The University of Manchester has just published an interesting survey of senior UK civil servants, asking them about how they engage with academics and use their research. Colin Talbot and Carole Talbot find that civil servants report a generally high interest in academic research, particularly in field such as ‘public policy’. They note how odd this may seem since, unlike in the US, there is not as much of a dedicated public policy discipline or group with its own associations, conferences and University courses. They then note a small rise in dedicated Master of Public Policy (MPP) courses and wonder if they’ll rise further.
This produced two self-serving thoughts:
The University of Stirling is launching a new MPP . However, our thinking is that it won’t directly attract many civil servants, who may be more likely to take smaller discrete modules or very short training programmes at or near work.
The report talks about academic language often being more of a barrier than a bridge to discussions with their colleagues, and they seek to simplify academic research when distributing it. Here is a paper, soon to appear in Teaching Public Administration, which talks about that process of teaching and translation.
Today, I did an interview on the Scottish independence referendum for Canada AM. Things to note: (1) upward facing camera (Facetime on my phone) to accentuate my double chin; (2) teeth; (3) my hair looks like it will set off the smoke alarm.
Summary: a blog in which I, an increasingly privileged, white, male Professor in the UK, give advice on how to get ahead in a profession that may have already changed since I started. My advice is to be lucky and/ or work until you are ill and alienate your family.
Two panel discussions at the UK Political Studies Association conference 2013 perhaps showed a great and enduring gender divide within the profession. One, focused directly on equality and diversity, largely discussed the barriers that women face when trying to combine a research-active career with taking primary responsibility for raising a family (there was also a man on the panel, discussing issues such as paternity leave and sleep deprivation (*and other things – I only walked in at the end of the session*). Another, focused on impact, saw a successful male professor advise people to follow their interests, only to be…
One of the few things funnier than Shami Chakrabarti’s speech (scroll down here) at the Political Studies Association annual dinner was the sight of a succession of men kissing her, politely but clumsily, on each cheek, as they received awards for excellent scholarship. Women received awards too, but they generally had the greeting down to a fine art. It raised, by far, the most important issue of the annual conference for me: how should I greet female colleagues? Men are easy. You shake their hands. In some cases, you get a bone cruncher, but that’s just physical rather than social discomfort. The same goes, almost always, for women I meet as colleagues. However, on a small number of occasions, we hug. I thought I had solved this problem by simply hugging the same people each time. As long as I know what we’re doing, I’d happily greet someone in any way they like. I’d even high 10 someone, up high and down low, and then the bit round the back, if I knew it was always going to be that way. Yet, things change: you sometimes miss your window to hug some people (awkward) and, on very rare occasions (at least for me) you hug someone spontaneously. It’s a fraught situation. So, drawing on historical institutionalism, I propose the Shami Chakrabarti Greeting Someone at a Political Studies Conference Rule, which comes in two parts:
1. The default rule should be handshakes all round, at a Dutch (not Swedish) level of strength and eye contact. Or, if you’re Scottish, it’s OK to say ‘alright?’ in a slightly too loud voice.
2. If, at a critical juncture, you’ve hugged in the past, the default should be that you hug each time you meet, for the rest of your lives. Back slap optional.
the proliferation of rules, regulations and public bodies
a crowded arena with blurry boundaries between policymakers and the actors who influence them; and
general uncertainty when people interact in unpredictable ways within a changeable policy environment.
Complex government is difficult to understand, control, influence and hold to account.
This brief article considers it from various perspectives: scholars trying to conceptualise it; policymakers trying to control or adapt to it; and, scientists, interest groups and individuals trying to influence it.
‘Rational choice theory’ is easy to caricature and dismiss, but difficult to define and describe, because it refers to a very broad and diverse body of work. So, we can identify some broad features but recognise that some studies display them more than others:
Inspiration – the application of ideas and methods from economics to politics.
Approach – models and deductive reasoning. It creates models of the world based on a small number of propositions and a logical examination of their connections.
Assumptions – ‘instrumental rationality’. Individuals fulfil their preferences according to their beliefs regarding the most appropriate means to achieve them. This is an ‘intentional’ explanation of behaviour based on the goals of individuals rather than motivation by ‘habit, tradition, or social appropriateness’*
Aim – to establish how many, or what proportion of, political outcomes one can explain with reference to the choices of individuals under particular conditions.
We can also identify two main types. The first is the abstract work which often involves building models or creating discussions based on openly unrealistic assumptions – for example, people have perfect information and judgement; they can act ‘optimally’ when faced with any situation.
‘Optimally’ is potentially misleading, since it refers to an ability to fulfil their individual preferences, by ranking them in order and being able to fulfil them. It does not necessarily refer to an optimal overall outcome, because things get complicated when many individuals, each seeking to fulfil their preferences, interact. We should also note that ‘rational’ refers to the ability to reason and act on reason (crucially, we do not have to assume that rational beings are selfish beings).
The second type involves more detailed and/ or realistic assumptions regarding the preferences of individuals and how they relate to specific institutional settings. In this case, the aim is to help explain outcomes.
The first type of work is a logical exercise, to help think through problems and often produce ‘paradoxical results’. Famous examples include:
the paradox of non-voting, in which we wonder why people vote when their individual vote makes a minimal difference.
the ‘free rider’ problem, in which we wonder why people would engage in collective group activity if they can benefit without engaging.
the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, in which we demonstrate that two people making choices to satisfy their individual first preferences are worse off than if they cooperate to secure their second best preferences.
the ‘tragedy of the commons’, in which we demonstrate the potentially catastrophic, cumulative effect of individual choices regarding scarce ‘common pool resources’ such as fertile land, unpolluted water, clean air, and fishing stocks.
The identification of such ‘collective action problems’ prompts us to consider the role of government and public policy in solving them. For example, we may identify ‘public goods’ to justify the role of the state as a supplement to, or replacement for, the market. Public goods are ‘non-excludable’ (no-one can be excluded from enjoying their benefits) and ‘non-rival’ (their use by one person does not diminish their value to another). Common examples, based on the argument that the state must intervene when the market would fail, regard national defence (the government should tax its citizens and businesses and provide national security) and clean air (the government should use a range of policy instruments to discourage pollution or encourage non-pollution).
In turn, the role of the state, or its institutions, can be analysed in the same rational choicey way, perhaps divided into three types of question:
To what extent should the state replace the market? Since state action generally involves a degree of coercion (including taxation and regulation), it is important to consider how appropriate each intervention is, and how it might compare to solutions based on trust within particular groups, non-state incentives, or private mechanisms to ensure cooperation.
Will state action improve collective outcomes? There is large body of ‘social choice theory’ which exists to demonstrate that the state cannot produce any rule that would make all of its citizens better off. Rather, it must consider how possible and appropriate it is to produce winners and losers, and if the winners can compensate others for their losses.
What are the unintended consequences to government action? There is also a literature arguing that the state can make things worse: public servants acting in their own, not the public’s interest; interest groups and businesses encouraged to waste a lot of resources securing government privileges; and, governments manipulating economic cycles to influence their election chances.
Indeed, rational choice presents us with a way in which to justify a role for government, or to argue for a minimal role for the state, in favour of the market.
The work of Elinor Ostrom and colleagues presents a third option. Ostrom’s work demonstrates the potential for non-market solutions to collective action problems based on a combination of trust and less impositional means (than government institutions), to minimize the costs of monitoring and enforcing collective agreements. This approach involves individuals seeking agreements with each other that could be enshrined in a set of meaningful rules (which is what we now think of as an institution). The rules may be enforced by a private rather than state authority – the ‘commons’ would remain common and actors would observe each other’s behaviour and report rule-breaking to the third party that everyone pays for and agrees to respect. For Ostrom, the theoretical aim was to identify the conditions that have to be met for some groups to organize themselves to solve a collective action problem without state coercion, while the empirical aim was to identify concrete examples of this process. This approach has proved to be influential, winning Ostrom the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009 and demonstrating the direct policy relevance of institutional rational choice analysis (see the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework, IAD).
*here is how that section appears in the book (without the Harvard referencing removed).
Let’s begin with a simple – and deliberately naïve – prescription for evidence based policymaking (EBPM): there should be a much closer link between (a) the process in which scientists and knowledge brokers identify major policy problems, and (b) the process in which politicians make policy decisions. We should seek to close the ‘evidence-policy gap’. The evidence should come first and we should bemoan the inability of policymakers to act accordingly. I discuss why that argument is naïve here and here, but in terms of the complexity of policy processes and the competing claims for knowledge-based policy. This post is about the link between EBPM and psychology.
Let’s consider the role of two types of thought process common to all people, policymakers included: (a) the intuitive, gut, emotional or other heuristics we use to process and act on information quickly; and (b) goal-oriented and reasoned, thoughtful behaviour. As Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (p 20) puts it: ‘System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations … often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration’
The naïve description of EBPM requires System 2 (‘slow’) thinking, but what happens if most policymaking is characterised by System 1 (‘fast’)? The answer is ‘a whole bunch of cognitive shortcuts’, including:
the ‘availability heuristic’, when people relate the size, frequency or probability of a problem to how easy it is to remember or imagine
the ‘representativeness heuristic’, when people overestimate the probability of vivid events
‘prospect theory’, when people value losses more than equivalent gains
‘framing effects’, based on emotional and moral judgements
optimism bias, or unrealistic expectations about our aims working out well when we commit to them
status quo bias
a tendency to use exemplars of social groups to represent general experience; and
a ‘need for coherence’ and to establish patterns and causal relationships when they may not exist (see Paul Lewis, p 7).
The ‘availability heuristic’ may also be linked to more recent studies of ‘processing fluency’ – which suggests that people’s decisions are influenced by their familiarity with things; with the ease in which they process information (see Alter and Oppenheimer, 2009). Fluency can take several forms, including conceptual, perceptual, and linguistic. For example, people may pay more attention to an issue or statement if they already possess some knowledge of it and find it easy to understand or recall. They may pay attention to people when their faces seem familiar and find fewer faults with systems they comprehend. They may place more value on things they find familiar, such as their domestic currency, items that they own compared to items they would have to buy, or the stocks of companies with more pronounceable names – even if they are otherwise identical. Or, their ability to imagine things in an abstract or concrete form may relate to their psychological ‘distance’ from it.
Is fast thinking bad thinking? Views from psychology
Alter and Oppenheimer use these insights to warn policymakers against taking the wrong attitude to regulation or spending based on flawed assessments of risk – for example, they might spend disproportionate amounts of money on projects designed to address risks with which they are most familiar (Slovic suggests that feelings towards risk may even be influenced by the way in which it is described, for example as a percentage versus a 1 in X probability). Alter and Oppenheimer also worry about medical and legal judgements swayed by fluid diagnoses and stories. Haidt argues that the identification of the ‘intuitive basis of moral judgment’ can be used to help policymakers ‘avoid mistakes’ or allow people to develop ‘programs’ or an ‘environment’ to ‘improve the quality of moral judgment and behavior’. These studies compare with arguments focusing on the positive role of emotions of decision-making, either individually (Frank) or as part of social groups, with emotional responses providing useful information in the form of social cues (Van Kleef et al).
Is fast thinking bad thinking? Views from the political and policy sciences
Social Construction Theory suggests that policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to ‘institutionalize’ their understanding of a policy problem and its solution. They ‘socially construct’ their target populations to argue that they are deserving either of governmental benefits or punishments. Schneider and Ingram (forthcoming) argue that the outcomes of social construction are often dysfunctional and not based on a well-reasoned, goal-oriented strategy: ‘Studies have shown that rules, tools, rationales and implementation structures inspired by social constructions send dysfunctional messages and poor choices may hamper the effectiveness of policy’.
However, not all policy scholars make such normative pronouncements. Indeed, the value of policy theory is often to show that policy results from the interaction between large numbers of people and institutions. So, the actions of a small number of policymakers would not be the issue; we need to know more about the cumulative effect of individual emotional decision making in a collective decision-making environment – in organisations, networks and systems. For example:
The Advocacy Coalition Framework suggests that people engage in coordinated activity to cooperate with each other and compete with other coalitions, based on their shared beliefs and a tendency to demonise their opponents. In some cases, there are commonly accepted ways to interpret the evidence. In others, it is a battle of ideas.
Multiple Streams Analysis and Punctuated Equilibrium Theory focus on uncertainty and ambiguity, exploring the potential for policymaker attention to lurch dramatically from one problem or ‘image’ (the way the problem is viewed or understood). They identify the framing strategies – of actors such as ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘venue shoppers’ and ‘monopolists’ – based on a mixture of empirical facts and ‘emotional appeals’.
The Narrative Policy Framework combines a discussion of emotion with the identification of narrative strategies. Each narrative has a setting, characters, plot and moral. They can be compared to marketing, as persuasion based more on appealing to an audience’s beliefs (or exploiting their thought processes) than the evidence. People will pay attention to certain narratives because they are boundedly rational, seeking shortcuts to gather sufficient information – and prone to accept simple stories that seem plausible, confirm their biases, exploit their emotions, and/ or come from a source they trust.
In each case, we might see our aim as going beyond the simple phrase: ‘the evidence doesn’t speak for itself’. If ‘fast thinking’ is pervasive in policymaking, then ‘the evidence’ may only be influential if it can be provided in ways that are consistent with the thought processes of certain policymakers – such as by provoking a strong emotional reaction (to confirm or challenge biases), or framing messages in terms that are familiar to (and can be easily processed by) policymakers.
These issues are discussed further in these posts:
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.