Monthly Archives: October 2013

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis

garbage cans streams

(podcast download)

‘Ideas’ are the beliefs we develop and use to understand and interpret the world. Some beliefs are so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we generally take them for granted. Others are more visible – our beliefs about policy problems help us argue for particular solutions. Indeed, ‘policy solution’ is closer to the intuitive meaning of ‘I have an idea’. Kingdon grapples with this dual role for (or meaning of) ‘ideas’ by considering how policy solutions are received within government or wider policy networks. His starting point is the phrase ‘an idea whose time has come’, which implies ‘an irresistible movement that sweeps over our politics and our society, pushing aside everything that might stand in its path’. He argues that such notions are misleading because they ignore the conditions that have to be satisfied – during a brief ‘window of opportunity’ – before a policy will change significantly. Three separate ‘streams’ must come together at the same time:

Problem streamattention lurches to a policy problem. Problems are policy issues which are deemed to require attention. There are no objective indicators to determine which problems deserve attention, and perceptions of problems can change quickly. Problems get attention based on how they are ‘framed’ or defined by participants who compete for attention – using evidence to address uncertainty and persuasion to address ambiguity. In some cases, issues receive attention because of a crisis or change in the scale of the problem. Only a tiny fraction of problems receive policymaker attention. Getting attention is a major achievement which must be acted upon quickly, before attention shifts elsewhere. This might be achieved by demonstrating that a well thought out solution already exists.

Policy streama solution to that problem is available.  While attention lurches quickly from issue to issue, viable solutions involving major policy change take time to develop. Kingdon describes ideas in a ‘policy primeval soup’, evolving as they are proposed by one actor then reconsidered and modified by a large number of participants (who may have to be ‘softened up’ to new ideas). To deal with the disconnect between lurching attention and slow policy development, they develop widely-accepted solutions in anticipation of future problems, then find the right time to exploit or encourage attention to a relevant problem.

Politics streampolicymakers have the motive and opportunity to turn it into policy. They have to pay attention to the problem and be receptive to the proposed solution. They may supplement their own beliefs with their perception of the ‘national mood’ and the feedback they receive from interest groups and political parties. In some cases, only a change of government may be enough to provide that motive.

Kingdon draws on Cohen et al’s ‘garbage can’ model of policymaking in organisations. It contrasts with ‘comprehensively rational’ policymaking in which – in this order – policymakers identify problems (or their aims), bureaucracies perform a comprehensive analysis to produce various solutions (or ways to meet those aims), and policymakers select the best solution. Instead, policymaker aims and policy problems are ambiguous and bureaucrats struggle to research issues and produce viable solutions quickly. Sometimes people wait for the right time to present their ready-made solutions. Sometimes aimless policymakers just want to look busy and decisive. So, Cohen et al suggest that the problem identification, solution production, and choice are ‘relatively independent streams’. The garbage can is where a mix of problems, solutions and choices are dumped.

Kingdon applied this reasoning to the US political system, which magnifies some of these problems: many people, with different perceptions and aims are involved; and, some actors (such as the President) may be effective at raising issues up the public and government agenda but not producing solutions. Since policymakers do not have the time (or longevity) to devote to detailed policy work, they delegate it to civil servants who consult with interest groups, think tanks and other specialists to consider ideas and produce policy solutions. The groups most involved in producing solutions over the long term may struggle to get attention or buy-in from policymakers. Therefore, the likelihood of significant policy change is difficult to predict since it requires sustained and high attention, an acceptable solution and some spirit of compromise in the political system. A perception of infrequency and unpredictability may also influence behaviour: when new, major legislation looks likely to be adopted, there is a deluge of interest and a range of participants keen to jump on an idea’s bandwagon – adding further to the metaphor of the garbage can of ideas and the messy nature of politics.

Kingdon’s work developed from case studies of US federal policymaking. Compared to the ACF and punctuated equilibrium, its insights have been applied less frequently or systematically in other countries. Yet, the potential to compare messy policymaking in the US and EU is there, while Zahariadis has shown the comparative value of multiple streams analysis to identify very different experiences and windows of opportunity in countries such as the UK, France and Germany. In each case, we can identify ‘universal’ elements in the agenda-setting process:

  • Ambiguity (there are many ways to frame any policy problem);
  • Competition for attention (few problems reach the top of the agenda);
  • An imperfect selection process (new information is difficult to gather and subject to manipulation);
  • Limited time (which forces people to make choices before their preferences are clear); and
  • A departure from ‘comprehensive rationality’ and a linear decision-making process – identifying problems, formulating solutions and making a choice.
  • ‘Softening’, as some issues take time to become accepted within government or policy networks.

This is a summary of a section in chapter 12 of this book.

Update 6 Jan 2015: working on a Kingdon paper with a colleague has prompted me to realise that many/ most people take MSA to mean multiple streams approach. I apologise wholeheartedly for the confusion.

Cairney and Jones (2016) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach: What Is the Empirical Impact of this Universal Theory?’ Cairney Jones 2016 MSA PSJ

Cairney Zahariadis multiple streams 2016


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework


See also What is Policy? and the Policy concepts in 1000 words series

(podcast download)

Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith developed the ACF to describe and explain a complicated policymaking environment which:

  • contains multiple actors and levels of government;
  • produces decisions despite high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity;
  • takes years to turn decisions into outcomes; and,
  • processes policy in very different ways. Some issues involve intensely politicized disputes containing many actors. Others are treated as technical and processed routinely, largely by policy specialists, out of the public spotlight.

The ACF’s key terms are:

Beliefs. People engage in politics to translate their beliefs into action. There are three main types. ‘Core’ are fundamental and unlikely to change (like a ‘religious conversion’) but too broad to guide detailed policy (such as one’s views on human nature). ‘Policy core’ are more specific (such as the proper balance between government and market) but still unlikely to change. ‘Secondary Aspects’ relate to the implementation of policy. They are the most likely to change, as people learn about the effects of, say, regulations versus economic incentives.

Advocacy coalition. A coalition contains, ‘people from a variety of positions (elected and agency officials, interest group leaders, researchers) who share a particular belief system’ and ‘who show a non-trivial degree of coordinated activity over time’.

Policy learning. Coalitions learn from policy implementation. Learning takes place through the lens of deeply held beliefs, producing different interpretations of facts and events in different coalitions. Learning is a political process – coalitions selectively interpret information and use it to exercise power. In some cases, there are commonly accepted ways to measure policy performance.  In others, it is a battle of ideas where coalitions ‘exaggerate the influence and maliciousness of opponents’.  Technical information is often politicised and a dominant coalition can successfully challenge the data supporting policy change for years

Subsystems. Coalitions compete with each other to dominate policymaking in subsystems. Subsystems are issue-specific networks. They are pervasive in government because elected officials devolve policymaking responsibility to bureaucrats who, in turn, consult routinely with participants such as interest groups. While the literature on ‘policy communities’ and ‘monopolies’ describes the potential for insulated relationships between a small number of actors, the ACF identifies many actors in each coalition

Policy broker and sovereign. Subsystems contain actors who mediate between coalitions and make authoritative decisions (although policymakers may be members of coalitions).

Policy change over a ‘decade or more’. We are generally talking about relationships, policies and change over a full ‘policy cycle’.

Enlightenment. Core beliefs are ‘normative’ and ‘largely beyond direct empirical challenge’; unlikely to change during routine policy learning in one cycle. However, they may change over decades.

The subsystem contains generally-routine policymaking, producing relatively minor policy change: coalitions engage in policy learning, adapting the secondary aspects of their beliefs in light of new information. In most cases, learning follows the routine monitoring of implementation, as members consider how policy contributes to positive or unintended outcomes and whether their beliefs are challenged or supported by the evidence (and how it is presented by their competitors).

This process takes place in a wider system that sets the parameters for action, providing each coalition with different constraints and opportunities. It includes:

• factors that are ‘relatively stable’, such as ‘social values’ and the broad ‘constitutional structure’;

• ‘long term coalition opportunity structures’ related to the nature of different political systems (unitary/ federal, concentrated/ divided powers, single/ multi-party, coalition/ minority government) and the ‘degree of consensus needed for major change’

•           ‘external (system) events’ such as socio-economic change, a change in government, or important decisions made in other subsystems.

In rare cases, external events or policy failure prompt subsystem instability and the potential for rapid, major policy change. ‘Shocks’ are the combination of events and coalition responses. Externally prompted change may vary, from the election of a new government with beliefs that favour one coalition over another, to a ‘focusing event’ such as an environmental crisis that undermines the ability of a coalition to defend current policy. While many external factors – global recession, environmental crises, demographic changes – appear to solely cause change, coalitions also influence how sovereigns understand, interpret and respond to them. External events provide new resources to some coalitions, but it is up to them to exploit the opportunity.

An internal shock relates to policy failure, which may contribute to a crisis of confidence in one coalition.  It may prompt a coalition to revisit its policy core beliefs, perhaps following a realisation by many of its actors that existing policies have failed monumentally, followed by their departure to a different coalition.  Or, another coalition uses the experience of failure – and/ or a major event – to reinforce its position within the subsystem, largely by demonstrating that its belief system is best equipped to interpret new information and solve the policy problem.

In each case, there is no ‘shock’ unless coalitions respond. An external event is not enough to cause an external shock, and the perception of policy failure does not produce an internal shock inevitably.  Events have to be exploited successfully by a coalition which is well led, and equipped to learn and adapt, using its resources to frame information, exploit public opinion, rally support, and (in some cases) secure funding.

The ACF developed initially from case studies in the US, with a particular focus on environmental policy. It has changed markedly to reflect its application to cases outside the US and in other policy fields (and by new scholars). For example, the discussion of ‘long term coalition opportunity structures’ resulted from applications to European countries with proportional electoral systems and/ or fewer ‘venues’ in which to pursue policy change. The ACF is also revised constantly to reflect the desire of its core team (now driven by Weible and Jenkins-Smith) to clarify/ revise earlier arguments in light of experience. It remains one of the most ambitious policy frameworks which tries to provide an overview of the entire policy process.

For an overview from the horse’s mouth, see here – and a 2011 special issue of the PSJ here (OA first chapter)

For a longer discussion by me, see Cairney on ACF Oxford Classics 11.4.13 Cairney on ACF Oxford Classics 11.4.13 and the ACF chapter in here.

See also

People engage in politics to further their beliefs – but what do they believe?

Scottish Independence and the Devil Shift

Related articles


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

cloud punctuated equilibrium

See also What is Policy? and the Policy concepts in 1000 words series

(podcast download)

Policymaking can appear stable for long periods, only to be destabilised profoundly. Most policies can stay the same for long periods while a small number change quickly and dramatically. Or, policy change in one issue may be minimal for decades, followed by profound change which sets policy on an entirely new direction. The aim of Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory is to measure and explain these long periods of policymaking stability, and policy continuity, disrupted by short but intense periods of instability and change. The key concepts are:

Bounded rationality. Policymakers cannot consider all problems and their solutions at all times. For example, government ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues for which they are responsible. They ignore most and promote few to the top of their agenda.

Disproportionate attention. Policymakers often ignore issues or pay them an unusual amount of attention. The lack of attention to most issues helps explain why most policies may not change. Intense periods of attention to some issues may prompt new ways to understand and seek to solve old problems.

Power and agenda setting. Some groups try to maintain their privileged position by minimizing attention to the policy solutions which benefit them. Others seek to expand attention, to encourage new audiences and participants, to generate debate and new action.

Framing. Groups compete to influence how a problem is framed (understood, defined, categorized and measured) and therefore solved by policymakers. For example, it may be framed as a problem that has largely been solved, leaving the technical details of implementation to experts, or a crisis which should generate widespread attention and immediate action.

Policy monopolies. Groups may enjoy a ‘monopoly of understanding’ when policymakers accept their preferred way to frame an issue for long periods, perhaps even taking it for granted. This monopoly may be ‘institutionalised’ when rules are created and resources devoted to solving the policy problem on those terms.

Venue shopping. To challenge a monopoly in one venue (such as the executive, or one type of government at a particular level), groups may seek an audience in another (such as the legislature, the courts, or another type or level of government).

In Agendas and Instability (1993; 2009), Baumgartner and Jones, use a case study approach to examine these processes in detail. For example, in postwar US nuclear power, they identify a period of major public attention, focused on the pressing need to solve a policy problem, followed by minimal attention – for decades – when the problem appeared to be solved. The government inspired public enthusiasm for nuclear power as a solution to several problems – including the need to reduce energy bills, minimise dependence on other countries for oil, reduce air pollution, and boost employment and economic activity. This positive image, and general sense that the policy problem was solved, supported the formation of a post-war policy monopoly involving the experts implementing policy. Public, media and most government attention fell and the details of policy were left to certain (mainly private sector) experts, federal agencies and congressional committees. The monopoly was only challenged in the 1970s following environmental activist and scientific concern about nuclear safety. Groups used this new, negative, portrayal of the nuclear solution to generate concerned interest in new venues, including the courts, congressional committees and, particularly following a major accident at Three Mile Island, the public. The policy monopoly – the way in which nuclear power was framed, and the institutions established to implement policy – was destroyed.  Then, a new, negative, image became dominant for decades – and a post-war policy of power plant expansion was replaced by a moratorium and increased regulation. Only recently has the resurgence of nuclear power become a serious possibility.

In The Politics of Attention (2005), Jones and Baumgartner’s focus shifts to more general observations of selective attention (they highlight over ‘400,000 observations collected as part of the Policy Agendas Project’). Policymakers are unwilling to focus on certain issues for ideological and pragmatic reasons (e.g. some solutions may be too unpopular to consider; there is an established view within government about how to address the issue). They are also unable to pay attention because the focus on one issue means ignoring 99 others. Change may require a critical mass of attention to overcome the conservatism of decision makers and shift their attention from competing problems. If levels of external pressure reach this tipping point, they can cause major and infrequent punctuations rather than smaller and more regular policy changes: the burst in attention and communication becomes self-reinforcing; new approaches are considered; different ‘weights’ are applied to the same types of information; policy is driven ideologically by new actors; and/or the ‘new’ issue sparks off new conflicts between political actors. Information processing is therefore characterized by ‘stasis interrupted by bursts of innovation’ and policy responses are unpredictable and episodic rather than continuous. One key example is the annual budget process which, like many other examples of political activity, does not display a ‘normal distribution’ of cases. Instead, it is characterized by a huge number of minimal changes and a small number of huge changes.

The trend in Baumgartner and Jones’ work has been to move from the specific to the ‘universal’; from some cases in one country to many cases in many countries. Their initial assumption was that many of the processes they observed in case studies resulted from the peculiarities of the US system. Yet, concepts such as bounded rationality, selective attention, policy monopolies and venue shopping should be applicable to all political systems. Punctuated equilibrium theory helps us to balance a focus on the specific and the general. We can use these concepts to generate empirical questions about why the policymakers, institutions and venues of specific political systems prompt particular problems and solutions to be addressed and others to be ignored. We can also use them to identify the same overall patterns – based on a mixture of stasis, stability and continuity disrupted by innovation, instability, and change – in many systems.

To read more, click here to get a Green Access version of chapter 9 of this book discussed here.


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy

Master in Public Policy (MPP) at the University of Stirling

Here is the extra marketing information to go with this survey. We’ll have a glossy leaflet out there in no time:

A new degree which applies the rigour of academic research to real world policy problems

Why Should You Study for an MPP?

The MPP is an advanced qualification in research and policy analysis. Studying for an MPP allows you to develop the conceptual, analytical and practical skills required to flourish in the policymaking world. It prepares you for a career in the public sector or in sectors that make a contribution to the development or delivery of public policy (such as non-profit or professional bodies).  You can also use it as a springboard for further postgraduate research. The MPP combines core modules in policy and policymaking with a suite of modules in social research and policy-relevant disciplines. If you want to use the degree to focus on research (for example, to pursue a PhD) you can take five modules in applied social research. If you want to pursue an interest in other policy-relevant disciplines, you can combine a focus on policy and research with module options in areas such as law, economics, behavioural science, gender studies, social marketing, energy, environmental and international politics. The programme is designed to meet your specific requirements. The norm in the core modules is small group teaching in weekly seminars – to help produce a group identity and a collegiate approach to your studies.  You complete the course by completing eight taught modules, then producing a dissertation which applies intellectual rigour to a real world policy problem and speaks to a policymaker audience.

Applied Research Opportunities

The MPP gives you the opportunity to apply your research to real world problems. We have excellent links with a range of organisations in the public, third and private sectors. When you begin your course, we will discuss how you want to make use of them. If you seek as many practitioner links as possible, we will explore how to apply your studies and coursework to a range of problems identified by those organisations – and arrange, in negotiations with organisations, how best to use your developing skills. You may also be taking the MPP to pursue a more ‘traditional’ academic path, with the knowledge that academic ‘impact’ is a key part of a postgraduate degree. We will discuss how best to balance the theoretical, empirical and practical aspects of your study.

Programme Overview

The programme (of 180 credits) combines core modules on policy theory and practice with a suite of modules in social research and policy-relevant disciplines. The norm is to maintain a meaningful level of contact between students engaged in the MPP and a small cohort of staff (teaching core and common ASR modules), but with the flexibility to take your own path. Core modules are delivered on the same day and there is a high degree of flexibility over optional modules to allow both full-time and part-time students to work around other commitments.

Core modules (45 credits) focus on multi-level policymaking, identifying the responsibilities and policies of local, devolved, national and international decision-makers. We identify the concepts, models and theories used to study policy and policymaking. We compare theories in political science with a range of policy-relevant disciplines (including economics, communication, psychology, management and social marketing). We combine theory and practice by inviting a range of policy actors to give guest seminars as an integral part of the core modules.

Research modules. You can choose up to five 15-credit modules in applied social research (ASR), including qualitative and quantitative analysis, research design and the philosophy of science. If appropriate, you can also choose to replace some ASR modules with research methods modules in your chosen subject – such as the MSc Gender Studies module ‘Feminist Research’ which is a prerequisite for its Research Placement module.

Policy relevant modules. You can choose two 15-credit modules in law, economics, behavioural science, social marketing, gender studies, energy, environmental or international politics.

Dissertation. You complete the course by producing a 60-credit dissertation (around 10000 words) which applies intellectual rigour to a real world policy problem. You will have the option to pursue a placement with a relevant organisation to allow you to tailor your research to a policymaker or policy influencer audience.

Staff: The Director for the MPP is Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy in the Division of History and Politics, School of Arts and Humanities. Paul will deliver the majority of the core module content and oversee the completion of your dissertation (and, if appropriate, as the first supervisor). He will work closely with Richard Simmons, the director of the School of Arts and Social Science’s applied social research programme.

Five reasons why you should choose the MPP at Stirling

1.You will be taught by experienced and committed staff, teaching in a field they are passionate about. All contributing staff are engaged in research at the forefront of their disciplines, including Professor Cairney, who is currently funded by the ESRC to research the Scottish Government’s policymaking capacity.

2. You will develop a range of research skills that enhance further study and employability.

3. You will engage with debates from a wide variety of different disciplines.

4. You will have the opportunity to apply your knowledge and skills in real world settings.

5. You will enjoy studying on one of the most beautiful campuses in Europe.

Fees and Funding

Details of tuition fees can be found at: A variety of scholarships and bursaries may be available in any given year, including scholarships in the School of Arts and Humanities. You can find out more about possible sources of funding here:

Entrance Requirements

Normally an upper second class Honours degree, or equivalent qualification from a university recognised by the University of Stirling. Degrees can be in any relevant discipline. If English is not your first language, you must provide evidence of proficiency such as a minimum IELTS score of 7.0 with a minimum of 6.5 in any individual test.

To find out more about this programme please contact:

Professor Paul Cairney (Director)

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Conceptual ‘brand-stretching’ and the Policy Agendas Project

Darren Halpin and I are working on a paper about ‘brand stretching’ (his phrase) in policy studies. It might begin like this:

“Baumgartner and Jones’ (1993) Agendas and Instability has become one of the most influential accounts of the policy process. They explain, in a convincing way, why stable political arrangements and policy continuity may be disrupted by often-sudden instability and potentially profound policy change.  The book provides a rich study, of policymaking over several decades, to illustrate these mechanisms at work. While it contains case studies in US politics, many of the concepts it uses, and processes it identifies (such as ‘venue shopping’ and ‘framing’) can be described as ‘universal’; applicable to many (if not most) cases in the US and other countries.  Indeed, Jones and Baumgartner’s (2005) Politics of Attention takes us in that direction by identifying the ‘general punctuation hypothesis’ and applying it to aggregate budget and legislative data. The US political system as a whole demonstrates these long periods of stasis and bursts of activity, producing a large number of minor policy changes and small number of major changes. Crucially, this quantitative exercise is theory driven and consistent with the original argument. It allows us to identify, systematically, these important policymaking patterns and explain why they occur. When driven by the original authors, the research agenda is clear and consistent and has stood the test of time.

However, the Policy Agendas Project has also become a multi-country, multi-author, comparative research program. Other authors examining over fifteen countries such as the US, UK, Denmark, Korea and Australia, are engaged in a comparative effort to understand the dynamics of policy change and stability.  This expansion presents two major challenges. First, international brand expansion needs go hand in hand with coordination. The PAP is one of many comparative theories which originated from US studies of the US. A key question for scholars studying the political systems of other countries is: do their insights travel well?  To answer the question, we need to know which aspects of US-based theories are derived from particular aspects of the US political system and which are ‘universal’ processes, concepts or causal factors broadly applicable to many systems.  For example, ‘bounded rationality’ (Simon, 1976) limits the extent to which all policymakers can pay attention to issues – so they must ignore most while promoting a small number to the top of their agenda – while the processes, institutions and histories of specific political systems help explain how and why some issues are addressed and others ignored.  The task for comparative policy scholars is to explore the extent to which we can separate, analytically, the universal from the specific elements and compare their effects on policy processes and outcomes.  This requires a common language which is precise and clear enough to help us produce separate studies and compare them in a meaningful way.

Second, however, that coordination and common language may not always exist. While Jones and Baumgartner often play an important part in the coordination and direction of country-level studies, they also play a less direct role in the gathering, interpretation and presentation of the data. New approaches and research questions have developed, and the project appears to have taken on a life of its own. On the one hand, this is a good development – more people with their own ideas produce the potential for theoretical and empirical innovation. On the other, it produces the potential for confusion, as people start to use the original terms in different ways and/ or use ‘policy agendas’ as an umbrella term under which to pursue their own pet projects (often through separate conferences, internal codebooks, and bespoke terminology and forms of analysis). We use the phrase ‘brand-stretching’ to describe instances where the attractiveness of an original idea is used to support scholarship that, in many respects, shows increasingly tenuous links with the original.

What characterises the comparative project is the large scale collection of quantitative data sets that map the way institutions and actors – including the media, legislatures, administrative systems, and the public – prioritise attention to policy issues. Armed with code books that systematise and categorise policy areas, scholars have coded numerous aspects of policy activity in many countries. From a methodological and data perspective, the project seems to stand in stark contrast with the originating idea. In particular, we identify a tendency for quantitative data to be gathered without the same theory-driven approach. New authors may identify interesting patterns of behaviour or outcomes without demonstrating the same understanding of the policy process and what causes these outcomes. They may introduce the research and data without even showing a working knowledge of the original punctuated equilibrium concepts. In this context, we identify the potential for new work in comparative politics to undermine existing work in policy studies.  For example, a comparative politics study may be set up on the assumption that the primary source of variation is by country rather than by policy area or issue.

Brand-stretching is not specific to the policy agendas project. Rather, it is a general unintended consequence of major theories ‘catching fire’ and (a) attracting the attention of a large group of scholars (b) in multiple countries, or (c) seeking to apply the same concept to many countries. For example, Poteete et al’s (2010) Working Together considers how to coordinate multiple research projects on the Institutional Analysis and Development framework (IAD), and Weible et al’s (2009) ‘Taking Stock’ considers how the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) has changed after its application in over 80 studies.

We use this comparative theory-expansion experience to perform a similar ‘stock taking’ exercise for the comparative agendas project (CAP). First, we summarise the Baumgartner and Jones policy agendas project (PAP), identifying its main features: focus, concepts, methods, and findings. Second, we summarise the CAP and compare it to the original, considering the extent to which the original brand has been stretched. Third, we identify the main ways in which other theory/ project leaders have dealt with the potential for brand stretching – and apply these insights to the CAP”.

Hopefully it reads as a positive-but-concerned discussion – as a way to help protect the classics. Poteete et al provide a much more extensive discussion of this issue when discussing the management of the IAD.


Filed under agenda setting, public policy

10 Reasons Why You Should Vote For/ Against Scottish Independence





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October 25, 2013 · 1:38 pm

After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Brewing?*

The United Kingdom now has one of the most comprehensive tobacco control policies in the world, a far cry from its status two decades ago. Some influential public health voices have called for a similar campaign against alcohol consumption. But is the comparison appropriate? We identify the factors which were important in the relatively successful campaign for tobacco control, then analyse the obstacles and opportunities facing the movement for more stringent alcohol control. Alcohol policy today bears a striking resemblance to tobacco policy pre-1990s, when the UK started on its path to becoming a major regulatory state in the world. Can alcohol policy be changed in a similar way?

Paper here  Cairney Studlar 2014 WMHP Alcohol and Tobacco Policy UK

See also –

See also:

*We submitted the paper to a US journal, where this framing is more normal. The idea of a public health crusade is also in good currency in some libertarian circles.


Filed under agenda setting, alcohol, alcohol policy, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Public health, tobacco, tobacco policy, UK politics and policy

What if you could only win an online argument if you were great at those cartoons where people are explaining things while magically drawing something?

Or, what if you put two of those arguments head to head to see if the shorter discussion/ picture won the day? To put this to the test, the case study here is this question: Should we have more Members of the Scottish Parliament?

As you can see, the ‘against’ argument is punchier and easier to make (Politicians …) :

The ‘for’ argument is more equivocal and takes more time to make (We *talk* about direct democracy …):

So, the ‘against’ argument wins, right? I’m not saying that we should have more MSPs – maybe it would be a waste of time without a cultural shift in party politics (towards the sort of behaviours we might associate, rather vaguely indeed, with the much lauded Nordic countries – and the made up Borgen in particular). But it does mean that we should have a think about it while we can. The ‘against’ case is generally so strong that it doesn’t occur to people to challenge it. Maybe our focus on constitutional change will give us that chance.


Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, agenda setting, Scottish politics

Scottish Independence: How and Should You Vote?

Modern Studies Day, University of Stirling, 2013

If you are a Modern Studies student in Scotland, the independence referendum presents an unusual opportunity to take part in the very thing you are studying. You can look into the background of the referendum and the main issues in the debate and then use that information to make a choice. This is rare. The added bonus is that you can vote if you are under 18 (and at least 16). This is also a rare opportunity. In that context, three main questions arise: should you vote; should you be allowed to vote; and, what should you consider when you vote?

Should You Vote?


Should you be allowed to vote?

The debate about voting from 16, rather than 18, does not cause fights to break out in pubs or supermarkets, or even come up very often in polite conversation – but it can often seem like a polarised discussion. The issue became party political in Scotland (briefly) because the vote-at-16 proposal came primarily from the SNP Government, prompting some to wonder aloud if the measure was being used to boost the Yes-to-independence vote. However, the evidence seems to suggest that 16-18 year olds are no more likely to vote for independence than (many) older people; the under 18 population looks likely to produce a No vote (you can track these polls on the website run by John Curtice – What Scotland Thinks). Further, this move has since been proposed by other major figures, such as UK Labour’s leader Ed Miliband (calling for 16 year olds to have the vote in UK General Elections).

The handy thing about this kind of polarised discussion is that it is based on (albeit well-reasoned) simple assertion on both sides. Some of the arguments are set out in a Democratic Audit post – and I summarise them below*:

On the one side is the argument that people are not knowledgeable or mature enough to make important decisions at that age.

On the other side is the argument that voting is a fundamental human right.

On this basis, the debate revolves around making these claims consistent with this sort of evidence:

  • The age of maturity. People can make other major decisions (such as join the army) and do important things (such as pay tax) when they are 16, so giving them the right and responsibility to vote is consistent with their other rights and responsibilities. However, in many cases, under-18s need parental permission to make major life choices (although in Scotland you can marry at 16) and tend not to pay meaningful amounts of tax at that age. Further, 18 seems like the major symbol of maturity in this regard – voting at 18 may be the ‘international norm’, and recent decisions by the UK and Scottish Governments (such as raising the smoking age to 18, the same as the buying-alcohol and buying-fireworks age) suggest that they see 18 as the dawn of maturity. The choice of 18 may be both an arbitrary and consistent position supported by the majority of the public.
  • Many people are disengaged from politics. So, lowering the voting age may encourage a sense of citizenship at an earlier age. It may also encourage younger people to seek a political career, which might help reduce the average age of elected representatives. Or, in the absence of a fundamental shift in culture/ attitudes, in which voting and other political participation feels like a civic duty, it will just exacerbate low voting rates and low participation in politics. Much of the argument may relate to the symbolism of extending the franchise. Social groups given the vote for the first time (such as women, social classes and ethnic minorities) may have given it great symbolic value and felt compelled to use it wisely as a result – but would this feeling apply to young people in the same way? Can we identify the same demand for representation based on a widespread perception of injustice?

If I were you, I’d use this discussion to be quite chippy. When I voted, I’d feel like I was sticking it to someone making half-baked claims about my maturity. Ironically, it’s not a mature approach to life, but you can’t have everything. The half-handy thing for you is that you only have to worry about this issue when you study it, not when you engage in politics. Like anyone else, you can now vote even if you have no knowledge of Scottish politics and/ or no maturity whatsoever. The only major difference with over-18s is that, legally, they may vote after getting quite drunk in the pub and/or buying sparklers for the walk home.

What should you consider when you vote?

Let’s say you want to make a mature, well informed, decision. How would you decide? What should you consider? We can identify a range of issues, from the philosophical to the self-interested to the psychological.

The philosophical questions

What does independence mean? In the olden days, independence used to refer to the autonomy to direct all domestic affairs within a well-defined territory**, ***. Now, we are much less certain about where domestic affairs end and international affairs begin. For example, an independent Scotland would be subject to a wide range of binding international commitments, particularly if it was part of the European Union (examples include migration, agriculture, fishing, environmental policy, and rates of many taxes – all determined largely at the EU level). If it kept the pound, or joined the Euro, it would rely on a central bank (almost certainly outside of Scotland) to direct monetary policies (such as setting interest rates).  In an age of ‘globalisation’, it would also be unable to simply ‘direct all domestic affairs’ since national governments rely upon other governments to produce collective, international, policy solutions. They might even make domestic policy with one eye on their neighbours, since it is difficult to contain policy effects within one’s borders (think, for example, about the effect of independence on HE tuition fees – what would happen?). They are also influenced by major transnational corporations which tend to prioritise minimal government regulations and corporation taxes when they seek to invest in countries. These complications are currently a big feature of the independence debate (and we tend not to focus on the, often messier, complications to further devolution, largely because we don’t have to worry about that just now). People sometimes argue that we shouldn’t bother with independence (or ‘indy lite’), since we’ll just be keeping the Queen, the pound, the BBC and inheriting international commitments. Other people argue that it’s OK to vote for independence because we’ll be keeping the Queen, the pound, the BBC and inheriting international commitments.

Do I feel Scottish and/ or British? People often argue that the independence vote is not about national identity, partly because a reference to nationhood is portrayed, by many, as some sort of reflection of bigotry. One might be invited to picture a large, dirty-bearded, ginger man in a kilt telling the English to get out of their country (let’s call this ‘ethnic nationalism’).  A more subtle strategy is to brand people as ‘nationalist’ to mean parochial and extremist. The more acceptable form of nationalism is ‘civic’. It suggests that, if a clear nation exists, it should share a boundary with the state; if we feel that we live in the Scottish nation, we should have a Scottish Government to represent us. This is where national identify comes in – surveys have suggested for some time that Scots’ primary identity is Scottish rather than British (however, you ask the question – click on the table in this post).**** However, surveys also suggest that most people favour devolution (current or further devolution) over independence. They may feel Scottish and British, seeking some kind of governing autonomy and inclusion within a wider Union.

The self-interested question: would independence benefit me?

A lot of the debate surrounds the idea that independence will save or cost people money. I have seen reports that it will either make everyone at least £500 better or worse off (the Scottish Daily Mail, 26.3.12, wins the prize for hyperbole – ‘Breaking up Britain will cost every Scot £20,000’). I have heard one ridiculous suggestion that it will cost everyone £1 each. Each and every calculation seems a bit shifty to me, but they are based on things like: Scotland’s future share of North Sea oil revenue; its share of UK Government debts and assets; and, the effect of independence on economic behaviour (such as foreign investment in Scottish business, Scottish trade with other countries, and the Scottish Government’s credit rating). John Curtice’s research suggests that this economic question is often at the forefront of peoples’ minds when they think of independence. However, given that we don’t know the economic effect of independence, people are basing their preferences on their perception of an uncertain future. It presents one of those classic causality problems: perhaps you are more likely to vote for independence if you think you will benefit; or perhaps you are more likely to think you will benefit if you plan to vote for independence.

The psychological question: how should I deal with the uncertainty?

Much of the debate is driven by various attempts to worry or assure people about the uncertainty of Scottish independence. Questions include:

  • How would Scotland be a part of the European Union and a member of international organisations?
  • What would an independent Scotland look like? For example, might it become a high-tax-high-spending social democratic state (something we associated with some of the Nordic countries)? Or would it simply inherit the culture and institutions of the UK?
  • Could an independent Scotland have survived the economic crisis?
  • What currency would Scotland adopt?
  • How would independence affect Scotland’s security (from its defence, to its supply of energy and other resources)?

To a large extent, this uncertainty is a better resource for people arguing for the maintenance of the Union as a ‘security blanket’ (have a look at that term again – it’s loaded with double meaning, isn’t it?). However, we can also see the potential to exploit the uncertain future of the UK. This is key feature of the debate on the ‘bedroom tax’ and other welfare reforms – people may argue that only an independent Scotland would have the powers to maintain the welfare state as a ‘security blanket’.

So what can we conclude?

I reckon that, if you have read this far, you have already paid more attention, and given the issue more serious thought, than most people. If so, I wouldn’t worry about being mature enough to make the right decision.


*Please note that, if you were using this kind of material to produce coursework, you would give more credit to the individual authors, not just list the website.

** I lifted that phrase from a book I helped write. You shouldn’t do that – we frown upon that sort of thing when marking your essays.

***in fact, just to be safe, don’t use this blog post as a model for any sort of assessable writing. Especially all that ‘some people think’ nonsense – that’s just annoying.

**** ah, you might say, but what is Scottish? Do you have to be born and / or raised in Scotland? What if one or both of your parents or grandparents are Scottish? Is it enough to simply live in Scotland to be Scottish? All I can offer is a hopefully-dull, pragmatic answer: the issue of Scottish independence may not have arisen without these self-identified perceptions of Scottishness (even though there are other reasons to want more local government – for example, it might be more flexible and responsive to local demands, or you might – and maybe 7% of people living in Scotland would describe themselves as English). However, a shift away from ethnic to civic nationalism is reflected in the referendum rules: if you live in Scotland, and are registered to vote, you can vote. You do not need to have been born or raised in Scotland. Instead, by living in Scotland, you have a stake in its governing arrangements. Then I’ll offer you this post from Jo Shaw.

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Cloudy mist

I’ve nothing intelligent to say about politics, so here is another post about nature. At home (we live across from the North Sea, NE Scotland) the haar is nice enough, but it’s mostly the thing that spoils your view. In the Black Isle, at the weekend there, it became the view. In fact, if I believed in God, I’d say that s/he made my dog barf loudly so that I had to get up to see it.



To continue with the inappropriate God theme, here is a picture of my Ascension at that very same spot

And finally, if you are of a certain age, this will all remind you of the Orb

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I was all ready to post a series of mildly/ un amusing tweets about going to Chanonry point and not seeing seals, then not seeing dolphins, then not seeing whales because it’s too misty. I was going to add a picture of the haar each time. But then something magical happened: we saw seals and dolphins. Loads of them, loads of times. I took a few videos, but mostly at the wrong time. It was lovely. So lovely that I have nothing cynical to say at the end. Nothing to see here.



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Och Aye or Och No: we don’t know

Lesley Riddoch’s piece in the Scotsman argues that the Scottish Independence campaign, so far, has been a bit crap. No one (bar the single minded numpty) is quite sure what they want and they need better information. They won’t get that if Yes/ No campaigns just invite people to vote yes or no, or if they just get ‘one-sided “propaganda”’. They ‘need an authentic choice’. That choice needs to come via something like a ‘pre-referendum Constitutional Convention’ which ‘would let voters compare all propositions before taking the plunge’:

It’s naïve perhaps to think political parties might sink bitter differences for the sake of democracy. But as things stand, this referendum may be remembered more for the chronic indecision of the Scottish people than any actual result.

For me, the naïve idea is that we can construct a commission to set out the facts in an objective way. I reckon that it comes from a romantic view of the Nordics, where many countries have this reputation for consensus-building. The problem with this idea is that consensus-seeking is also debate-stifling. It does not sit well with the UK tradition of open, often adversarial, argument in which two groups present opposing arguments and ask people to choose between them. The advantage of this system is that it is entertaining and relatively likely to capture the public imagination. The more theatrical, the better. If anything, the debate has received too much attention – it has dominated Scottish debate for ages – at the expense of more important issues. This seems, to me, to be more useful than hanging our hats on a commission – which, if it is populated by thinky-folk, could only produce an honest report if it says: “how the hell do we know what will happen?”.


Filed under Scottish politics, Social change, UK politics and policy

If Michael Gove accepted Cummings’ advice, would he bother getting out of bed?

Most of the coverage of Dominic Cummings recent document focused on the controversial elements, such his discussion of the link between genes and educational attainment. So, his discussion of complexity has been discussed far less. Yet, there are some interesting statements here, starting with the very first paragraph:

Although we understand some systems well enough to make precise or statistical predictions, most interesting systems – whether physical, mental, cultural, or virtual – are complex, nonlinear, and have properties that emerge from feedback between many interactions. Exhaustive searches of all possibilities are impossible. Unfathomable and unintended consequences dominate. Problems cascade. Complex systems are hard to understand, predict and control.

He then goes on to say that people are ill equipped to understand and control complex political systems: “We do not have a problem with ‘too much cynicism’ – we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much”. The solution, according to his paper, is a better education in ways to better understand complex systems – which includes the immersion in interdisciplinary studies, including mathematics, quantitative methods, computation, biology, engineering, economics and the scientific method.

One omission is the need to study complex policymaking systems (although I admit that it might be there somewhere in the 237 pages). The interesting contrast which we can take from his discussion is that he is essentially (a) giving advice about the unpredictability of policymaking systems, to (b) a policymaker expected to be at the centre of that system. Most applications of complexity theory to policymaking studies question the ability of the ‘centre’ to control policy outcomes. The argument ties in neatly with the more established policy literature which identifies huge government and points out that policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny fraction of the things for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number of issues and, as a consequence, ignore virtually all of the things taking place in their departments and the wider world. In other words, if Gove follows Cummings to become a complexity theorist, we can expect him to wonder if he can make much of an impact on his domain. In this sense, complexity theory presents a marked contrast to the ‘Westminster model’ which suggests that power is concentrated in the heart of government.

See also:

Complexity Theory and Policymaking

What is ‘Evolution’? What is ‘Complexity’? [and How does it inform the study of policymaking?]

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What Can an Independent Scotland Learn From Other Countries?

Over the next few weeks, we (me and @EmilyStDenny) will be collecting a marvellous set of blogs, news stories and campaign statements about Scottish independence. We will focus on the discussion of Scotland’s potential to learn from other countries. For example, it feels like a long time since Alex Salmond mentioned the ‘Arc of Prosperity’ but, more recently, the Jimmy Reid Foundation has gained a lot of traction with its focus on the Common Weal. In both cases, the idea is that we can learn a lot from, and become more like, the Nordic countries (the Scandinavians – Sweden, Denmark, Norway – and, in some cases, Iceland and Finland). Indeed, this is the direct focus of Nordic Horizons.

The problem, in many cases, is that no-one really knows much about these countries and, therefore, what they might learn. In some cases, that’s OK since the romantic references to better countries is there primarily as a reinforcement for one’s own ideas. In other cases, it seems odd that we’d give so much attention to these ideas without doing proper research about what ideas we can gather and how we might adapt those experiences to our own.

Scotland has form in this regard. In the run up to devolution you could hear similarly vague references to the Nordic experience as an example for our own. Yet, it didn’t go far beyond the vague. I have said, in a few academic articles and books, that we should reflect on the extent to which Scotland went down the intended Nordic route. However, to be honest, I have struggled to find more than a passing reference in documents written before devolution (such as by the SCC). People talked about ‘new Scottish politics’ as an antidote to ‘old Westminster’ but, in truth, we mostly imported a Westminster system. It would be a shame if we repeated that mistake this time round. If we want to simply continue the Westminster tradition, let’s do it with our eyes open. If we want to go Nordic, let’s learn a bit more about them.

I say this after spending time trying to do some work in the opposite direction. I was asked by the National Diet of Japan to reflect on the lessons that UK devolution/ regionalism might give to policymakers in Japan. At first, I could not really see the connection. The two countries seemed so different that I could not work out why they would be interested. Then, I spent some time looking into their political system and, more importantly, their reasons for pursuing regionalism – and I still wasn’t sure! Then, I looked again and talked to a few people in Japan while I was visiting last month (and while one researcher spoke to me when visiting Scotland). That discussion, plus the questions they asked, helped me understand the links and make some sensible points about the UK experience.

I hope the comparison is clear. Our contemporaries in the Nordic countries may currently have the same initial sense of bewilderment: ‘they keep mentioning us, but why?’. ‘What is it about our experience that they think they understand?’ So, if we are serious about learning from other countries, including the Nordics (and maybe the lesser-discussed but possibly important New Zealand), we need to be serious about drilling down into the details. We need to consider why their systems operate in the way they do. We need to know how and why they pursued the policies and institutions that have grabbed our attention. We need to talk with them, to show them why we are interested and what we are trying to do, so that they know how to translate their experience into meaningful lessons for us. We might have a good image of their experience from the outside, only to learn that they have a different experience from the inside.

In other words, the world is full of examples of failed policy transfer. Some countries emulate other countries because they think they are successful – but they don’t spend enough time working out why they are considered to be successful and if their success could be repeated; if their policy programmes could be imported in a useful and meaningful way.

Let’s not do that.



Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Japan, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

What Can Japan Learn from Devolution in the UK?

NDL ppt front page

Japan’s interest in regionalism relates primarily to economic aims. Some policymakers want to reduce government spending and pursue a kind of ‘fiscal federalism’ in which central government devolves taxes and economic strategies to regions. The UK has minimal experience in this field. Devolution was driven more by local demand for representation. So why would policymakers in Japan be so keen to learn from the UK? That is the context in which Professor Yamazaki and I have written this paper, to be presented to the National Diet of Japan next month. This example reinforces the idea that ‘lesson-drawing’ is not straightforward – it requires a meaningful conversation between those who want to learn and those reflecting on their own experience.

The full paper is here – Cairney Yamazaki What Can Japan Learn From UK 23.10.13 – and the bullet point summary is below. Here is a link to one of the events, and here is my mug shot surrounded by some impressive looking writing – NDL Cairney poster. Here is the 2-language powerpoint – Dr. Cairney’s Presentation (it doesn’t match up entirely because I amended the version sent to me).

Policy Transfer in Theory and Practice: What Can Japan Learn from ‘Regionalism’ and Devolution in the UK?

  • ‘Regionalism’ can be defined broadly as the creation of a governing tier between central and local government.
  • The UK experience could provide important lessons for Japan
  • However, we can only use the UK experience to give relevant insights to policymakers in Japan if we understand why they seek, and how they will use, that information.
  • Lesson-drawing will not be successful unless the borrowing government understands how and why policy developed in the lender – and if that experience is comparable to its own.
  • Our comparison of the UK and Japan identifies major differences in their politics and policymaking. These differences should be borne in mind when policymakers in Japan seek to learn lessons from the UK’s regionalism policy.
  • The main difference is in their respective reasons for pursing regionalism.
  • In the UK, devolution to Scotland and Wales reflects an attempt by the centre to address growing demands for self-government. In Northern Ireland, it reflects an uneasy compromise between unionist and nationalist actors.
  • Only in the English regions can we see an economic frame of reference. Further, the economic frame did not help sustain support in the English regions.
  • In Japan, it is difficult to identify equivalent levels of regional identity and popular support for regionalism.
  • The economic driver is much more significant. Regionalism is often presented as a way to promote more effective economic development and to reduce the size of the state and public debt.
  • In that context, the UK experience has limited information to offer. Instead, it can only offer negative lessons about the inability of an economic frame alone to provide sustained support for regionalism.
  • More relevant lessons can be found when we identify the likelihood of asymmetric regionalism in Japan.
  • Devolution may be extended primarily to Hokkaido, Okinawa and the Osaka/ Kansai region.
  • The UK has extensive experience of asymmetric regionalism, with varying levels of support for devolution translating to different arrangements in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions.
  • The most sustained and significant level of devolution can be found in Scotland.
  • Scotland’s experience demonstrates that policymaking can be directed, and meaningful networks formed, at the regional level.
  • The Scottish Government has developed its own policymaking style which often seems to benefit from its size and the ability of policymakers to develop relatively personal networks with actors such as interest groups and bodies such as local authorities and quangos which implement (and seek to influence) policy.
  • It has also developed meaningful relationships with business groups, albeit in the context of an economic policy reserved to the UK.
  • However, this style has taken some time to develop – it is not a quick fix to an immediate economic crisis.
  • The UK experience also shows that the centre can maintain smooth relationships with devolved governments. Their interactions almost never produce a need to engage in formal dispute resolution.
  • However, part of the explanation is that the UK centre has largely disengaged from devolved policymaking (a situation aided by its devolution of discrete policy areas – such as health and education – with relatively low levels of overlap in central/ devolved responsibilities).
  • There is considerable evidence of policy divergence (or, at least, similarities) but largely because each government understands and seeks to address policy problems in similar ways, or because UK policy for England puts pressure on the devolved governments to respond.
  • Meaningful learning and transfer between regions, or from regions to the centre, is unusual.

Overall, our analysis demonstrates the need to be clear about how and why one country can learn from the experience of another. It is not enough to transfer programmes. One must understand how and why policy was made in one country to understand if that process can be replicated in another successfully, or if it can only take broad inspiration.

See also:

What Can Japan Learn from ‘Regionalism’ and Devolution in the UK?

‘Representing’ Scotland and the UK at Japan’s PSA

Stereotyping Political Systems

The World is Watching the Scottish Independence Debate



Filed under Japan, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Labour and the Sun’s Front Page About Mental Health

The front page of today’s Sun has already been debunked well by Buzzfeed and The Telegraph [update: see also The Conversation], condemned by the Labour Party here and here and it looks particularly stupid when compared to the thoughtful report by Victim Support (‘people with mental health problems experienced high rates of crime, and were  considerably more likely to be victims of crime than the general population’).

So, I will just focus on one aspect of the post-war history of mental health policy. It is going to sound party political, but there is a wider cautionary tale about the potential for governments to exploit these kinds of media messages for short term gain. This sort of stigma-reinforcing headline is not new. It was often countered, quite quietly, in government. For most of the post-war period, it worked in a consensus-seeking way with medical and mental health groups to update mental health legislation (in 1959 and 1983). Then came the Labour Government in 1997 committed to being tough on crime, trying to be the party for public safety, and responding to this sort of message (and high profile murders). It oversaw the creation of a term – DSPD (Dangerous Severe Personality Disorder) – and sought, through legislation, the ability to detain people before they committed violent crimes. The plan was opposed by the vast majority of mental health organisations and created a ten-year stand-off which was never resolved in a satisfactory way.   The potential bright side here is that the Sun headline has produced a strong reaction from Labour against mental health stigma. That might be enough to stop history repeating itself if Labour wins the next election.

For more on the history of MH legislation, see this article here (£) or here (not £))

p676 JSP 2009


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A Realist’s View of Democracy

Imagine two very different starting points to consider democracy. One is to say that politics is ‘broken’ and that we need to rediscover popular democracy. The other is to say that almost all decisions are made, necessarily, by a very small number of people out of the public spotlight – and that no political reform will change this fact. How might we bring those two points closer together? We should start with Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy (in America – first published 1960; I am using the 1975 version).

Schattschneider’s argument is timeless because he describes (a) a widespread belief in the power of democracy but (b) a disdain for unrealistic expectations about the power of ‘the people’ and (c) a belief that the more realistic vehicle for democracy – government – contains undemocratic elements.  So, he provides a series of warnings against the assumption that there is a simple way to encourage popular democracy:

The beginning of wisdom in democratic theory is to distinguish between the things the people can do and the things the people cannot do. The worst possible disservice that can be done to the democratic cause is to attribute to the people a mystical, magical omnipotence which takes no cognizance of what very large numbers of people cannot do by the sheer weight of numbers. At this point the common definition of democracy has invited us to make fools of ourselves. What 180 million people can do spontaneously, on their own initiative, is not much more than a locomotive can do without rails (1975: 136)

For Schattschneider, the key argument is that a political system can be run well if most decisions are made by the government on behalf of the people, with minimal public involvement, and the very small number of important decisions is made with maximal public involvement. So far, so good (if we ignore the very-problematic idea that ‘the people’ is a real thing and that we can agree on what the most important problems are). The problem is that the political system does not ensure that these issues are the ones most likely to be discussed. On the contrary – a key source of power is to make sure that people pay attention to innocuous issues at the expense of the more important ones.

Schattschneider (1975: 2–5) creates a thought experiment to demonstrate that, in any conflict, the audience could be more important than the original participants. The people matter when they pay attention and become mobilized. Think of two fighters surrounded by a massive crowd – its composition, bias towards each fighter and willingness to engage are crucial. The outcome of conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved. However, there are far more potential conflicts than any public can pay attention to. Therefore, most are ignored and the people are ‘semi-sovereign’ – only able to exercise their power in a few areas.

This is important because there are systematic imbalances in social systems that may require systematic attention. For example, the pressure group system is not pluralistic; a small proportion of the population – the well-educated and upper class – is active and well represented by groups (1975: 34–5). The pressure system is largely the preserve of the business class seeking to minimize attention to their activities (1975: 30–7). Therefore, Schattschneider (1975: 12; 119) highlights the need for government to intervene:

Democratic government is the greatest single instrument for the socialization of conflict … big business has to be matched by … big democracy.

Yet, of course, the same argument applies – elected officials within the government can only pay attention to a small number of issues; they have to promote a few to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest.  This is where one kind of power becomes important – it is exercised to determine the issues most worthy of government attention. The structures of government, such as legislative procedures controlling debate, reinforce this process by determining which conflicts receive attention and which are ignored:

All forms of political organization have a bias in favour of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others because organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out (1975: 69).

While we may have some vague hope that key decisions receive the most attention, we should not expect it to happen naturally. Rather, groups may exercise power to make sure that important issues do not receive attention. Politics is not only about winners and losers, but also a battle in which the winner seeks to isolate its opponent (by keeping the dispute between them and not a wider audience) and the loser seeks to expand the scope of the conflict by encouraging a part of the audience to become involved. Most political behaviour involves this competition to ‘socialize’ or ‘privatize’ conflict. The most common example may involve keeping an issue off the government agenda by encouraging policymaker attention to relatively ‘safe’ issues – more attention to these issues means less attention to, say, the imbalances of power within society. Another example is when groups exercise power to reinforce public 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, they will not ask the government to intervene.  In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.

If we look at that problem, as I have described it, and conclude that politics is ‘broken’ we should also accept that it cannot be fixed. Or, to put it more positively, we should consider what can be done in that context rather than hoping that political reforms can be a quick fix.  Let’s conclude by thinking of two issues to be addressed. First, can we use existing measures to make sure that ‘the people’ consider the most important issues? We may not agree on what are the most important problems to solve. Maybe the forthcoming in/out referendums in Scotland (in/ out the UK) and the UK (in/out Europe) are good examples, maybe not. Maybe we could generally agree that ‘the economy’ is the big one, without agreeing what we should consider (such as encouraging growth and/ or reducing inequality). Who knows?

The second issue is the one that I think is more of a conundrum: how much attention do you think that we should expect ‘the people’ to pay to the same issue? The thing about public policy is that it involves thousands of decisions, taken hourly or daily when new information arises. We may make one key decision, only to find that we need to make a thousand decisions to inform the substance of that big decision. Do the people just make that big one, or should we expect them to stay involved? Should we expect them to pay attention once per year? Who knows? While this may be starting to sound a bit facetious, it is a serious point that is explored very well by books such as Agendas and Instability. Baumgartner and Jones describe long periods (often several decades) of public inattention to an issue when the assumption is that (a) it received huge attention (b) the problem was ‘solved’ then (c) the details were left to public and private organisations. This process helps explain why the public (a) seemed to support the use of pesticides and nuclear power in the early postwar era, then (b) seemed dead against those things from the 1970s.

It’s at this point in a seminar where I’d say ‘oh look at the time’ rather than try to produce a ‘take home message’ from this discussion because I honestly don’t know what you’d want to take home. Then I’d point out that Jones and Baumgartner were actually optimistic about the links between public opinion and government action and ask you to work that one out.

A lot of this discussion draws on my book Understanding Public Policy, pp 52-6 and the Baumgartner/ Jones chapter is Green Access (Paul Cairney Understanding Public Policy chapter 9 STORRE)


Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Social change, UK politics and policy