Monthly Archives: December 2013

Memoirs of an anonymous special adviser

Much coverage of British politics has become a club, in which a tiny group of people speaks to a tiny group of other people about the shitty little details of political events at the expense of the big picture. This tumblr account is its logical conclusion. Forget the long term context, it’s just about him or her – http://anonspad.tumblr.com

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure (Evaluation)

(podcast download)

Policy success is in the eye of the beholder. The evaluation of success is political in several ways. It can be party political, when election campaigns focus on the record of the incumbent government. Policy decisions produce winners and losers, prompting disputes about success between actors with different aims. Evaluation can be political in subtler but as-important ways, involving scientific disputes about:

  • How long we wait to evaluate.
  • How well-resourced our evaluation should be.
  • The best way to measure and explain outcomes.
  • The ‘benchmarks’ to use – should we compare outcomes with the past or other countries?
  • How we can separate the effect of policy from other causes, in a complex world where randomised-controlled-trials are often difficult to use.

In this more technical-looking discussion, the trade-off is between the selection of a large mixture of measures that are hard to work with, or a small number of measures that are handpicked and represent no more than crude proxies for success.

Evaluation is political because we set the agenda with the measures we use, by prompting a focus on some aims at the expense of others. A classic example is the aim to reduce healthcare waiting times, which represent a small part of health service activity but generate disproportionate attention and action, partly because outcomes are relatively visible and easy to measure. Many policies are implemented and evaluated using such proxies: the government publishes targets to provide an expectation of implementer behaviour; and, regulatory bodies exist to monitor compliance.

Let’s consider success in terms of the aims of the person responsible for the policy. It raises four interesting issues:

  1. The aims of that policymaker may not be clear. For example, they may not say why they made particular choices, they may have many reasons, their reasons may not be specific enough to be meaningful, and/or they may not be entirely truthful.
  2. Policymaking is a group effort, which magnifies the problem of identifying a single, clear, aim.
  3. Aims are not necessarily noble. Marsh and McConnell describe three types. Process measures success in terms of its popularity among particular groups and its ease of passage through the legislature. Political describes its effect on the government’s popularity. Programmatic describes its implementation in terms of original aims, its effect in terms of intended outcomes, and the extent to which it represented an ‘efficient use of resources’. Elected policymakers may justify their actions in programmatic terms, but be more concerned with politics and process. Or, their aims may be unambitious. We could identify success in their terms but still feel that major problems remain unsolved.
  4. Responsibility is a slippery concept. In a Westminster system, we may hold ministers to be ultimately responsible but, in practice, responsibility is shared with a range of people in various types and levels of government. In multi-level political systems, responsibility may be shared with several elected bodies with their own mandates and claims to pursue distinctive aims.

Traditionally, these responsibility issues were played out in top-down and bottom-up discussions of policy implementation. For the sake of simplicity, the ‘top’ is the policymaker at the heart of central government and we try to explain success or failure according to the extent to which policy implementation met these criteria:

1.   The policy’s objectives are clear, consistent and well communicated and understood.

2.   The policy will work as intended when implemented.

3.   The required resources are committed to the programme.

4.   Policy is implemented by skilful and compliant officials.

5.   Success does not depend on cooperation from many bodies.

6.   Support from influential groups is maintained.

7.   Demographic and socioeconomic conditions, and unpredictable events beyond the control of policymakers, do not significantly undermine the process.

Such explanations for success still have some modern day traction, such as in recommendations by the Institute for Government:

  1. Understand the past and learn from failure.
  2. Open up the policy process.
  3. Be rigorous in analysis and use of evidence.
  4. Take time and build in scope for iteration and adaptation.
  5. Recognise the importance of individual leadership and strong personal relationships.
  6. Create new institutions to overcome policy inertia.
  7. Build a wider constituency of support.

Alternatively, ‘bottom-up’ studies prompted a shift of analysis, towards a larger number of organisations which made policy as they carried it out – and had legitimate reasons to diverge from the aims set at the ‘top’. Indeed, central governments might encourage a bottom up approach, by setting a broad strategy and accepting that other bodies will implement policy in their own way. However, this is difficult to do in Westminster systems, where government success is measured in terms of ministerial and party manifesto aims.

Examples of success and failure?

Many implementation studies focus on failure, including Pressman and Wildavsky’s ‘How Great Expectations in Washington are Dashed in Oakland’ and Marsh & Rhodes’ focus on the ‘implementation gap’ during the Thatcher Government era (1979-90).

In contrast, the IFG report focuses on examples of success, derived partly from a vote by UK political scientists, including: the national minimum wage, Scottish devolution, and privatisation.

Note the respondents’ reasons for declaring success, based on a mix of their personal values and their assessment of process, political and programmatic factors.  They declare success in very narrow terms, as the successful delivery in the short term.

So, privatisation is a success because the government succeeded in raising money, boosting its popularity and international reputation – not because we have established that the nationalized industries work better in the private sector.

Similarly, devolution was a declared a success because it solved a problem (local demand for self-autonomy), not because devolved governments are better at making policy or their policies have improved the lives of the Scottish population (Neil McGarvey and I discuss this here).

Individual policy instruments like the smoking ban are often treated in similar ways – we declare instant success when the bill passes and public compliance is high, then consider the longer term successes (less smoking, less secondhand smoke) later.

Further reading and watching: (1) Can a Policy Fail and Succeed at the Same Time?

(2)  http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/34735

Why should you read and watch this case study? I hesitate to describe UK tobacco control as a success because it instantly looks like I am moralising, and because it is based on a narrow set of policymaking criteria rather than an outcome in the population (it is up to you to decide if the UK’s policies are appropriate and its current level of smoking and health marks policy success). However, it represents a way to explore success in terms of several ‘causal factors’ (Peter John) that arise in each 1000 Words post: institutions, networks, socioeconomic conditions and ideas. Long term tobacco control ‘success’ happened because:

  • the department of health took the policy lead (replacing trade and treasury departments);
  • tobacco is ‘framed’ as a pressing public health problem, not an economic good;
  • public health groups are consulted at the expense of tobacco companies;
  • socioeconomic conditions (including the value of tobacco taxation, and public attitudes to tobacco control) are conducive to policy change;
  • and, the scientific evidence on the harmful effects of smoking and secondhand smoking are ‘set in stone’ within governments.

The ‘take home’ message here is that ‘success’ depends as much on a policy environment conducive to change as the efficacy of political instruments and leadership qualities of politicians.

Update September 2019

I have now written up this UK tobacco discussion in this book:

Paul Cairney (2019) ‘The transformation of UK tobacco control’ in (eds) Mallory Compton and Paul ‘t Hart Great Policy Successes: How Governments Get It Right in a Big Way at Least Some of the Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Preview PDF

Each chapter is accompanied by a case study, such as the one on UK tobacco by 

 

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

The World is Watching the Scottish Independence Debate

This appears on the ESRC website: http://www.futureukandscotland.ac.uk/blog/world-watching-scottish-independence-debate

The Scottish independence debate may, at times, seem parochial, but its reach is global. We often seem to focus on narrow Scottish issues but the big questions travel well: what should be the size of a nation state? Should large countries have central, regional and local governments? If so, how should we share those responsibilities and coordinate policymaking between levels of government? Which policy areas should be centralized and which devolved? Should regions have taxation and spending powers?

I was struck by this global interest when invited to speak about regionalism in the UK, and Scottish devolution in particular, to a Japanese audience (in meetings with policymakers, parliamentary researchers and the general public) at the National Diet Library last month. This type of exchange shows you how the big questions matter, because a large part of the Scottish experience does not apply to Japan at all: proponents of ‘doshu-sei’ want to use it to foster economic policymaking powers in regions and to help reduce the national debt by slimming down central government. There is almost no equivalent in Japan to something that we generally take for granted in the UK – the groundswell of popular support for a degree of Scottish self-government. Instead, the lessons are about regional policymaking:

  • Scotland has shown that regional governments can make policy differently and introduce different policies. They can foster meaningful networks between governments, business, professional and voluntary groups, and they can use those networks to gather knowledge to inform the production of policies more suited to a specific region.
  • The Scottish experience shows that central and regional governments can work well together. Although the UK and Scottish governments do not learn from each other very much, they have a remarkably smooth relationship. Adding a new layer of government does not cause a confusing or crowded policymaking environment.

The UK is also a potential source for broad inspiration. In Japan, the devolution of powers from central government has been piecemeal and difficult for the public to see. Some observers from Japan saw UK devolution as a major high profile event (even though we often call it a ‘process’) and see Scotland in particular as a hub for regional policy and economic innovation. This experience may be used to sell regionalism in Japan as a necessarily ‘bold’ step, to engage the public imagination and address political crisis.

So, the next time you see what looks to be a parochial and inward looking argument in Scotland, remember that the world is watching too. What we often take for granted and treat as humdrum may be viewed very differently elsewhere.

This is where the role of the ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland programme is crucial. External observers need a way to condense a huge amount of information and experience into a set of ‘take-home’ messages. We have shown that research is as much about external engagement as knowledge gathering – and that, even at this early stage, we are well placed to provide it.

See also The International Image of Scottish Devolution: a view from Japan

What Can Japan Learn from Devolution in the UK?

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Politics

Politics. noun. The place where people criticise each other in public while most decisions are being made in private.

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The Tobacco ‘Endgame’

The journal Tobacco Control has a section discussing the idea of an endgame. Previously, the focus was on controlling the tobacco market and reducing smoking. Now, the focus is often on eradicating both. So far, there are two main types of paper:

  • Those which propose new, harder, policy instruments – from introducing new regulations on tobacco products (including nicotine content) and the sales practices of the industry, to a ban on the sale of cigarettes altogether or to people born after a particular date.
  • Those which discuss politics and policymaking – including discussions about the level of consensus on the scientific and ethical case for endgame policies. Some papers consider the most-likely organisations to foster an endgame approach, although most are examining the peculiarities of the US.
  • One paper by Myers argues that the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) remains a key means to ensure global tobacco control: the problem is not a lack of new policy instruments, but the ‘political will’ to implement the ones we have.

This is where our (soon to be submitted) paper comes in. Hadii Mamudu and I aim to draw on the insights from the public policy literature (and interviews with policymakers and advocates across several countries) to (a) demonstrate the importance of this focus on politics and policymaking; and (b) explain in detail how and why that is important.

I won’t post the paper yet (to address concerns by the Journal ) but here is the draft abstract, followed by a draft set of bullet points which will accompany the submission:

The tobacco ‘endgame’ represents a major shift in focus, from controlling the tobacco market and reducing smoking, to eradicating both. Yet, the uneven spread of effective global tobacco control suggests that this outcome is far more likely in some countries than others.  We analyse the implementation of the FCTC to identify this problem, and synthesis the public policy literature to present a solution. The aim is to come as close as possible to the ideal-type of ‘comprehensive tobacco control regimes’, in which countries have policy environments conducive to the introduction of a wide range measures to reduce the demand for, and supply of, tobacco products. This would require the following policy processes in each country: their department of health takes the policy lead (replacing trade and treasury departments); tobacco is ‘framed’ as a pressing public health problem, not an economic good; public health groups are consulted at the expense of tobacco companies; socioeconomic conditions (including the value of tobacco taxation, and public attitudes to tobacco control) are conducive to policy change; and, the scientific evidence on the harmful effects of smoking and secondhand smoking are ‘set in stone’ within governments.

Why the issues discussed are important in terms of controlling tobacco use:

  • It makes a crucial contribution to Tobacco Control’s endgame debate.
  • Too many academic articles recommend policy instruments alone, to solve problems, without considering how effective they will be implemented
  • The policy process is not a ‘black box’. Instead, it is a system or environment that has to be understood in considerable depth – using the wealth of policy sciences literature.
  • The scientific research on tobacco control will not be fully evidence-based if we focus solely on the evidence on smoking related behaviour, or the efficacy of some policy instruments in isolation.
  • Instead, we need to consider the global context and use country comparisons to learn lessons about policy progress.
  • So far, most endgame papers in Tobacco Control have focused on instruments or the politics and policymaking of the US.
  • Only one paper supports the combination of the FCTC and ‘political will’.
  • Our paper supports and goes well beyond that argument. It gives more meaning to the vague idea of ‘political will’, which could relate (for example) to exceptional individual policymakers or organisation at various levels and types of government. It often represents vague criticism of the political process in general without trying to understand how it works.
  • We show that the policy environment, in which governments implement international agreements such as the FCTC (containing a combination of major tobacco control instruments), is just as important as the FCTC itself.
  • We suggest that the effective implementation of the FCTC could take decades – an outcome that may be frustrating, but not should not come as a surprise or necessarily prompt a shift of approach.

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Exam Marking

This photo sums up that feeling when you hand over your marking to someone else.

marking doneIt’s a song (8m40s in) about primary school teaching, but I’m sure that we all feel the same way about learning while we’re teaching:

 

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Predicting the future

20131210-191429.jpg

In my opinion, the only reliable way to predict the future (beyond a few years) is to get yourself frozen and then wake up in it.
Also, if you are a fan of the still-sort-of-fashionable complexity theory (or indeed any modern policy theory), you will know that it is difficult to predict *the present* when policies are made which involve people carrying them out or otherwise contributing to the outcomes. So, I don’t know how anyone can make a 50 year (detailed) political prediction without smiling and winking.
By lucky chance, I discuss some of these policy themes in the ‘1000 words’ section up at the top there.

 

20131210-191720.jpg

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

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Everything would be shite in an independent Scotland

FT story supermarkets 9.12.13

Adversarial politics is annoying, and people are bastards, but there is something particularly stupid about a debate that produces people gloating about how shite things would be in an independent Scotland. We might normally expect some critical analysis about stories coming from vested interests, but not if there is a line to maintain. Today’s example comes from the Daily Mail (which specialises in bile and breasts) and Financial Times (which, today, is held up as a provider of the truth carved in stone): supermarket prices will go up in an independent Scotland. Fuel and production costs will push up food costs (kept artificially low, and spread across the UK, by supermarkets just now) and Scottish Government public health policy will keep or push up the cost of tobacco and alcohol. So what might a more critical analysis of this news produce?

  1. In almost any other case, the story would be about multinational companies protecting their profits at the expense of the consumer. As with energy prices, this would normally feed into the debate about the cost of living. Yet, in this case, one side of the independence debate is forming a coalition of convenience with those companies.
  2. We should not necessarily see the food/ booze & fags argument as separate. The supermarkets have form here, signalling to the consumer that they don’t like restrictions on their trade because they would otherwise make decent profits on cigarettes and alcohol (Sainsbury has even produced a leaflet blaming the Scottish Government for a restriction in sales), and prepared to fight the Scottish Government to protect it. In this case, we should not be surprised that some of it spills over to the independence debate.
  3. Prices differ in different parts of the country anyway. It is felt particularly in rural stores which effectively keep price differences by offering only a selected range of (more expensive) products in smaller stores. Your shopping will likely be more expensive in the smaller store in Montrose than in the megasupermarket in Dundee.
  4. There is a big difference between some senior staff in supermarkets giving non-quoted scoops in the papers, or named people giving vague comments, and named chief executives actually speaking out in public with substance and subjecting these arguments to critical analysis.

Of course, this is grist to the mill for people who claim that the Yes campaign is ridiculously positive, with no room for anything going wrong. But it usually ends up with people appearing to gloat that everything would be that bit shiter in an independent Scotland.

Update 1: by the end of the day, this (oh dear) might be the story instead

compare with the more sensible:

https://twitter.com/KevinJPringle/status/410135761728847872

Update 2: other coverage is available (I’ve just clicked on any ‘related content’ on my wordpress thing)

Update 3: one of the big bones of contention for supermarkets has been resolved, which is presumably enough for them to stop intervening in the #indyref http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-business-25676222

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It’s bad weather, isn’t it?

I’m learning some basic Japanese phrases and, in Scotland just now, this seems the most useful:

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Gift Giving

I suppose that gift giving looks simple enough, but I’ve received enough gifts from Japanese colleagues (and seen them exchange gifts with each other in a particular way) to know that there is a system to it. For example, you might give the best gift to the most senior person in an organisation, then other gifts to key members of staff. I’m a poor gift giver at the best of times, so I played it safe on my recent trip to the National Diet Library by asking who, how and when? Even then, I didn’t get it quite right. Still, we look quite happy, don’t we?

Mr Otaki, the National Diet Library ‘Librarian’ (the head of this organisation, which is like the House of Commons Library combined with the British Library, or modelled on the Library of Congress) got a University of Stirling tie:

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Mr Ikemoto, the Deputy Librarian got a fancy pen (not pictured, because I messed up the presentation). Mr Amino, the Director General of the Research and Legislative Reference Bureau, also got a fancy pen

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Then, the leader of the project and ‘Senior Specialist’ Mr Yoshimoto, sub-leader and ‘Specialist’ Mr Kato, and Senior Researcher Mr Yamaguchi all got fancy pens:

SONY DSCSONY DSC SONY DSC

Everyone else did a great job of looking appreciative when I brought some Scottish shortbread – including Mr Tanaka (Director, Public Administration and Judicial Affairs Division) and Ms Matsuda (Researcher, Public Administration and Judicial Affairs Division), who took me on a tour round the National Diet (plus Mr Ashida, Ms Hagiwara and Ms Nishikawa, in the penultimate and very bottom pictures, who coordinated some of the events, showed me round the library and helped interpret some discussions) :

2013-11-25 14.53.50

Of course, as it turns out, they gave me much better gifts – and senior staff themselves paid for me to go sightseeing, at the end of the seminars, with Ms Matsuda and Ms Uehara (Researcher, Parliamentary Documents and Official Publications Division) – apologies for the picture, taken (at the base of the Tokyo Skytree) by me at arms length:

2013-11-28 15.45.33

My fancy tie/ pens ended up looking a bit second-best.  Still, we look quite happy, don’t we?  More importantly, the welcome that I got was inspirational. This trip has inspired me to begin to learn Japanese and to try to study Japan in much more detail. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point of being able to present complex ideas without an interpreter (speaking into my ear, at three different sessions, below), but I’d like to think that, the next time I visit Tokyo, I can maintain a basic conversation with the great people I met in Tokyo.

SONY DSC 13 SONY DSC

At the very least, I’d like to be able to say, ‘my flash isn’t working, but I think it still looks good’:

2013-11-26 21.22.05

See also: What Can Japan Learn from Devolution in the UK?

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An SNP Government in the Union: The Best of Both Worlds?

Sometimes, some people have a dig at the SNP by stating that support for independence has fallen since they entered office in 2007. This was not part of the plan, but is it the SNP’s fault? One argument made by John Curtice is that the SNP has become a victim of its own success. People may feel that they can enjoy the ‘best of both worlds’ by staying part of the Union and having an SNP Government ‘standing up for Scotland’. Here is one example from the SDMR in May 2008 (p39):

best both worlds

If you don’t fancy going through the 300 pages per year reports, I summarise them in this book like this:

best both worlds Cairney

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Academic Branding

The word ‘branding’ applied to academics is so pretentious that I feel dirty just typing it, but it’s a good way into thinking about how you are seen as an academic based on the decisions you make. I think that a lot of assume that we should brand ourselves according to our specialism: there’s Professor X, who knows the most about mutation, or there’s Professor Green who knows the most about mangling songs. However, there are now strongish incentives (in some disciplines – mostly social science?) to maintain some sort of generalist knowledge to further comparative, interdisciplinary and/ or ‘impact’ work. In each case, your audience may not necessarily benefit from your fiddly knowledge of a subject but, instead, appreciate how it fits into a wider picture. Let me give you some rationalised and glossed-over examples of my career to make the point:

  1. Comparative work. I’ve been paid to go to Japan 4 times (3 since 2011, 2 this year) on the back of my work on Scottish devolution. The most useful stuff here, even for academic colleagues, is the Scottish Politics textbook I did with Neil McGarvey. My most recent trip was to give talks to a public and practitioner audience where, again, few are interested in the Scottish navel.
  2. Interdisciplinary work. I’ve been working on collaborations with colleagues in subjects such as physics and psychology, The most useful stuff here is a public policy textbook I did in 2011.
  3. Specialist work. I’ve been making some good links with US colleagues, including Chris Weible (editor of Policy Studies Journal), who asked me to co-author the ‘Schlager chapter’ in the 3rd ed. of Theories of the Policy Process (you may have to trust me on how good that is). Again, this came out of work I did bringing together a discussion of theories after doing a textbook.

So, I’m convinced, based on some anecdotal evidence (which I’ve manipulated to suit my argument) that this more general textbook (and bloggy) work has been crucial to my career development – perhaps since it has helped me write in a more accessible/ less jargony way. Perhaps more importantly, it has allowed me to maintain a broad knowledge in particular fields, including policy theory and one particular area (Scotland/ UK). It is no substitute for the REF-type work we all have to do but, then again, it may not hurt either (my big book is underpinned by the policy theory work I analysed while writing a textbook).

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Indy Light part 2

Every week, I make the mistake of listening to the News Quiz on radio 4. Last week in particular was annoying because it produced a revival of the focus on Scottish independence through the lens of people who cannot be arsed to learn or think much about it. I know it’s a comedy show, but it’s not people falling over banana skins and wondering what you get when you cross a sheep with a kangaroo. No, they want to look intelligent as they get polite laughter. Yet, JH wondered aloud if Indy Light was worth bothering with, since Scotland wouldn’t be much different if it kept the Queen, BBC and the pound. Well, even as a joke, that’s just shite, isn’t it? The difference would be Scottish Government responsibility for things that are so important we should put them in capitals: NUCLEAR WEAPONS and DEFENCE, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, ENERGY, TAXATION and SOCIAL SECURITY. So, the not-worth-bothering-with argument has to go down as the worst argument of the indyref debate. It’s on a par with my relative’s argument that there’s nothing worse than wet hands.

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Indy Light part 1

When I was in Japan, I was asked to compare Scottish independence to that of Estonia. I was told that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, energy and industry was limited in Estonia, which took the opportunity to rebuild its economy on the back of IT (including companies such as Skype). The question was: would Scotland do the same? The answer is that any break from the UK does not have that same profound sense of separation, novelty and crisis. Rather, Scotland would remain a relatively rich country with natural resources and developed ‘human capital’. Its break from the rest of the UK is not radical. Rather, it will keep some meaningful institutions (including the Queen and perhaps the BBC), seek to keep the pound as its currency (although the details are hotly debated right now), become part of the EU (which will maintain many Scottish laws and practices) and maintain important social, economic and political ties to the rest of the UK. It is often described as a ‘divorce’, but it’s more likely to be Moore/ Willis than Holmes/ Cruise. I then said that modern Scottish independence is often called ‘Indy Light’, to reflect that qualified sense of separation. It took some time to explain the term, and we talked about Coke Light/ Diet Coke as the real thing without the sugar. I’m not sure what the connotation is supposed to be, though, since it began (I think) as a disparaging term – when diet coke is quite nice really.

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