Monthly Archives: May 2014

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it?

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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Four obstacles to evidence based policymaking (EBPM)

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

See also:

This post is one of many on EBPM. The full list is here:

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


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

Reviews of My Books

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:

Two reviews of Understanding Public Policy in Political Studies Review:

Richards review in PSR


Kihiko review in PSR

(they are both here

From someone keeping it succinct and numeric:

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing