Daily Archives: August 16, 2013

Policy and Policymaking in the UK – chapter 2 draft 1

Here is the first draft of the second chapter of my new book:

Chapter 2 20.8.13 Cairney Policy Policymaking UK (direct)

https://www.dropbox.com/s/jdvji823i47c6pv/Chapter%202%2016.8.13%20Cairney%20Policy%20Policymaking%20UK.pdf (dropbox)

Please feel free to comment and share. The introduction and bullet points are at the bottom. Here are some more fiddly things that I have been thinking about when writing the chapter:

1. Is it OK to reference a blog by a think tank like the CPS? It’s not evil or anything, but I think that some people might be put off. Bias is a big thing these days don’t you know.

2. Can I still use the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ when the Daily Mail recently reinforced the myth that it refers to a rule about domestic violence? You’ll have to search that one or take my word for it.

3. At one point, am I providing a big list of concepts without enough of a structure?

4. I succumbed to temptation and used one of the most over-used phrases in social research: complex. Oh, it’s complex. Remember it’s complex. Have you considered complexity? Life’s not simple, don’t you know? I tried to make up for it with a little definition box which differentiates between complex-as-complicated and complex-as-system (with particular properties identified and used to compare with other complex systems). I have also placed (in chapter 1) my flag on the phrase ‘complex government’ – a term used remarkably infrequently given the amount of times those words are used on their own.

5. Does this video (minus the suppository problem) sum up comprehensive rationality nicely? (courtesy of NormBlog – http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2013/08/the-suppository-of-all-wisdom.html)

Chapter 2 Policymaking in the UK: What is Policy and How is it Made?

This chapter examines:

  • The meaning of ‘policy’ and ‘public policy’
  • How we categorise, measure and describe public policy
  • The differences between comprehensive and bounded rationality
  • The effect of bounded rationality on policymaking
  • The links between comprehensive rationality and the Westminster model
  • The differences in policymaking styles between the UK and devolved governments

‘Policy’ and ‘public policy’ are difficult to define, but our attempts to give them meaning are important. For example, some definitions refer explicitly to the actions of government, while others identify a wider range of actors. Some talk about the difference between what governments do and what they choose not to do. Some discuss the difference between a range of activities, from the general statement of intent to the actual policy outcome. Overall, these definitions show us that the policy process is complex; the inability of one, concise, definition to capture our field of study demonstrates that complexity.

Even if we can settle on a definition of public policy, we may struggle to measure it. ‘Public policy’ is a collection of policies made at different times and, in many cases, different organisations.  Even when we break policymaking down into particular areas and issues, we find that policy is a collection of different instruments. In some cases, these instruments may be used to form a coherent strategy. For example, high taxes may be combined with public education and regulations on tobacco advertising to discourage smoking. In others, individual instruments may be used by different organisations with insufficient thought about how they will combine. For example, a Department for Education may face problems when coordinating the transition from key educational stages involving different actors (including early years, primary, secondary, and post-compulsory). This is a more regular feature of fragmented policymaking, in which different government departments may be responsible for individual aspects of policy and have different ideas about how to solve the problem. For example, in mental health, a high profile Home Office policy on detaining people with mental illnesses before they commit serious crimes may conflict with a Department of Health focus on challenging mental health stigma. Consequently, the ‘what is policy?’ question has an important practical element. To know what policy is in each area, we must know how to categorise, measure and describe a wide range of government activities.

This question also informs our discussion of how policy is made. The unrealistic idea of a single, coherent, policy strategy can be linked to ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which a single authoritative policymaker is at the heart of the process. This ideal-type is a traditional starting point for policy studies – as a way to highlight the implications of bounded rationality. For example, policymakers may respond to their own limitations by developing shortcuts to gather information, engaging in incremental rather than radical policy change (to address their uncertainty about the effects of their policies), and/ or focusing on some issues at the expense of most others (Simon, 1976; Lindblom 1959; 1979; Baumgartner and Jones, 1993).

A key aspect of comprehensive rationality is that the policy process is linear; there is a clear beginning and end, reached through a series of steps.  Policymaking is also cyclical – the end of one process marks the beginning of another. ‘Policy cycle’ sums up this process. It involves breaking policy down into a series of stages including agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation and evaluation. This overall image of policymaking is now less popular in academic research, but there is still considerable attention to individual stages – including the difference between formulation and implementation, the role of bodies other than Parliament in legitimation, and the politics of evaluating the success of policy.

A final important aspect of comprehensive rationality is that it demonstrates important similarities and differences between the UK and other political systems. On the one hand, we can associate its emphasis on sole, central control with the Westminster model’s focus on the centralisation of power in the core executive. In that context, a focus on bounded rationality shows us the practical limits to executive power. On the other, we find that policymakers in all political systems face similar constraints. A focus on bounded rationality shows us that governments are subject to universal policy processes that often produce common patterns of policymaking despite important differences in their institutional design. We can demonstrate these points by comparing the policymaking styles of the UK and devolved governments. In particular, the Scottish system was designed, in part, to diverge from ‘old Westminster’ – but UK and Scottish policy styles are often rather similar.


Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Fact: Social Construction is Briliant

dawkins tweet


A very short note on Richard Dawkins’ tweet because I am easily distracted. I’m going to call all these facts, which means that they are not facts (although we might call them self-evident):

1. Fact: no one is omniscient.

2. Fact: we can’t perceive or know everything at once (that’s point 1 said in a different way).

3. Fact: we pay attention to some facts and ignore others.

4. Fact: no two people have the same fingerprints (unless they do – it’s just an analogy).

5. Fact: no two people pay the same attention to the same facts.

6. Fact: so, each person perceives the world in a different way, based on the things to which they pay attention and ignore.

7. Fact: this prior knowledge informs their belief system which influences the ways in which they gather facts.

8. Fact: people generally gain this knowledge is particular settings, including schools. They are given facts and often asked to accept them on trust. You don’t go to school and the teacher says ‘what do you think about gravity?’. They say ‘this is a fact and you’ll damn well believe it, sonny/ missy’.

9. Fact: different groups present facts in different ways, so people learn in different ways and different groups end up perceiving the real world in all sorts of different ways. Then they go on twitter and often make an arse of themselves during aimless arguments.

10. Fact: you can make all these points without concluding that all opinions are equally valid. My belief is what counts, mate – socially constructed or not (fact: the assertion that I am right is an exercise of power to put the idiots in their place).

11. Fact: people who talk about social construction aren’t all arses using big words to look clever. Some of them are, but you would expect that with the law of averages (fact).

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