Daily Archives: January 23, 2015

Can you separate the facts from your beliefs when making policy?

A key argument in policy studies is that it is impossible to separate facts and values when making policy. We often treat our beliefs as facts, or describe certain facts as objective, but perhaps only to simplify our lives or support a political strategy (a ‘self-evident’ fact is very handy for an argument). People make empirical claims infused with their values and often fail to realise just how their values or assumptions underpin their claims.

This is not an easy argument to explain. One strategy is to use extreme examples to make the point. For example, Herbert Simon points to Hitler’s Mein Kampf as the ultimate example of value-based claims masquerading as facts. We can also draw on some embarrassing historic academic research which states that the evidence exists to show that men are more intelligent than women and some races are demonstrably superior to others. In such cases, we would point out, for example, that the design of the research helped produce such conclusions: our values underpin our assumptions about how to measure intelligence or other measures of superiority.

‘Wait a minute, though’ (you might say). “What about simple examples in which you can state facts with relative certainty – such as the statement ‘there are 449 words in this post’”. ‘Fair enough’, I’d say (you will have to speak with a philosopher to get a better debate about the meaning of your 449 words claim). But this statement doesn’t take you far in policy terms. Instead, you’d want to say that there are too many or too few words, before you decided what to do about it.

In that sense, we have the most practical explanation of the unclear fact/ value distinction: the use of facts in policy is to underpin evaluations based on values. For example, we might point to the routine uses of data to argue that a public service is in ‘crisis’ or that there is a public health related epidemic. We might argue that people only talk about ‘policy problems’ they think we have a duty to solve them.

Or, facts and values often seem the hardest to separate when we evaluate the success and failure of policy solutions, since the measures used for evaluation are as political as any other part of the policy process. The gathering and presentation of facts is inherently a political exercise, and our use of facts to encourage a policy response is inseparable from our beliefs about how they world should work.

To think further about the relevance of this discussion, see this post on policy evaluation, this page on the use of evidence in policymaking, this book by Douglas, and this short commentary on ‘honest brokers’ by Jasanoff.

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

Fracking policy in the UK: all out for shale?

This post is based on a paper that I co-authored with Manuel Fischer and Karin Ingold: Cairney Fischer Ingold fracking in the UK for Zurich workshop 23 Jan 2015 (updated version: Weible et al book UK Chapter Cairney et al (including tables and appendix) 2016). See also a draft Fracking UK timeline

The UK Government looks like it is as strongly pro-fracking as it can possibly be. Prime Minister David Cameron famously declared: ‘we’re going all out for shale. It will mean more jobs and opportunities for people, and economic security for our country’. Chancellor George Osborne also wrote a detailed letter to ministers asking them to make policy implementation a ‘personal priority.’

For the UK Government, fracking has three main benefits: ‘energy security, decarbonisation and economic growth’. It has shown clear support for test drilling to assess the economic feasibility of fracking. It has reinforced this support with a range of policies:

Yet, in two crucial ways, it has not gone all out for shale. First, it is part of a loose coalition of organisations which, ‘on average’, is tentatively pro-fracking. The coalition includes UK government bodies; government agencies monitoring adherence to regulations; the three main UK political parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat (at least while in coalition government); the Energy and Climate Change Committee of the House of Commons, currently with a government majority; private energy companies (Cuadrilla, IGas Energy, Centrica, Total, Shell, National Grid) and industry groups (United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group, Oil & Gas UK, Chemical Industries Association; the NGO, No Hot Air; and, groups generating and sharing research: Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, British Geological Survey, CNG Services, Geological Society, Policy Exchange. The common element to this coalition is a wish to approve test drills, to get a better sense of the economic potential of shale gas (which only depends partly on production potential – note the currently low oil and gas prices), and support extensive regulation. Only some members of this coalition favour the ‘all out’ strategy. This coalition competes with an anti-fracking coalition which, while much smaller number, has a less equivocal political position. It includes the Green Party, NGOs such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Frack off, Friends of the Earth, and WWF UK, and, a research group, Tyndall Centre Manchester.

Second, it has not taken a centralist approach to energy security. Instead, it shares power across several levels of government. It has overall responsibility for energy policy, and retains ownership of mineral and gas resources, but has not centralised many aspects of fracking policy which are made by: devolved governments, responsible for developing national planning guidelines (Scotland will also soon receive powers on licensing); local authorities charged with granting planning permission for individual drilling sites; and public bodies responsible for ensuring environmental protection and health and safety. It also shares responsibility for environmental policy with the European Union. The UK has taken responsibility for strategic issues, related to energy security, the generation of evidence to address the economic viability and environmental uncertainty regarding fracking, the tax and incentives regime, and the UK-wide system granting energy companies the right to operate to extract minerals, but not the decision to approve drill sites in local areas. This is reflected in its rather convoluted ‘roadmap’ for private companies, which involves at least 15 steps and interaction with government and a large number of public bodies, culminating in the need to satisfy local authorities that they should drill in their area (public bodies, such as environment agencies also implement a complex mix of EU, UK and devolved regulations).

Currently, the result is that we don’t quite know what will happen, particularly since devolved and local governments are much more hesitant to approve actual development in their areas. The UK government may be ostensibly ‘all out for shale’, but this is not reflected in key decisions on the ground.

On this basis, we could expect one of three things. First, as events proceed and local areas begin to make decisions on individual sites, the anti-fracking coalition may swell, to reflect a growth in opposition or the decision of local authorities to reject planning applications. This is particularly likely if incidents such as tremors/ earthquakes should happen again close to test drilling sites. Second, the majority coalition may swell, but change further, to reflect an important degree of hesitant and prudent pro-fracking attitudes that are not sufficient to produce commercial fracking. Or, third, the majority coalition becomes more in favor of fracking, perhaps following the development of test drills and the gathering of evidence that suggests that regulations are sufficient and the commercial potential of shale gas is more certain. The latter outcome is by no means certain.

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Filed under Fracking, public policy, UK politics and policy