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