Monthly Archives: January 2014

Will Scotland Keep the Pound? A speech for two audiences

Speech given by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England At a lunch hosted by the Scottish Council for Development & Industry, Edinburgh 29 January 2014

The Carney speech shows us how difficult it is to present something quite sensible and balanced without it being subject to some dodgy selective attention by both sides.

What the Yes people heard:

“Scotland is … rich. Scotland will be better … off under independence. Sharing a currency can promote investment. Sharing a currency also helps promote integration. Sharing a currency can also help to increase the mobility of labour and capital, raise trade in goods and services, and improve the flow of technology and ideas. Clearly something must be done”.

What the No people heard:

“Scotland … owe a great debt. Scotland will be overall … worse off under  independence … large costs of giving up an independent monetary policy tailored to the needs of the region … output will fall, unemployment  increase and current account deteriorate … Being in a currency union can amplify fiscal stress, and increase both the risks and consequences of financial instability … Scotland and the rest of the UK are highly integrated …a durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty”.

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Where are the Political Parties in Policy Theory?

I was giving a rundown of policy theories to a postgraduate seminar – Comparing Theories of the Policy Process: A Brief Guide for Postgraduates – and my colleague Donley Studlar asked me: where are political parties in this analysis? It prompted us to discuss the general tendency for abstract policy theory to focus on processes or concepts – actors, institutions, networks/ subsystems, ideas, context, events – and for the possibility that parties would not necessarily come up as part of the explanation. Let me give you two reasons for this:

  1. (Donley) Policy theory is interdisciplinary and many contributing disciplines are not political science.
  2. To some extent, policy theory in political science has developed in response to a fixation on elections and political parties. It is a corrective measure, to point out that elections may produce a change in the governing party but not produce major changes in policy and policymaking. Most policy is processed at a level of government that receives very little attention from ministers and parties. When we go too far, it looks like we are saying that elections and parties don’t matter, when we really want to say, less strongly, that they are not the centre of the universe.

Consequently, political parties are there if you look hard enough. Let me give you two examples:

  1. What if we described a political party, in part, as a vehicle for the beliefs of its members and leaders? In part, a party is there to help people translate their beliefs/ ideology into policy choices. If so, we are effectively describing the same process outlined in the advocacy coalition framework. People engage in politics to translate their beliefs into policy. They form coalitions with like-minded people and demonise their opponents. In that sense, parties are one part of that discussion.
  2. What if we used punctuated equilibrium theory to explain a key part of the policy process: long periods of policymaking stability and policy continuity disrupted by instability and change. We would focus on the ability of the ‘macropolitical’ system only to serial process (to consider one issue at a time) but the ability of subsystems to parallel process (many subsystems considering different issues at the same time). We would focus on the tendency of macropolitical attention to lurch from issue to issue, disrupting some subsystems but leaving the rest intact. Parties would be part of that analysis, as key groups often leading debate at the macropolitical level and, in some discussions, as elected members playing roles in particular subsystems.

Parties may also be treated in some analyses as institutions, or sets of rules and norms that guide individual behaviour, as the vehicles for policy ‘narratives’ identifying problems and assigning blame, and/ or as part of the discussion of routine events (elections producing new parties of government). So, if you have a particular interest in political parties, you can find a way to explore their role in the policy process using existing theories and concepts. They just don’t always get special attention. See also

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Comparing Theories of the Policy Process: A Brief Guide for Postgraduates

When you do a PhD in policymaking, it is likely that you have to engage significantly with the literature on policy theory. This often prompts bursts of enthusiasm, when some theories seem to be spot on, and periods of frustration, when theories seem to be deficient in some way. For example, they might only explain one part of the ‘policy process’ when you want to explain it all, or they are difficult to operationalise and apply to specific cases. This may be a particular problem for PhDs focused primarily on a substantive case study. You will find that the case study is too complicated to be explained fully by a relatively simple theory designed to be applied across a range of cases. You may then think about what to do, focusing on two main possibilities:

First, should I propose my own theory, which takes insights from other theories but puts them together in a new way, perhaps with a new terminology? My advice is: no (or not unless you are convinced that you are a genius, destined to become the new Sabatier, Kingdon, Ostrom, Schneider, Ingram, Baumgartner or Jones). Don’t confuse a better explanation for your case with a better overall explanation. Your theory is not backed up in the same way by multiple applications and long term refinement.

Second, should I use the insights from a range of established policy theories to inform my case study? My advice is: yes, but be careful. Read this Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories. Then, consider what you are trying to do. In most cases, your aim is to account for a significant part of the policy process. Tanya Heikkila and I describe what that might entail. In Theories of the Policy Process 3rd ed.  we identify (with a lot of input from Chris Weible) what we think are the main elements of the policy process that a theory or case should cover:

  1. “Actors making choices.  We need to simplify a policymaking world which may include thousands of people, into a set of categories and/ or discussion of the key actors involved. Actors can be individuals or collectives, and collectives can range from private companies to interest groups to governments bodies. We also need to account for the ways in which people act; their calculations and motivations. For example, most theories use ‘bounded rationality’ as a springboard for explanation, while others focus on motivations such as beliefs.
  2. Institutions. These are the rules, norms, practices and relationships that influence individual and collective behaviour.  The choices of actors is explained to some extent by their understanding of, and adherence to, such rules. Those rules can be formal and widely understood, such as when enshrined in law or a constitution. Or, they can be informal and only understood in particular organisations. Policies can be considered a subset of the broad concept of institutions, but institutions at one level (e.g. constitutional rules) can also shape the policymaking activities or decisions at another level (e.g. legislation or regulation). Similarly, institutions can establish the types of venues where policy decisions are made and the rules that allow particular types of actors or information and ideas to enter into the policy process.
  3. Networks or subsystems. These are the relationships between actors responsible for policy decisions and the ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups with which they consult and negotiate.  Senior policymakers delegate responsibility for policy making to bureaucrats, who seek information and advice from groups. Groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government or other collective choice processes. It is through these networks where collective action often emerges in policy processes.  Many theories describe a process in which groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government. Bureaucracies and other public bodies may have particular operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others.
  4. Ideas. This is a broad term to describe beliefs, or ways of thinking, and the extent to which they are shared within groups, organisations, networks and political systems. It can refer to two intertwined processes. First, shared ideas (knowledge, world views, language) appear to structure political activity when they are almost taken for granted or rarely questioned – for example, as core beliefs, paradigms and monopolies of understanding. Second, new ideas or ways of thinking can be used to prompt actors to rethink their beliefs to some extent – such as when a proposed new solution challenges the way that a problem is framed or understood, and therefore how much attention it receives and how it is solved. So, for example, we may identify relative stability when shared ideas are not questioned and instability when different groups with different beliefs interact.
  5. Policy Context. This is a broad category to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s environment is in her control. It can refer to the often-changing policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems and deciding how to address them, such as a political system’s: geography, biophysical and demographic profile; economy; and, mass attitudes and behaviour.  It can also refer to a sense of policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, institutions and programs – when they enter office.
  6. Events. Events can be routine and anticipated, such as the elections which produce limited change or introduce new actors with different ideas about policy problems and solutions. Or, they can be unanticipated incidents, including social or natural crises, or major scientific breakthroughs and technological change. Their unpredictability makes them difficult to theorise, and they can often effectively be treated as ‘error’, or as external factors providing an additional source of explanation to a policy theory. Or, they can be incorporated within theories which focus on how actors interpret and respond to events. To some extent, an event is only significant if actors within political systems pay attention to them”.

From there, we can consider how each theory accounts for the nature of these elements, and their interaction, to explain policy dynamics and outcomes. You can find summaries of many of these relevant theories here: and a copy of the 3rd and 4th edition chapters here: Cairney and Heikkila 2014, Heikkila and Cairney 2017.

For what it’s worth, when I co-authored the book Global Tobacco Control (with Studlar and Mamudu), we had chapters on the role of policy theory but structured the book according to those elements of the policy process, not specific theories. I’m not saying that you should take this simple approach. Rather, I am asking you to think about, and explain, why yours is better.


Filed under 1000 words, Academic innovation or navel gazing, agenda setting, public policy

What Works (in a complex policymaking system)?

The Scottish Government and ESRC held an event yesterday to publicise their proposed new What Works centre. Its role is ‘is to deepen the impact of the emergent Scottish approach to public service delivery and reform, by evaluating evidence in delivery of that approach’. As you might expect from a series of presentations (9 in total), the speakers presented ideas which had the potential to vary in meaning and emphasis. Consequently, there seemed to be some potential tensions between things such as:

  1. A government trying to ‘scale up’ from the experience of successful pilots, and a government devolving responsibility to local bodies (such as local authorities), giving them the space to choose how to meet broad Scottish Government aims – unless ‘scaling up’ simply means encouraging ‘best’ or ‘good’ practice. Scaling up may have a different meaning in different academic disciplines and different policy areas. For example, healthcare and public health may be associated more with larger and more uniform policies than ‘community’ based projects.
  2. A focus on learning from successful projects, quite quickly, when the Scottish Government and ESRC are looking for examples of policies that produce good outcomes after, 10, 20 or more years. The former may involve drawing relatively quick conclusions about the success of projects, based on a mixture of their reputations and evidence limited to a small number of years. This is a general feature of ‘lesson-drawing’ or ‘transfer’ from one government to another – borrowers are often very quick to judge the success of lenders, based on some rough and ready indicators.

What struck me in particular was Harry Burns’ (Chief Medical Officer, Scottish Government) emphasis on the importance of complexity, complex systems and ‘complex systems thinking’. As I have found recently, when co-editing a book on complexity and public policy, complexity is a remarkably vague term which can mean very different things to different people. To many, it means something akin to ‘complicated’. To others, to identify a complex system is to identify a very specific set of arguments and properties, including:

  1. A complex system is greater than the sum of its parts; those parts are interdependent – elements interact with each other, share information and combine to produce systemic behaviour.
  2. Some attempts to influence complex systems are dampened (negative feedback) while others are amplified (positive feedback). Small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects.
  3. Complex systems are particularly sensitive to initial conditions that produce a long-term momentum or ‘path dependence’.
  4. They exhibit ‘emergence’, or behaviour that results from the interaction between elements at a local level rather than central direction.
  5. They may contain ‘strange attractors’ or demonstrate extended regularities of behaviour which may be interrupted by short bursts of change.

Similarly, the meaning of ‘systems thinking’ is often unclear or unhelpful when we seek to go beyond the instantly intuitive notion of thinking about the broader context of policymaking. Here are some further examples of unresolved issues regarding complexity and public policy:

  • Some people describe the natural and social world (the latter is often the thing that policymakers want, but struggle, to influence) as complex, but neglect to consider the idea that policymaking systems are complex systems. The particular relevance to What Works is that it would be a mistake to recognise the complicated set of problems to be solved by policies, but ignore the complicated set of processes to which the policies themselves are subject. This is often a key feature of wider debates on ‘evidence based policymaking’.
  • One tenet of complexity theory is that law-like behaviour is difficult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one time or place may not have the same effect in another. This places important limits on the idea of ‘scaling up’ from the experience of one study. If scaling-up means encouraging good practice, adapted to local experience, all well and good. If it means ‘rolling out’ a successful policy to many areas, it may be problematic.
  • One solution, of sorts, to such problems, is to accept that we don’t know the individual effects of individual policy instruments. Rather, we introduce a wide range of policy instruments and hope that they interact to produce a positive overall outcome. This sort of approach can be found in areas such as tobacco control (in which there may be six main types of policy, each with several elements), but may be less common or applicable in other policy areas. The complication is that it is difficult to say ‘what works’ if we mean ‘what particular policy instruments work?’.
  • ‘Systems thinking’ may prompt us deal with uncertainty and change by encouraging trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, and be adopted, amended or rejected, relatively quickly. This encourages us to think about the potentially very limited role of a central government. A lot of the literature uses complexity theory to present almost the opposite idea to the ‘Westminster model’ in which power rests, and should rest, in the hands of a small number of elected policymakers, accountable to the public via Parliament.  Many advocate relying less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.
  • A lot of the literature uses complexity theory to “challenge particular brands of ‘positivism’ which present a ‘vision of society based on order, laws and progress’ (Geyer and Rihani, 2010, p. 5); to suggest that ‘quantitative and reductionist methodologies’ may be useful to explain topics such as elections with ‘rules and orderly structures’, but not issues that contain unpredictable political events, significant levels of uncertainty and ambiguity (Geyer and Rihani, 2010, pp. 74–5) or factors outside the control of policy makers (Room, 2011)” (excerpt from Cairney 2012 PSR Complexity Theory). This raises the issue of methods and their underlying philosophy. At the event, he general response to a question on methods was the usual idea that we can mix them. Yet, the underlying ideas behind particular approaches may be complementary and others contradictory (see here and here Cairney 2013 PSJ Standing on the shoulder of giants for a wider discussion). A mix of methods is not a solution in itself.

A positive interpretation of these problems is that all governments face them, and some may respond better than others. This is certainly the reputation that the Scottish Government has developed, and this reputation is articulated in the What Works call:

  • The Scottish Government is unusually positioned to respond favourably because successive Scottish Governments have appeared to be much more open to this sort of advice (or, at least, they have engaged in behaviour consistent with it).
  • In particular, they have relied more on ‘partnership working’ and less on stringent performance management regimes linked to targets and punitive measures for not meeting them.
  • The SNP Government in particular (from 2007) signalled a willingness to devolve more responsibility to local authorities, reduce the proportion of ‘ring fenced’ budgets  and develop less-top-down ‘single outcome agreements’ (Remember Alex Salmond in 2007: ‘The days of top-down diktats are over’).
  • This difference of attitude might reflect cultural differences in Scotland’s political system or simply the different policymaking environment in which Scottish Governments operate.  In particular, Scotland is smaller and its policymakers have fewer responsibilities; both factors may allow them to develop quite meaningful horizontal and vertical relationships and rely less on more impersonal and inflexible policy measures.

Related posts:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

Related paper: Paul Cairney 13.1.14 How Can Policy Theory Inform Policymaking

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy, Uncategorized

What Do People Know About Scottish Politics and the Independence Referendum?

Maybe people can agree on one thing about the Scottish independence referendum: we need a well informed electorate to make the Yes/ No choice. So, how well informed is the electorate?

Ailsa Henderson, Liam Delaney and Robert Liñeira address this question in two ways: first, by asking 2000 people about their perceived knowledge of politics (p9), going from a 0-10 scale, with 0-3 representing ‘very little’, 4-6 some, and 7-10 ‘a lot’. The proportion with a perceived ‘lot of knowledge’ was quite high in general (44%) but higher in relation to the issues raised (56%) and the consequences of independence (56%) and, perhaps surprisingly, the consequences of a No vote (59%). It rises to over 80% in each category if we include people who think they have some knowledge.

This perception contrasts somewhat with a separate measure. Henderson et al ask people ten true/false questions to test their knowledge of the Scottish Government’s White Paper. They found that the majority either gets the question wrong or say that they do not know the answer. The range is from 20-46% correct. I don’t suppose this is too surprising, for two reasons: it is a huge document that you wouldn’t expect many to read (even if many people now own it), and there is a little bit of confusion about the difference between the Scottish Government position and that of the Yes campaign (see, for example, its wording on NATO). So, if I had to place a lot of money on it, Million Pound Drop-style, I’d only bet on me getting at least 7 correct out of 10.  Perhaps more importantly, we are now only getting into the heart of the campaign and people are going to pick up the most salient Yes/ No positions more easily.

This new analysis beats my previous attempt, in January, to provide a rough-and-ready discussion, based on relevant questions from What Scotland Thinks. There are three main types:

  1. Surveys asking people how much they feel they know about the independence debate.
  2. Surveys asking people how much they know about Scottish politics in general.
  3. Surveys which seem to give people the chance to get it wrong about the current mix of devolved/ reserved powers (for example, I exclude this one because it doesn’t seem to give people the option to say health or education*):

Knowledge of the debate:

  • 56% feel ‘very’ or ‘fairly well informed’ about ‘issues being debated in the referendum campaign’ (Dec 2013)
  • About two-thirds ‘find it difficult to decide whether information provided in the debate is true or not’ (Dec 2013)
  • People don’t seem to know much about the campaigns or who their leaders are (Aug 2013 a, b, c)
  • 65% have heard of ‘devo max’ (Jan 2012)

Knowledge of Scottish Politics**

  • About a third have a lot of interest in politics, a third say ‘some’ and a third don’t care (1999-2012)
  • Less than 10% know that the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have 70 MSPs (about 15% if we include the ‘probably’ respondents) (it has 129 MSPs)  (2004-12)
  • Less than 20% know that the Scottish Government is not just another name for Scottish Parliament (about 30% if we include the ‘probably’ respondents) (2004-12)
  • About half pay a lot of attention to the ‘work of the Scottish Government’ (almost three-quarters if we include ‘some’) (2005-11)

Who is responsible for what?

  • About half think that the Scottish Government ‘decides money spent on health’ (I’d say this is wrong, but the focus on money clouds the waters) (2004-12)
  • 30% know that the Scottish Government does not decide unemployment benefit levels (about 60% if we include the ‘probably’ respondents – but bear in mind that this figure would be 50% if everyone guessed)

Here is a rough guide to reserved and devolved powers (from this book), which shows that there are many overlaps in policy responsibilities, but health and benefits aren’t good examples.

table 10.1 cairney mcgarvey scottish politics 2013

So, I would conclude, from often-limited evidence, that there is not widespread knowledge of the current devolution settlement or what the stakes are in the debate. People may know that it is a Yes/ No question, and sort-of what Yes and No means (e.g. I can’t see a poll asking if anyone has heard of the Scotland Act 2012). This is as much of a problem to either side of the debate. Most people know what they want but not what they have, so may not know how to get what they want.

The question is: what do you do about it? I think we all have to assume minimal knowledge when we engage with the public. It is too easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions about people’s knowledge when our debates come largely from social media. Outside that bubble, people may not be engaged or particularly interested. Few people will read more than a few lines of the White Paper and almost no-one will read things like the Treasury papers. Instead, they will get their information 2nd or 3rd hand in a few sentences designed to simplify complex topics. So, we all have to accept either that we will produce those sentences or that someone will do it for us, likely producing a message that we did not produce. There is no code of conduct in this debate, so we can’t just put out a wealth of information and trust people to use it in the right spirit. If I was you, I’d imagine that I was passing on information through this guy:


*I have also excluded questions like these, which don’t reflect well on the Scottish population, and most of questions like these and these, which are unclear because blame could be a mix of devolved responsibility and UK funding

** The bright side is that there is some evidence of respondent knowledge going in the right direction since 2004. We might also be optimistic because there is generally room for doubt about how well these questions measure knowledge.

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Would an Independent Scotland Make Policy Differently?

This appears on the ESRC website

Any debate about the future of Scottish policy is incomplete without a focus on its policy-making. Governments don’t just make policy choices in isolation. We expect them to be ‘consultative’ and ‘cooperative’ when they make and implement policy.  This emphasis on a more open and cooperative ‘policy style’ was a feature of ‘new politics’ discussions in the run up to devolution, led by bodies such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention and Consultative Steering Group. New Scottish institutions were to become a hub for new forms of participation, basing policy choices on meaningful consultation with a wide range of people and groups, and rejecting exclusive consultation with the ‘usual suspects’. This attitude would extend to policy delivery. Rather than imposing policy from the ‘top down’, they would form meaningful partnerships with bodies such as local authorities. Advocates for ‘new Scottish politics’ often contrasted this style with ‘old Westminster’ and the UK Government’s (misleading) reputation for rejecting consultation with interest groups and imposing policy from the ‘top down’.

The evidence suggests that the Scottish Government generally lives up to this ‘new politics’ aim. It works with voluntary groups, unions, professional bodies and local and health authorities to produce policy aims. Its cooperative approach allows it to gather information and foster group support for policy. This approach extends to implementation, with the Scottish Government often willing to produce broad strategies and trust bodies such as local authorities to meet its aims. For example, it now negotiates Single Outcome Agreements with local authorities, which focus on progress towards long term improvements in the quality of life in local communities. In turn, local authorities work with a wide range of bodies in the public, voluntary and private sector to produce shared aims relevant to their local areas. SOAs mark a symbolic shift away from top-down policymaking, in which local authorities and other bodies are punished if they do not meet short term targets, towards the production of shared aims and cooperation.

In this context, our first aim is to examine the extent to which this consultative and cooperative policy style is a feature of government in smaller countries. The evidence so far suggests that, in Scotland, senior policymakers are more able than their UK counterparts to (a) form personal relationships with key members of interest groups and public service delivery bodies, and (b) make links across government departments. They can use their networks to coordinate policy and produce shared aims across government. This ability may result from the size of government and the size of ministerial responsibilities. Under Scottish independence, the latter would expand into new areas such as economic policy and its coordination task would be more complicated, but its ability to maintain networks within a relatively small population could remain.

Our second aim is measure the effect of this distinctive policy style on policy outcomes. So far, since devolution, there is more evidence of distinctive policy choices in Scotland than distinctive policy outcomes. It is difficult to identify the success of Scottish policies which have diverged from the rest of the UK. It is also difficult to say, unequivocally, that those outcomes would not have happened without devolution. This difficulty is compounded by the political nature of policy evaluation – political parties, in particular, engage in constant debate about the success or failure of government policy. This tension is heightened during the independence debate, which brings in new arguments linking success and failure to the current devolution settlement. In particular, policy failure or slow progress is accompanied by arguments about the futility of further devolution versus arguments that devolution has not gone far enough (see for example, the latest evidence on Scottish education policy).

We explore these issues by examining ‘prevention’ policy. The broad aim of government is to reduce the ‘demand’ for public services 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, and unemployment  – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive. We explore the extent to which this broad aim can be tackled well by a Scottish Government committed to consultation and cooperation across government, to produce long term and shared goals. We then consider the potential effect of more devolution, or independence, which would extend Scottish Government responsibilities in relevant fields such as social security and welfare policy, and reduce overlaps by placing responsibility in one national government.

For more details on prevention and our research team, see

See also: Can a Policy Fail and Succeed at the Same Time?

Scottish Independence: Should You Use the Powers You Have Before You Ask For More?


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, public policy, Scottish politics

What is Policy?

what is policy

(you can stream the podcast here or right click and save this link)

The first thing we do when studying public policy is to try to define it – as, for example, the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes. This sort of definition produces more questions:

  • Does ‘government action’ include what policymakers say they will do as well as what they actually do? An unfulfilled promise may not always seem like policy.
  • Does it include the effects of a decision as well as the decision itself? A policy outcome may not resemble the initial policy aims.
  • What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Many individuals, groups and organisations influence policy and help carry it out.
  • Does public policy include what policymakers do not do. Policy is about power, which is often exercised to keep important issues off the public, media and government agenda.

The second thing we do is point to the vast scale of government, which is too big to be understood without some simplifying concepts and theories. It is also too big to be managed. We soon learn that the vast majority of policymaking takes place in the absence of meaningful public attention. The ‘public’ simply does not have the time to pay attention to government. Even when it pays attention to some issues, the debate is simplified and does not give a good account of the complicated nature of policy problems.

We also learn that government is too big to be managed by elected policymakers. Instead, they divide government into manageable units and devolve almost all decisions to bureaucrats and organisations (including ‘street level’).  They are responsible for government, but they simply do not have the time to pay attention to anything but a tiny proportion.

So, a big part of public policy is about what happens when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name. That’s what makes it seem so messed up and so interesting at the same time.

It’s also what makes policy studies look so weird. We often reject a focus on high-profile elected policymakers, because we know that the action takes place elsewhere. We often focus on the day-to-day practices of organisations far removed from the ‘top’ or the ‘centre’. We ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ to gain several perspectives on the same thing. We spend a lot of time gnashing our teeth about how you can identify and measure policy change (still, no-one has cracked this one) and compare it with the past and the experience of other countries. We try to come up with ways to demonstrate that inaction is often more significant than action. When you ask us a question, your eyes will glaze over while we try to explain, ‘well, that’s really 12 questions’. We come up with wacky names to describe policymaking and bristle if you call it ‘jargon’. It’s because policymaking is complicated and it takes skill, and some useful concepts, to make it look simple.

To read more, see: Policy Concepts in 1000 words

box 2.1 UPP


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

Scottish Independence: Should You Use the Powers You Have Before You Ask For More?

A key response to the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence is that many of its policy aims could be achieved now. The strongest version of this argument is that the SNP is being cynical by making some policy commitments and refusing to carry them out now before the referendum vote – and the Better Together campaign has reinforced this argument with a recent poll on childcare . This line reinforces a longer term argument – that we should not consider giving Scottish Governments more powers when they are not using the ones they have already. It has become the reverse of the SNP’s longstanding argument: since we’re doing this well now, imagine how well we’d do with more powers.

Behind the campaign bickering lies an important point for the public perception of this debate: relatively few people know enough about devolution to tell you what responsibilities the Scottish Government already has and how it has used them. Few people know, for example, how many MSPs there are , the difference between the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament , what the Scottish Government gets up to , and quite a low number could give you a definitive answer about who is responsible for issues such as health , education , and unemployment benefit .

Consequently, the statement ‘use the powers you have’ is difficult for most people to interrogate. This is a doubly-difficult issue because the statement could conflate two points: (1) you have not used your powers; (2) you have not used them effectively. The first point does not seem to stand up to scrutiny if we look at the experience of devolution. Even if we just look at the highest profile examples  , there is a decent list of Scottish Government/ Parliament activity and outputs based on devolved powers (which include areas such as health, education, local government and justice). In order of parliamentary session, we can identify:

  • The review of Scottish higher education which reformed tuition fee funding and led to the abolition of student fees, as fees rose to £9000 in England.
  • The commitment to ‘free personal care’ for older people
  • The Scottish Government taking the lead on mental health law reform in areas such as capacity and compulsory treatment
  • The resolution of tensions between unions, local authorities and government on teacher pay and conditions, and reform of the curriculum
  • The removal of Scotland’s NHS ‘internal market’ while it was being expanded in England
  • The introduction of STV for local elections
  • The ban on smoking in public places
  • The pursuit of alcohol control, including legislation to introduce a minimum unit price
  • The pursuit of renewable energy policy and postponement or rejection of nuclear power
  • The pursuit of new ways of working with bodies such as local authorities

The difficulty with simply producing a list is that lots of people do not approve of the decisions made by the Scottish Government. Or, they argue that these actions have had limited or unintended effects (and they might add ‘given the money the Scottish Government threw at them’). For example, many have jumped upon the LSE blog  which suggests that devolution has not improved inequality of outcomes in Scottish schools. This allows critics of devolution to use argument (2) you may have used your powers, but you have not used them effectively.

It is worth being sceptical about these claims in general because the evaluation of success and failure is highly political . It is particularly easy to say that a series of Scottish governments has failed because all governments fail . There is also a specific problem in Scotland just now: these claims are now becoming intertwined with people’s attitudes and arguments about devolution and independence.  Following many of these evaluations of performance is the sentence ‘and therefore you should/ shouldn’t have independence’, when the more honest person would say ‘I support/ don’t support independence and therefore here is my evaluation’.

It is also worth thinking about what this sort of argument really amounts to. It is legitimate to say that constitutional change does not solve policy problems (of course it doesn’t), but the argument that devolution has failed and that independence would make things better/ worse seems like a cynical attempt to exploit people’s lack of knowledge of devolution and lack of appreciation about the political nature of evaluation.


Let’s take the example of childcare, since it now represents a key focus of both campaigns and has become a beacon for the ‘we can do more’ versus the ‘you have the powers/ use your powers now’ arguments. The relevant part of Scotland’s Future is p194:

In an independent Scotland, this Government would develop a universal system of high quality early learning and childcare for children from the age of one to when they enter school. We will:

  • in our first budget: provide 600 hours of childcare to around  half of Scotland’s two year olds. Those whose parents  receive working tax credit or child tax credit will benefit
  • by the end of the first Parliament: ensure that all three and four year olds and vulnerable two year olds will be entitled to 1,140 hours of childcare a year (the same amount of time as children spend in primary school)
  • by the end of the second Parliament: ensure that all children  from one to school age will be entitled to 1,140 hours of childcare per year

This transformational change to childcare in Scotland will allow parents, in particular women, to choose to work without worrying about the cost of looking after their children. With independence the benefits of their work – in economic growth and tax revenues – will stay in Scotland, contributing to meeting the cost of this childcare provision.

Just to annoy you, I’m going to say that both sides have a point. The BT campaign is right to say that this agenda can be pursued now, and the SNP would not fully disagree. The ‘600 hours’ commitment is currently being pursued in the Children and Young People Bill going through the Scottish Parliament. It would also be possible to fund a lot of the expansion from a devolved budget, provided the Scottish Government was prepared to take the money from other programmes (the figure being bandied around is £1.2b). In that sense, it is a simple question of priorities. The only problem so far is that you can’t see the general agreement among most parties (most think expanding childcare is a good thing) for all the nitpicking about the details. The ‘use your powers now’ argument also seems, at times, to be disingenuous since it refers largely to what is going on already (the Scottish Government is using its powers now) than the longer term vision.

The bigger question is how to secure ‘transformative’ childcare provision. This is where the constitutional argument plays a greater part, since the SNP line is that they want to fund childcare expansion by borrowing to invest in facilities and training, then recoup the money in more taxes as more people go to work. This is a constitutional argument based on calling for more tax powers. Other Yes supporters argue for a reduction on spending on defence, to be used for childcare (the most recent is here). That is also a constitutional argument, based on securing all powers to decide which ones to fund more or less.

You may not like these arguments. You may think that these aims are unrealistic or simply misguided. However, these are the sorts of ‘more powers’ arguments that are not addressed simply with ‘use the powers you have’.


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

Can a Policy Fail and Succeed at the Same Time?

In Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure, I argue that evaluation is party political. Parties compete to describe policies as successes or failures based on their beliefs and their selective use of evidence. There is often a lot of room for debate because the aims of policymakers are not always clear. In this post, I argue that this room still exists even if a policymaker’s aims appear to be clear. The complication is that a policy aim consists of an explicit statement of intent plus an often-implicit set of assumptions about what that statement of intent means in practice. This complication is exploited by parties in the same way as they exploit ambiguities and their selective use of evidence.

Let’s take the example of class sizes in Scottish schools, partly because it is often highlighted by opposition parties as a clear example of policy failure. The SNP manifesto 2007 (p52) seems crystal clear:

We will reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils or less (sic)

Further, the SNP Scottish Government did not appear to fulfil the spirit of its commitment. There is some wiggle room because it does not say all classes or set a deadline, but it is reasonable to assume that the pledge refers to extensive progress by 2011 (the end of the parliamentary session). Indeed, the lack of progress was seized upon by opposition parties, who seemed to be partly responsible for the removal of the Education Secretary from her post in 2009.  The issue arose again at the end of 2013 when average class sizes appeared to be higher than when the pledge was made.

My magic trick will be to persuade you that, in an important way, the reduction of class sizes was not the SNP’s aim. What I mean is this:

  1. Each policy aim is part of a wider set of aims which may undermine rather than reinforce each other. In general, for example, spending on one aim comes at the expense of another. In this specific case, another SNP aim was to promote a new relationship with local authorities. It sought to set an overall national strategy and fund programmes via local authorities, but not impose policy outputs or outcomes on implementing bodies. Those two aims could be compatible: the Scottish Government could persuade local authorities to share its aims and spend money on achieving them. Or, they could be contradictory, forcing the Scottish Government to pursue one aim at the expense of another: either imposing policy on local authorities, or accepting the partial loss of one aim to secure a particular relationship with local authorities.
  2. Class sizes are not aims in themselves. Instead, they are means to an end, or headline-grabbing proxy measures for performance. The broader aim is to improve learning and/ or education attainment (and to address learning-based inequalities). Further, local authorities may have their own ideas about how to make this happen, perhaps by spending their ‘class size’ money on a different project with the same broader aim (I have not made up this point – a lot of teaching professionals are not keen on these targets). Again, the Scottish Government has a choice: impose their own aim or trust some local authorities to do things their own way – which might produce a lack of implementation of a specific aim but the pursuit of a broader one.
  3. The assumption is always that nothing will go wrong between the promise and the action. Yet, things almost-always go wrong because policy outcomes are often out of the control of policymakers. We like to pretend that governments are infallible so that we can hold them responsible and blame them for being fallible.

Consequently, a key question about policy success is this: how far would you go to achieve it in each case?  Would you sacrifice one aim for another? How do you prioritise a large set of aims which may not be compatible with each other? Would you accept the unintended consequences of a too-rigid attachment to a policy aim? Or, would you set a broad strategy and accept that implementing authorities should have considerable say in how to carry it out?

In this sense, it is possible to succeed and fail simultaneously – either by successfully achieving a narrow policy aim but with unintended consequences, or by accepting a level of defeat for the greater good.*

*Or, I suppose, if you are not of the bright-side persuasion, you can fail and fail.

Further Reading:

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

How Big is the Incentive for Politicians to Look Dishonest or Stupid?

Further Reading: class sizes

Class sizes


Filed under public policy, Scottish politics

What We Think We Know About Thatcher

I am struck by the sense that we know all this about Thatcher anyway. So, this week, we knew that the Thatcher government hid the scale of proposed coal closures and rejected plans to reduce Scottish pubic expenditure in a highly public and drastic way. Yet, what we are learning, but by bit, is that the Thatcher government is not living up to its majoritarian, top-down, government-knows-best, there is no alternative, lady’s not for turning image. Instead, we are seeing more examples in which the Thatcher government feared the consequences of its actions and was not prepared to simply pick fights with weaker opponents. It recognised the limits to its powers and sought to adapt. This is just as relevant now as it was back then. The UK has this image in which power is centralised in the hands of a few powerful people, responsible for responsible government. The reality is much more complicated.

For more on this see:

Thatcher’s Letter Says it Better

Policy and Policymaking in the UK – chapter 1 draft 1

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Filed under public policy, UK politics and policy

How Far Should You Go to Make Sure a Policy is Delivered?

It is common for people to state that politicians are dishonest because they do not deliver on their promises. It is also common for people to state that policymakers are naïve, since they introduce policies without thinking through their consequences. In this post, let’s give them more credit and consider other reasons for this disconnect between the things policymakers say, what they do, and what the outcomes are:

Who Wants to Look Powerless? A particular feature of Westminster systems, in which power appears to be concentrated at the centre, is that we expect ministers to be able to deliver on their promises. Yet, they can only deliver the impetus for policy change, such as the legislation and/or resources to devote to a solution. In almost all cases, ministers do not have the time or cognitive ability to see a policy solution through from beginning to end (partly because there isn’t a beginning and end). I suppose it’s possible that some ministers could try to argue that their powers are limited, but they would be more likely to be portrayed as weak than honest. Compared to the UK, the current Scottish Government is often quite good at stressing its desire to set a broad strategy and accept the legitimacy of bodies such as local authorities to go their own way. However, it still tends to be criticised by opposition parties as weak and, in some cases, as a government that can’t deliver on its promises. This portrayal would be supercharged at the UK level built on the ‘government knows best’ tradition.

Who Wants to Say How Far They Would Go to Make Sure a Policy is Delivered? Policies generally produce winners and losers. More money spent on one public service or social group generally means less money spent on another. We don’t see it often because policy decisions and areas seem compartmentalised – more money on the NHS seems like a good thing because we’re not sure about what service gets less as a result. There is also little incentive for governments to raise these ‘greater good’ comparisons or back them up in any meaningful way (in fact, departmental ministers compete with each other for funds, and few actors in government are employed to assess the overall picture). Nor is there an incentive for individual ministers to show how they count up the value of the pros and cons of a policy. Perhaps ideally, we would want them to say, for example*:

  • How many people in poverty they would accept in the short term to allow long term benefit and employment reform.
  • How many people they would be prepared to detain inappropriately under the Mental Health Act to protect how many people in the population.
  • The extent to which they are prepared to suspend the rights of, or provide inappropriate treatment to, immigrants to satisfy domestic demands for immigration control.
  • The extent to which the police can use excessive physical force to control the population and particular social groups within it.
  • The number of sex education and related websites they are prepared to see blocked unintentionally to ensure the intentional block of sites hosting pornography.

In other words, many policy aims will require hard choices about how far we want to go to carry them out. Should we accept a policy’s limited application/success to safeguard something else (like human rights) or limit costs, or just plough on to ensure success in terms of our original aims? Should we try to articulate in advance our levels of tolerance of unintended consequences? Again, it would be remarkably open and honest, but it is difficult to see the incentive for ministers to wonder aloud about the consequences of their aims or explicitly accept the pain of some for the gain of others.

The same can be said for advocates of particular policies. It is rare for people to advocate the pursuit of one policy at the expense of another (bar discussions of funding when, say, people want to replace the funding of nuclear weapons with public services). So, we tend to have stilted conversations: we say what we want but not what how far we are willing to go or what we would be willing to give up. In that sense, we are just as dishonest and stupid as elected policymakers.

*it was very hard to come up with non-judgmental examples, so note the political nature of my examples. Other examples, from a libertarian viewpoint, could include: how many home fires are you willing to accept when you introduce a ban on smoking in public places? How many ‘sensible’ drinkers would you punish to protect ‘problem’ drinkers?


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