Now with an updated version of the paper.
Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy
‘Complex government’ relates to many factors:
- the size and multi-level nature of government
- 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.
Cairney Complex Government 14.5.14 (submitted to a special issue – ‘Complex Government’ – in Public Money and Management)
See also: Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.
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- Even if ‘the evidence’ exists, it doesn’t tell you what to do.
- Sometimes there is clear evidence of a problem but not its solution.
- The evidence may tell us that something is effective, but not if it is appropriate.
- Scientists may exaggerate scientific consensus when they become advocates.
- Scientists often disagree about what they are doing, how they should do it, and how science should contribute to policy.
- These problems are exacerbated when: problems cross-cut traditional policy areas and disciplinary boundaries, the evidence base is patchy, and, the evidence comes from abroad, in an unfamiliar or unsystematic way.
- The demand for evidence does not match the supply.
- Governments may fund research to seek a ‘magic bullet’ or killer piece of information to remove the need for political choice.
- Research studies often focus on the narrow, measurable aspects of interventions but policymakers consider complex problems.
- Policymakers pay attention to, or understand, the evidence in different ways than specialist scientists.
- Their demand for information may be unpredictable.
- They seek many sources of information – scientific, practical, opinion.
- They often have to make decisions quickly and despite uncertainty.
- They use research selectively: to bolster their case, legitimise their actions, and show that they are acting.
- People providing evidence want an instant impact, but the effect may be more subtle, taking years or decades to filter through.
- People make choices in a complex policymaking system in which the role of evidence is often unclear.
- The policy process contains many policymakers and it takes time to understand how the system works.
- Scientists are competing with a wide range of actors (more knowledgeable of the policy process) to secure a policymaker audience and present evidence in a particular way.
- Support for evidence-based solutions varies according to which department or unit takes the lead and how it understand the problem.
- Bureaucracies and public bodies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others.
- Well-established beliefs provide the context for a consideration of new evidence.
- Attention to evidence may lurch unpredictably following shifts in the policy environment.
- Evidence-based policymaking is not the same as good policymaking.
- Minimising the evidence-policy gap means centralising power in the hands of a small number of policymakers and ensuring that scientific evidence is the sole source of knowledge for policymakers.
- Governments may legitimately pursue alternative forms of ‘good’ policymaking based on consulting widely and generating a degree of societal, practitioner and user consensus.
Armed with this knowledge, as scientists we can choose how to adapt to those circumstances by, for example: identifying where the action takes place; learning about the properties of policymaking systems, the rules of the game, and how to frame evidence to fit policy agendas; forming coalitions with other influential actors; and, engaging in the policy process long enough to exploit windows of opportunity.
This post is one of many on EBPM. The full list is here: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ebpm/
How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?
A ‘decisive shift to prevention’: how do we turn an idea into evidence based policy?
For a whole bunch of posts on the policy theory discussed in the originally more detailed argument see https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/
A review of Understanding Public Policy and Global Tobacco Control in Public Administration: Painter review of 2 Cairney books 2013
A review of Global Tobacco Control in Governance: Kurzer review of GTC in Governance 2014
A review of Understanding Public Policy from an early career academic: http://ezinearticles.com/?Book-Review:-Understanding-Public-Policy-by-Paul-Cairney&id=7116636
Two reviews of Understanding Public Policy in Political Studies Review:
(they are both here http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1478-9302.12000_9/abstract)
From someone keeping it succinct and numeric: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12570034-understanding-public-policy#other_reviews