Monthly Archives: March 2014

Journal Article Acceptance(s) After 5 Rejections and 25 months

Update: the title is now less catchy but more accurate. See the italicised bits for the update. I have also added this poster:


You might have to be a glass-is-half-full kind of person to take something positive from this story of publication success after a long run of failure. After 18 months, 5 rejections, 4 substantial redrafts, 2-3 changes of journal direction, and minus 8000 words, we had it accepted (update: add another 7 months,  and three substantial redrafts and additions, for the 2nd article acceptance).

It began with our submission to World Politics, which is a high status journal, in politics and international relations, with a high rejection rate, so this was a gamble. I thought we had done the double: produced something interesting to say about ‘evolutionary’ policymaking, building on work I began for Understanding Public Policy; and, produced a wealth of new information on global tobacco policy, built on work led by Donley Studlar and Hadii Mamudu, and informing Global Tobacco Control. So, HM and I put both together to produce this paper, submitted 11th September 2012:

World Politics Evolutionary Theory International Agreements 11September2012

It was rejected on the 4th December (not a bad turnaround). The rejection came with substantial reviewer comments – World Politics decision letter – which we used to revise the next version substantially. My impression, from this review, was that the combination of evolutionary theory and the case study was not working. In fact, I may have been pushing us into a position that I advise PhD students and early career researchers to avoid: a paper suggesting a new theoretical angle, reinforced by a single case . In my defence, I wasn’t proposing a new theory. Instead, I was trying to present the approach as a reflection of accumulated knowledge, in both theory and case.

Still, it wasn’t working, so we separated the two elements somewhat. I chopped about 3000 words of theory – something made easier by the fact that I had submitted (February 2012) a separate paper on evolutionary theory to Policy and Politics, which was reviewed (July 2012) and accepted after a minor revise-and-resubmit (23 October) then published early 2013 – ‘What is Evolutionary Theory and How Does it Inform Policy Studies?’ Policy and Politics, 41, 2, 279-98 Paywall Green

We hummed and hawed about policy journals before I made the mistake of sending it to Public Administration and Development, partly because we were focusing on contrasts in implementation based on the simple developed/ developing country distinction, partly because it was interdisciplinary, and partly because its description seemed really close to our topic.

Cairney Mamudu Evolution Tobacco Control PAD submission 5Feb2013

It was rejected without going to review, described by the editor as ‘out of scope’.

So, we sent it, almost immediately (21 Feb 2013), to Governance, which had been HM’s (more sensible) preference. Again, this is a high status political/ policy science journal with a high rejection rate, so we were still confident enough to take the usual gamble.

Anonymous Evolution Tobacco Control Governance submission 21Feb2013

It was rejected on 26th May after substantial review (which seems more critical than the reviewers of World Politics, so we were no further forward) –  governance rejection

We figured that we had to do two things based on the reviews: (1) strip out the discussion of evolutionary theory more and focus on the basic political science concepts (implementation, networks, agendas, etc.), shifting back the focus to the case study and evidence so far (particularly since I had now published an article separately on evolutionary theory); (2) be super-clear on key terms (leading/ laggard; developed/ developing) to anticipate future concerns, and clarify the narrative on the origins and role of the FCTC.

By this time, my University had made available some funds for Open Access, and I was keen to go this route, partly because OA seems good, and partly because I had recently co-authored an article in the OA journal Implementation Science and it was a very positive experience.

We chose Globalization and Health – based at the LSE, interdisciplinary, covering our topic and focus – and submitted on 12th September 2013. It was rejected on 29th October, which is a good turnaround, but the reviews were too brief to be useful – except it is still clear that our attempts to address the developed/ developing distinction are still needling our referee audience.

GH rejection letter GH referee 1 GH referee 2

Our solution was twofold: (1) to check with the editor of the next journal if there would be a problem with our approach, and (2) to get away from the developed/ developing sticking point by presenting an even more nuanced account, taking every opportunity to show that we weren’t providing naïve caricatures, and going super-conceptual to describe an ideal-type of a leading implementing country rather than identifying ‘leaders’ and ‘laggards’.

I emailed the editors of the Journal of Public Health Policy in November and got a good assurance on the developed/ developing point. The only problem is that the word limit is 4000, which is about one-third of the length of our original paper. Still, we revised the paper again.

By then, HM reckoned that Tobacco Control was a better fit, since they had begun to publish a series of papers on the ‘endgame’. We submitted there on the 20th December.

TCJ-Endgame_CoverLetter-14Dec2013 2 Cairney Mamudu Checklist cover letter 3 Cairney-Mamudu_22Dec2013

They rejected it on the 8th January 2014 without sending it to review TC rejection

We sent it to the JPHP on the 10th January – 1 CAirney Mamuducover letter JPHP 10JAn14 2 CAirney Mamudu Submitted article JPHP 10JAn14

We got a revise and resubmit on the 17th February – a very decent turnaround indeed. We got the classic binary response: one thought it was great, and one thought it was mince – JPHP reviews 17.2.14

We resubmitted on March 13 – 1 cover and rebuttal letter 2 resubmitted JPHP    – and got the thumbs up by the 27th.

Update, November 2014. We submitted a much better paper on the same theme (more developed theoretical argument, more data, a better refined argument) to Public Administration (special issue on global public policy) in June. After two resubmissions (and, unusually, a referral to a member of the editorial board – to deal with comments made by the third reviewer), we had it accepted in November.

So what did we learn?

    1. It is natural to blame journals, editors and reviewers for these long, drawn out processes – but I need to take some responsibility for the journal choices and the quality of submissions.
    2. Even a rejection can give you useful material for a redraft, as long as it actually goes to review.
    3. It is worth persevering. This is a very unusual case of 5 rejections, but it seem fairly normal to get 1 or 2 before success. For a while, I went on a good run of acceptances-after-revision, then a run of acceptances after rejection. I have almost always published each paper by the end.
    4. I think the article is, in many ways, a far better paper than when it began – but it also changed so much that we reckon we can go back and submit some of the chopped material (the new data) elsewhere.
    5. Final lesson – you need a thick skin for this process, particularly when you get one or two cranky anonymous reviewers, and particularly when you go interdisciplinary and invite comment from people who often don’t respect your discipline.
    6. Final, final, updated lesson: don’t lose your confidence and settle for a second-best result. Our first acceptance was for an article that stripped away a lot of what was good in the original idea (partly to meet the 4000 word limit), and it was rewritten for a public health audience in a way that I don’t entirely like. The Public Administration article (9000 words) is the one I’ll send to people and be proud of. It was accepted more than two years after we first made the mistake to send it to a different journal.




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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Public health, tobacco policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Institutions and New Institutionalism

UPP box 4.1 institutions

(podcast download)

The study of public policy would be incomplete without an understanding of policymaking institutions. The study of political science would also be incomplete without turning our understanding of terms such as ‘institutions’ upside down. ‘Institution’ may in the past have referred to organizations such as legislatures, courts and executives. With ‘new institutionalism’, it refers to two factors: regular patterns of behaviour; and the rules, norms, practices and relationships that influence such behaviour.

These rules can be formal, or enshrined in a constitution, legislation or regulations:

  • The constitutional nature of political systems – such as confederal or federal; federal or unitary; presidential, parliamentary or semi-presidential; unicameral or bicameral; containing constitutional courts; or holding procedures for regular referendums.
  • Their operating procedures – including electoral systems, party systems, rules of government formation and executive–legislative relations, the role of public bureaucracies, and the extent to which group-government relations are ‘institutionalised’ (such as in formal corporatist arrangements).
  • Their regulatory frameworks – including the rules governing the operation of economic organizations, interest groups, and public organizations, and the rules governing the provision of public services.

Rules can also be informal, and are described variously as habits, norms, practices or rules that develop without a grand plan. As such, they are often unwritten and difficult to identify or understand by people outside of and the organisation.

In practice, we may identify a mix of formality and informality – the combination of written regulations and unwritten understandings of how organisations are expected to operate. This helps explain why political systems often operate rather similarly in practice despite having different constitutional arrangements. For example, the commonly perceived logic or benefit of subsystem/ policy community arrangements helps explain why they are central to most systems.

So far, so good. The problems begin when we try to move from this rather intuitive and broad discussion, to produce concrete studies and detailed approaches. There are three main problems to look out for:

1. We may not know what an institution is. Instead, we often use the ‘I know it when I see it’ approach. For example, the Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions dedicates at least one chapter to: the state, civil society, economic institutions, constitutions, federal and territorial institutions, executives, legislatures, courts, bicameral structures, public bureaucracies, the welfare state, regulations, local government, political parties, electoral systems, direct democracy, international and non-governmental institutions. This is a wide range of activity, brought together largely because definition of institution is vague.

2. We may not agree what new institutionalism is. Instead, Lowndes identifies many variants, including normative, rational choice, historical, empirical, international, sociological, network, constructivist and feminist institutionalism. This suggests that ‘institutionalism’ represents a loose collection of approaches rather than a coherent theory.

3. We may not agree what institutions do. Most discussions tread a fine line between saying that rules influence or determine the behaviour of individuals but there is no common agreement on how to balance the two. It presents us with a classic structure/ agency problem. On the one hand, an institution can be treated effectively as a structure because many rules often endure in the same basic form regardless of the individuals involved. On the other, these rules may only endure because they are passed on, as part of a process of training or socialisation. If so, a rule becomes akin to a language: it only survives if there are enough individuals committed to its survival. It is not inevitable that institutions endure over time, and we may question the extent to which institutions represent shared meanings and practices. Instead, they may be reproduced in different ways by individuals who understand those rules, and act, differently. This makes the identification of institutions very tricky indeed, particularly if rules exist largely in the minds of actors, they are reproduced in implicit or unwritten ways, and implicit rules contradict the rules that are written down.

The four main variants outlined in Understanding Public Policy are:

  1. Historical. Historical contingency refers to the extent to which events and decisions made in the past contributed to the formation of institutions that influence current practices. Path dependence suggests that when a commitment to an institution has been established and resources devoted to it, it becomes increasingly costly to choose a different path. Therefore, institutions, and the practices they encourage, may remain stable for long periods of time. A ‘critical juncture’ is the point at which certain events and decisions were made which led to the development of an institution. The timing of these decisions is crucial, because it may be the order of events that sets institutional development on a particular path (note the term ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ which also appears in complexity theory).
  2. Rational Choice. One aim of rational choice theory is to establish what proportion of political outcomes one can explain with reference to the choices of individuals pursuing their preferences under particular conditions. Institutions represent those conditions, providing incentives to act or punishments to deter action. Institutions represent sets of rules that influence choices, often producing regular patterns of behaviour. This regularity can be expressed in terms of equilibrium when we identify a stable point at which there is no incentive to divert from these patterns of behaviour.
  3. Normative and Sociological. Norms and values within organisations influence behaviour. They matter when members understand and are expected to follow rules. March and Olson describe the ‘rules of appropriateness’ which are ‘transmitted through socialization’ and ‘followed because they are seen as natural, rightful, expected and legitimate’.
  4. Constructivist. Institutions represent shared beliefs which give people a common aim and a reason to believe that they have shared interests. In some cases, ideas or beliefs become institutionalized; they are often taken for granted and rarely questioned. In other cases, they are subject to often-radical change, as beliefs are challenged or the understanding of rules change as they are communicated or debated.

One task, with these accounts, is to consider if their insights are complementary or contradictory. They are not mutually exclusive, and ideational accounts may provide important qualifications to the idea that institutions represent relatively-fixed structures. However, note the level of debate on these points, and consider our ability to reconcile these approaches. Another task is to consider institutions as part of a wider explanation. For example, social construction theory links this discussion to power and agenda setting:

UPP box 4.4


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

What is the Future of Scotland’s Political System?

Referendums on constitutional change in Scotland produce ‘windows of opportunity’ to discuss the future of Scottish politics and policymaking. For example, the Scottish Constitutional Convention – an organization comprising political parties, interest groups, civic and religious leaders – formed in 1989 to promote the principle, and operation, of devolved government. It set much of the agenda during the devolution debates in the 1990s, promoting ‘new politics’, or widespread reform based on a rejection of political practices in ‘old Westminster’. Some of the SCC’s broad aims were met, including a mixed-member proportional system designed to reduce the chance of single party majorities, and encourage some bargaining between parties.

However, the Scottish political system is still part of the ‘Westminster family’, producing a Scottish Government which processes the vast majority of policy, a Scottish Parliament that is generally peripheral to that day-to-day policy process, and a public with limited opportunities for direct influence. As in most countries, most policy is processed in ‘policy communities’ or ‘subsystems’, which bring together civil servants, interest groups, and representatives of an extensive public sector landscape, including local, health, police, fire service and other service-specific bodies. This generally takes place out of the public spotlight and often with minimal parliamentary involvement. Indeed, few non-specialists could describe how these bodies interact and where key decisions on Scottish policy are being made.

Further, the Scottish public sector landscape is changing. The Scottish Government has, since 2007, produced a National Performance Framework and rejected the idea that it can, or should, micromanage public sector bodies using performance measures combined with short term targets. Instead, it encourages them to cooperate to produce long term outcomes consistent with the Framework, through vehicles such as Community Planning Partnerships. Further, following its commitment to a ‘decisive shift to prevention’, it has begun to encourage reforms designed to harness greater community and service-user design of public services.

This is important background which should inform the current independence debate, most of which focuses on external relations and neglects Scotland’s internal dynamics. The independence agenda gives us a chance to evaluate the devolution experience so far, and consider what might change if there is independence or further devolution. As far as possible, we should focus on the Scottish political system as a whole, including the relationship between the Scottish Parliament, public participation, the Scottish Government, and a wide range of public sector bodies, most of which are unelected.

Consider, for example, if the system follows its current trajectory, towards a greater reliance on local governance. This development has great potential to undermine traditional forms of parliamentary scrutiny. The Scottish Parliament already lacks the ability to gather information independently – it tends to rely on bodies such as the Scottish Government to provide that information. It does not get enough information from the Scottish Government about what is going on locally. Scotland lacks the top-down performance management system that we associate with the UK Government, and a greater focus on long term outcomes removes an important and regular source of information on public sector performance. Local and health authorities also push back against calls for detailed information. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability.

Local decision-making also has the potential to change the ‘subsystem’ landscape. Currently, most Scottish policy is processed by civil servants who consult regularly with pressure participants. Most ‘lobbying’ to the Scottish Government is done by (a) other parts or types of Government and (b) professional and interest groups. Civil servants rely on groups for information and advice, and they often form long term, efficient and productive relationships based on trust and regular exchange. When policy is made at the Scottish level, those groups organise at the Scottish level. The Scottish Government is a key hub for policy relationships; it coordinates networks, referees disputes, and gathers information and advice at a central level.

One consequence of devolving more power locally is that these groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. Such a shift would produce new winners and losers. The well-resourced professional groups can adapt their multi-level lobbying strategies, while the groups working on a small budget, only able to lobby the Scottish Government, will struggle.

Such developments may prompt discussions about three types of reform. The first relates to a greater need to develop local participatory capacity, to take on the functions performed less by these national organisations. For example, the ERS Scotland’s suggestion is that more local devolution could produce a more active local population. Even so, we still need to know more about how and why people organise. For example, local communities may organise in an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area as they arise; to engage in a small part of the policy process at a particular time. They do not have the resources to engage in a more meaningful way, compared to a Parliament and collection of established groups which maintain a constant presence and develop knowledge of the details of policies over time.

The second relates to governance reforms which focus primarily on the relationship between elected local authorities, a wide range of unelected public bodies, and service users. There is some potential to establish a form of legitimacy through local elections but, as things stand, local authorities are expected to work in partnership with unelected bodies – not hold them to account. There is also some scope to develop a form of user-driven public service accountability, but separate from the electoral process and with an uncertain focus on how that process fits into the wider picture.

The third relates to parliamentary reform. So far, the Scottish Parliament has not responded significantly to governance trends and a shift to outcomes focused policymaking. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees devote two to three months per year to the scrutiny of the annual budget bill. In general, this scrutiny has a very narrow focus, with a limited emphasis on pre- or post-legislative scrutiny, and its value is unclear. It has the potential to change its role. It can shift its activities towards a focus on Scottish Government policy in broader terms, through the work of inquiries in general and its finance and audit functions in particular.

Yet, while there are many issues still to be resolved, they are unlikely to be addressed before the referendum in September. Proposals for political reform only make sporadic appearances on the referendum agenda, and developments in governance tend to take place beyond the public spotlight. Scotland has its own political system, but it is one which is developing in a piecemeal way. A Yes vote in September may mark a radical shift in constitutional politics, but not in the way Scotland does politics.

Full paper: Cairney 2015 Political Quarterly Scotland Future


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Scottish politics

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Context, Events, Structural and Socioeconomic Factors

(podcast download)

We need a way to describe the things that policymakers take into account when they make decisions. We also need a way to categorise these things in order of importance, from factors that simply catch their eye, to factors that seem to be out of their control and/ or force them into making particular choices.

For example, ‘policy context’ or ‘structural factors’ may be used to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s ‘environment’ is in her control. It can refer to the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems and deciding how to address them, such as a political system’s: geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass social attitudes and behaviour.

box 6.1 structural

Or, we might refer to‘events’, which can be: routine, such as the elections, or unanticipated incidents, including social or natural crises, major scientific breakthroughs and technological change (see Weible).

Or, we might refer to policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs (Rose, 1990). The first thing that a new government does is accept responsibility for the decisions made in its name in the past. New policymakers also realise that they are engaging in governing organisations which often have well-established rules, to which they either have to adapt or expend energy to challenge.

Structure and agency

Our challenge is to find a way to incorporate these factors into a convincing account of policymaking. The policy sciences face the same problem as the social sciences: how to conceptualise the relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’. Or, how much do policymakers shape, and how much of their behaviour is shaped by, their policy environment?

The term ‘structure’ refers vaguely to a set of parts put together to form a whole. In social science, we attribute two key properties to structures: they are relatively fixed and difficult but not impossible to break down; and, they influence the decisions that actors (‘agents’) make. For example, it is common to describe the structure of the economy, rules within institutions, government, and even some ideas.

From this starting point, we can identify agency-heavy and structural-heavy explanations. For the latter, one common solution is to focus on how actors interpret and respond to context and events. If so, we might consider if an event is only significant if actors within political systems pay attention to it.

This approach may contrast with socioeconomic-driven accounts which suggest that demographic, economic and other factors determine: which issues reach the policymaking agenda; which solutions seem feasible; the actors that policymakers try most to please; and, the likely success of any action.

For example, some studies from the 1960s examined the extent to which variations in policies across US states were explained by the socio-economic composition of each state. Similarly, Hofferbert’s (1974) ‘funnel of causality’ gives the impression that historic-geographic conditions contribute to the socio-economic composition of a region, which contributes to mass political behavior which determines the fortunes of parties – and all three combine with government institutions to influence elite behaviour.

Perhaps the most recent exposition of a structure-heavy account is summed up in the phrase ‘globalisation’ which describes the diminished ability of governments to control their own economic and monetary policies. Governments appear to be forced to ‘race to the bottom’; to compete economically, react to widespread shifts and crises in international financial conditions and change to attract business from multi-national corporations (often by reducing corporation taxes and labour regulations).

Structural versus comprehensive rationality based explanations?

This discussion prompts us to consider a different perspective to comprehensively rational decision making, or the idea that the policy process begins with the decision by a policymaker to identify a problem to solve. Instead, we may envisage a world in which policies are already in place and the ability of policymakers to replace them are limited. This decision-making process takes place within the context of existing government policy and a huge infrastructure devoted to carrying it out. Further, policymakers often define problems after events have taken place; those events may be out of the control of policymakers and often appear to give them very little choice about how, if it is possible, to solve them.

One way to describe this process is to suggest that policymakers represent one small part of a large complex system. Complexity theory suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a political system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic behaviour that cannot be broken down into the actions of its constituent parts. This idea of a system captures the difficulty of policymaking and serves as a corrective to accounts that focus too much on the importance of individual policymakers and which exaggerate their ability to single-handedly change policy.

A structure-agency mix

Of course, we do not want to go too far; to suggest that people don’t matter. So, a sensible approach is to think in terms of a structure–agency mix:

  • An ageing population may give governments little choice but to plan for the consequences, but they can do so in a variety of ways.
  • Technology-driven healthcare is not irresistible, particularly if expenditure is limited and cost-effective public health policies are available.
  • Coastal conditions may force us to build protective barriers, but policymakers have shown that they can ignore the issue for some time, until the environmental conditions cause a human crisis.
  • The appearance of globalisation, crises and economically-driven policies may be convenient for policymakers attempting to introduce unpopular policies or avoid responsibility for poor results. Yet, the ‘race to the bottom’ has also been resisted by many governments, often with reference to competing structural factors such as historical legacies and national values.

A final sensible solution is to not worry too much about what we call the solution. In my day, there was a lot of humming and hawing about Gidden’s ‘two sides of the same coin’ description of actors and structures, but I don’t remember anything being resolved.

See also:


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Networks, sub-government and communities

(podcast download)

‘Policy networks’ or ‘policy communities’ represent the building blocks of policy studies. Most policy theories situate them at the heart of the policy process. The concept also travels well and, for example, there is a common focus in many countries, such as the US and UK, on ‘sub-government’. Yet, as box 9.1 suggests, there has been a proliferation of terms to describe the nature of relationships between policymakers, in formal positions of power, and the pressure participants* who seek to influence them.

box 9.1

We should also remember that some descriptions may relate to specific places and/ or eras and often have different target audiences.

Let’s explore this potentially-confusing combination of ‘universal’ and specific meanings by beginning with the ‘logic’ of policy communities:

  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is in danger of becoming unmanageable. The same can be said of the crowded environment in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, the state’s component parts are broken down into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across government.
  • Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. In effect, they delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as bureaucrats, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, bureaucrats rely on specialist organisations for information and advice.
  • Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government (other resources may relate to who groups represent – such as a large, paying membership, an important profession, or a high status donor or corporation).
  • Therefore, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist policy communities that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.

Broadly speaking, this logic is likely to hold in many countries and eras (including the current ‘age of austerity’), but this level of abstraction also masks important variations over time and in different countries. For example, my bullet-point description derives largely from studies of the UK from the late 1970s. Their main targets were studies of Westminster politics, ‘centring on an adversarial parliamentary arena where successive changes of government would lead to major changes in policy imposed from the top down’ (Jordan and Cairney, 2013: 236). Instead, policy communities are pervasive and most decisions are beyond the reach, or attention, of ministers.

Over time, and as networks research was at its peak in the 1980s and 90s, those targets shifted and the meaning of community changed:

Jordan Cairney 2013 meaning of policy community

As you can see from this excerpt (p238), my colleague Grant Jordan was not happy with the redefinition of ‘policy community’ over the years, but it helped accentuate a key point regarding the logic described above: it could produce a small and exclusive club mentality, as civil servants rely on a select number of groups and together they exclude most other actors, or a much messier, open, and/ or unpredictable process in which many actors could gain entry.

The latter is generally called an ‘issue network’ and associated with Heclo’s (1978) famous desire to conceptualise the changing world of US politics, as the simple ‘clubby days of Washington politics’ (and ‘cozy’ or ‘iron triangles’) was replaced by ‘complex relationships’ among a huge, politically active population. Issues which were once ‘quietly managed by a small group of insiders’ have now become ‘controversial and politicized’.

This is the main focus of several of the policy theories described in the 1000 words series, including:

  • Punctuated Equilibrium Theory – it seeks to measure and explain long periods of policymaking stability, and policy continuity, disrupted by short but intense periods of instability and change. A key focus is on the maintenance or breakdown on subsystem-level ‘policy monopolies’.
  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework – its focus is on actors with similar beliefs forming coalitions which compete with other coalitions in subsystems. It focuses on relatively open subsystems with a wide range of actors.
  • Multi-level Governance – it draws on the policy communities/ networks literature to track the diffusion of power, from the ‘centre’ to a wide range of organisations, and how it is shared between the actors formally responsible for policymaking and the actors seeking to inform and influence their decisions.

*Grant Jordan and colleagues prefer ‘pressure participant’ because they worry about ‘pressure group’ or ‘interest group’ being used as default terms whenever we are not quite sure how to describe lobbying activity. They argue that ‘pressure group’ can be misleading in two main ways. First, it conjures up a particular image of a group which may not be accurate. We may think of subscription-based unions or large membership groups like Greenpeace, even though many groups (and ‘think tanks’) are funded by single patrons. Second, the organisations most likely to lobby governments are not pressure groups. Instead, they are businesses, public sector organisations such as universities and other types of government.


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

How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?

Policymakers and academics often hold different assumptions about the policymaking world based on their different experiences. Academics may enjoy enough distance from the policy process to develop a breadth of knowledge and produce generalisable conclusions across governments, while policymakers/ practitioners such as civil servants may develop in-depth expertise when developing policy for a number of years. In turn, both may learn from each other about how to understand the policymaking world.

Academic-practitioner seminars and short training courses can help further that aim. Yet, there is a major barrier to such conversations: academics and practitioners may have their own language to understand policymaking, and a meaningful conversation may require considerable translation.

To examine these issues, this article relates my attempts, in a series of steps, to turn abstract policy theory into something useful for practitioners.

The first step is to identify a potential disconnect between the starting points for academic-practitioner discussions and policy theories. In the former, we may still use concepts developed to aid policymaking – such as the policy cycle, the ideal of ‘comprehensive rationality’ and the ‘top-down approach’ to implementation – because they aid discussion. In the latter, we have generally moved on from these descriptions of the world, to reflect the policy process’ complexity and our need for new theories to help explain it.

The second is to consider how to make those more realistic, but specialist, scientific concepts as meaningful to practitioners. The article considers the extent to which modern theories can provide straightforward insights to policy practitioners by condensing and articulating its ‘key tenets’.

The third is to consider how insights from those tenets, based largely on what governments do, can be used to recommend what they should do. The article contrasts how they might be used by a ‘top down minded’ government with how they might be used by scholars to recommend action. It focuses in particular on ‘complexity theory’ as an approach which combines policy theory with practical recommendations.

A final step is to consider how we can engage with policymakers to discuss those insights. The article draws on my experience of teaching civil servants in policy training seminars, using these theories to identify complex policymaking systems and encourage ‘reflexivity’ about how to adapt to, and operate within, them.

The article performs a dual role: as a way to explain the policy process in a straightforward way, and as a resource for civil servants engaged in policy training seminars.

Green version

See also: Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking?

and/ or

Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking


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

Using the Internet for Political Research (POL9RM 20.3.14)

The lecture will be split into two basic issues:
1. What type of information should you seek, and from where?
2. What are the best (or, at least, most used) tools to use to source that information?
Types of Information
Before we examine how best to use the internet for political research, we should consider why you (as a former first year student) may have been advised *not* to rely on the internet to produce essays. One important explanation is that, in a world where the amount of information seems infinite, it may be increasingly difficult to identify the information to which we should pay most or least attention.  We need to identify some sort of hierarchy of important and/ or reliable information. This is a skill like any other. Your successful development of this skill will be reflected in your grades, since it will relate to the willingness of your essay markers to accept the information you present, according to the way in which you account for your information.
One way to address this issue is to consider why lecturers tend to treat books and/ or journal articles as the gold standard of information – at least as secondary sources, before you are expected to do your own research using primary sources such as government documents.
Possible answers include:
1. They are peer reviewed. Lecturers may recommend journals that only allow publication after a number of relevant academics have commented on the work, often anonymously. The number of peer reviewers may vary from 1 to 6; in my experience an article is usually read by 2 or 3 anonymous reviewers. Their evaluation of journals may be linked partly to the reputations that some journals have in terms of academic rigour, linked to the need for scholars to anticipate and address critical reviews before having their work accepted.
2. They are competitive and much work is rejected. Some journals have an acceptance rate below 10%, which helps them develop an image of prestige and cutting edge research. (You can get a rough idea of acceptance rates in politics and IR here – ). Some people also put some faith in proxy measures of journal reputations, such as their ‘impact factors’ (although this is a problematic faith). It is also an increasing trend to evaluate the status of individual scholars according to the extent to which the publication is cited by other scholars (see below on Google scholar). Being well cited is a proxy used increasingly to gauge respect for the information.
3. They may be based on a long period of scholarly research. This varies from discipline to discipline. Consider, for example, the historical research produced over years after painstaking attention to thousands of documents.
4. The research may be theoretically informed. Being theoretically informed means being aware of the general implications of individual pieces of information. In part, this focus on theory is based on one role of scientific research: to draw lessons from sets of single cases to produce insights that may apply to many or all cases. A focus on theory is a focus on generalisation – something that is difficult to do if we rely only on information that is produced in very particular circumstances.
5. The research may be methodologically sophisticated. Most research is required to reach some sort of level of sophistication. For example, a quantitative survey requires a certain (large) number of responses to be considered statistically significant (in other words, for us to conclude that the results could not have happened by chance). It is then subject to a series of statistical techniques (which you may learn, using programmes such as SPSS) to explore the associations between variables. Qualitative research may be judged on different criteria, but there is a similar requirement that the conduct of the research meets certain professional criteria. The data may then be subject to further techniques (such as discourse analysis) to gauge its meaning and significance. It is often a condition of journal article acceptance that the scholars set out clearly their methods (and often provide a copy of the data for others to use).
6. The research may be empirically rich. Much research is based on surveys of thousands of people or qualitative interviews of dozens or hundreds. The data may be combined with documentary and historical analysis to produce a wealth of information. That information may be compared with information from other studies, to help accumulate knowledge within particular fields.
7. The authors may be meticulous when they identify the source of their information. One aim of the scholarly text is to show the reader where they got their information, to allow the reader to follow up, confirm and/ or read further. Most of you will have noticed the attention that we pay to your referencing style and bibliographies. This is because, when people make empirical or theoretical claims, the understanding is that they show us the information on which they based their claims (or, at least, they give us the option to follow up their work).
It is according to these kinds of criteria that we may judge other sources of information. In many cases, the information may be useful even if it does not live up to many or any of these criteria. For example, it is legitimate to use newspaper stories and commentary pieces, particularly if they provide much-needed timely information and the source is seen as reliable (indeed, although some newspapers now suffer poor reputations, we can still identify a tradition of fact/ source checking as a routine part of information gathering – partly, but not exclusively, because journalists are generally proud of their reputations and newspaper managers do not want to be sued). However, we would then have to consider the trade off against the academic ‘gold standard’ (is the information likely to be theoretically informed and based on a sophisticated method?) and consider the extent to which the trade is appropriate. In many cases, this just comes down to a mix of sources – student essays could benefit from immediate sources but those sources may not be an alternative to a more comprehensive review of the relevant literature.
However, this is not to say that academic information is unproblematic. We may be meticulous when we catalogue our sources of information, but that information is still of varying value. For example, quantitative work may be limited by the availability of information provided by other actors (such as governments) and qualitative work may be limited by access to the right sources of information and simple things like the ability of interviewees to recall or provide an honest recollection of relevant information. The more difficult task, then, is to consider in more depth how people access and present information and how we might compare and critically analyse those sources to produce what we consider to be an accurate or valuable overall assessment of the available information.
Search Tools
We might divide that search broadly intro two categories: primary and secondary sources. I will a focus on Scottish politics to tailor the advice.
Secondary sources
The starting point for most students is likely to be a secondary source: you look through the existing academic literature for your information. Those texts analyse things like government documents, and you get your information about those documents indirectly, through a secondary source.
For me, the best way to start a search for secondary sources is to use Google Scholar ( You enter a small number of search terms and it produces a list of materials to consult. Most Universities also have the ability (particularly if you search on campus) to link the article access directly to the search. Your results are likely to reflect your search terms. For example, a search for ‘Scottish politics’ reveals a list of general texts, while a search for referendums in Scotland produces more specific texts. They tend to be organised according to the extent to which they have been cited elsewhere (which often produces a tendency for older materials to be listed first).
A good rule of thumb is that you should use Scholar more as you progress in your studies. The ‘further reading’ section of a textbook, or list of readings in a course guide, is essential when you are an early undergraduate. When you become an advanced undergraduate, and plan to write a relatively independent piece of work, you are expected to do your own searches for the relevant literature. This will require you to think carefully about your research question and the keywords you will have to use to get the most out of the search. You may also need to think about the sources of offer from Google scholar. There is now a wide availability of journals and books, but how do you prioritise and/ or determine the quality of the information?
Primary Sources
An independent project will also prompt you to seek primary sources of information, including government and parliamentary sources. This requires a bit more thought, since you are unlikely to get useful information unless you have first thought about what your research problem is and how you intend to address it. In other words, you think about what you want to know, what are the most appropriate methods to get the right information, and *then* do these sorts of searches.
Government and parliamentary sources
It is quite amusing to look through the Burnham et al (2008) 2nd edition of ‘Research Methods in Politics’ because it still talks about CD ROMS. These were growing in popularity when I was a student, but you may never have used a physical, round, disk to secure information (and may never have to). Instead, sources of government and parliamentary information tend to be available online directly from them. For example the Scottish Government has a fairly extensive site ( which allows you to search using key terms. This tends to be less straightforward than a Google Scholar search, forcing you to be much clearer in your mind about what sort of information you want (you will have to be fairly specific in your search unless you want to sift through a tonne of information). Similarly, the Scottish Parliament ( provides a written record of virtually anything that any MSP has said in a committee or plenary discussion since 1999, as well as a full record of written and oral evidence to committees. Again, there is too much information to browse, so you first need to think about what you want to know.
Nexis UK (which can be accessed through library resources) is a key archive of UK newspapers and can track the Scottish papers to some extent (it is OK for Scottish papers like the Scotsman, Herald, Daily Record and Press & Journal, but it does not store Scottish editions of the UK papers like the Daily Mail). The archive varies, with papers like The Times providing the longest stretches of data (the Scotsman has also begun to archive its really old material). Again, to make the search manageable (below, say, 1000 stories), you need to be very specific about what you want. For example, a search for Scotland AND referendum AND independence will produce thousands of stories which will take you days to get through (unless you focus on a short space of time).
Blogs are a minefield. Consider the extent to which they meet the gold standard criteria I outlined above. Some of them might do, but how would you know? I would treat blogs in the way that I might treat newspapers: you might trust them if they have a good reputation (but, then, whose opinions do you trust on reputations?). You should also expect biased, and often highly biased, opinions. That means that they can be a good source of information, but you might ask yourself if you can rely on a blog on its own, or as something to be compared with one or more sources. Interestingly (for me at least), along with my co-author on the 2nd ed of Scottish Politics, Neil McGarvey, I had to come up with a list of websites to check out. The idea is that they would be relatively useful, but is this list  (scroll down a bit to find it) particularly reliable? Or, are they simply the ones that came to mind at the time?
Twitter and other things
I tend to use Twitter as an alternative to the TV, as an additional source of entertainment. However, it is possible to sign up to a wide range of news and party sites and to use twitter as an alternative to reading newspapers page by page. This provides you with a new source of bias, but perhaps no more problematic than sticking with a paper like the Daily Mail. You might even simply follow specific lists (such as academics on twitter) or, if you are feeling particularly lazy, just look at the list of people/ organisations I follow and piggyback on that.  There are things that are particularly useful, such as the LSE blog sites, Ballots and Bullets, and accounts such as Writing For Research which you might find more useful if you progress to postgraduate work.
AND FINALLY: Wikipedia
I am sometimes pleasantly surprised about what I see on some of those pages. However, you will find very few academics that will trust your information if your source is Wikipedia – partly because it is difficult to know who is providing the information, how they got it, how well they cite that information, and how easy the information is to edit and manipulate. Maybe a good rule of thumb is that you look at it for a short cut to information, but that you do not rely on it as your definitive source.
See also: last year’s lecture, which has a list of Scottish Politics websites

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