Monthly Archives: June 2013

Notes From a Conference Part 1: Arrogance and Recognition

It’s hard to tell if people are (a) predisposed to arrogance at an early age and/ or (b) if they develop this trait as they age and become more powerful or better recognised in the profession. All I know is that some (generally well established) academics appear to ‘less modest’ than others. So, I have this general angst about becoming (or, at least, appearing) more arrogant when engaging with other people and, crucially, not knowing it. This is perhaps more of a concern for people in subjects like social science where some conference discussions will be about challenging the statements, methods and views of other people. There is a fine line between a positive challenge and a negative dismissal, so we need a high degree of self-awareness to reflect on our behaviour and ask ourselves if we have crossed a line. This is particularly important:

  • In international conferences where people bring different levels of expectation about politeness. For example, many UK based scholars may be less likely to start their comments with ‘thank you for your interesting paper’. Instead, like me, they may see a strong (thoughtful) challenge as a strong signal of respect (since, it shows that you care enough about the paper to listen and engage in a meaningful way).
  • If you are in a room with a dominant view – it is only by being open to opinions from others that you can avoid being close minded and dismissive of things you don’t agree with initially but might appreciate if you allow yourself the time to listen and reflect (something that is too easy to dismiss if you are in a room with people that largely agree with you).
  • If we identify the subtext to many conference proceedings: the desire to make one’s name by presenting papers and engaging with the papers of others. I have said to a few colleagues that a large conference is really a battle for attention and recognition, wrapped up in the pretence of positive discussion, and only most of that statement is tongue-in-cheek.
It is in that context that I’d like to describe the crumbs of recognition I got at a recent conference (International Conference on Public Policy). I figure that, if arrogance comes with age, I’d better write this down before it’s too late. The thing about this profession is that it is so full of negative signals from other people: critical reviews of articles; negative signals on promotion prospects; deflating rejections for grant proposals; and, so on (if you are trying to do a PhD, we might add deflating rejections for funding that threaten the completion of the project; if you are not a white man, we might discuss further obstacles relating to relative success rates). So, when people actually come up to you and say that they have enjoyed something you’ve written (and can discuss it with you in some depth, largely proving that they are not just being polite), it’s brilliant. There will be better descriptions out there, but ‘brilliant’ will do for now. The same goes for general name recognition – there is just something about people seeing your name badge and recognising your name (it beats the quite-regular semi-sneer when people can’t be arsed with you). So, the benefit of not being fully arrogant (yet) is that you can enjoy these crumbs of comfort in a rather disproportionate way. This may be some comfort to the PhD student wondering if it’s all worth it – in some cases it might be.

See also Part 2
See also Part 3

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Notes From a Conference Part 2: What are They For?

It’s probably not a good idea to reflect on a conference too close to its end, when you are tired and homesick, but I’m going to do it anyway. As with many large international conferences I’ve been to, my usual response is to wonder if it was worth the bother of being away from home, away from my family, (*middle class problems alert*) in a crap hotel room and faced with the need to sit, stand, listen and talk politely for such a long time – when the time could be put to better use at home (doing or writing research and/ or watching the tennis/ football). So, what are the most important benefits?

  1. Meeting people, new and old. Many of us will tend to have most contact with people by email, so it is good to get the time to have an actual conversation with people (often from different countries). In my case, I had a decent mix: meeting a longstanding co-author to discuss more projects; meeting a new co-author to discuss our chapter; meeting a handful of new people that I’d like to keep in touch, and do research, with; and having a few quick discussions with one of my PhD students off campus and in a new atmosphere (and immediately before and after her paper).
  2. Having your ego stroked a little bit and getting yourself known a bit better (see previous blog).
  3. Giving you a deadline to complete a piece of work in a way that other deadlines can’t do (for many, if not most, people the thought of talking mince for 15 minutes in front of your peers is not an enjoyable prospect).
I think these are the least important benefits:
  1. Getting new information from presentations and/ or papers. The quality of conference papers and presentations is so mixed that it’s difficult to justify the time spent reading and listening. In fact, my increasing impression is that many, if not most, people are *not* reading papers and listening (indeed, you can tell that many people are not listening because they have their laptops out and are replying to emails or having a sly look at the news and sport). This problem can be compounded by inadequate rooms (I had one seminar for 20 people in a 900 seat lecture hall; I had another in a room where you could only *just* hear the speaker if no-one moved).
  2. Getting feedback on papers. Sometimes this works. In fact, for one of my papers the audience was 7 people (it was at 8.30am, the day after the conference dinner, which ended after midnight), allowing us to engage in an *actual conversation* (the other was about 30 people, which was quite good too, but in a different way – it allows you to see if you can give convincing replies). Sometimes, it doesn’t work. In fact, sometimes (for example if you are on a panel of 4) no-one will ask you a question and you will wonder why you bothered.
  3. Finding that all the interesting papers are all being given at the same time (and. If you are very unlucky, at the same time as your presentation).

In other words, the benefit of a conference may not relate to the thing that seems to drive it and take up most of its time. Maybe the notional equivalent in politics is either the international summit (a set-piece event where most of the work is done in advance and the most productive discussions are ‘away from the table’) or the well-attended state funeral (which may involve fewer speeches and gives people the chance to talk without any weight of expectation).

See also part 1
See also part 3

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Notes From a Conference Part 3: The International Conference on Public Policy

The ICPP (Grenoble) symbolised both the best and worst aspects of scholarship. The best bits include:

  • The unexpected levels of attendance (900) – which showed many of us (perhaps used to the limited focus on policymaking at general conferences) that we had many international colleagues engaged in similar research.
  • The ability to see beyond your specialism and listen to plenary discussions and panels on topics you may not consider in your day-to-day research.
  • The opportunities to meet people, exchange ideas and make research plans.
But, being a tired, dour Scot, I was struck mostly by the problems symbolised by the conference:
1.Are we talking *to* or *past* each other?
The plenary on the so called ‘tribes’ of policymaking (IAD, new institutionalism, ACF, etc.) involved a brief discussion, by each representative of a ‘tribe’, of the first principles of each approach – without giving much information about how they relate to each other. This is characteristic of much of the literature which involves specialisation. Such specialisation is often valuable and necessary – it is perhaps only when we immerse ourselves in, and fully understand, an approach that we can assess its merits and relate it to other approaches. However, it also seems parochial if there is a limited level of self-awareness and a tendency to ignore other approaches. Watching the event, you would struggle to identify a sense of *general purpose*. For me, the idea behind specialisation is that we are boundedly rational – we cannot produce all research ourselves. So, we produce some work and rely on others to produce the rest. Then we try to compare our experiences and: (a) explore or ability to generalise from those combined experiences; and (b) explore our ability to accumulate knowledge from a range of studies. This exchange of ideas and information will not be effective if we are all talking a different language; if we don’t know how to communicate our findings (and their significance) to each other in a meaningful way. Maybe the plenary served that purpose by reminding us of the wider world out there, but you would have to be a super-positive person to come to that conclusion.
2.Are we even talking about the same thing?
I was often struck by the relative lack of cohesion of many panels even when they came under a common banner. So, they were not only describing very different case studies but also very different ways to understand them. Again, this can produce a degree of innovative thinking when we consider new possibilities. However, it can also make you wonder if you can slip out of the room when no-one is watching.
3. Self-contradictory case study approaches.
The papers were either mainly-theoretical or contained a theoretical and case-study-based empirical section. What follows is a caricature of some presentations to make a broad point:
  • First, they say that existing theories cannot fully explain their case study.
  • So, they propose a ‘new’ theory which it explains it better.
  • Then, they might imply that this new theory has a more general application.
The overall effect can appear to be contradictory: no theory can explain my case because it is (a) more complicated than theory suggests; and/ or (b) the case has some unusual elements that are difficult to explain. If so, such papers perpetuate the problem – we are forever seeking novel and parsimonious theories to explain many cases, only to be faced with complexity and a significant level of non-comparability when we try to apply them in different cases.
In that light, my preference is for a problem-focused approach to presentation:
  • Talk about a real research problem – what do you want to explain?
  • Talk about the insights that one or more theories can give you when you seek explanation.
  • Accept that theories are simplifications to aid general explanation; don’t express mock surprise when they fail to explain everything. This is just not possible.
  • If a key tenet of public policy studies is that politics and policymaking vary from issue to issue (and country), we should not be surprised that a theory based on some issues and countries does not map directly onto others. The same can be said for the case study – don’t just assume that the usefulness of a new or old theory in one case applies to another. Instead, reflect on the ways in which your case compares to the cases described by other studies.
We might then want to talk about the research outcomes. Such conversations require a common language – a requirement that is not served well by the constant pursuit of new theories and a rejection of the old. If we are constantly claiming to be reinterpreting the fundamental nature of policymaking, how can we communicate our findings to each other?
Instead, we can pursue a common language by focusing on what Peter John describes as the five ‘core causal processes’ in public policy. We may say that policymakers operate within the following context:
  1. Institutional – they are influenced by the (written and unwritten; formal/ statutory and informal) rules and norms within systems and organisations.
  2. Agenda-setting – policymakers are ‘boundedly rational’, prompting them to (a) pay more attention to some issues and solutions at the expense of most others; (b) understand issues in a biased way. So, the way in which they act follows from the way in which they understand, interpret, define or frame their problems and actions.
  3. Networks/ Subsystem – policy is devolved from elected policymakers to bureaucrats who consult with groups to gather information and advice. This low level of government may be where most policy work is processed. Some groups are more powerful than others; they are considered more worthy of attention than others. Relationships develop between some groups and civil servants and these networks often represent the main arena in which information is exchanged, then given to elected policymakers (or, choices are made on their behalf by civil servants operating in these networks).
  4. Socio-economic – for example, some problems may appear more pressing than others, and some solutions may be more or less attractive, because they are linked closely to the economic environment. Or, demographic change presents new problems. Or, a policymaker’s understanding of social attitudes may underpin their policy strategy. In each case, policymakers interpret a range of policy conditions, or operate in policy environments, that appear to present obstacles to, or opportunities for, action.
  5. The role of ideas – policymaking is underpinned by the beliefs present within political systems, such as the world views of policymakers or the actors most influential in that system. We talk of ‘core beliefs’, ‘paradigms’ and ‘policy monopolies’ to describe the fundamental importance of a common understanding of the world that may be so dominant that it is taken for granted. We also talk about ideas as new ways of thinking about problems, and solutions, which challenge such fundamental beliefs (often following a period of ‘learning’ from the past, other issues or other political systems)..
We may have different interpretations of these concepts and they all overlap (the links between 2 and 5 may seem most obvious; we may also say that institutions are shared beliefs; that close networks are based on common understandings; that people interpret socioeconomic conditions and new ideas; and so on). Of course they do – these are analytical simplifications not present in the ‘real world’. Further, we may say that some issues transcend these factors – such as the role of gender inequalities which may be present in institutions, shape the way that people understand problems, influence the consultation process, and underpin belief systems.
However, at least they give us the chance for a common starting point for discussion and explanation. We might even say that our reference to these factors represents the product of our accumulation of knowledge in the field (or not).
4. What is a satisfactory explanation? Can we ever agree?
In a broader sense, we are talking about our ability to agree about what constitutes a satisfactory explanation. In my opinion, a convincing explanation comes from a detailed account of policymaking (stability and instability; policy continuity and change) with reference to all five of these causal factors. We discuss their individual importance – as an analytical device to aid the simplification of complex issues – and discuss the extent which outcomes are caused by the interplay between all five. So, for example, institutions alone do not explain behaviour (unless we use a ridiculously broad definition of an institution) and neither does the socioeconomic context (however pressing), the ideational context, or the strong relationships between some groups and government – but a combination of such factors may help explain why policymakers act in certain ways (and perhaps why their actions are more or less acceptable or successful).
The alternative is to specialise; to focus on certain aspects of this process to gain a better understanding of them. This is good too, but not if it comes at the expense of the bigger picture (or, if we simply try to quantify the relative effect of one factor in a naïve way – which, in many cases, misses the point of complex explanation). It would be good for presenters on particular topics to reflect, however briefly, on how these topics relate to the concerns of others – to recognise that they know a lot about the foot but that the heart might be important too.
5. Are we really talking to each other? How do we exchange information in a meaningful way?
I attended every possible session in the ICPP and so I received a concentrated dose of the tendency of presenters to give out information in an unsatisfactory way. My pet peeve is slides of very small numbers which are presented for a few seconds without explanation; without the presenter taking the time to give them meaning. For me, this tops the presenter-reads-every-word-on-the-powerpoint approach (because at least, in that case, you can close your eyes to listen). This is not good.
It is perhaps a symptom if the wider tendency to cram a ridiculous amount of presentations into short slots – either the 4 papers/ 2 discussant approach (90 minutes) of APSA or the 5 papers (2 hours) at the ICPP. Who can possibly sit through all of those presentations without daydreaming or nodding off?  It is also a symptom of the lack of awareness of the needs of an audience. If we are there to talk to each other (and not simply represent an awake audience), we need the time to discuss papers rather than just listen to them. Only then will we know if the information we present is useful, or if the round of applause is really just a symbol of audience relief.
6. Last but not least – too many men.
Even I (a male, white, middle class and increasingly privilege professor who benefits from these inequalities) am getting tired of seeing panels that are all, or predominantly, male. Most plenary sessions were embarrassingly male and, when the photos go on the web, will not serve as a good advertisement for the profession (although we cannot simply blame the organisers –

See also Part 1
See also Part 2

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Scottish Labour and Independence

Since I was writing about Man of Steel today, I thought I’d keep up the fanciful theme by making a simple recommendation for Scottish Labour. What I think they should do is to start talking about the future of an independent Scotland in terms of old Labour values. They should say that independence would give them a chance to test the myth that Scotland is socially democratic. They should promise a Nordic style programme of redistribution and universalism. They should say that public services, free at the point of sale, are expensive and that we can only afford them if we change taxes. They should say that they are committed to reducing inequalities, so those taxes will be super-progressive. This is the solution to the current problem of devolution: we give the universal services to all without charging the better-off more to use them. If the Yes vote does not tip 50% in 2014, Scottish Labour can then say ‘well, we offered that new Scotland and you didn’t want it’. Then, they can charge for all sorts of services, arguing that if people wanted universalism they should have voted for a government with the willingness and ability to match it with redistribution.

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Man of Steel

Superman might look like just an exciting* film about a superhero, but it’s really a** profound statement about the environment, feminism and anti-Social-Darwinism hidden within an action film. It starts by showing us the unfortunate consequences of the hubris of a government intent on solving its environmental and energy problems with technology. Then, we quickly move on to the idea that Krypton is the logical conclusion of eugenics – every child is created to serve a purpose. Superman’s*** mum and dad then have a natural birth to give him the choice to be different. It’s the classic ‘we are not biologically determined’ argument (which reinforces the decent range of relatively strong female characters, including Lois Lane who saves the day before being saved). The clearest statements are easily missed because they come towards the end when everyone is getting thrown through walls. One is when Faora-Ul is about to throw Superman somewhere and she tells him that her race is superior because it has evolved to the point where they are better warriors because they (a) are more powerful and able to survive in their environment; and (b) they have fewer feelings and connections to others (this sounds like Social Darwinism but, confusingly, not necessarily what Darwin was going on about).  Another is when Zod justifies his behaviour in terms of being designed with a particular purpose (and the consequences of achieving his aim are largely irrelevant).  Finally, it gives some men something to aspire to – big muscles and being nice (and, if possible, destroying satellites designed to spy on him).

*No, it’s not boring.

**Perhaps unintentionally

***I know he isn’t yet Superman and they refuse to call him that. Symbol of hope my arse.

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Alcohol: the Harmful versus Healthy Debate

I predict a lot of debate and attention to the idea that alcohol consumption is healthy or harmful. A key strategy for public health groups and other advocates of further alcohol controls (such as a minimum unit price of alcohol) is to reframe the debate – by challenging the idea that alcohol can be healthy, in particular circumstances, if consumed in small amounts. A key strategy for the alcohol industry is to maintain that image so that they can argue that alcohol policy should be targeted at problem drinkers only. One is a public health argument calling for general policy measures that influence the drinking habits of the population (e.g. raise prices, ban promotion). The other is an individualised argument calling for specific measures that deal with particular people (e.g. provide NHS services for alcoholism; change police powers to deal with anti-social behaviour). So, the *way we understand the evidence* is key battle ground in the policy debate. That is why you will find public health groups so bothered by the fact that the industry takes such an important part in the production, dissemination and interpretation of the evidence within government and when communicating with the public (e.g. is funded by the industry).

The obvious contrast, at least in the UK, is between alcohol and tobacco. In the latter, in the not-too-distant past, tobacco companies had similar amounts of joy in government and public circles: funding scientific research; arguing that the link between smoking (and then passive smoking) and ill health was not proven; and portraying the issue as one of individual choice based on their thoughts on the evidence and how they might way it up against their enjoyment of smoking. Key strides were made in tobacco control when the evidence on harm (from smoking and passive smoking) were ‘set in stone’ within government and stated unequivocally to the public. A good example is in health education before and after tobacco company influence. In the heyday of smoking (when men were men), the public health advice was overshadowed by tobacco advertising. It was also more likely to be harm reduction in nature – e.g. smoke pipes rather than cigarettes (not too long after companies introduced healthful (not really) filtertips and moved from high to low tar). Then, the health advice changed markedly to reflect a ‘no safe level’ message (as in the health advice suggesting that a move from high to low tar was like jumping from the 38th floor of a building rather than the 39th).

Now, in my day, as an undergraduate, we might try to interpret that sort of story in terms of early insights on Power by people like Bachrach and Baratz. Power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group wins and another loses (such as in a policy debate in government). Rather, groups may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes (perhaps to make sure that the debate does not get that far). If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. In this case, if the vast majority of people think that moderate alcohol consumption is healthy (or not harmful), they may not support control measures that affect the whole population. In fact, it is a measure of public health group success that it even *occurs* to us to consider the issue. Still, a key part of the minimum-unit-price debate is that it punishes responsible drinkers as much as problem drinkers. This will not be such a powerful argument if the vast majority of the public begins to believe that we are *all* problem drinkers (well, apart from me – I don’t touch the stuff).

See also:

‘Alcohol’s evaporating health benefits’


Filed under agenda setting, alcohol, alcohol policy, public policy, tobacco, tobacco policy

The IndyRef and the Scottish Parliament

I have done a 3-minute podcast on this topic and it can be found here –

or go here:

I hope to make it a bit more exciting soon, but this will have to do just now.

See also:

If you want to spoil the magic and just read the ‘script’, here it is:

A debate on constitutional change provides the main (or only) opportunity to discuss its constitution. A constitution can be a written document with bells and whistles or just an acknowledged set of relationships between governing organisations and “the people”.
Yet, we have not seen the same debate around independence as we did around devolution.
Remember all the hopes associated with the push for devolution:
  • In general, a new form of politics to get away from all that was wrong with Westminster
  • A new and more proportional electoral system
  • A new relationship between the government, the parliament and the people
  • A move away from top-down government policymaking
  • A rejection of adversarial and excessively partisan politics
  • An effective unicameral system
  • A chance for a wide range of (previously excluded) groups and individuals to have a routine say in policy
  • A chance for MSPs to spend quality time in their constituencies rather than sitting around being whipped in Parliament
  • A chance to redress ridiculous imbalances in representation, particularly for women
A lot of these aims proved to be unrealistic, but at least we talked about ideals rather than just getting bogged down in petty disputes.
In fact, now is the only time in which we can properly reassess devolution and ask ourselves if we want to simply keep and build on existing arrangements or seek to change them. Obvious examples include:
  • Should we keep the mixed member electoral system rather than STV?
  • Are we content with only one-third of MSPs being women?
The less visible question is:
  • What do we do about the Scottish Parliament?
  • The problem is that there is not a ‘power sharing’ relationship between government and parliament
  • The government makes policy and the parliament examines it
  • It does not have the resources to examine it well
  • There are too few MSPs and too few staff
  • So, the Parliament examines *some* policy, to some extent, and has to ignore most of it
  • This happened under all forms of government so far: coalition majority, single party minority, single party majority
  • So, if we simply add more powers or full powers onto the current system, its ability to scrutinise government will be much more limited
  • Now is the only time to discuss what we want to do about that
  • Whatever you think about independence debate, it may be the only event that allows us to re-examine the role of the Scottish Parliament and do something about it

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Testing, testing, podcast on independence

This is a 10-minute podcast on Scottish independence – What Does it Mean and What Are The Big Questions? – recorded on my Ipad. The production values are fairly low and, on two occasions, it seems to flicker a bit (much like in those horror or sci-fi films where things go a little bit, spookily, wrong). I also get a text which distracts me a bit. Then I sound like I am getting bored and more sarcastic from 8 minutes (any of my former students will be used to that). Other than that, it is OK, as long as you like the Andy Murray style monotone (although our accents are very, very different).

You can also get it here:

The book is out in August and it won’t really be £25 –

See also:

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Why is there more tobacco control policy than alcohol control policy in the UK?

The obvious answer is that drinking is less bad for you than smoking. Or, if you are the optimistic sort, drinking is really, really, really, really, really good for you – mm, mm, delicious and nutritious. And it’s cool. And it’s sexy and it makes you sexy. Especially when you are pissed.

The non-obvious answer is that, although the same sort of public health evidence has been produced to suggest that: (a) both smoking and drinking are unhealthy; and, (b) both should be controlled using similar instruments – the alcohol-is-unhealthy evidence is less accepted in government and alcohol control policies are a harder sell (for now). Alcohol can still be advertised, there is less tax on booze and the alcohol industry has a regular say in the interpretation of the evidence (and what we should do about it).
The aim of this ICPP paper (link) is to explain the difference between policy choices in tobacco and alcohol. It says: here is what would have to happen for alcohol control to mimic tobacco control (I do the same in a comparison of tobacco controls in different countries here). We can break the policy process down into five key factors:
1.     Institutional change. Government departments, and other organisations focused on health policy, would take the main responsibility for alcohol control, largely replacing departments focused on finance, trade, industry, tourism and employment (and crime).
2.      Paying attention to, and ‘framing’ the problem. The government would no longer view alcohol primarily as a product with economic value, central to the ‘night time economy’.  It would be viewed primarily as a public health problem; a set of behaviours and outcomes to be challenged.  This happened with tobacco, but it is trickier in alcohol because the government may only be worried about aspects of alcohol consumption (such as the binge drinking and anti-social behaviour of certain individuals) rather than the broader notion of public health.
3.      The balance of power between participants.  The department of health would consult public health and medical groups at the expense of groups representing the alcohol industry. This is central to the type of evidence it gathers, the interpretation of the evidence, and the advice it receives.
4.      The socioeconomic context.  The economic benefit of alcohol consumption would fall (or, the tax revenue would become less important to the Treasury), the number of drinkers would fall and opposition to alcohol control would decline (although it already seems fairly low).
5.      The role of beliefs and knowledge.  The scientific evidence linking alcohol consumption to ill health would have to be accepted and ‘set in stone’ within government circles.  The most effective policies to reduce alcohol consumption would also be increasingly adopted and transferred across countries.
Change in these factors would be mutually reinforcing.  For example, an increased acceptance of the scientific evidence helps shift the way that governments ‘frame’ or understand the alcohol policy problem.  The framing of alcohol as a health problem allows health departments to take the policy lead.  Alcohol control and alcohol use go hand in hand: a decrease in drinking rates reduces the barriers to alcohol control; more alcohol control means fewer drinkers (or less drinking).
It is tempting to think that this sort of process is more likely under Labour and less likely under the Conservatives – and there is some evidence to back up this argument. However, the point of the paper is that these long term processes develop during the terms of both parties. Major policy change, of the level we have witnessed in tobacco (but not as much in alcohol), takes several decades. Indeed, you can be suitably impressed or depressed with my hunch that alcohol control is at least a decade (if not two or more) behind tobacco.

See also:
Compare with: and


Filed under alcohol, alcohol policy, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, tobacco, tobacco policy, UK politics and policy, Uncategorized

Making Sense of Policymaking: why it’s always someone else’s fault and nothing ever changes

I am writing a paper about the ability of policy scholars to describe and explain policymaking in a way that is understandable to policymakers and practitioners (it will appear here and here). The background discussion is about the extent to which there is too much jargon in the literature. If so, it may act as a barrier to meaningful discussions between academics and policymakers (which may be seen as particularly problematic in this new age of academic ‘impact’). The paper suggests that many academic insights are useful, as a basis for discussion with policymakers, if we take the time to discuss them together.

The aim of this post is a bit different: to see if I can summarise and translate the concepts to the readers of the post *without* any discussion! I will do it by removing almost all of the jargon from the paper (which often means more words – the jargon is a useful shorthand). I think that this task is made much easier by the slow trickle of these ideas into the public consciousness. For example, one conclusion you can take from the discussion is that a change of party in government does not produce a massive change in policy. This is something that you tend to hear in public discussions (although I admit that the discussions may not draw much from policy theory). So, I will continue this theme, by outlining some common phrases (associated largely with the pathology of policymaking) and using policy theory to help explain them in a way that might, in some cases, make the whole business of government a bit less disheartening. Or, I will make up these phrases for effect. Definitely one or the other. I will also put those phrases in capital letters, so that you can imagine them being shouted by someone looking for attention.


I think that you can divide this sort of frustration into two main parts: ministers generally don’t take the blame for things going wrong; and/ or no-one seems to get the blame for something going wrong in individual cases (such as in cases of child cruelty or hospital mismanagement).

The argument with ministers is so strong because we support the idea that governments are accountable to the public via Parliament. So, ministers are in charge and they report to Parliament. Or, they get a telling-off from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Yet, ministers have two good reasons not to take the blame.

First, policy is often now made at many levels (and types) of government. For example, something like ‘tobacco policy’ is actually a collection of policies made by the European Union, UK and, in some cases, devolved governments (and sometimes local authorities). Policy is also often carried out by a range of bodies which often operate at ‘arms length’ from ministers. In some cases, this looks like ministers are simply passing the buck to other bodies, to avoid making controversial decisions. In others, there is good reason to maintain these arrangements. My favourite example is in mental health where there are arms-length bodies there to make sure that doctors and social workers use the Mental Health Act correctly when they ‘section’ people. Those bodies have to exert a degree of independence to assure the public that they are not simply there to back up the decisions of others.

The outcome of these multi-level and arms-length arrangements is that ministers cannot simply make policy. Instead, they are increasingly obliged to negotiate policy with a wide range of other bodies.

The second defence for ministers is that they cannot pay attention to all of the issues for which they are responsible. In fact, they can only pay attention to a tiny proportion – which makes it entirely plausible for them to look shocked when a decision, made in their name, has gone badly. This is also why regular changes of government do not cause wholesale shifts in policy: most decisions are beyond the reach of ministers.    The sheer size of government means that it could easily become unmanageable. So, governments break policy down into more manageable departments, and a large number of divisions within departments, dealing with issues that involve a smaller number of knowledgeable participants.  Most policy is made at a level of government not particularly visible to the public or Parliament, and with minimal ministerial or senior civil service involvement.  These arrangements exist because there is a logic to devolving decisions and consulting with certain groups.  Ministers rely on their officials for information and advice.  For specialist issues, those officials rely on specialist organisations.  Organisations trade that information and advice (and other things, such as the ability to generate agreement among large and influential groups) for access to, and influence within, government. Ministers are *responsible* for this activity, and they can set the tone of many of the debates, but they cannot pay attention to everything going on. In fact, paying attention to one issue means ignoring most others. So, that look of permanent befuddlement on Newsnight may be entirely understandable.

The other sort of problem relates to things going wrong in local and health authorities when, for example, a child is not protected or a patient is treated badly while in care. Organisations hold inquiries and learn lessons but no one is necessarily strung up and blamed for the problem. The defence in this case is that public sector professionals do not have the ability to carry out all of their responsibilities. They are subject to such a wide range of rules, regulations and expectations from government that they cannot pay attention to them all (I tend to think of this comic strip, but it’s not that bad – . Instead, they use their judgement to satisfy an adequate proportion of government objectives. As a result, things go wrong and we find that some people or organisations did not carry out government policy. In these cases, it is not easy to blame an organisation – they *have* to ignore some directions to make sure that they follow others. It is also difficult to blame ministers, because the chances are that they already have policies in place to deal with these sorts of things – they just weren’t carried out.


The explanation for this practice is quite similar:  policymakers can only pay attention to a small number of the issues for which they are responsible.  So, they ignore most and promote a few to the top of their agenda, often following a major event or a successful media campaign by certain groups. So, for every issue to which ministers (and senior civil servants) pay attention, they must ignore (say) 99 others.  The tendency to focus on that one issue *might* produce major policy change when, for example, so much pressure is required to get ministerial attention that, when they do, it is a bit like a dam busting; a wide range of people get involved to influence policy in a short space of time.  However, the logical consequence to their attention to that one issue is that the same thing does not happen in most other cases. In most cases, it is business as usual, since so much policymaking is devolved to people who operate out of the public and political spotlight.


I said that this concentrated attention on some issues *might* change things because it also might not. There are four main reasons to expect less than radical change following these bursts of attention. First, people might find that there is no easy solution to the problem receiving so much attention. Good, sensible, acceptable solutions take time to develop and it is possible for public and ministerial attention to lurch to another issue before this problem is solved (or at least solved to the satisfaction of policymakers and influential groups). Indeed, as silly as it sounds, a key feature of policymaking is that the solution to a problem may be devised *before* there is significant attention to the problem. Second, policymakers do not have the brain power or resources to consider all options and the consequences of their policies. So, many rely on trial-and-error policymaking or depart from current policy in a series of steps. For policymakers, this has the added benefit of reduced controversy: radical policy change always produces winners and losers; a government could try to impose its will, but this can be politically expensive and governments can only spend so much. Third, governments inherit policy before they choose. Any ‘new’ policy is likely to be a revision of an old one, perhaps following some degree of failure. They might want to make serious changes, but they are also constrained by decisions made by governments in the past – decisions that produce organisations, rules, regulations and employees that are difficult to remove.

Finally, things don’t change overnight because people’s beliefs don’t change overnight. In most cases, policymakers ‘learn’ from their experience (which includes their mistakes) but their learning is influenced heavily by the way that they understand the world. Or, in a wider sense, there may be a particular understanding of the policy problem, and its solution, that is promoted by a wide range of powerful groups. Events may draw attention to policy problems without changing that balance of power or the fundamental beliefs of those involved. Maybe the most obvious example just now is the banking crisis which produced some changes but not radical change in the way that governments treat the financial sector – but the same point could be made whenever we see crises in areas such as health or education. 


The final point to remember is that the study of policy is the study of power: the relatively powerful and the relatively powerless; the winners and the losers. Importantly, power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group wins and another loses. Rather, it can take at least two other important forms. First, groups may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, what is the role of government? In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.  In other examples, the battle may be about the extent to which issues are private (with no legitimate role for government) or public (and open to legitimate government action), including: should governments intervene in disputes between businesses and workers? Should they intervene in disputes between husbands and wives? Should they try to stop people smoking in places that might be considered private or public? If you reached this blog via twitter, you will be very familiar with how this process looks in practice: people make policy suggestions, they receive some support, then they receive an absolute barrage of criticism, and often abuse, by others. In this context, groups may be powerful if they are able to reinforce the anti-policy-change attitudes already held by many people.

Second, groups may exercise other forms of power to keep an issue off the government agenda. As I said above, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, groups may exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others.  Issues on the agenda are sometimes described as ‘safe’ – more attention to these issues means less attention to the imbalances of power within society. Again, if you are a follower of twitter, you may get the impression that people pay attention to nothing but safe issues for a few seconds at a time. I’m afraid I can’t do anything to make *that* seem less dispiriting.


Filed under public policy, UK politics and policy, Uncategorized