy seminars (led by Professor Michael Keating) which have run for several years; and (a) the 2013 CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) Scotland annual conference on the implications of complexity theory for the public service. The paper outlines or reproduces that material, commenting on how the ‘translation’ took place and how successful the conversation was.  The conclusion considers the value of such exchanges (beyond our current need to demonstrate ‘impact’) and the extent to which contemporary theories can guide the analysis of policymaking by practitioners. 

Scottish Government Seminars

The Scottish Government seminar begins by examining why policy cycles approaches remain in such good currency: are they still relevant to modern discussions of good policymaking? We discuss the extent to which the approach symbolizes and perhaps romanticises a former age; a world of centralized policymaking in which we assume that there can be a sole, central policymaker which is ‘comprehensively rational’ (or at least aware of enough information to help solve problems and anticipate the effects of policy).  We then compare that image with competing interpretations, based on the broad idea of multi-level governance: policymaking in partnership with organisation in the public, private and third sectors; comprehensive rationality as an ideal-type (to be contrasted with the real world); and movement away from the idea that problems can be ‘solved’ by research and analysis. We generally agree on the limitations of the former and potential realism of the latter before exploring the modern use of the former and the difficulty of articulating valuable models from the latter. 

In academia, cycles may still be discussed as a starting point for discussion, previously as a means to structure textbooks (with a chapter on each stage) but now increasingly as a means to present more realistic concepts or theories (such as when we explore the implications of ‘bounded rationality’ (Simon, 1976) on policymaking) or simply to show how not to conceptualise policymaking – an approach taken to its extreme by the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith, 1993) built, initially, on a scientific critique of the ‘stages heuristic’ (although note that I would not use that sort of term outside an academic conference). One good example is a focus on studies of implementation over the years, from a ‘top-down’ focus on the conditions that have to be met to ensure perfect implementation (in which almost all studies use those factors to explain the ‘implementation gap’), towards a ‘bottom-up’ critique, used to describe and explain how policy is really made on the ground, followed by new generations of studies that tried to go beyond the debates between each approach – such as the ACF, which started life partly as a way to reconceptualise implementation. 

In government, cycles may still be used either as a way to begin to understand the policymaking task or to make recommendations on how to act based on a simplification of that world. The Australian Policy Handbook (which has produced four editions so far) is a good example of the academic/ practitioner crossover. The authors generally agree that the policymaking world is complex (or complicated?) but that we need a way to simplify it; dividing policymaking into stages is a way to provide manageable simplicity even if it is not an accurate model of the real world.

Various UK government departments seem to agree.  Most notably, in the Scottish Government Office of Chief Researcher’s ‘Review of Policymaking in the Scottish Government’ (circulated internally in 2009) we can find two arguments: (1) governments need to ‘change the way they develop public policy to respond adequately to increasing social complexity’ because ‘mechanistic’ and ‘command and control’ approaches may be outdated; and/ but (2) “while ‘real’ policy making will always be more messy and complicated than is represented in a policy cycle, there is still value in having a ‘model’ of some kind”. The report then reproduces six examples of cycle-like models: the Scottish Government policy cycle (picture below); the DEFRA model; the Home Office Policy Wheel (picture below); the DWP’s Excellence in Policymaking; the National School of Government’s Strategy Compass; and the NSG’s Engage model of strategic communication. 



Such visual representations of policymaking are useful focal points for discussion:

·         Producing a general sense that they might be some comfort to civil servants new to the job but that they do not model the real world particularly well. Indeed, the Home Office example (above) is useful to demonstrate the downside to a simplifying model that seems to be rather convoluted. 

·         Prompting criticisms that we also find in the literature, such as that: the work of government generally does not proceed in such an orderly fashion; and, government consists of a large number of interacting cycles that interact with, and often undermine, each other.

They also help inform wider related discussions on topics such as:

·         The use of frameworks and targets to ensure policy outcomes – discussion soon turns to the often vague or indirect link between the broad strategic aims of a government and the day-to-day work of civil servants.

·         Evidence based policy. Discussions might begin with a commitment to EBP as an abstract and neutral process to gather knowledge, followed by a wide range of factors that seem to undermine it (such as the need to prioritise consultation with particular groups and to sell decisions that have largely been taken). 

Overall, the policy cycle discussion is indeed useful as a focus for identifying what does not happen in government and policymaking. The harder task is to find something more useful to put in its place.  In the discussions, we consider the extent to which the ‘key tenets’ of policy studies (outlined in Cairney, 2012a; 2012c) can be used to inform policymaking. They are outlined in powerpoint form below:


·         Bounded Rationality and Punctuated Equilibrium.  Policymakers can only pay attention to a small number of the issues for which they are responsible   

·         Bounded Rationality and Incrementalism. Policymakers tend to rely on trial-and-error strategies

·         Policy Succession. Any ‘new’ policy is likely to be a revision of an old one following policy failure. 

·         Inheritance Before Choice. Most policy decisions are based on legislation which already exists and most public expenditure is devoted to activities that continue by routine. 

·         (Multi-level) Governance.  There is no single, central decision-maker.  Strong central government replaced by bargaining government and ‘mutual adjustments’. 

·         Historical Institutionalism and Path Dependence.  Decisions made in the past contributed to the formation of institutions that influence current practices. 

·         Street Level Bureaucracies establish routines to satisfy a proportion of central government objectives. 

·         The Advocacy Coalition Framework. The most frequent policy changes follow attempts by coalitions to adapt to their environments and engage in policy learning. 

·         The Role of Ideas.  Paradigms undermine policy change.  Viruses promote change.     

·         Multiple Streams Analysis.  Radical policy change may happen only when a ‘window of opportunity’ opens and three independent streams come together – problems, policies and politics.   

·         The Logic of Subgovernments and Consultation.  Regular changes of government do not cause wholesale shifts in policy because most decisions are beyond the reach of ministers. Most policy is conducted through small and specialist ‘policy communities’.

The discussions relate broadly to these themes which, after some translation, generally make sense to, and find agreement among, practitioners. Perhaps one key exception is the underlying theme relating to the need for ministers to delegate the vast majority of the issues for which they are responsible to civil servants and other actors. In policy studies, we may be comfortable with treating such actors as ‘policymakers’ since they may have day-to-day responsibility for the vast majority of policy issues, and ministers do not have the ability to give a clear ‘steer’ to every civil servant.

Many practitioners agree with Ed Page’s (APSA 2009) suggestion, based on interviews with civil servants, that civil servants don’t feel a sense of discretion in this situation since they are attached to a ‘Westminster model’ understanding of the minister-civil servants relationship (ministers are responsible for all decisions that take place in their departments; civil servants are the neutral actors carrying out ministerial policy) and seek to find out the ‘minister’s mind’ on the subject. This is a fruitful area of discussion, since there will be many areas in which civil servants cannot deduce a meaningful steer from ministerial documents or the government’s strategy framework.  Perhaps more importantly, ministers to do not give a clear sense of their priorities, which makes it difficult to know a ‘minister’s mind’ when choices have to be made between aims. This is an area in which civil servants from different departments or divisions can learn from each other’s experience; group discussions help some civil servants find out either that they are not alone or that some departments follow clearer aims than others.

A bigger problem for discussion is that these key tenets of policy studies sometimes give rather impractical insights.  For example, we could take from multiple streams analysis the need for civil servants to produce policy solutions in anticipation of problems, perhaps by engaging in some prophylactic learning from other political systems. This sounds good in theory, but is generally impractical (unless, of course, practitioners are the ones trying to create problems that fit their solutions). More generally, ‘policy studies’ does not give direct policymaking advice.  As Cairney (2012a) suggests, in a discussion of Thatcherism, the factors identified could be treated as problems to be solved: remain sceptical about the idea that top-down policymaking is politically expensive; draw up a clear list of policy priorities; reform political and administrative structures, and modes of service delivery, to challenge the idea of multiple centres of authority; reform legislative frameworks governing ‘street level bureaucrats’ or choose new organisations to deliver policy; challenge cosy policy community relationships; and so on.  Rather, the value of the literature is that it suggests that many of these solutions produce partial successes (Marsh and Rhodes, 1992; Rhodes, 1997).

Complexity Theory and Policy Advice

It is in this context that it is worthwhile to introduce the potential value of complexity theory – as a relatively new but growing branch of policy studies whose authors seek, more than most, to give direct policymaking advice. One key issue, in this setting, relates to a basic choice: do we introduce the history, theoretical basis and interdisciplinary nature of complexity theory or simply provide the recommendations?  The shortened version of events presents us with recommendations along these lines:

·         Accept your limitations

·         Use simplifying strategies to gather and analyse info

·         Build failure and unintended consequences into policy design

·         Use trial and error rather than grand strategies

Those of us familiar with the post-war policymaking literature will notice that such, modern, scholarly advice seems to resemble advice provided by Lindblom (1959) several decades ago. Further, Lindblom came under considerable criticism in the 1960s when he appeared to recommend incremental policymaking (because, for example, incremental changes were easier to withdraw if they failed – Cairney, 2012b: 100-2).  In particular, Dror (1964: 154-5) argues that Lindblom’s thesis legitimizes the bias towards inertia and conservatism in political systems and discourages organizations from breaking their usual routine. Given that governments already ‘muddle through’, Dror recommends a series of initiatives – such as brainstorming – to encourage them to plan their activities more efficiently, clarify their values, identify alternative policies and identify issues more worthy of comprehensive analysis (1964: 156). Such discussions could be fruitful if we want to encourage practitioners to think about the big questions of government; about why their departments, and the policies they help create and implement, exist. This is particularly true if they have effectively been trained to focus in depth on particular areas and tend to ‘muddle through’.   

The final roundup question in the seminar is along these lines: Imagine that you have been asked to produce a short note on ‘good policymaking’ for a new colleague (the aim of the Australian Policy Handbook) – what are the five main bullet points that you would provide?

The responses tend not to be ringing endorsements for following policy cycles models, but nor do they tend to embrace new concepts.  Instead, we may find rather specific, pragmatic, advice about, for example, understanding party political sensitivities and making sure that information or consultation on policies does not embarrass departmental ministers.  In this context, our academic expectations may be rather limited, to simply encouraging a wider analytical understanding of policymaking that goes beyond a dependence on stages and the ‘day to day’.

CIPFA Scotland and Complexity

The CIPFA Scotland experience is different because ‘complexity’ is a theme of the annual conference and its leadership used the conference to launch a report, on the public finance system, which employs some of the language of complexity theory (CIPFA Scotland, 2013). The aim of the report is to employ a ‘complexity theory lens’ to examine the public management ‘system’ and to use the idea of a chaos-equilibrium spectrum to argue that only being at the ‘edge of chaos’ is optimal (2013: 2). In other words, there is a demand to use complexity theory and to persuade its membership about the value of this way of thinking.

In this case, it may be more important to focus on the history, theoretical basis and interdisciplinary nature of complexity theory rather than simply provide the recommendations – partly because many references to ‘complex systems’ and the related language (including ‘chaos’) are often used loosely and metaphorically.  Consequently, the audience may be encouraged to engage in ‘systems thinking’, which can refer to a range of practices, including the broad desire to see a range of activities as interconnected. It might also refer to the idea that decision-making should take place, as far as possible, at the ‘local’ level.  To know for sure, we need to unpack these terms and try to give them meaning in the public sector context. The paper outlines my initial approach – a lecture accompanied by a blog (reproduced below) followed by a second, briefer lecture, based on notes and feedback over the two day conference:

“Complexity Theory and Complex Adaptive Systems

The theme running through this year’s conference is: ‘adaptive system thinking … how adaptive public finance and its finance function and people are’.  There are three key sources of background for the discussions:

1.         Economic crisis. The UK and devolved governments are addressing a new age of austerity associated with economic crisis, rising government debt and plans to reduce public spending.  The reductions may be so significant, in some areas, that they prompt a complete rethink of the way that governments plan and deliver services (or new ways to identify, understand and seek to solve policy problems). In some areas, governments may simply cut budgets and encourage other bodies to decide how to adapt.

2.         Targets and rules.  How can targets and rules ensure the delivery of public services?  This is a perennial topic in the study of government. For CIPFA in particular, the issue may relate to the need to follow rules to ensure that the spending of public money is properly accounted for.  We may ask ourselves if current rules and targets produce the right sort of behaviour or if they encourage rigid rule following (or game playing) which might cause unintended consequences. 

3.         Organisational Change in Scotland. Since 2007, the Scottish Government has made some important changes to the Scottish public sector – centralising some areas (such as the police and fire services) and decentralising others (such as local authorities). Its new relationship with local authorities has the potential to place more responsibility on local actors to identify and solve problems rather than implement policies made from the ‘top’.  The Scottish Government’s approach may also be contrasted with that of the UK Government (associated with a more extensive and punitive targets/ inspection regime).

A combination of all three elements draws our attention to the importance of adapting and responding to crises, perhaps by taking a flexible approach to existing rules to ensure that they are not overtaken by events and new problems. Such decisions may increasingly be taken at a local level, often without central government direction; they may fall increasingly to particular branches or professions within larger governmental organisations, often without explicit or detailed government direction.  This is a situation that may be particularly worrying to a profession built on demonstrating financial accountability to the public through government and Parliament.

In this context, one aim of the conference is to find the right balance between following proper rules properly and adopting a flexible approach: to use discretion to secure outcomes for which policies may have been designed; and, to interpret rules in the right way to secure the right outcomes.  This process is subject to uncertainty; it is difficult to know how to use rules flexibly.  Indeed, even the language we might use to describe it – such as ‘stretching’ rules – implies that it is inappropriate.  So, while most of the sessions are devoted to how accountants and other actors in the public sector might become more creative in their contribution to the use of public money, this blog (and my first brief lecture) is devoted simply to the question: how can we justify the flexible use of government rules?  

If put bluntly, the main message that we couldtake from the policymaking literature is that:

1.         No government can control the public sector, its outputs or the subsequent outcomes.

2.         Many governments exacerbate this problem by imposing a large number of too-rigid targets backed up by a punitive inspection regime, producing unintended consequences.

3.         Giving more discretion to local public sector employees allows them to adapt to local circumstances in a way that central governments cannot anticipate.

A classic discussion of this problem can be linked to key texts in the policymaking literature, including:

           Lipsky’s idea of ‘street level bureaucracy’. He suggests that there are so many targets, rules and laws that no public agency or official can be reasonably expected to fulfil them all.  In fact, many may be too vague or even contradictory, requiring ‘street level bureaucrats’ to choose some over others.  The potential irony is that the cumulative pressure from more central government rules and targets effectively provides implementers with a greater degree of freedom to manage their budgets and day-to-day activities.

           Hjern’s focus on intra-departmental conflict, when central government departments pursue programmes with competing aims, and interdependence, when policies are implemented by multiple organizations. Programmes are implemented through ‘implementation structures’ where ‘parts of many public and private organizations cooperate in the implementation of a programme’. Although national governments create the overall framework of regulations and resources, and there are ‘administrative imperatives’ behind the legislation authorizing a programme, the main shaping of policy takes place at local levels.

           The more recent focus on ‘governance’ as an alternative to the idea of ‘government’ (not to be confused with a discussion of ‘corporate’ or ‘good’ governance).  While such problems of central government control have prompted governments in the past to embrace New Public Management (NPM) and seek to impose order through hierarchy and targeting, local implementation networks (with members from the public, third and private sectors) may not be amenable to such direct control

A more recent contribution comes from the modern study of complexity theory.  As Marco Thiel’s discussion on Friday suggests, complexity theory has been applied to an incredibly wide range of activity, from the swarming behaviour of bees, the weather and the function of the brain, to social and political systems.  The argument is that all such systems have common properties or are subject to the same arguments, including:

1.         A complex system is greater than the sum of its parts; those parts are interdependent – elements interact with each other, share information and combine to produce systemic behaviour.

2.         Some attempts to influence complex systems are dampened (negative feedback) while others are amplied (positive feedback). Small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects.

3.         Complex systems are particularly sensitive to initial conditions that produce a long-term momentum or ‘path dependence’.

4.         They exhibit ‘emergence’, or behaviour that results from the interaction between elements at a local level rather than central direction. 

5.         They may contain ‘strange attractors’ or demonstrate extended regularities of behaviour which may be interrupted by short bursts of change.

As you might expect from (what seems like) a theory of all things, the language is vague and needs some interpretation in each field. In the policymaking field, the identification of a complex system is often used to make the following suggestions:

           Law-like behaviour is difcult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.

           Policymaking systems are difcult to control; policy makers should not be surprised when their policy interventions do not have the desired effect.

           Policy makers in the UK have been too driven by the idea of order, maintaining rigid hierarchies and producing top-down, centrally driven policy strategies.  An attachment to performance indicators, to monitor and control local actors, may simply result in policy failure and demoralised policymakers.

           Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy.

On this basis, there is a tendency in the literature to encourage the delegation of decision-making to local actors:

1.         Rely less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.

2.         To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly.

3.         Encourage better ways to deal with alleged failure by treating ‘errors’ as sources of learning (rather than a means to punish organisations) or setting more realistic parameters for success/ failure.

4.         Encourage a greater understanding, within the public sector, of the implications of complex systems and terms such as ‘emergence’ or ‘feedback loops’. 

In other words, this literature, when applied to policymaking, tends to encourage a movement from centrally driven targets, rules and performance indicators towards a more flexible understanding of rules and targets by local actors who are more able to understand and adapt to rapidly-changing local circumstances.

Of course, you may still end up feeling that the advice is a bit vague (and perhaps not completely convincing), but it provides a starting point for discussion, followed by various conference presentations on how to use, creatively or flexibly, new forms of discretion in the public sector.  There will be the usual forums for participation – including Q&A sessions after lectures and smaller seminar groups – as well as a live twitter feed throughout (#cipfascotlandconference). 

For more detail, and further references, see:

Cairney, P. (2012) ‘Complexity Theory in Political Science and Public Policy’, Political Studies Review, 10, 346-58 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1478-9302.2012.00270.x/abstract (or email Paul for a copy)

See also Professor Robert Geyer on Complexity and the Stacey Diagram – http://vimeo.com/25979052  


The Second Lecture

The first lecture was preceded and followed by a range of talks confirming this focus on the importance of local policy actors and their need to be creative; to reframe and solve policy problems rather than merely adopting a narrow focus on costs and rules. The talks included:  management consultants talking about new ways of thinking (and, in one case, challenging the audience in a surprisingly condescending way); design scholars encouraging the design of new forms of policymaking (which allowed me to spend an hour with senior members of CIPFA and the Scottish Government, drawing stick figures and inventing an implausible ‘health-e’ app); and, the Scottish Finance Secretary (John Swinney) confirming the need for more decisions to be taken at local levels, accompanied by the Scottish Government encouragement of greater decision-making discretion. By the second day, my role had changed from a simple provider of thoughts on complexity theory and policymaking, towards being a commentator on the audience’s ability to turn theory into practice:

 “The main thing that struck me, when watching the plenary and workshop sessions, was the potentially large disconnect between (a) the focus on creativity, problem solving and leading the framing of debates; and (b) the day to day realities of the environments in which most people operate.  This is by no means unique to CIPFA.  It is a common tendency to become enthused by positive messages, workshops and new networks made in conferences, only to lose that enthusiasm with 10-15 seconds of returning to the office, with a crisis, the usual constraints and/ or a long email list to work through.

Still, one interesting thing about the first workshop I attended – with a title of ‘Art or Science?’ – is that the daily realities tended to dominate a session that may have been designed to encourage a wider appreciation of the problem at hand.  The aim was to move an organisation’s staff from three existing buildings to one, producing criteria to determine how to make the move at lowest cost. The outcomes seemed to contrast with at least three other sessions:

  1. The tone and substance of discussions seemed a million miles away from Guy Browning’s initial exhortation to engage in lateral thinking, creativity (thinking new things), innovation (making them happen without upsetting peoples’ sensitivities) and getting to the core, not the immediate, problem; not accepting current parameters or the way that a problem is defined for you; questioning the problem and framing problems in different ways to influence how they are solved.
  2. It differed from the recommendation to consider systems thinking, in which we interact with a wide range of people to produce outcomes. Instead, much of the assumption of the session was that the strategy was based essentially on a single mind: hundreds of choices would have to be made in the future, when the group gathered and considered new information. This would be relatively straightforward for a single person making constant calculations, but complicated for a group of people operating within a structure containing many other influential groups. The focus was also very narrow (in general), without the group being able to consider the less tangible costs – such as the disruption to staff related to moving office, moving house, changing transport – related to staff productivity during transition and the development of new relationships with colleagues (although some contributors tried to get at these issues with their recommendations). There was little sense of the need to, for example, find out from staff what they thought about potential moves (which may produce ‘ownership’ of the decision) or to frame the issue in a particular way to influence the success of the recommendation at a higher level of decision making. Perhaps more thought could have gone into the importance of our ability to frame an issue in narrow ‘technical’ terms, according to financial and accounting rules, versus the tendency of major decisions to be framed in many different ways by other actors. It is a very different discussion when the issue catches fire and gets away from you – something that most are aware of, but not something much discussed. This may require a very different mindset, based on developing ‘political’ skills (since politics, broadly defined, is about making choices that do not suit everyone, when people have different preferences).
  3. It contrasted spectacularly with the Vangard exhortation not to exacerbate problems in the public sector with a fixation on unit cost (rather than across the board costs) and value
  4. It seemed to contrast with the session on quantity surveying which exhorted us to:

  • Focus on whole life appraisals; it is sometimes better to spend more in the short term to save in the long term
  • Focus on the links between costs, value and intended use (rather than assume those considerations away)
  • Ask yourself if particular performance measures are appropriate, focusing on ‘in the round’ measures
  • Note that it is difficult (but important) to measure increases in the better use of space and making people feel good (or not making them feel bad) in that space
  • Look at the service we deliver and consider the big picture

If we take the ‘art or science’ session as representative of the day to day work of accountants, it reminds us that it is difficult to know what professional accountants should do with all of this information. Perhaps the temptation is to focus on the ‘facts’ and technical requirements and to pass on the value based choices to policymakers such as elected politicians.  Is this a worse solution that taking the decision to lead and innovate? We began, in my original session, with the idea that public sector accountants have to show that they are accountable to the public via elected organisations and people. The glib assertion that accountability is ‘all you have left when you remove responsibility’ will not convince many accountants to throw caution to the wind (at least when they return to their day jobs).

The other recommendations throw up similar issues. For example:


  1. Challenge silos, often physically, to include everyone and generate new ways of thinking (e.g. by comparing the norms and taken for granted rules in different organisations, often generated within professions). Challenge silos to make people more comfortable about managing other professions. Go to each other’s conferences. Note that the mixing of groups/ professions may initially be less efficient before becoming more efficient.

  • BUT who has the time (who is allowed to devote the time?

  1. Embrace the relative uncertainties of the political and corporate sides of the job.

  • BUT they are the elected and accountable people there to make value based choices

  1. Spend considerable time defining the problem before identifying the solution

  • BUT it felt like the opposite in the art or science session, reflecting an immediate setting

  1. Base decisions regarding risk on data, not perception

  • BUT this seems like a false duality; impossible to separate the two – more about not basing it on hope, seeking other perspectives

  1. Provide a better service for less money; motivate people while restraining pay.

  • VERSUS spend more money for a better service

  1. Focus on the totality, not the margins of spending

  • BUT this may force us to enter the political sphere, where it is about bargaining, not zero based budgeting

  1. Innovation may be about embracing and accepting risk

  • BUT remember to manage risk and try to reduce it 

Maybe this leaves a small number of recommendations which are less immediately objectionable, largely because they are quite vague and represent only a starting point before harder and more specific decisions have to be made:

  1. Shift from an outputs to outcomes focus.
  2. Avoid the league table approach to evaluation.
  3. Shift from a command and control model to systems thinking.

What we may have learned is that this is easier said than done. Perhaps this is the role of a professional body like CIPFA – to remind us of the big picture when the pressure is on us to focus on narrow problems.  If so, this should be a regular conversation, not just an annual conversation. Blogs such as these should be seen as a way to encourage that discussion …”

In other words, the second lecture betrays a feeling that there may be a minimal ‘impact’ to the introduction of a ‘complexity theory lens’ even if the agenda is driven by the professional body. The theory may receive maximal audience attention during the conference but minimal attention when the audience returns to work.

Perhaps more importantly, any audience member with the desire to take forward the ideas may still be at a loss. This problem was summed up neatly by Marco Thiel’s (Senior lecturer in Physics, University of Aberdeen) lecture which showed a wide range of examples from the natural and physical worlds in which complex systems were apparent: single cells formed larger organisms; trees grew in formation and fireflies turned on their lights at the same time to draw attention to themselves and attract their mates.  In each case, the point was that the actions took place without a ‘mind’ or a sense of central control. Rather, each actor within the complex system interacted with their neighbour and acted accordingly.  One problem for the study of policymaking is that this sort of behaviour is more difficult to detect, and the initial idea may be misleading (which perhaps shows that the inter-disciplinarily of the theory is a double edged sword).  There is not usually an equivalent in policymaking to the complete absence of a ‘mind’, either directing activity or influencing the rules of behaviour when people interact with each other. In policymaking, we may be talking about ‘emergent’ behaviour when local outcomes appear not to relate to central control, but this is not the same thing as the assumption of a collection of parts with no central influence.[1]


The value of these two examples is that they prompt us to consider what sort of ‘impact’ we could possibly have on policy practitioners when we seek to translate the insights of policy theories into something meaningful to inform practice. Both examples suggest that complexity theory has some merit in conceptualising the messy and often unpredictable nature of politics and policymaking; the often fragmented policymaking system with many participants and sources of authority and influence.  However, we may be less clear on what practitioners should do with that information. More difficult still is to consider what practitioners could do with the information. Much of the normative side, so far, has generally focused on the inappropriateness of centrally driven targets and a punitive inspection regime that does not take into account the likelihood of service delivery ‘error’. This sort of advice may be increasingly like preaching to the converted in Scotland. Yet, there is less detailed advice on the alternative, beyond encouraging ‘systems thinking’ and focusing on outcomes over outputs. On the other hand, perhaps we would only be dissatisfied with this outcome if we were setting too high a bar for academic or ideational success.  Perhaps the willingness within government to adopt ‘systems thinking’ and encourage new ways to deliver and evaluate policy could be seen as successful impact in itself.  If so, the only remaining problem could be that the Research Councils’ current measures would not allow a single scholar or department to claim any credit for the impact. 


Althaus, C., Bridgman, P. and Davis, G. (2007) The Australian Policy Handbook 4th Ed. (Sydney: Allen and Unwin)

Cairney, P. (2012a) ‘How Can Policy Theory Inform Policy Making (and vice versa)?’ Paper to Political Studies Association Annual Conference, Belfast, 2012 http://www.psa.ac.uk/2012/PanelDetails.aspx?PanelID=43

Cairney, P. (2012b) Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Issues (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Cairney, P. (2012b) ‘‘Public Administration in an Age of Austerity’: Positive Lessons From Policy Studies’, Public Policy and Administration, 27, 3, 230-47

CIPFA Scotland (2013) Public finances: at the edge of chaos and ready for outcomes? http://www.cipfa.org/-/media/files/regions/scotland/public_finances_at_the_edge_of_chaos_and_ready_for_outcomes.pdf

Dror, Y. (1964) ‘Muddling Through – “Science” or Inertia?’, Public Administration Review, 24: 153–7.

Lindblom, C. (1959) ‘The Science of Muddling Through’, Public Administration Review, 19, 79-88

Sabatier, P. (2007) ‘The Need for Better Theories’ in (ed) P. Sabatier Theories of the Policy Process 2(Cambridge MA: Westview)

Sabatier, P. and Jenkins-Smith, H. (1993) Policy Change and Learning: An Advocacy Coalition Approach(Boulder: Westview Press)

Simon, H. (1947; 1976) Administrative Behavior 1st and 3rd eds. (London: MacMillan)

Marsh, D. and Rhodes, R.A.W., eds (1992) Implementing Thatcherite Policies (Buckingham: Open University Press)

Rhodes, R.A.W. (1997) Understanding Governance (Open University Press)




[1] In the lecture, Thiel discussed simple social examples, such as the ‘Mexican wave’ or rhythmic clapping, in which people simply react to the behaviour of their neighbours – but, in both cases, it makes sense to say that one person may have initiated the activity. That argument, about  responsibility for initiation, is stronger when people are directed to follow rules by a central authority. 

1 Comment

Filed under public policy, UK politics and policy, Uncategorized

One response to “Policy Theories for Turbulent Times: Comparing Old and New

  1. Pingback: Strategic thought: the complexity of security – Defence-In-Depth

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