Monthly Archives: November 2013

Scotland’s Future: A Summary of the White Paper in Slightly Fewer Words Than The White Paper’s Own Summary

Scotland’s Future is an unusual mix of the mundane and the meaningful. On the one hand, it doesn’t tell you much more than you already knew: the current Scottish Government supports independence and has its own ideas about how it should look. On the other, if you take a step back, you remember how unusual it is for a government to treat independence as a policy like any other, setting out a White Paper and using the civil service machinery to help turn its broad aims and manifesto into a whopping policy document. The choice of a White Paper is also interesting in terms of UK history. They are traditionally used as a way to consult. A Green Paper sets out broad aims and asks questions. A White Paper is a stronger statement of intent, set out in detail, and put to the public for its reaction. They know what they want to do, but they are willing to talk to you about it, to make sure they got it right.

I remember noticing this mix of mundane/ meaningful when hearing the White Paper described by a civil servant in an innocuous way (although this is only an impression you would get if you were there – not if you read about it in the Herald). I mostly spaced out when hearing some of the descriptions, only to remember that this is a Scottish Government civil servant describing the details of the policy of independence. So, I managed to catch the most important part: the White Paper is a mixture of 3 things:

(1)   What the Scottish Government wants and can safely say will happen if there is a Yes vote (Scottish independence, as described in the WP);

(2)   What the Scottish Government hopes to secure in negotiation with the UK Government if there is a Yes vote (for example, a currency union);

(3)   What the current Scottish Government would like to see happen if there is a Yes vote (for example, a particular kind of social democratic state and particular policies, or the removal of policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’).

Much has been made about the third type of aim, which can be described as the SNP using the Scottish Government to write its next manifesto (albeit on twitter, where people go to make their most succinct and outrageous claims), but remember that this is a consultation document, not something that binds a Scottish Government led by another party (and remember that the SNP had already written most of this stuff anyway, with the civil service there to minimise mistakes). Even without the hyperbole, it is an unusual document, setting out a policy for something the Scottish Government does not control. One might say that, in a complex world, the idea of a government being in control is silly anyway, but this WP is unusually candid about the things it only hopes to achieve and the often-party-political points it wants to make.

It is in this context that we should view the aims set out in the WP:

Alex Salmond’s preface has that big idea, mixed with pragmatism and values, feel: we will seek independence to pursue our own aims, work with the UK Government to secure them, and hope to build on the idea of Scottish ‘values’ to produce a particular kind of state and set of policies. This is a straightforward rhetorical device setting out his (now pragmatic) hopes and dreams.

The preface is followed by some bullet points which contain more details and mixes the governmental with the party political. This is the approach that has been described as the Scottish Government writing the SNP’s manifesto. Alongside the general desire for decisions about Scotland to be made by ‘those who live and work here’, is a broad statement about economic policy being conducive to business (including small business) and geared more to Scotland than the South East of England (a point used partly to justify a potentially-right-wing-looking drop in corporation tax (and air duty), ‘to counter the gravitational business pull of London’), a detailed account of current policy intentions and some strong criticism of current UK Government policy. The ‘social democratic’ feel is there, with a general commitment not to reform the welfare state in the way currently done by the UK Government, and to protect pensions and the minimum wage (while promoting, and paying its staff, the ‘living wage’).  There is a particular emphasis on childcare to allow women to return to work (prompting some commentary about the relative lack of support for independence by women). There is also a clear dig at the UK Government as a Conservative-led government, with a commitment to abolish the ‘bedroom tax’ (for social housing only?) and return the Scottish part of the Royal Mail to public ownership. The ‘bedroom tax’ is, I think, mentioned 38 times and linked to the ‘poll tax’ twice (it’s a bit like the roundabouts going through Dundee – they have a hypnotic effect and you lose count).

These aims are followed by the case for independence and some broad plans for an independent Scotland. It is this area in which the Scottish Government shows most strength, by presenting Scotland in a positive light, particularly in relation to its economy and its scope for growth through innovation, and by presenting broad aims which reinforce its Nordic-looking (‘social democratic’? progressive? corporatist?) credentials tied strongly to its aims on economic activity. There is a focus on: ‘fostering high levels of trust and reducing income inequality’; promoting more equal employee representation and, in particular, ‘greater female participation on company boards’; reducing corporation tax and air duty (perhaps the non-progressive outliers in this list) and perhaps National Insurance contributions for small business; fostering a corporatist approach to issues such as fair pay; and, removing tax incentives for marriage and a reduction in employment rights. The stand-out element is the commitment to increase ‘female and parental participation in the workforce through a transformational expansion in childcare provision’. 3 and 4 year olds (and ‘vulnerable’ 2 year olds) will be offered the hours equivalent to primary schooling. Early criticism focuses on the idea that this policy is only promised in an independent Scotland, not now. Yet, the plan is based on a five year lead-in, to produce a much larger trained workforce (five years seems ambitious enough to me).

There is also a broad commitment to: maintain Scotland’s key education policies (comprehensive schools, free higher education) but improve on the Scottish Government’s record on major inequalities in attainment (there is a similar mention of health inequalities); re-establish the link between the state pension (but not other social security) and average earnings or inflation if it is higher (a policy abolished by a pre-devolution Conservative Government) and slow down the increase of the pension age when it reaches 66 (partly because Scots live shorter and less expensive lives); and protect social protection: ‘support for people who work; a safety net for people who cannot work; and a climate of social solidarity’. Its justice aims are fairly vague.

This is accompanied by a discussion of shakier ground, which: (a) requires more UK Government cooperation, arguing (why not go for it completely if you go for it?) that ‘The pound is Scotland’s currency just as much as it is the rest of the UK’s’ and that it should form an influential part of a ‘Sterling Area’ (i.e. not just use the pound on the sly); and (b) engages in the difficult-to-control debate about Scotland’s finances and likely future tax rates: ‘As Scotland’s public finances are healthier than those of the UK as a whole, there will no requirement for an independent Scotland to raise the general rate of taxation to fund existing levels of spending’ (compare with recent coverage of the IFS report).

The focus on international affairs is fairly uneventful at times (given that this would be the biggest area of transferred powers), perhaps because the debates have been well aired: the Scottish Government budget for embassies would be lower than it (estimates it) pays for its share of the UK (and used to promote culture and trade); it would negotiate its entry to to the EU on the basis of already meeting most of its conditions, staying out of the Eurozone (OK, that argument is more interesting) and Schengen area; it would meet the ‘good global citizen’ test by giving 0.7% of Gross National Income to international development; and put up more of a fight in EU fishing and agriculture negotiations. It also promises a (less UK, less right wing?) points-based system on immigration and to reintroduce the old student visas system (removed by the UK Government, producing much teeth-gnashing and income reduction in Universities).

Defence and energy are the bigger bones of contention, requiring some degree of cooperation with the UK Government. The Scottish Government promises the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland ‘within the first term of the Scottish Parliament following independence’ (while aiming to join NATO) and to use some of its £2.5bn budget to build ‘to a total of 15,000 regular and 5,000 reserve personnel’. It also seeks to maintain a GB-wide energy market to, for example, allow it to continue to export renewable electricity to England.

The Scottish Government describes the transitional arrangements (to begin as a new, elected Scottish Parliament in May 2016) on things like civil service transfers as straightforward, preferring to focus on the need to produce a written constitution, enshrining certain broad principles on equality and the right to healthcare and education (and a specific ban on nuclear weapons), and developed in partnership with a ‘constitutional convention’. Its commitment to ‘subsidiarity’ and the protection of local government appears later in the main document.

If only to reinforce the idea that this is no ordinary White Paper, and that the Scottish Government is engaging in unusually tense party political and yes/ no ground, it has printed a clear dig at the no campaign’s focus on the worst-case scenario: Scotland will still get access to the BBC network, ensuring that ‘the people of Scotland will still have access to all current programming, including EastEnders, Dr Who, and Strictly Come Dancing and to channels like CBeebies’. What other government document can say that?


Filed under Scottish politics

Scotland’s Future: For People Who Live and Work Here With Certain Values

scot future wordcloud

In the Scottish Government White Paper Scotland’s Future (26.11.13), the phrase ‘live and work here’ is asked to do quite a lot of work. It starts off as a simple ‘live here’, to demonstrate the SNP and Scottish Government’s commitment to civic nationalism (the phrase has changed over the years from ‘Scottish people’ to ‘people of Scotland’ to ‘people who live here’). This is about the self determination of a population defined by residence, not ethnicity:

  • ‘We, the people who live here, have the greatest stake in making Scotland a success’ (i)
  • ‘The Scottish Government wants us to have the powers of independence so that people who live here can build a different and better Scotland’ (3)
  • ‘With independence the Scottish Parliament will have all the powers we need in Scotland to make life better for the people who live here’ (28)
  • ‘Driving our ambition is the firm knowledge that Scotland, and all of the people who live here, should be enjoying the benefits of higher levels of sustainable economic growth’ (45)
  • ‘Given the breadth and depth of our economic strengths, Scotland is better placed than most to ensure a secure future for the people who live here’ (57)
  • ‘With independence, decisions on the taxes we pay, the state pension, the delivery of all public services, and policies that affect our economy and society will be taken in Scotland based on the needs and interests of the people who live here’ (59)
  • ‘With independence, decisions on the taxes we pay, the state pension, the delivery of all public services, and policies that affect our economy and society will be taken in Scotland based on the needs and interests of the people who live here’ (60)
  • ‘With independence, Scotland’s Parliament will be able to make sure that Scotland’s wealth works better for the people who live here, and will mean a better quality of life for people in Scotland’ (374)
  • ‘With independence, the Scottish Parliament will have all the powers we need in Scotland to make life better for the people who live here’ (376)
  • ‘Scotland is one of the wealthiest nations in the world and one of the purposes of independence is to make sure that wealth works better for the people who live here’ (470)

Then, it is joined by ‘work here’, perhaps as a nod to Swedish style citizenship which is linked closely to working practices, or perhaps to a focus on economic activity, not its tag as a recipient of a disproportionate amount of government spending. So, now, the people who live and work here care most about it and, therefore, will make better decisions in relation to Scotland:

  • ‘it will be better for all of us if decisions about Scotland are taken by the people who care most about Scotland – the people who live and work here’ (Salmond, viii and ix)
  • ‘Decisions about Scotland will be taken by the people who care most about Scotland – those who live and work here’ (xii)
  • ‘Scotland should be independent because the best people to take decisions about Scotland’s future are those of us who live and work here’ (541).
  • ‘The Scottish Government supports independence because we believe it will be better for us all if decisions about Scotland are taken by the people who care most about Scotland – the people who live and work here’ (544).

The people who live and work here should benefit from its wealth:

  • ‘We are a wealthy country and yet the full benefit of our vast wealth is not felt by the people who live and work here’ (24; 377)
  • ‘With independence, we can turn our rich country into a prosperous society, with the many strengths of our economy delivering more for the people who live and work here’ (377)

The people who live and work here have families:

  • ‘We believe independence is the right choice for Scotland because it is better for you and your family if decisions about Scotland are taken by the people who care most about Scotland: the people who live and work here’ (374)

Then we take a different path, linking this living and working here phrase with the aim of subsidiarity:

  • ‘We believe that the people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about our future – the essence of self-determination. Therefore we support subsidiarity and local decision making’ (367)
  • ‘The current Scottish Government is clear that the people who live and work in Scotland are best-placed to make decisions about our future. This is the essence of self-determination, and accordingly we are committed to subsidiarity and local decision making in public life. Our commitment to local autonomy and self-determination is central to our approach to local government’ (578).

This focus on more local devolution confuses me a bit because I thought that independence was about Scottishness, Scottish policymaking and living and working in Scotland. The aim for a Scottish-level settlement often seems to rub up roughly against the aim for a level of government (with significant powers) below Scotland. The Scottish Government seems to agree to some extent, because one of the few phrases to be repeated more than ‘live and work here’ is values – some of the time relating to SNP or Scottish Government values, but most of the time to Scottish national values which will presumably be upheld at the national level by the Scottish Government (p3 also states that ‘the people of Scotland will always get governments we vote for’, which suggests that the Scottish level remains most important). The White Paper does not (I think) explain why living and working in Scotland gives you those (largely social democratic) Scottish values, but they seem to exist nonetheless:

  • ‘to build a country that reflects our priorities as a society and our values as a people’ (Salmond, viii);
  • ‘Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education, and a passion and curiosity for invention that has helped to shape the world around us’ (Salmond, viii)
  • ‘In an independent Scotland we envisage a welfare system based on clear principles and values: support for people who work; a safety net for people who cannot work; and a climate of social solidarity’ (11)
  • ‘An independent Scotland will have national security arrangements that reflect Scotland’s needs, values and the risks and threats we face’ (16);
  • ‘With independence we can make different choices in line with our values and the views of the people of Scotland’ (28);
  • ‘If we transfer decision-making powers from Westminster to Scotland we are more likely to see policies that are in tune with the values of the people of Scotland, that close the gap between rich and poor, and provide greater opportunities for everyone in Scotland regardless of their background’ (40);
  • (if the vote is No) ‘There is no assurance that decisions on the key issues that affect Scotland’s prosperity, security and future will be made in line with the interests and values of the people who live here’ (example: Scottish MPs rejected the bedroom tax);
  • ‘a vision for the type of economy and society that captures Scotland’s distinct values’ (94);
  • ‘building a welfare system, based on clear principles and values that: supports people who work; provides support for people who cannot work; and fosters a climate of social solidarity’ (152);
  • ‘successive Scottish governments have made steady improvements to Scotland’s health and the quality of healthcare, while protecting the NHS as a free, truly public service, consistent with the values of the NHS and the priorities of people in Scotland’ (170);
  • ‘Free education for those able to benefit from it is a core part of Scotland’s educational tradition and the values that underpin our educational system. One of the major achievements of devolved government in Scotland has been to restore this right to Scottish domiciled undergraduate students’ (199);
  • ‘protection of Scotland, our people and our resources. This encompasses the role of defence and security capabilities in ensuring the safety of Scotland’s territory, citizens, institutions, values and systems against factors which could undermine prosperity, wellbeing and freedom’ (209);
  • ‘Scotland and the rest of the UK will have a very close and constructive relationship on many foreign policy issues; it is natural that the values and interests of such close neighbours will often be aligned’ (216);
  • ‘This Government plans that Scotland will be an active and committed participant in the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The EU’s external policies support stability, promote human rights and democracy, seek to spread prosperity, and support the enforcement of the rule of law and good governance, complementing the foreign policy efforts of individual states. Scotland would benefit from this Europe-wide approach which is broadly aligned with Scotland’s values’ (226);
  • ‘As an expression of the values driving our foreign policy, this Government will ensure that other Scottish Government policies do no harm to developing countries, do not undermine international development aims and ideally contribute to international development success’ (231)
  • (Scotland’s defence force will be responsible for) ‘protecting Scotland’s national interests and economic wellbeing, alongside the key values and underlying principles that support Scottish society and our way of life’ (236)
  • ‘With independence, we can ensure that security and intelligence functions are focused on defending our democratic values and securing our fundamental rights and freedoms’ (257)
  • ‘Our justice system provides the foundation for delivering the kind of nation Scotland should be – a thriving and successful European country, reflecting shared values of fairness and opportunity, and promoting prosperity and social cohesion’ (257)
  • ‘Independence will enable Scotland to build a modern, European democracy, founded on a written constitution, enshrining the fundamental rights and values that underpin our society and based on the principle of the sovereignty of the people of Scotland’ (332)
  • ‘As an independent country, we will be able to choose how to spend our money, based on the needs and values of the Scottish people, not on choices made at Westminster’ (426)
  • ‘As NHS Scotland is already under the control of the Scottish Parliament, its values and priorities will continue on independence’ (438)
  • (Social justice) ‘With independence we can make different choices in line with our values and the views of the people of Scotland’(443)
  • ‘Scotland values our diverse ethnic minority communities, the contribution they make and the important role they play in enriching Scotland socially, culturally and economically’ (492)
  • ‘The opportunity of independence will also allow Scotland to adopt a new humane approach to asylum seekers and refugees in line with our values and commitment to upholding internationally recognised human rights’ (493)

Perhaps ironically, what is not clear from the White Paper (I think) is exactly who is eligible to vote. It is not simply about living and working here and holding certain values.


Filed under Scottish politics

The International Image of Scottish Devolution: a view from Japan

When I gave my talk on the lessons that UK regionalism might provide for Japan , it was followed by commentary by my co-author Professor Mikine Yamazaki and some questions from the audience. I know that a few people are not representative, but the comments are still interesting, since they reveal an image of the UK and Scottish devolution based on a very different and sometimes surprising perspective. Some highlights (based on my notes from interpreted Japanese) include:

1.Others May See Scotland in a Very Positive Light

  • Scottish devolution is one of the most successful in the world (a point made before two main qualifications: it is only one of many regional outcomes in the UK and Europe; it was not inevitable – rather, there is a long history of devolution movements).
  • Scotland seeks to be globally competitive by pursuing innovation in scientific research and energy. It is one of the world leading countries in life sciences (remember Dolly the Sheep?) and has many world class Universities. Many of its medical schools are world class. It invests extensively in R&D and its companies are often acquired when they become successful (sometimes by Japanese firms).
  • Scotland is capitalising on its renewable energy potential (making good use of its bad weather) and has some of the most ambitious targets on the proportion of electricity produced via renewable sources (including the aim to produce 100% of its energy needs from renewables by 2020).
  • Overall, the Scottish Government is capitalising on its regional characteristics and developing a unique policymaking style in a ‘new era of globalisation’ (note Japan’s focus on regionalism and fiscal devolution as a way to address trends in economic globalisation).

2.Others May See Scotland as a Source of Inspiration for Regionalism

There is a recognition that Scotland’s history and particular circumstances cannot be replicated in Japanese regions, which lack: high levels of regional identity; popular demands for a degree of self-government; the pre-devolution sense of a ‘democratic deficit’ (voting in Scotland for one government, Labour, but receiving another, Conservative); and, the perception that a Conservative government imposed unpopular policies in Scotland and exacerbated the democratic deficit. However, some of the language about Scotland was revealing since, for some, it provided a broad source of inspiration:

  • The UK experience shows us that people have to be able to feel that devolution has taken place, which requires a comprehensive devolution of legislative powers from central to local (the context is piecemeal devolution to local government in Japan).
  • The Scottish experience can inspire regions to be bold and to make a leap.
  • Even if some regions might be worse off economically, regionalism requires the courage to act.

Overall, the Scottish experience and attitude has become, for some, a beacon of hope (as opposed to a source of detailed reforms). This is an image that you might struggle to find within Scotland.

See also: The World is Watching the Scottish Independence Debate

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Filed under Japan, Scottish politics

Scottish Independence: What are the implications for health policy?

[This now appears in Total Politics]

Most health and public health policy has been devolved since 1999, so maybe the potential for major policy change is not as great as in novel policy fields. Instead, we might see the acceleration of differences in key areas.

The first is healthcare. The NHS has always been a little bit different in Scotland, which enjoyed administrative devolution – through the Scottish Office (a UK Government Department) – before 1999 and maintained its own links with professional groups. Scotland has traditionally trained a disproportionate number of UK doctors and maintained an unusually high presence of Royal Colleges. This greater medical presence in Edinburgh (and Glasgow) boosted the Scottish Office’s policymaking image as ‘professionalised’, or more likely to pursue policies favoured by the medical profession than the Department of Health. For example, it appeared to be less supportive of reforms based on the ‘marketisation’ of the NHS. Devolution turbo boosted this position. While the UK Labour Government furthered the ‘internal market’ established by its Conservative predecessors, the Labour-led Scottish Government seemed to dismantle it (for example, there are no Foundation hospitals). It also bought (and effectively renationalised) a private hospital, which had a symbolic importance way above its practical effect. Since 2007, the SNP-led Scottish Government – often supported publicly by UK-wide groups such as the British Medical Association (and nursing and allied health professions) – has gone big on this difference between Scottish and UK Government policies, criticising the marketization of the NHS in England and expressing, at every opportunity, the desire to maintain the sort of NHS portrayed by Danny Boyle at the Olympics opening ceremony. This broad approach is generally supported, at least implicitly, by the important political parties in Scotland (the SNP is competing with a centre-left Labour Party and the Conservatives are less important). It is also supported by a medical profession and a public that, in practice, tends to be more committed to the NHS (in other words, opinion polls may not always show a stark difference in attitudes, but there is not the same fear in Scotland, as in the South-East of England, that doctors and patients might defect to the private sector if the NHS is not up to scratch). So, we might expect independence to maintain or accelerate these differences.

The second is public health. Scotland won the race to ban smoking in public places and is currently trying to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol. It has also placed particular emphasis on the wider determinants of health and made the right noises about the balance between public health and acute care. Independence is less likely to have a major difference on tobacco control because the UK already tops the European league table on that score. However, it would help its alcohol control agenda, since key measures (raising the price of alcohol through taxation pricing and further limiting the advertising and promotion of alcohol) would be under greater Scottish Government control.

The third is mental health. To some extent, early Scottish Governments developed an international reputation for innovation in some areas relating to wellbeing. It also reformed mental health and capacity legislation in a relatively quick and smooth way – at least compared to the UK Labour Government, which had a major stand-off with virtually all mental health advocacy groups on psychiatric-based reforms. Part of the difference relates to the size of Scotland and its government’s responsibilities which can produce a distinctive policy style; it often has the ability to coordinate cross-cutting policy, in consultation with stakeholders, in a more personal way. However, this is a field in which there tend to be often-similar policies beyond the Sun-style headlines. Further, independence won’t give the Scottish Government many relevant powers that it doesn’t already enjoy.

These differences should be seen in the context of a shared history and some major similarities. Both NHS systems are primarily tax-funded and free at the point of use, with the exception of some charges in England (which should not be exaggerated – for example, 89% of prescriptions in England are tax-funded). Both governments have sought to assure the public in similar ways by, for example, maintaining high profile targets on waiting times. Both systems face similar organisational pressures, such as the balance between a public demand for local hospitals and medical demand for centralised services. Both governments face similar demographic changes which put pressure on services. Both have similarly healthy (or unhealthy) populations.

Much depends on the bigger picture, including the economic context, government funding and the new attitudes and relationships which develop when a government is responsible for the political system as a whole. As in many areas, health policy in Scotland seems relatively consensual, but new forms of government – and a much harsher economic reality – may open up new forms of conflict and cooperation.


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The Psychology of Policymaking

We have long been interested in the psychology of policymaking, but there is a remarkable dearth of work which combines the two disciplinary approaches in a meaningful way. In psychology, a small number of people make big claims about how policymakers think and behave, based on small experiments in places such as their local canteen. In policymaking, we talk about bounded rationality, which is little more than a truism: people cannot consider all information, all possibilities, all solutions, or anticipate the consequences of their actions.

Studies based on bounded rationality have underpinned some important work, including punctuated equilibrium theory based on the study of how policymakers prioritise issues when they have to consider some and ignore almost all. It also highlights the important point that people make decisions in a small amount of time despite high uncertainty (based on limited information) and ambiguity (there are many ways to interpret and seek to solve a problem). Yet, for decades, we have not paid much attention to advances in psychological research, which has long since moved on from studies of bounded rationality.

So how might more recent research in psychology aid our understanding of policymaking? Let’s discuss two contenders – fluency and social intuition- considering the basic concept and how it might be used to inform, or help reinterpret, well-established policy theories. In each case, we have a choice to make – about using a new theory to replace established theories, or (my preference) to examine how this newer understanding helps us think about, and perhaps revise, more established theories of policymaking. The latter is my preference because the psychology of policymakers is only one small part of the explanation of outcomes in complex policy systems.

1. Fluency. As I understand it, the idea is that people’s decisions are influenced by their familiarity with things. For example, they will pay more attention to an issue if they already possess some knowledge of it (this is based on studies which show that people pay more attention to people when they already possess some information about them). Or, people will place more value on things they find familiar (based on studies in which people value their domestic currency more than a foreign currency; or value items that they own compared to items they would have to buy – i.e. they would hold out for more money to sell than they would be willing to pay). So, we have bounded rationality as a basic starting point, telling us that people will use short cuts to use and act on information, adding fluency to describe particular short cuts.

How might these ideas influence policy theories? Punctuated equilibrium theory provides a way to help explain why policymakers pay attention to some issues and not others. Fluency would provide a useful supplement to ‘focusing event’ explanations focused on the outside world. It would focus our analysis on why policymakers would pay attention to particular events (of which they are already familiar) at the expense of others. Similarly, when applied to multiple streams analysis, it could inform discussions of why policymakers might pay attention to some issues and ignore others, and have the motive and opportunity to adopt certain solutions at the expense of others. I’d need to think more about how it could be applied usefully to the advocacy coalition framework (ACF)which suggests that people engage in politics to translate their beliefs into action. We would need to think about the relationship between fluency and the three types of beliefs – core, policy core and secondary – and, for example, the idea that people will only pay attention to certain problems/ solutions according to their fundamental beliefs about how the world works and should work.

2. Social Intuitionism. Paul Lewis recently gave a paper on this topic at APSA 2013. The key starting point is that ‘in human decision making and moral judgment, the use of reason and rationality are subordinated to rapid, gut‐level, emotion‐laden cognition, and that people rely heavily on heuristics and narratives that often carry certain inherent biases’. Lewis argues that this is a challenge to/ replacement of the bounded rationality starting point, since we are replacing explanations based on reason/ goal orientation with a greater focus on the links between reason and emotion, particularly when ‘fast’ thinking is used more than ‘slow’.

How might these ideas influence policy theories? Lewis’ paper has an interesting account of policymakers having quick (and often changeable) gut/ emotional reactions to policy problems (and social groups) and solutions before they seek to frame them to justify action. This may inform aspects of punctuated equilibrium theory and multiple streams analysis (helping explain why people can shift between contradictory opinions/ problem frames so quickly) and the ACF’s focus on core beliefs, which can be enhanced with a focus on emotions, since ‘core’ are beliefs that people give up rarely (akin to religious beliefs).

In both cases, we may find interesting new avenues of inquiry but also recognise the need to ground them in what we know. Most importantly, a key focus of policy studies is the wider context in which decisions take place. The question of why policymakers frame problems is important, but only one piece of a bigger jigsaw which involves the socioeconomic context, the groups that policymakers consult regularly, and the system of rules in which they operate. Short term or emotional decisions made by a small number of policymakers may take place in an overall system where decisions are taken and implemented over the long term by many actors following long-established rules (although it may be interesting to (agent based) model that whole system and explore a shift in those rules). We should also consider the potential difference between the ‘thought processes’ of individuals and groups/ organisations. We are often talking about ‘rational’ processes in terms of the rules that organisations develop to provide cognitive and decision-making short cuts. Would these rules (or their interpretation) be as subject to these psychological explanations?

A final unresolved issue regards the extent to which theories in psychology are complementary or contradictory. Can we produce an overall assessment about psychology and apply it to policymaking, or do we consider different explanations? How do they relate to each other (for example, how does fluency relate to social intuitionism)? As yet, I don’t know.

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

(extra long podcast download, plus lecture/Q&A from UC Denver)

See also: ‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ and the Study of Public Policy

The term ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’ is in common currency in media and social media. It often represents an ideal which governments fail to reach. A common allegation is that policymakers ignore and/ or do not understand or act on the correct evidence. However,  if you look at policy studies, you tend to find highly critical discussions of the concept, and the suggestion that people are naïve if they think that EBPM is even a possibility. Some of this is simply to do with a lack of clarity about what EBPM means. Some of it is about the claim in policy studies that people don’t understand the policy process when they make EBPM claims. We can break this down into 2 common arguments in policy studies:

1. EBPM is an ideal-type, only useful to describe what does not and cannot happen

EBPM should be treated in the same way as the ideal-type ‘comprehensively rational policymaker’.  By identifying the limits to comprehensive rationality, we explore the implications of ‘bounded rationality’. For example, by stating that policymakers do not have the ability to gather and analyse all information, we identify the heuristics and short cuts they use to gather what they can. This may reveal their biases towards certain sources of information – which may be more important than the nature of the evidence itself. By stating that they can only pay attention to a tiny fraction of the issues for which they are responsible, we identify which issues they put to the top of the agenda and which they ignore. Again, there is a lot more to this process than the nature of the evidence – it is about how problems are ‘framed’ by their advocates and how they are understood by the policymakers held responsible for solving them.

2. Scientists use evidence to highlight policy problems, but not to promote policy change

The policy literature contains theories and studies which use the science of policymaking to explain how policymaking works. For example, ‘punctuated equilibrium’ studies use bounded rationality to identify long periods of policymaking stability and policy
continuity punctuated by profoundly important bursts of instability and change. In some cases, policymakers ignore some evidence for years, then, very quickly, pay disproportionate attention to the same evidence. This may follow the replacement of some policymakers by others (for example, after elections) or a ‘focusing event’ which prompts them to shift their attention from elsewhere. Further, studies of policy diffusion use bounded rationality to identify emulation in the absence of learning; the importation of a policy by a government which may not know much about why it was successful somewhere else. In
such cases, a policy may be introduced as much because of its reputation as the evidence of its transferable success. In other studies, such as the ‘advocacy coalition framework’, we identify a battle of ideas, in which different groups seek to gather and interpret evidence in very different ways. EBPM is about the dominant interpretation of the world, its major events and the consequences of
policy so far.

In each case, the first overall point is that policymakers have to make important decisions in the face of uncertainty (a lack of information), ambiguity (uncertainty about how to understand a problem and its solution) and conflict (regarding how to interpret information and draw conclusions). They do so by drawing on policymaking short cuts, such as by using information from sources they trust, and by adapting that information to the beliefs they already hold. The second point is that, even in ‘Westminster’ systems, there are many policymakers involved. We may begin with the simple identification of a single, comprehensively rational policymaker at the heart of the process, but end by identifying a complicated picture in which many actors – in many levels or types of government – influence how evidence is portrayed and policy is made.

In this context, a simple appeal for the government to do something with ‘the evidence’ may seem naïve. Such an appeal to the evidence-base relating to a particular policy problem is incomplete without a prior appeal to the evidence-base on the policy process. Instead of bemoaning the lack of EBPM, we need a better understanding of bounded-EBPM to inform the way we conceptualize the relationship between information and policy. This is just as important to the scientist seeking to influence policymaking as it is to the scientist of policymaking. The former should identify how the policy process works and seek to influence it on that basis – not according to how we would like it to be. To understand only one aspect of EBPM is to reject EBPM.

See also:

This post is one of many on EBPM. The full list is here:

A ‘decisive shift to prevention’: how do we turn an idea into evidence based policy?

Weible et al on how to use policy theory to guide groups seeking to influence policymaking


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy

McBusted has been to the Year 3000 and it predicts a higher income tax in Scotland relative to the rest of the UK


[Don’t be fooled – it’s just the same post as the jet packs one, but with a different title and picture]

Today’s IFS report has inevitably produced a superficial twitter debate about who pays/ spends more in the UK and whose ‘fiscal black hole’ is the biggest. It’s all about hard choices and the suggestion that the choices in Scotland would be the hardest or choiciest. The IFS helps the debate along by giving something to both sides: to the Yes side, it gives a table suggesting that Scotland contributes more than it spends. To the BT side, it provides some highly quotable figures that could be used to foresee doom. Indeed, I have already seen at least one tweet which distils the message into this: Scotland must raise its income tax by 9%.

Ironically, the part missing, so far, is about the politics of these future spending decisions. What we know, from experience of governments past, is that they are not always keen on telling the public that we need to raise taxes or reduce spending on an unprecedented scale. Or, they make that case in a particular way, to identify who should gain or lose most from reform plans. The big question now, if we assume that any devolved or independent Scotland will be part of a major financial reform, is: how will they deal with these deficits?

  1. Can a smaller government make social compromises in a more meaningful way, by consulting more widely, encouraging greater participation, and bringing together major business, social and labour groups?
  2. Would it become a smaller version of the UK, reducing public services rather than raising taxes (visibly), and reducing the welfare state/ social security?
  3. What effect might these differences have on public finances in the future?

If we are looking 50 years ahead, anything seems possible. Why focus so much on the end of North Sea Oil in 50 years when we could focus on the widespread use of jet packs?

See also David Comerford The White Paper vs the IFS

Expect a rash of people wondering how well we have done in predicting 50 years into the future. Here is my favourite mix of very sensible analysis and silly-looking predictions


Filed under Scottish politics

How Scottish Are You?

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Filed under Scottish politics

In 50 years, we won’t care about North Sea Oil because we’ll be on solar jet packs

jetpacks and suits

Today’s IFS report has inevitably produced a superficial twitter debate about who pays/ spends more in the UK and whose ‘fiscal black hole’ is the biggest. It’s all about hard choices and the suggestion that the choices in Scotland would be the hardest or choiciest. The IFS helps the debate along by giving something to both sides: to the Yes side, it gives a table suggesting that Scotland contributes more than it spends. To the BT side, it provides some highly quotable figures that could be used to foresee doom. Indeed, I have already seen at least one tweet which distils the message into this: Scotland must raise its income tax by 9%.

Ironically, the part missing, so far, is about the politics of these future spending decisions. What we know, from experience of governments past, is that they are not always keen on telling the public that we need to raise taxes or reduce spending on an unprecedented scale. Or, they make that case in a particular way, to identify who should gain or lose most from reform plans. The big question now, if we assume that any devolved or independent Scotland will be part of a major financial reform, is: how will they deal with these deficits?

  1. Can a smaller government make social compromises in a more meaningful way, by consulting more widely, encouraging greater participation, and bringing together major business, social and labour groups?
  2. Would it become a smaller version of the UK, reducing public services rather than raising taxes (visibly), and reducing the welfare state/ social security?
  3. What effect might these differences have on public finances in the future?

If we are looking 50 years ahead, anything seems possible. Why focus so much on the end of North Sea Oil in 50 years when we could focus on the widespread use of jet packs?

See also David Comerford The White Paper vs the IFS

Expect a rash of people wondering how well we have done in predicting 50 years into the future. Here is my favourite mix of very sensible analysis and silly-looking predictions


Filed under Scottish politics

Preventative Spending and the ‘Scottish Policy Style’

‘Preventative spending’ and ‘prevention’ describe a broad aim to reduce public service costs (and ‘demand’) by addressing policy problems at an early stage; too much government spending is devoted to services to address severe social problems at a late stage. The aim is for governments to address a wide range of problems – related to crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, unemployment (and, most recently, anti-environmental behaviour) – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive. This aim may be timeless, and relate to previous policies directed at identifying the root causes of social problems – such as poverty, social exclusion, and poor accommodation. It has also received more recent attention during an ‘age of austerity’ in which governments seek to reduce spending and/ or redirect spending to other areas (to address key demographic shifts such as an ageing population, which affect service demand in other areas).

Prevention has some potential to generate widespread consensus – to bring together groups on the ‘left’, seeking to reduce poverty, and groups on the ‘right’, seeking to reduce economic inactivity and the costs of public services. It can also be linked to other ‘valence’ issues, such as (a) the need for ‘joined up’ or ‘holistic’ government in which we foster cooperation between, and secure a common aim for, departments, public bodies and stakeholders at several levels of government; and, (b) a shift from short, often misleading, targets as proxies for policy aims, to more meaningful long term outcomes.

Our aim is to examine how that agenda (a) plays out in Scotland, which has developed its own ‘policy style’; and (b) how it overlaps with current debates on constitutional change. Compared to the other ESRC Scotland projects, our topic is less sensitive to a changing constitution – the preventative spending agenda has already begun. However, it is not immune to that wider debate: more devolution, or independence, would extend Scottish Government responsibilities in relevant fields such as social security and welfare policy; and, the case can be made for independence to foster joined up government (or, reduce overlaps in government responsibilities for cross-cutting issues).

A Scottish Government Approach to ‘Universal’ Issues?

Any country’s prevention agenda would face common obstacles:

Defining and ‘Owning’ the Problem. Prevention is a vague term associated with many different aims (such as to reduce service costs or increase quality of life in a population). It is difficult to know what prevention policy would look like and how to measure its success in a meaningful way (particularly since government policy may be one of multiple causes of shifts in outcomes such as inequality). Its ability to gather wide support is a double-edged sword, since it brings together people with very different aims (and some groups will have unrealistic aims). One could have ostensibly the same policy for decades, but pursued with different choices, about the level and type of intervention, and about the main driver (such as reducing inequality or long term costs). This vagueness makes it difficult to secure stakeholder ‘ownership’ – or their support may only be for particular aspects of policy.

Shifting the Balance of Power. Prevention may require a challenge to existing services, and produce opposition from groups with reasonable concerns. It may require some governments to give up their powers unilaterally, such as local authorities when they accept binding shared aims with unelected bodies, or central governments devolving powers in a meaningful way.

Short term Costs versus Long Term Gainsundermines Long Term Commitment? A shift in resources may be designed to produce better outcomes over decades, which may be difficult to measure, at the risk of highly visible costs in the short term. These costs may be financial (invest for the long term in the same way you would invest in capital) and/ or political (when existing visible services are sacrificed for longer term aims). A visible party political imperative (parties competing for office every 5 years may seek short term measures of success or failure) may combine with visible effects on public services (and their employees) and the less visible issues such as intergenerational equality, to disrupt long term policies.

Normative. In some areas, early intervention may be criticised as excessive intervention (such as in tobacco and alcohol control – or the extreme example of preventative detention).

Wicked. We are dealing with areas that often seem intractable, or too big/ connected to be amenable to a simple/ workable solution.

Policy Transfer and Learning. What works in one issue or place may not work in another.

Policymaking. Any policy is subject to the usual constraints regarding uncertainty (for example, about how policy will influence social behaviour), the potential for unintended consequences, and the need for sustained leadership and partnership.

The Scottish Government may address these issues using a ‘Scottish Policy Style’, regarding:

  1. The way in which it works with stakeholders to produce common policy aims.
  2. The way in which it seeks to implement policy.

To some extent, it has a reputation for closer cooperation with stakeholders and building policy delivery on trust in implementing bodies (when compared to the UK Government). Its consultation approach may be used to gather information and foster group ‘ownership’. Its approach to implementation may be suited to a shift from short term targets to long term outcomes. It may continue to exploit advantages in relation to its size, with smaller government departments more able to make links across government, and senior policymakers more able to from personal networks with members of key stakeholder and delivery bodies. On the other hand, reputations can be misleading and based on snapshots in time. Early cooperation may have been based on a ‘honeymoon’ period of devolution and a favourable economic context. Further, not all Scottish Governments have pursued ‘bottom up’ and long term approaches to policy implementation.

Emily St Denny (@EmilyStDenny) and I are interested in how these issues play out in practice, examining:

  • The academic literature on preventative spending in theory and practice
  • Written statements on prevention in Scotland – reports by the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and related bodies such as the Improvement Service and CIPFA
  • Interviews with practitioners – Government, Parliament, local government, NHS.

A lot of this work is part of a larger collaboration with colleagues in the ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, including:

  • with Michael Keating and Malcolm Harvey (@MalcH) at Aberdeen to link these issues to broader, comparative, studies of policymaking, examining the potential for learning from other, relevant, political systems and policies.
  • with the three Davids in Economics (Bell, Comerford, Eiser) at Stirling to examine how the progress of such policies can be tracked using outcome measures, and how meaningful it is to say that government policy helped cause those outcomes.
  • with Kirstein Rummery (@KirsteinRummery) and Craig McAngus (@craigmcangus) to examine particular aspects of inequality and unequal outcomes in areas such as age and gender


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics

Addressing Academic Assumptions: Revisiting That Presentation (on the Scottish Parliament)

Presenting to colleagues in other disciplines is interesting because it makes you think about your disciplinary assumptions – what you often take for granted and would assume that your home audience knows too. This came up at a workshop led by legal academics. A small group of us sort of pointed out that we were political scientists and would approach the same topic (in this case, constitutional design) in different way. By the time it got to my talk, I felt that the paper I had prepared was incomplete because, from a policy studies perspective, I had my own starting point and my audience would not know about it:

  • Most policy is made in policy networks/ communities/ subsystems
  • The state is so large that it may become unmanageable. So, policymakers divide administration into departments and policymaking into sectors and subsector
  • Ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they delegate almost all policymaking to civil servants. Senior civil servants do the same to relatively junior civil servants.
  • Civil servants rely on participants such as interest group for information and advice. They may also seek a degree of group ‘ownership’ of policy. Civil servants and groups may form fairly close relationships over time.
  • The key point regards ‘parallel and serial processing’. Policymakers can only engage in serial (considering one issue at a time) while governments as a whole engage in parallel (processing many issues at once).

So, this is the context for a consideration of Parliament. An ill resourced Parliament can engage in serial processing but will struggle to engage in parallel – and therefore to hold the Government to account. The attention of ministers and parliamentarians will lurch from issue to issue, often with important consequences, but their attention to one issue means that they must ignore the others.

This context is so familiar to many policy/ politics scholars that they may be surprised if one takes Parliaments seriously. In fact, when I gave my presentation for a lectureship at Aberdeen in 2004, one audience member pretty much said ‘since parliaments are peripheral to the policy process, why are you bothering with this topic?’. I have two answers:

  1. Parliaments perform other functions – deliberative, participatory, symbolic and, most importantly, they legitimize the outputs of government. Without Parliament, the government would struggle to maintain a wider sense of public legitimacy for its decisions. Consequently, a parliament can appear, simultaneously, to be highly ineffective (in relation to scrutiny) and profoundly effective (at legitimization).
  2. The Scottish Parliament was sold as a powerful institution at the centre of a range of ‘new politics’ initiatives.

So that is the context for the rest of my talk here –

UPDATE: Questions from the audience

(1) What would you do about these weaknesses in scrutiny. Potential remedies?

I gave three main solutions: (a) lower your expectations about what can happen; (b) increase parliamentary resources (permanent staff seem like better value than elected MSPs in this context) to increase MSP incentives to engage in scrutiny; and (c) learn from other countries and decide if you want to transfer their practices. As I discuss with colleagues in a comparison with Sweden, we may not be willing to give up what we have (clear lines of accountability) to secure what they have (more cross-party cooperation).

(2) Should there be a ‘big bang’ reform of the Scottish political system to address these problems? I tried very much not to answer this question. It doesn’t seem likely to happen or to change the fundamental relationship between government and parliament.


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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

The Role of the Scottish Parliament in a Devolved or Independent Scotland

Scottish Constitutional Forums Scotland Workshop: ‘After the Referendum: A Constitution for an Independent Scotland’

Session 3: Constitutional institutions in an independent Scotland

Professor Paul Cairney, University of Stirling

The Role of the Scottish Parliament in a Devolved or Independent Scotland

My brief for this talk was to consider, ‘how the Scottish Parliament might be enhanced to make it a more effective legislature and check on executive power’. This seems too optimistic for me, so I am going to focus on two slightly different statements:

  1. The Scottish Parliament has not been an effective legislature and check on executive power.
  2. In an independent or further devolved Scotland, the Scottish Parliament will not be an effective legislature and check on executive power.

At least that way, with our expectations suitably low, we can be pleasantly surprised if things work out.

We should also note that the Scottish Parliament is not just there to scrutinise and legitimise legislation:

  • It has a deliberative role, to encourage debate, inform the public, and mediate the demands and concerns of constituents.
  • It has a participative role, to encourage people to bring petition-based initiatives and act as a hub for groups seeking to influence the policy process.
  • It has a symbolic (in the good sense of the word) role, as a representative of ‘the people’, which includes its ability to adequately represent major social groups and promote equality (on grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, age, and so on).
  • It has a role in informing the public about the Scottish Parliament and its role in Scottish Politics; in promoting the visibility of politics (beyond party conflicts).

The Scottish Parliament has not been an effective legislature and check on executive power.

In How Can the Scottish Parliament Be Improved as a Legislature? I explore five main points ‘derived from discussions with practitioners and extrapolated from debates on the Scottish Parliament since devolution’:

1. The Scottish Parliament did not live up to expectations. We used to talk about Scottish Parliament committees being the ‘motor of new politics’. Scotland has a unicameral system, with the absence of a second chamber offset by a ‘front-loaded’ legislative process with ‘powerful committees’ (which combine standing and select committee functions) at the centre.  This power (for example, to consider the principle and details of bills before plenary) was to be supplemented by the promotion of a ‘businesslike’ attitude of committee members when scrutinising government policy and raising new issues through inquiries. Committees would operate in the context of an electoral system expected to minimise the chance of majority single party government.  At the same time, the Scottish Parliament was designed to be part of the ‘Westminster family’, with the government there to govern and the parliament to perform a traditional scrutiny function.

So, by not living up to expectations, I mean the expectations of devolution reformers such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, not the UK Government or associated bodies (Jim Johnston and I compare their expectations in What is the Role of the Scottish Parliament?). The latter can point to an unprecedented level of visible parliamentary scrutiny of Scottish government.

2. The Scottish Parliament does not scrutinise government legislation sufficiently

We can point to four main gaps in scrutiny:

  • The Scottish Government dominates a punishing legislative agenda and committees are part of a sausage machine/ conveyor belt with limited change to scrutinise. This point was made most strongly from 1999-2003 and 2003-2007 when Labour and the LibDems formed a majority coalition government and passed 50/ 53 bills per 4-year session. The SNP minority government 2007-11 passed 41 (and dropped bills on a local income tax, and the referendum).
  • From 1999-2007, committees argued that they had minimal time to produce agenda setting inquiries. From 2007-11, they had more time but did not fill the gap.
  • Governments can pursue many policy aims without the need for parliamentary approval of legislation.
  • The Scottish Parliament has struggled to get enough information to scrutinise effectively – particularly from public bodies out of immediate Scottish Government control (local authorities, health boards and non-departmental public bodies).

3. The Scottish Parliament does not have a sufficiently large professionally trained staff

Committee MSPs are supported by a few dozen staff, overseeing the work of a Scottish Government spending around £30bn and employing around half a million employees, including over 16,000 civil servants and over 10,000 in quangos. The trend has been to reduce those parliamentary numbers in the ‘age of austerity’.

4. The party whip undermines independent scrutiny, or parties do not engage with the legislative process

Since 1999, the main parties have been remarkably well whipped. So, the majority coalition government was able to dominate the legislative timetable, votes and even the decisions on committee size and membership. Minority government did not cause a profound shift in the parliament-government relationship (although the SNP was obliged to seek coalitions with some parties, particularly to secure the vote on its annual budget bill, and it worked well with the Conservatives). Politics often became more adversarial, with much debate moving from committees to plenary. If this is what Nordic-style minority party consensualism looks like, we have been sold a dud.

5. The Scottish Parliament would benefit from an upper chamber

An independent Scottish political system will, almost certainly, be unicameral. So, the more realistic discussion is about how to make up for the absence of a second chamber. The experience of Scottish devolution since 1999 is that a ‘front-loaded’ system, with committees at its heart, does not provide anything like the ‘checks and balances culture that we might associate with the diffusion of power between legislative arenas and institutions’. Majority single party government, combined with a strong party whip and the limitations of Scottish Parliament resources, does not fit the bill. Although there are additional financial/ audit checks on Scottish Government activity, and wider checks such as membership of the EU (and a commitment to the ECHR), the unicameral Scottish Parliament experience points to the need for something like a written constitution outlining the new roles and responsibilities of institutions.

In an independent or further devolved Scotland, the Scottish Parliament will not be an effective legislature and check on executive power.

I don’t think it would surprise many people if further devolution produced no change in the size of the Scottish Parliament and its relationship with the Scottish Government. Even in the absence of an ‘age of austerity’, it is difficult to argue for more parliamentary resources and very few are willing to do so. Only independence, and a sense of major change, produces the ‘window of opportunity’ to reconsider the role of policymaking institutions fundamentally. Yet, I haven’t seen any major group making a serious push in this direction (although see this thread on Better Nation). Of greater note is that idea that local bodies will take on more political and policymaking responsibilities and that the Scottish Parliament could even remain almost untouched. You can follow this in a related post, in which I try to sum up those positions. Each position would, I think, either produce the same or reduced levels of Scottish Parliament involvement in the politics and policymaking of the Scottish Government and the public sector:

table 129 msps


Filed under Scottish politics

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning

(podcast download)

‘Policy learning’ describes the use of knowledge to inform policy decisions. That knowledge can be based on information regarding the current problem, lessons from the past or lessons from the experience of others. This is a political, not technical or objective, process (for example, see the ACF post). ‘Policy transfer’ describes the transfer of policy solutions or ideas from one place to another, such as by one government importing the policy in another country (note related terms such as ‘lesson-drawing’, ‘policy diffusion’ and ‘policy convergence’ – transfer is a catch-all, umbrella, term). Although these terms can be very closely related (one would hope that a government learns from the experiences of another before transferring policy) they can also operate relatively independently. For example, a government may decide not to transfer policy after learning from the experience of another, or it may transfer (or ‘emulate’) without really understanding why the exporting country had a successful experience (see the post on bounded rationality). Here are some major examples:

BOX 12.1

It is a topic that lends itself well to practical advice; the ‘how to’ of policymaking. For example, Richard Rose’s ‘practical guide’ explores 10 steps:

Rose 10 lessons rotated

The descriptive/ empirical side asks these sorts of questions:

From where are lessons drawn? In the US, the diffusion literature examines which states tend to innovate or emulate. Some countries are also known as innovators in certain fields – such as Sweden and the social democratic state, Germany on inflation control and the UK on privatization. The US (or its states) tends to be a major exporter of ideas. Some countries often learn consistently from the same source (such as the UK from the US). Studies tend to highlight the reasons for borrowing from certain countries – for example, they share an ideology, common problems or policy conditions. ‘Globalization’ has also reduced practical barriers to learning between countries.

Who is involved? Apart from the usual suspects (elected officials, civil servants, interest groups), we can identify the role of federal governments (for states), international organizations (for countries), ‘policy entrepreneurs’ (who use their experience in one country to sell that policy to another – such as the Harvard Business School professor travelling the world selling ‘new public management’), international networks of experts (who feed up ideas to their national governments), multinational corporations (who encourage the ‘race to the bottom’, or the reduction of taxes and regulations in many countries), and other countries (such as the US).

Why transfer? Is transfer voluntary? The Dolowitz/ Marsh continuum sums up the idea that some forms of transfer are more voluntary than others. ‘Lesson-drawing’ is about learning from another country’s experience without much pressure (see the book to explain why I scribbled out some of the text!). At the other end is coercion. They place ‘conditionality’ near that end of the spectrum, since the idea is that countries who are so desperate to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund will feel they have no choice but to accept the IMF’s conditions – which usually involves reducing the role/ size of the state (although note the difference between agreeing to those conditions and meeting them). ‘Obligated transfer’ is further to the left because, for example, member states sign up to be influenced by EU institutions. Indirect coercion describes countries who feel they have to follow the lead of others, simply to ‘keep up’ or to respond to the ‘externalities’ or ‘spillovers’ of the policies of the other country (they are often felt most by small countries which share a border with larger countries).

figure 12.1 DM continuum

What is transferred? How much is transferred? Transfer can range from the decision to completely duplicate the substantive aims and institutions associated with a major policy change, taking decades to complete, to the vague inspiration (or the very quick decision not to emulate and, instead, to learn ‘negative lessons’).  It can also be a cover for something you planned to do anyway – ‘international experience’ is a great selling point.

What determines the likelihood and success of policy transfer? For an importing government to be successful, it should study the exporting country’s policy – and political system – enough to know what made it a success and if that success is transferable. Often, this is not done (governments may emulate without being particularly diligent) or it is not possible, since the policy may only work under particular circumstances (and we may not always know what those circumstances are). Much also depends on the implementation of policy, particularly when the transfer is encouraged by one organization and accepted reluctantly by another (such as when the EU, with limited enforcement powers, puts pressure on recalcitrant member states).

These questions are best asked alongside the general questions we explore in policymaking studies, including:

  • Bounded rationality and Incrementalism – do governments engage in trial-and-error and learn from their own mistakes first?  Is learning and transfer restricted to the ‘most similar’ regions because there is no point in learning from countries radically different from our own?  Do some governments emulate without learning? Is transfer from another, more innovative, government a common rule of thumb?
  • Multi-level Governance – does the existence of more policymaking arenas produce more innovation and a greater demand for learning? Or, does the diffusion of power undermine the ability of a central government to adopt policies from others?
  • Punctuated equilibrium – is transfer a rare opportunity produced by the sudden and unpredictable attention to new ideas?

Further Reading:

I explore these issues (and Rose’s advice) in a paper examining what Japan can learn from the UK’s experience of regionalism. It includes a discussion (summarised from Keating et al – Paywall Green) of the extent to which policy converges in a devolved UK and how much of that we can attribute to transfer and/ or learning:

Keating et al 2012 summary from japan paper


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Japan, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Policy Cycle and its Stages

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

(podcast download)

The classic way to study policymaking is to break it down into stages. The stages have changed over the years, and vary by country, but the basic ideas remain the same:

  1. Descriptive. Let’s simplify a complex world by identifying its key elements.
  2. Prescriptive. Let’s work out how to make policy, to translate public demands into government action (or at least to carry out government policy).


A cycle divides the policy process into a series of stages, from a notional starting point at which policymakers begin to think about a policy problem to a notional end point at which a policy has been implemented and policymakers think about how successful it has been before deciding what to do next. The image is of a continuous process rather than a single event. The evaluation stage of policy 1 represents the first stage of policy 2, as lessons learned in the past set the agenda for choices to be made in the future:

  • Agenda setting. Identifying problems that require government attention, deciding which issues deserve the most attention and defining the nature of the problem.
  • Policy formulation. Setting objectives, identifying the cost and estimating the effect of solutions, choosing from a list of solutions and selecting policy instruments.
  • Legitimation. Ensuring that the chosen policy instruments have support. It can involve one or a combination of: legislative approval, executive approval, seeking consent through consultation with interest groups, and referenda.
  • Implementation. Establishing or employing an organization to take responsibility for implementation, ensuring that the organization has the resources (such as staffing, money and legal authority) to do so, and making sure that policy decisions are carried out as planned.
  • Evaluation. Assessing the extent to which the policy was successful or the policy decision was the correct one; if it was implemented correctly and, if so, had the desired effect.
  • Policy maintenance, succession or termination. Considering if the policy should be continued, modified or discontinued.

The cycle is useful in many ways. It is simple and understandable. It can be applied to all political systems. The emphasis on cycles highlights fluid policymaking.  There is also a wide range of important studies (and key debates) based on the analysis of particular stages – such as the top-down versus bottom-up approaches to the study of policymaking.

top down bottom up

However, the stages approach is no longer central to policy studies, partly because it does not help explain what it describes, and partly because it oversimplifies a complex world (does it also seem to take the politics out of policymaking? In other words, note the often-fraught politics of seemingly-innocuous stages such as evaluation). The policymaking system may be seen more as a collection of thousands of policy cycles, which interact with each other to produce much less predictable outcomes.  Indeed, many of the theories or concepts outlined in this series serve as replacements for a focus on cycles (see the The Advocacy Coalition Framework and Multiple Streams Analysis in particular).

The prescriptive side of cycles and stages is a bit more interesting, because it may be both unrealistic and useful at the same time. Stages can be used to organise policymaking in a simple way: identify policymaker aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is legitimised by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement and then evaluate the policy.  The academic idea is simple and the consequent advice to policy practitioners is straightforward.  It is difficult – but not impossible – to describe a more meaningful, more realistic, analytical model to policymakers (and give advice on how to act) in the same straightforward way.


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Bounded Rationality and Incrementalism

(podcast download)

Note: I don’t write so much about incrementalism in the 2nd edition. If you would like more of the background, please see see chapter 5 in the 1st ed of Understanding Public Policy

A classic starting point in policy studies is to compare ideal-types (which might be ideals to aspire to) with the real world. The classic example is comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality. The idea is that elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process (aims are identified, the means to achieve those aims are produced and one is selected) and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility.

Its comparator is ‘bounded rationality’ (coined by Simon) which suggests that policymakers’ ability to make and implement decisions is more problematic. We question our ability to separate values and facts. We note that policymakers have multiple, often unclear, objectives which are difficult to rank in any meaningful way. We wonder if the policy process is so ordered and linear (or if policymakers sometimes select a solution that already exists to a problem defined for them). We know that policymaking organizations have limited knowledge and research capabilities; that they have to use major shortcuts to gather a limited amount of information in a limited time. We know not to seek policymaking perfection, but something that is good enough. We don’t ‘maximize’ – we ‘satisfice’.

We can use this discussion to go down two main paths. The first is empirical/ descriptive. Lindblom’s famous conclusion is that bounded rationality helps cause incrementalism[i]. Organizations use simplifying strategies, such as limiting policy analysis to a small number of policy choices which diverge incrementally from the status quo (based on the argument that it is better to analyse a few issues comprehensively than seek comprehensive coverage of all issues). They use trial and error. Rather than ranking preferences in advance, they test their willingness to trade off one aim for another when they make policy decisions. They use an incremental strategy as a rule of thumb: if a previous policy commanded widespread respect then policymakers recognise the costs (analytical and political) of a significant departure from it.

If we follow this empirical path, we want to know if policymaking, and its outcome, is incremental. This picture of policymaking seemed to be common wisdom for some time: Lindblom’s critics often bemoaned the problems with the outcome, not his analysis. We can also identify related terms such as path dependence, policy succession and inheritance before choice which, albeit in different ways, highlight the dependence of current policy decisions on those made in the past. More recently, punctuated equilibrium theory suggests that incrementalism is not the full story. Rather, we can identify a mix of ‘hyper-incrementalism’ and radical change; a huge number of small changes and a small number of huge changes. Studies of policy diffusion also suggest that bounded rationality often prompts governments to emulate the (often radical) policies of other governments without fully understanding their success. So, we can now identify, in the literature, a common focus on bounded rationality as a starting point, but some very different conclusions about policy change.

The second path is normative/ prescriptive. Lindblom’s early work was often criticised for selling incrementalism as good practice: focusing on radical options is futile if no-one will countenance them anyway; policy in a series of steps reduces serious mistakes; and, existing policy is good if based on wide agreement. It prompted intense debate, focused on the extent to which incrementalism was appropriate when governments had a mandate for, or a need to engage in, radical change. Lindblom’s thinking also changed to some extent, to reflect his diminishing belief that the US political system was pluralistic and therefore a vehicle for policy based on widespread agreement.

This debate took place when Lindblom was contrasting policymaking in the US with the Soviet Union. Incrementalism was partly an antidote to ‘central planning’. While that specific debate has aged, we can still identify a broader concern with the centralization of power. The ideal of comprehensive rationality includes an assumption that power is held centrally by policymakers whose decisions are carried out by neutral bureaucrats or other organizations. In other words, a central decision maker should control the policy process; power should reside in the hands of elites at the top/ the centre at the expense of other actors. This raises debates about the balance between central and local government power, particularly when both have electoral mandates. We should also consider our need to balance authority at the top with local knowledge at the bottom; to balance the delegation of policymaking to people who know best how to do it with the maintenance of a meaningful degree of accountability for the outcomes. For example, you can see this debate play out in studies which apply complexity theory to public policy. In practice, the descriptive/ prescriptive elements of these discussions become blurred. One may argue for particular arrangements not only based on principle but also because they appear to work.

Much of the postwar debate took place in the idiosyncratic US, but incrementalism (or, in some cases, inertia) has been identified as a defining feature in systems such as Japan, Italy and Germany. It is tempting to associate incrementalism with particular types of system, such as ‘consensus democracies’ or systems with diffused power and multiple veto points – in contrast to the ‘majoritarian’ or ‘top-down’ UK. Yet, incrementalism’s key features – bounded rationality; the necessity of bargaining and compromise between actors who have different information, different interests and conflicting views; and, the need to build on past policies – may be ‘universal’.

[i] Policymaking through non-radical steps. Note that the meaning of ‘incrementalism’ is not always clear and that Lindblom is not its only exponent – look out for Wildavsky too.


Filed under 1000 words, public policy, UK politics and policy

If the Vote is Yes: What Will Be the Size of the Scottish Parliament?

comrehensive rationalitybounded rationality

One truism in policy studies is that the messy real world of policymaking contrasts markedly with the ideal of comprehensive rationality. The size of the Scottish Parliament in an independent Scotland could become a good example. Consider the extreme, ‘comprehensively rational’, process in which there are no limits to the gathering and consideration of information. We would: search the globe for comparable systems; look at their experiences in area such as representation and scrutiny; consider how best to design staffing levels and the use of their time; learn from over a decade of devolution; think about the size of Scotland and its level of responsibilities; debate the proper role of the Scottish Parliament (scrutinising government, setting the agenda with inquiries, becoming a hub for popular participation, informing the public, etc.) and use that sort of information to decide how many MSPs (and parliamentary staff) we should have.

Now, compare that to the real world in which we have limited information, limited time in which to consider information, and limited cognitive skills. We need some major shortcuts, to gather a sufficient amount of the right kind of information; the information that we don’t have, but we know we want to know. The real stuff.

I reckon that the main considerations (at least before the vote, if it is discussed at all) are:

  • What do we think the public will wear? This is not a good time to be talking about more MSPs and the greater cost of representation. So, I reckon that, if we simply have more devolution, the Scottish Parliament will stay at 129 MSPs and there will be a lot of talk about being more efficient. Only independence gives us that ‘window of opportunity’ to think bigger.
  • What is the back-of-the-envelope figure? It is probably just 129 MSPs plus 59 MPs equals 184 mega-MSPs (see here for something more sophisticated).
  • How much will change cost and how visible will the cost be? Few people pay attention to the details of Scottish politics, but loads of people remember the humdinging cost of the Scottish Parliament. Few will want to see a repeat. There is not enough room in the Scottish Parliament to accommodate 59 or more MSPs. Something has to give.

So, there may be a big decision to make in the future. For now, it’s probably best if we don’t think about these little things when the big matters of principle are to be discussed. Or, you can try raising the issue then wish you hadn’t:

See also: 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?


compare with:

Scott’s answer was Yes (no surprises there) at 4m50s

UPDATE 2: based on a question from @loveandgarbage, I should say that the same issues arises in the Scottish Government civil service. You would think that, in many areas, the size of the Scottish Government would have to be really beefed up. However, we are currently in the ‘age of austerity’ which may be pushing down civil service numbers in many areas. People are leaving, and other people are taking on more jobs. So, by 2016, ‘beefed up’ may mean more than the day before but not a huge amount more than a few years before. The difficulty is that, since the Thatcher Governments started getting creative about calling civil servants something else, it has often been difficult to track consistent numbers over the years. Still, here is what Neil McGarvey and I produced in 2008:

box 6.4 2008

and here is what we produced in 2013:

box 6.4 2013

At least we can use these for comparison if the time comes.

In both cases – Parliament and Government – one suggestion is that we won’t need to beef up existing national institutions because, instead, we can beef up local institutions. This is discussed at length by the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s report The Silent Crisis, ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max , COSLA’s Local Matters and its new Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy (also discussed here).

I have already been a bit sarcastic about this idea in a different post (here), so all I will say is this: the argument I’m getting at still holds. We often think we are discussing something of high principle – constitutional change and democracy – but at some point someone will cobble something together based on what they inherit and what they feel they can get away with in the current climate. All I ask is that, if the magic number remains 129, we all recognise how we came to it – a bog standard political decision, not a highfalutin principled one. For example, if the Scottish Government recommends 129 MSPs in an independent Scotland, the proposal should be followed by a full smiley face or one of those winky 😉 faces.

Update 4.12.13
p45 of the White Paper says ‘The Scottish Parliament will become the Parliament of an independent Scotland. It will continue to have 129 members’. There is no winky face.

Then I’ll finish with this table outlining the options so far, with the third column outlining the implicit messages in the limited debate so far:

table 129 msps

You might have to look hard, but there are some parallels with current debates on regionalism in Japan:


Filed under Scottish politics

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Westminster Model and Multi-level Governance


(podcast download)

A stark comparison between the ‘Westminster Model’ (WM) and Multi-level Governance (MLG) allows us to consider the difference between accountable government and the messy real world of policymaking. The WM may be used as an ideal-type to describe how power is centralized in the hands of a small number of elites:

  • We rely on representative, not participatory, democracy.
  • The plurality electoral system exaggerates the parliamentary majority of the biggest party and allows it to control Parliament.
  • A politically neutral civil service acts according to ministerial wishes.
  • The prime minister controls cabinet and ministers.

We may also identify an adversarial style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. The government is responsible for the vast majority of public policy and it uses its governing majority, combined with a strong party ‘whip’ to make sure that its legislation is passed by Parliament.  Power is centralized and government policy is made from the top-down. In turn, the government is accountable to public, via Parliament, on the assumption that it is powerful, responsible and takes responsibility for public policy.

In contrast, MLG suggests that power is spread widely across the political system:

  • Vertically – at supranational, national, regional and local levels ((hence multi-level).
  • Horizontally – shared between government departments and a range of non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental (quango) bodies (hence governance rather than government).

The hook is that we are witnessing a major transformation: from national governing institutions to supranational and sub-national governing institutions; and, from central government to the different levels of government and non-governmental organizations that interact with them. MLG identifies blurred boundaries between formal and informal sources of authority which make it difficult to identify clear-cut decisions or power relations.

In the international arena, MLG suggests that it is difficult to identify sovereignty within national governments. Rather, they are tied increasingly to the policies agreed between states and implemented by international organizations. In the domestic arena, the interdependence between public and private actors (and levels of government which share responsibility) suggests that governments do not rely solely on formal decision-making powers. Instead, they may choose (or be forced) to ‘steer’ rather than ‘row’, negotiating the delivery of public services with a range of organizations, when in the past they delivered them directly.

table 8.1

We can think of these contrasts in two main ways. The first approach is a specific empirical look at countries such as the UK, considering how we got to this point. Much of the UK governance literature suggests that governments created their own domestic governance problems through things like:

  • Privatization. The sale of public assets, break up of state monopolies, injection of competition, introduction of public–private partnerships for major capital projects, and charging for government services.
  • Quasi-markets. One part of the public sector competes with another for the ‘business’ of commissioning agencies.
  • Reforming the civil service by giving them more responsibility to manage their own budgets, and separating the policymaking and delivery functions in government departments.
  • The increased use of quangos (often to bypass local government as a delivery body) – public bodies sponsored by government, but operating at ‘arm’s length’ from elected policymakers and administratively separate from government.
  • Contracting out – commissioning non-governmental bodies to deliver public services.

People like Rhodes have argued that the overall effect of these ‘new public management’ reforms, combined with a process of devolution and Europeanization, is a decline in the capacity of central government to control public policy. The rise of new ways to deliver policy – from a unified civil service and accountable local government to a ‘patchwork quilt’ of quangos and non-governmental organizations – has produced service fragmentation and barriers to effective communication. It has also diminished accountability to Parliament via ministers, with much responsibility devolved to agencies, quangos and the private sector or lost to European institutions. The counter-case is that the government was never effective at controlling peripheral functions of the state such as the nationalized industries. Governance changes, such as privatization and civil service reforms, mark a return to core competencies, with the centre making strategic decisions and creating accountability and regulatory mechanisms to ensure that these functions are carried out by others.

The second approach is conceptual, considering the extent to which any system can concentrate policymaking power in the ‘core executive’ even if it tried. ‘Governance’ can be traced to a universal problem in which policymakers have to find ways to deal with the disconnect between their huge responsibilities and their ability to pay attention only to a tiny proportion of the things for which they are responsible. Policymakers devolve the responsibility for policy management to civil servants. Unelected civil servants, unable to secure the attention of ministers, tend to seek legitimacy through consultation. They also depend upon groups for information and advice. The result is policy networks/ communities, or policymaking relationships between those in formal positions of responsibility and those who seek to influence them. It is difficult to attribute responsibility solely to the former. Decision-making authority is dispersed and policy outcomes are determined by a series of negotiations between various levels of government and interest groups. Our focus shifts from formal powers and the capacity to make and enforce decisions, to the much more messy systems in which the distinction between formal and informal sources of authority becomes less meaningful. With decision-making responsibility shared across multiple levels of government (and with non-governmental actors), formal responsibility may be less important than a willingness to engage in policymaking and negotiate with other jurisdictions. In effect, MLG continues and extends a policy networks focus on the move from government sovereignty to a loss of decision-making control and the need to negotiate and share decisions rather than impose them.

This conceptual focus allows us to make connections between our study of different countries. Consider, for example, how this discussion of MLG (largely in Europe) compares to my description of punctuated equilibrium as it began in the US.


Filed under 1000 words, public policy, UK politics and policy


20131107-154843.jpg I don’t do Movember properly because I’m too self conscious and my moustache comes in too long and ginger, but Stuart- – and Malcolm – – are better at it.

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November 7, 2013 · 4:49 pm

A Concise Response to Any Question

Sometimes you need to give a quick response to a media inquiry. Often journalists spread their net a bit, looking for something quick from the first responder (to add to an almost-finished audio piece). There’s no need to be bitter about this – better to be prepared. And concise. And you don’t want to say something too specific or controversial – particularly if you are responding to questions on a sensitive topic. You also want to give the sense that the question might be simple but, by gosh, the answer is complex. It’s hard to give that impression in a sound-bite response. Until now. If said properly, this is a maximum of one word in under one second.


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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Folksy wisdom

The Academic Interview

I have seen a few posts recently giving advice and perspective on applying for academic posts – such as Nadine Muller on her early interview experience and Steve Joy’s annoying-but-good advice on CVs . I can’t give any useful advice on doing a good interview, since I have messed up every time (even the feedback from my 2 successes was that, to some extent, I got the job despite the interview). Only point 7 is based on my experience at that side of the table. However, I have sat on a few panels in the last few years, so can give some practical advice from that side:

  1. There is a range of processes, from the entry-level to the higher grades (and from University to University), which affect your preparation. Most notably, you don’t always do a presentation and interview to the same people. For a lectureship, you might present to the department then have a completely separate interview process (perhaps the following day) with people who did not see the presentation. For a research job, the (often very brief) presentation is part of the whole. If so, you may be doing a presentation to 3-5 people.
  2. In either case, assume that the interview audience is the one to impress – the departmental audience may have a minimal input.
  3. To a panel of 3-5 people, interviewing 5 people in a day, a lengthy powerpoint presentation can be particularly awkward. If you are swithering about keeping to time, or cramming in information, go for the former. If you get it right, it will show that you can explain complex ideas concisely.
  4. Doing an interview remotely is very high bar. It is difficult to maintain a constant connection between you and your audience, and to pick up vital social cues.
  5. Don’t haver when you are asked the generic question: why here, why now? For many panels, this is not just an ice breaker. We want to know if you have done your homework on our institution. We want to hear particular evidence that, at least, you have checked our website for a sense of who is here and what we are doing – then how you might fit in and make a contribution (although, note that University websites are often out of date).  We want to know if this is just one of many applications you have made. We want to feel special.
  6. At the entry-level, the interview performance may count a little bit more. At the chair level, a lot has already been decided since you are being judged on your long record in your CV (or, in the UK, if you are appointed near the census date for the research assessment exercise, you may be judged on your ‘best 4’). At the entry level, there is a bigger judgement to be made about potential, which is difficult (but not impossible) to judge on short CVs – particularly when all the shortlisted candidates have a PhD and a small number of publications. I have seen a few people rocket up the short-list rankings after a good interview performance, where they are well prepared for questions and can think on their feet (since many of us academic types like to think that we are creative; that it’s not just a job that anyone can do well).
  7. Don’t drink too much coffee then tell the panel that you are wired.

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing