Monthly Archives: February 2015

Does Scotland have the capacity to produce its own energy policy?

UK energy policy is still reserved to the UK Government but, to all intents and purposes, major parts are being devolved to the Scottish Government. Politically, Scotland has a veto over the construction of new nuclear power stations, through executive devolution (via the Electricity Act 1989) and statements by several UK ministers since devolution. Legally, it is securing greater powers to oppose hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (‘fracking’), initially through the planning system and, from 2015, by securing the right to grant drilling licenses to companies. It is also pursuing a distinctive renewable energy policy, underpinned by its ability to help fund and approve the planning permission for major projects, and a permissive regime linked to EU targets and UK demand.

Yet, it does not have the constitutional or legal power to control the complete mix of energy production. This limitation helps generate the sense of a fragmented policy process in which the Scottish Government often contributes to the blocking of major sources of energy, while encouraging some and relying on the maintenance of others. This is an unsustainable position, since major sources of Scotland’s energy – its old nuclear power and coal burning plants – are coming to the end of their lives. We have reached the point where the Scottish Government, in cooperation with the Scottish Parliament and other actors, has to be a part of a long term strategy to secure its energy needs within a UK and EU framework.

Does the Scottish political system have the capacity to produce this strategy?

What would it take to make a legitimate decision built on sufficient and enduring support? The capacity:

  1. To generate and process evidence. Some will be fairly straightforward, technical, information – on, for example, levels of consumption/ production, import/ export, the risks and rewards to production, and the environmental effects regarding the use of each type of energy – and other information will be heavily contested. However, this distinction is not always predictable, particularly in highly salient issues where some groups do not trust information from others. A system requires the expertise to help generate and/ or analyse information, as well as the processes to combine it with other forms of knowledge (e.g. on the policy process), values and opinion, to produce a defendable decision.
  2. To inform the public, to generate an informed decision. Public knowledge of energy issues are often low, and it is rare to see public debates which consider energy consumption and production as a whole, rather than in relation to (for example) particular forms of energy produced in specific areas. The Scottish Government would need the capacity to encourage a sustained public discussion on the issues, perhaps not as intense as the debate on Scottish independence, but drawing on increased public participation (and certainly as high profile as the ‘national debate’ on compulsory education).
  3. To foster cooperation and a degree of consensus among social partners. The Scottish Government has developed a reputation for consultation to produce relatively high ‘ownership’ of policy problems and a useful degree of cooperation between social partners. Yet, this took place during a period of high public spending within policy areas, such as education and health, often marked by widespread agreement – often producing little need to generate consensus on ‘hard choices’. Energy policy would be a key test of its capacity to secure widespread agreement between business, energy, public sector, environmental and community groups.
  4. To produce ‘joined up government’, to ensure that energy aims are consistent with other policy aims, such as to produce sustainable growth and adherence to climate change targets. It has produced a National Performance Framework underpinned by a single purpose and a series of supporting aims (and measures of progress) but, as yet, it does not incorporate energy aims fully.
  5. Of the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise the Scottish Government. The Scottish Parliament has the ability to scrutinise government policy, but it has limited resources to do so (and often-limited political incentives to devote considerable time to scrutiny), and its remit on partially-reserved areas would be difficult to define.
  6. To produce a degree of cross-party agreement, sufficient to maintain a long term strategy. Energy issues often generate intense competition among political parties, with the potential to undermine long term planning.
  7. To produce effective intergovernmental relations. If energy remains a formally reserved but an effectively increasingly devolved matter, the Scottish Government would need to maintain a regular relationship with the UK Government and UK public bodies, to secure a degree of agreement on Scotland’s contribution to UK policy.
  8. To produce a robust legal and regulatory framework, and sufficient resources to regulatory bodies.  Many of these policies require (Scotland, EU or UK-wide) regulations to maintain a dual focus on energy production and environmental (and health and) safety. Often more importantly, they require well-resourced public bodies to carry out regular inspections and approve local projects.

The example of hydraulic fracturing

Fracking policy is a useful example of an issue that has the potential to generate public interest in energy, but perhaps only to one aspect of a complicated decision. Current surveys suggest that public knowledge remains low (even when attention seems high) and that attention is focused on a small number of aspects (environmental consequences, economic potential) of specific projects. The issue has generated intense electoral competition to produce a moratorium or local veto on development, without giving the sense of what Scottish parties are willing to encourage alongside renewable energy. There is little evidence, yet, that the Scottish Government is in the position to broker a deal between energy businesses and environmental/ community groups – in an area in which it is increasingly important to demonstrate that the government has not already made up its mind on development (currently, this is a ‘governance’ problem faced more intensely by the UK Government). Scottish parliamentary scrutiny is limited, partly because there is still uncertainty about the specific issue and the Scottish Government’s role. Intergovernmental relations may often be limited to the forthcoming further devolution of powers, which give the Scottish Government another veto on energy production, without solving its need to work with the UK to produce an overall strategy. The consideration of a regulatory framework is in its infancy: the Royal Society guidelines are there, but we do not yet know how they would translate to specific regulations or if public bodies such as SEPA have the capacity to monitor adherence, before and after planning consent. Currently, this is one of many cases in which Scotland will benefit from further devolution and face considerable uncertainty about what to do with its new powers.

See also: I was partly motivated to write this up after reading Murdo Fraser’s Missing – an energy strategy for Scotland  and these replies:

Aileen McHarg also discusses energy (from p37) in ‘Further Devolution and Energy Policy’

My bullet point 1 was a glaring omission until:

(There is some more background to the relevance to fracking here: The fracking moratorium in Scotland: what is it for? To gather new evidence? If evidence based policy making interests you, see also  The Science of Policymaking)

You can also link this issue to the usual Scotland/ England banter here:

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PhD Chat: how do you write a journal article or a conference paper?

From the Phd Chat page

[Update 30.3.21 I trimmed the preamble to make it less depressing and get to the point more quickly. Please note that our PhD group was in politics and policy, and my advice is not as relevant to people in other disciplines]

Giving conference papers is a key part of the PhD process, allowing you to:

  • write up your ideas in a shorter format than the PhD
  • generate useful feedback
  • meet people with similar interests.

So how do you do it? Here are some questions that arose in our group:

  1. What is the difference between a conference paper and an article? The simple answer is that the stakes are lower at the conference, and the paper is often the first of many drafts of an eventually accepted article. Generally, in my field, once your paper is accepted in principle onto a big annual conference, people don’t really monitor its quality – and many of the people that turn up to your panel will not have read it. However, a workshop is a different matter: you don’t want to annoy people when everyone is expected to read everyone’s papers. My advice in that case is to make the paper shorter and punchier, since many of your colleagues will be reading the whole set on the train/ plane to the workshop (the same goes, perhaps, for a panel discussant at an annual conference). You might even get a pat on the back, since people will have read at least one rotten effort from a more senior colleague. It also comes in handy later, when you have to meet the short word limits of major journals.
  2. Article writing is a skill that develops with practice – but is it part of the PhD training? In some fields, it is taken for granted that the data you produce will be used by your supervisor, perhaps within a research team, and that your name might go in the middle of a very co-authored paper. This seems less common in social science, and in my field you claim ownership of the material, often publish it on your own, and might end up learning by doing. If you are inexperienced, you may want to work with a more experienced colleague to help you through the often-tough process – but should it be your supervisor? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. It is fraught with difficulty, since there is clearly an imbalance of power in the supervisor/student relationship. I know of supervisors who do it routinely, and sometimes it is bound to look like the supervisor is getting some free research. In my case, I simply offer the possibility of co-authorship to PhD students – suggesting that, if they want 4 articles from their PhD, I could contribute to two (perhaps with both of us taking the lead on one paper). It seems to me to be part of the training process and a way to help PhD students get a leg up. However, it is not for everyone and I wouldn’t push it too hard.
  3. Work on the hook, structure and coherence. We talked about how to get started, discussing the idea that you should just get writing what you know (to stop you worrying over every word) and edit later. I read about this advice quite a lot. It’s not the advice that I tend to give. Instead, I recommend starting at the start: producing the 150-word abstract, and seeing if you can describe the whole thing in a short, concise way; then, producing the introduction to see if you can ‘hook’ people in with the opening rationale for the study (focusing on the theory or the case), articulate a research question in a concise way, and present a coherent structure in which you will lay out the argument. In my view, the danger with the ‘just write’ advice is that you end up with 12000 words before you try to work out how it all fits together in 8000. The advantage in starting from the start is that you become immediately aware of the need to present a short and punchy piece of work and describe it to people who don’t have the knowledge of the topic. For me, even taking a whole day to write the introduction is worth the effort, since the rest may only take a few days to draft (if you know exactly what you are doing). This is the same sort of advice that I’d give before doing a literature review: it will take half the time, and far fewer words, to explain something if you have a clear research question and small number of objectives from the start.
  4. Quantity or quality? I also have my own views on this topic, and they are not shared by all of my colleagues. It’s not too controversial to say that skills develop with practice, but there is a big quality/ quantity question when you decide how many times to develop your skills. The ‘quality’ argument is that you should take your time to get the data and the argument right, even if it means a smaller number of outputs. Later in life, this approach will come in handy if you are submitted to the research assessment exercise (which will require 1-4 of your best outputs), but I’m not sure you’ll ever get to a point where you think that the submission is perfect (and then the reviewers will let you know it’s not). The ‘quantity’ arguments are maybe harder to justify: keep it simple and go for one-paper-one-argument; tie the same data to multiple research questions and relevant literatures; and, recognise that the quantity of publications on someone’s CV may have a bewitching effect (particularly if people haven’t read the articles and are not specialist enough to know the status of the publications). I also like the argument that quantity helps produce quality.
  5. Develop a thick skin – and know the meaning of ‘major revision’. In my experience, conferences are generally OK and people are generally polite and helpful (and often more so for PhD students), but presenting a paper can be a bad experience if you get some arsey colleague determined to make a point. To some extent, this is useful practice for when you submit something to a journal – at least when the journal uses anonymous peer review. It is possible that the comments will be scathing or will appear to be scathing when you read it for the first time. It is difficult not to take reviews personally, but it can be done if you read them once (immediately after receiving the editor’s email) and then wait for a while and read them again. Or, better still, read the comments on someone else’s work (if they let you) and see if they seem so critical. In some cases, you will get a desktop rejection or a post-review rejection, which is just a part of normal academic life. In others, you will be asked to make a major revision. This really just means that the revision is not minor (an extra sentence or two, and fix some typos – this decision is not common). It requires you to look at how the editor boils down the comments and construct a response which addresses most of the reviewer’s concerns. You don’t have to make all of the suggested changes, but you should say why you chose to respond in a particular way (e.g. if reviewers give you contradictory advice). This takes a lot of work, but it is now standard stuff – a substantial post-referee revision is something that you should plan to do each time.
  6. Choose the journal wisely. It’s an obvious point, but it is easier said than done. In my field, you might consider these factors: country (e.g. some US journals have a reputation for publishing more quantitative work); approach (e.g. some journals will expect a ‘critical’ approach or to make reference to well-established theories or concepts); history (in other words, look through some back issues to see if yours would fit, or if you would even read the articles); status (which is hard to gauge, but some journals have higher rejection rates and/ or it takes longer and more investment to get something in there); and, theory or case (for example, you can tie any case study to some general journals if you use an established theory, or just use a theory to help explain a case in a specialist journal).

See also: 3 Common Reasons Editors Reject Articles Without Review

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PhD Chat: Issues arising from the research process (2) your role when conducting methods

From the Phd Chat page

Most of us are using qualitative methods, so some of our discussion of common themes won’t be as directly useful to everyone – but many points relate to many PhDs:

  1. The role of external ‘gatekeepers’ to your research. In some cases, a small number of people may control your access to information and useful people. You might have to build a relationship with them to get that information. In others, you may need to work hard to fill out forms and meet the rules of an organisation. I don’t think we had a case where that wasn’t a potential obstacle. The partial-solution is to make sure that you are in the position for some of it to go wrong, and to give yourself enough time to work out how to get past the gates. In some cases, the process gets easier with experience, but in my last project it took me over a year to set up some of the interviews.
  2. ‘Rapport’. We talked about how you might build up an understanding with an interviewee, but that there are trade-offs in each strategy. For example, you might be able to refer to a common background, such as gender, ethnicity or schooling (or, in Joanne McEvoy’s case, often the opposite) – but this might lead to your interviewee making the assumption that you know certain things, which means that they won’t explain them. For example, I knew someone from the US whose accent was often an advantage in UK interviews, since interviewees assumed they had to explain far more. There are also important ethical/ political questions about how detached you should be, to gain information, when participants make statements counter to your beliefs or they talk about issues that make them vulnerable: are you a detached scientific observer merely recording the exchange, a participant seeking to influence the exchange, and/or expected to engage in some way with your interviewee (discussed here or here)?
  3. The bad interview. Most people I have spoken to have had a bad interview: the interviewee has agreed to be interviewed, but says very little (of use) and appears defensive. It becomes easier to deal with them (I think) when you have the experience to work out when to persevere and when to finish the interview quickly. If we are talking about 1 or 2 out of 30, it’s fine to get very little information from some people. We might also learn things from the experience, including: if they sneer at the questions, it might reveal what they think; if they are nervous, it may be because they are not senior enough in an organisation to be confident about giving answers on behalf of it; or, they may simply not want to talk while recorded. Who knows? It’s OK to leave an interview and not know what went wrong, as long as it represents an outlier.
  4. How many interviews is enough? If you seek a false sense of certainty, my answer is 30. If you want the standard answer, people will say ‘it depends’ (there is a great NCRM discussion here in which the answer can be 1). Specifically, it depends on what you are doing and your approach: some talk about the idea of ‘saturation’, when you are confident that any more interviews won’t get you any more information (or it won’t be worth the extra effort); others, in (say) elite research might discuss the idea of getting enough of a proportion of an identified population (it might be 40, and you might get access to 20). The answer ‘30’ is handy since the number of interviews may have a bewitching effect on people, but you should really reflect on what information you have gathered, how you can demonstrate an adequate amount, and how you relate it to the other kinds of information available to you.
  5. The idea that you are a ‘gatekeeper’ for other people. In discussions of science we often talk about conducting research in a way that makes it replicable: if someone followed your methods could they produce the same results? Yet, this does not mean that people actually do the replication – which can be rare or non-existent in some fields. In particular, case study research, in which you are piecing together disparate information from limited sources, is difficult to replicate – and people will generally take your results on trust. Similarly, with anonymised interviews, people generally have to trust that you conducted them and reproduced them faithfully. In some cases, you do that with reference to established methods (such as audio recorded interviews, transcribed in their entirety and analysed using something like NVivo). In others, you might take written notes and agree to keep everything hush hush (which tends to be my approach). In such cases, all I can recommend is that, when you present the information, you acknowledge that the outcome is not simply an ‘objective’ account that would likely be produced by someone else (I discuss this issue in relation to policy theories, methods and science in this article and post).
  6. Thinking about how you fit into the research. A related issue is about the need to reflect on why you are doing the research and what part you play in it. In some cases, this issue is right up front: for example, some feminist studies may have an ‘emancipatory’ aim and be tied up in the identity of the researcher. In some cases, the student may be researching something that relates to their identity, social background, or profession (in the case of people combining a PhD with employment). In others, the link is not obvious, but the issues are similar: there is a need to think about how your aims, assumptions and biases will affect the ways in which you gather and analyse information – and if you can demonstrate that you are anticipating any problems. In some cases, there may be an open process to consider the ethics of the research, when (for example) it involves using an aspect of one’s background to access information not available to others. In others, it is a more straightforward and brief process of reflection, just in case it comes up in the viva.
  7. The difficulty of saying what ‘mixed methods’ are. The chances are that, if you are doing a PhD now, you have been trained in various qualitative and quantitative methods. You may also have done a course in the philosophy underpinning methods. If you put those two kinds of training together, you may pause before providing the now-standard answer: ‘I am totally doing mixed methods’. Many examiners may not leave it at that. They might want to know how you can marry methods which, potentially, are underpinned by two very different ways of understanding the world. In my view, these problems can be overblown when people claim a particular method for their philosophy when, really, the methods are more flexible. For example, interviews can be used alongside other methods to generate meaning in interpretive research, or simply to generate information to give more depth to surveys. All you really need to do (in my view) is to provide a clear and defendable description of what methods you use and why.

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PhD Chat: Issues arising from the research process (1) Mitigating risk

From the Phd Chat page

Probably the most important issue is about how to anticipate problems and incorporate them within the research design. You may find it odd when, at the very beginning of your design process, your supervisor is asking you what you would do if all or part of the process goes wrong – but it is an essential question. Can you salvage a PhD if you end up with far less data than you anticipated? There is an important balance to be struck between being ambitious and realistic. I think it’s good to make ambitious plans to, say, engage with multiple and disparate literatures, interview 50 people or do a significant piece of survey work. It’s also good to consider the end result if, say, only 20 will speak to you. In most cases, I think a good supervisor would ask you to prepare to mitigate risk.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. You want to answer the ‘what is policy?’ question, and you set up three parts: (1) documentary/ textual analysis to identify what policymakers define as policy; (2) interviews with 30-50 practitioners to determine policy in practice; and, (3) a survey to explore policy outcomes from the perspective of service users. This is super-ambitious and, while task 1 is relatively straightforward (at least if the documents are in the public domain), a lot could go wrong with 2 (it takes ages to set up, conduct, transcribe and analyse interviews, and people may not be forthcoming) and 3 (it takes a long time to design and conduct, few may respond to the survey, or data analysis becomes unmanageable). In that case, a supervisor may advise you to focus on either 2 or 3 – or to accept that, when you engage in both, only one of them may work out. The big question is: if one of them goes wrong, can you still get a PhD from what you have? Or, from the beginning, should you put your efforts into fewer tasks? This is not an easy question to answer, but it is important to ask it at the beginning.

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Phd Chat: The PhD as a record of research training – not a perfect achievement

A small group of us have started meeting to talk about the PhD process, and I decided to write up some of the broad themes. The point, I think, is that, although each person is researching a different topic, they face common problems and can share experiences. I’m afraid that, more often than not, we didn’t come up with solutions – but, you know, a problem shared …

The PhD as a record of research training – not a perfect achievement

Probably the most important part of the discussion is about the end-point, which is usually the much-feared viva following thesis submission (in our case, the UK-style non-public meeting with internal/ external examiners). There are four points that I’d stress:

  1. We see the PhD (at least increasingly) as a way to demonstrate proficiency in research methods, information gathering, and presentation. So, a common answer to a problem about how you do a literature review or deal with data limitations is that you should demonstrate that you have used your training and skills to produce the right outcome. There is no right answer, but there are established ways to demonstrate that you have the skills to produce an answer. This usually starts with having a clear and realistic research question. Then, it’s about showing that your engagement with the literature is geared specifically to answering that question (not a big list of points about the literature), that you have selected the most appropriate method(s), that you can write drafts and respond correctly to feedback, and that you can make oral/ conference presentations and generate more feedback.
  2. This emphasis seems preferable to, for example, trying to demonstrate some sort of awesome ‘gap’ in the literature or that you are challenging the conventional wisdom (imagine every PhD challenging what came before – it would be exhausting). I wouldn’t rule gap-identification out completely, but I’d be careful about making exaggerated claims (I discuss this point in relation to policy theory here). Sometimes an examiner will end up thinking that the gap was there for a reason (the PhD does not demonstrate the topic’s importance) or that its identification of a gap is rather artificial (which is a common ploy used by more senior academics that should really set a better example). For me, a PhD will look more convincing if you provide a quite-respectful review of the relevant literature, demonstrating how it helps guide your research (and, for example, how your case compares with cases in other fields or countries) and how your study will help improve it. This can often be about adding nuance to established findings (for example, when someone uses case studies to add depth to general assumptions about political behaviour) rather than shattering them.
  3. One of the most useful parts of the process is to present to an audience that doesn’t really know or care about your research. It forces you to re-think how you explain it to people other than your supervisor or people with shared interests (in both cases, you may be used to using a shared language or shorthand). I reckon you’ll find it easier to explain the case study or research question (which is often relatively clear) than your theoretical approach (which is often riddled with rotten jargon with limited meaning, or concepts like ‘power’ or ‘governance’ which might maybe mean everything and nothing).
  4. The PhD will be less than perfect and that’s OK. I often tell PhD students that they will be surprised about how low the bar is to successful completion – not because the bar is too low, but because it is at a realistic level, in which examiners recognise what you can do in three years when you have just begun a research career.

See also: Phd Chat page


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Why do people seem so down on e-cigs?

It must be very frustrating to give up smoking, with the help of e-cigarettes, only to find that you are no more welcome in public places with a fake cigarette than a real one. UK governments, and many public health advocates, often seem to want to regulate them in the same way, even though the e-cig could be described as a crucial ‘harm reduction’ measure (it’s not exactly healthy, but it’s much better than the other thing you were doing).

Here is a list of historical explanations for this position which won’t make you happy, but can at least distract you while you’re having a sly puff in the toilets:

  1. We’ve been here before with tobacco and harm reduction. So many post-war examples – like the idea of smoking a pipe, putting filter tips on cigarettes, ‘low tar’ cigarettes (which is a bit like ‘less shite in your sandwich’), and ventilators in public spaces – suggest that ‘harm reduction’ (combined with cheeky advertising) represents a way for members of the tobacco industry to keep people doing what they are doing and avoid government regulation. Someone who has spent decades of their time challenging the industry will see this as just another wheeze.
  2. Harm reduction has long been rejected in tobacco control. The thing you can hang your hat on is that there is no safe level of smoking – which, since the 1970s/80s has influenced the UK public health message.  It’s now very difficult to incorporate a harm reduction message into a field built on a push for abstention – particularly when we don’t yet know how much harm we are reducing.
  3. Denormalisation. The same goes for the idea of ‘denormalisation’, which describes a series of policy instruments to challenge the idea that smoking is a normal part of public life. Maybe if a bunch of people start puffing away at things that look like mini-bongs instead of imitation cigarettes, that will change – but we’d encourage that shift on the basis of hope. Further, and more importantly, some tobacco companies are getting into the e-cig business and branding them in similar ways to real-cigs. So, for example, the government wouldn’t want to go to the trouble of plain-packaging and hiding cigarettes on the supermarket shelves only to allow a tobacco company to put up a huge branded display for its e-cigs right next to the real ones. If this is really about harm reduction, for some it means getting a utilitarian-looking bit of plastic and a pea-flavoured mix from a pharmacy.
  4. The politics of evidence-based policy making. Advocates of e-cig control are playing a clever game, arguing that the only way to know the long term effects of e-cigarettes is to distribute them in a controlled environment, to gather data on their use and effects. The argument is: if an e-cig is medicine, let’s regulate it like any other medicine. You can see why this argument would trump others: we’re all biased, and rely on cherry-picked evidence on their effects, or we point to experts that support our position; but, you’d struggle to trump the medical profession when getting together a posse of experts (recommending systematic evidence-based medicine).
  5. We trust doctors more than tobacco companies. The image of doctors remains of the people on the front line, able to see the damaging effects of unhealthy behaviour. The image of tobacco companies is more likely to relate to the idea that some of them maybe sort-of lied to the US senate about their harmful effects. So, it will always be possible to argue that e-cig advocates are doing the bidding of the tobacco companies. Don’t blame the doctors, blame the companies.
  6. We could see this as a cover for ‘Big Pharma’, trying to make a tonne of money from the NHS from smoking cessation services –  but that’s a difficult argument to make stick when the even less popular ‘Big Tobacco’ seems to be trying to diversify into e-cigs, and use the same branding as it uses for r-cigs.
  7. Demonising the companies, not the smokers. The vast majority of governments across the globe have made a commitment to cutting ties with the tobacco industry (which includes not consulting with the industry on public policy) and will be looking for ways to sort-of encourage e-cigs over r-cigs and bypass a reliance on the old industry.

Overall, maybe some of this new agenda is driven by people who see the benefit of temperance and like to tell you what to do and where to do it – but, even if there were no ‘new puritans’, you’d still have these problems about what to do when a new e-cig opportunity rubs up the wrong way against well-established tobacco control policy.

See also: Linda Bauld ‘There’s no evidence e-cigarettes are as harmful as smoking’


Filed under Public health, public policy, tobacco, tobacco policy, UK politics and policy

The ways in which feminism has ruined my life

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In a hung Parliament, will the biggest party form the government?

Well, Robert Hazell says ‘not necessarily’. This does not mean ‘no’. It means that, while there is a high probability, it is not a certainty. This conclusion seems to bother some people. We don’t like to talk about probability because (a) it highlights a lack of certainty; (b) many of us are crap at calculating probability; and (c) calculating probability is partly a political exercise, since we need to decide what is/ isn’t a comparable experience.

Take the simple example of tossing a coin. This example tends to be used because the conditions are the same each time and each instance is comparable to the last (assuming no one is cheating). There is a probability of getting a head of 1 in 2. This does not mean that, if you toss it twice you’ll get a head once. It means that if you toss it, say, one million times, you’ll get about half a million heads.

Herein lies the problem with UK hung Parliaments: we have only two sort-of comparable experiences – not enough to say much about what has happened as a basis for predicting what will happen. The rest don’t count because, in most cases, of course the biggest party formed a government (it had a majority of seats).

We could supplement this number with sort-of comparable cases elsewhere: for example, there seems to be a developing culture in Canada to give legitimacy to the largest party even when the choice is between minority government, with the largest party, versus majority coalition with a combination of other parties.  We might also talk of the UK culture, in which the ‘winner takes all’ mentality of the Westminster system still pushes us to think that the largest party has won even if it didn’t win outright. I got that sense in Scotland when the SNP was given the chance to form a coalition then, when it didn’t work out, a minority – and in 2010 when the Conservatives were given first shot at coalition (although there were some rumblings about Labour trying next if it didn’t work out – partly because a majority is more valuable to people seeking certainty when a government is in charge of ‘high politics’).

We could do that, but we’d still be left with a sense of high probability, not certainty. I’m fine with that.

See also: this debate plays out a bit over twitter, which shows how some of the parties see it (which may be the most important thing). The thing that interests me is the way in which Scottish Labour initially portrayed the issue with certainty …

… then focused more on people’s expectations and moral authority

The latter is, I think, closer to what we saw in 2007 when the SNP formed a minority government on the back of an often-implicit understanding of Westminster convention. Indeed, that proved to be the super-clever point of the BM tweets:


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You shouldn’t love or hate fracking unconditionally

I was at a workshop in which we compared hydraulic fracturing/ fracking policy in many countries: the US, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Sweden, and Switzerland. One crucial point that arose from the focus on Germany/ UK on the one hand, and France/ Sweden on the other is that the debate has become relatively specific in some countries. In France and Sweden, the debate is quite broad: Sweden focuses on a broad opposition to fossil fuels and relatively low reliance on gas; in France, 90% of electricity comes from nuclear, and the debate is wider, focusing on hydrocarbons. In the UK and Germany (at least in our impression) we talk specifically about fracking as a technology – the ‘unconventional drilling’ side and focus very much on the uncertainty about the seismic activity and pollution caused during the process. Maybe we occasionally talk about fossil fuels in general but, as far as I can tell, not very often and not very well. The focus on the technology side of shale gas has often pushed the fossil fuel and energy mix question off the agenda.

This country-specific outcome is contributing to a profound global problem. In particular, look at the unintended consequences:

  • The rush for shale gas/ oil in the US – they produced huge energy reserves and helped push the price down; the price of coal has become too high and the US now exports a huge amount to Europe.
  • The uncertainty about the energy mix in the UK in Germany. Germany is phasing out nuclear and, for the foreseeable future, will burn a huge amount of coal until its transition to greater renewable energy. The UK has not made an effectively strong commitment to nuclear and also relies a huge amount on coal.

Look at these two things in tandem: the US fracks, uses the oil and gas at home, then ships over coal to burn in Europe. I like to think that this is not a decision that would have been made ‘rationally’ if they cooperated or each individual country consider their own energy mixes in a more holistic way.

The problem is that, at least in the UK, this kind of discussion gets lost in the excitement of fracking (and, in many cases, the usual party politics nonsense). Many (if not all) of us don’t want fracking in our back yard, but we might be happy enough with fracking in someone else’s. Perhaps some of us have vague hopes that, if we ban fracking, we will suddenly get all of our electricity from renewable energy (and perhaps burn less gas for heat in our homes). Some of us don’t care. Some of us want to use far less energy. Some of us are frustrated that we are making hugely contradictory choices (at least in the short term) by banning fracking partly on the grounds that you should keep fossil fuels in the ground while accepting that we are burning other fossil fuels from under someone else’s ground.

In other words, we do the debate a disservice if we love or hate fracking unconditionally. We need to think about the assumptions we make when we reject some fuels, and consider in more depth what else we can do. If not shale gas or nuclear power, are we happy to keep burning coal and importing gas? This is not my argument for shale gas. It is an argument for a better, more coordinated, national discussion on the risks and rewards of all parts of the energy mix.

See also:

uk import dependency

This UK Government document give you a sense of the proportion of energy the UK imports. The UK is now a net importer of all fuels (see p3). This UK Government document suggests that we imported 49 million tonnes of coal in 2013, and that our natural gas consumption (850 TWh in 2013) – for homes, industry and electricity – comes as much from imports as domestic production.

gas imports

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People engage in politics to further their beliefs – but what do they believe?

The Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) is associated strongly with the idea that people engage in the policy process to turn their beliefs into public policies, by forming coalitions with like-minded people and competing with coalitions of people with different beliefs. The early literature breaks beliefs into three distinct categories:

  • ‘Core’ are fundamental and unlikely to change (like a ‘religious conversion’) but too broad to guide detailed policy (such as one’s views on human nature).
  • ‘Policy core’ are more specific but still unlikely to change.
  • ‘Secondary Aspects’ relate to the implementation of policy. They are the most likely to change, as people learn about the effects of, say, regulations versus economic incentives.

The notional idea is that there is a ‘hierarchy’ of beliefs, from strongest to weakest. Core beliefs can relate to something like the nature of people (are their motives pure or evil?), or beliefs that are held so firmly and routinely that they might almost be taken for granted. As importantly, it is difficult to link these beliefs to coordinated behaviour (‘hey, we both think that people are misanthropists – let’s form a coalition’). Instead, we focus on ‘policy core’ as the deeply held beliefs that might underpin cooperation and conflict.

I was speaking with Chris Weible and colleagues about this recently, at a comparative workshop on the ACF, saying that I would use the example of state/ market as a policy core belief, since this basic left/right distinction can underpin a discussion of the role of government (for example, let’s have a large regulatory state or a minimal state). Since we were talking about hydraulic fracturing/ fracking, I thought this underpinned a lot of the discussion. Yet, of course, at the core of something like fracking is something else – the balance between a pro-business/ economic argument and a pro-environment argument, which may represent the fundamental cleavage in a subsystem. Each subsystem may also have its own fundamental cleavage which, in some way, overlaps with the state/market. The latter could perhaps be considered more of a core belief, since it spreads across so many subsystems – and may underpin debates across the political system as a whole. It is difficult to say for sure, and it is not something that we can conclude easily, even following general discussion.

In other words, it is difficult to assign these things precisely to the three categories. Instead we might think of a spectrum in which there is a degree of fluidity between categories despite a notional hierarchy.

This sort of conceptual uncertainty happens all the time in the policy sciences, and the ACF is no worse off than other theories. More importantly, like other theories, a framework provides a basic language that, if shared by a group of people, can be used to think through conceptual discussions such as these, to come to some sort of agreement, and use that agreement to underpin academic cooperation, in which we produce a range of case studies (using a variety of methods) and compare our insights, to help us better understand our own cases. At times, it looks like the initial concepts become a casualty of that cooperation. Yet, in our recent experience, it helped us focus on more important issues and generate the sense that we were working together to produce some important comparative work.

See Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Advocacy Coalition Framework

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What is a policy entrepreneur?

See also: Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

From pages 271-2 of Understanding Public Policy

For example, ‘policy entrepreneur’ is used by Kingdon (1984: 21; 104) to describe actors who use their knowledge of the process to further their own policy ends. They ‘lie in wait in and around government with their solutions at hand, waiting for problems to float by to which they can attach their solutions, waiting for a development in the political stream they can use to their advantage’ (Kingdon, 1984: 165–6). Entrepreneurs may be elected politicians, leaders of interest groups or merely unofficial spokespeople for particular causes. They are people with the knowledge, power, tenacity and luck to be able to exploit windows of opportunity and heightened levels of attention to policy problems to promote their ‘pet solutions’ to policymakers (see also Jones, 1994: 196 on their ability to reframe issues).

John’s (1999) treatment of entrepreneurs is similar, but he perhaps replaces the image of a surefooted calculating individual with someone that follows a trial and error strategy; entrepreneurs try out combinations of ideas, ‘to find the one that replicates’ (1999: 45).

In policy transfer, entrepreneurs can be consultants, NGOs or think tanks which promote best practice internationally. International entrepreneurs often have added credentials, either from the exporting country or from a supranational institution such as the World Bank that ties its cooperation to the use of a particular expert (Dolowitz and Marsh, 2000: 10). The classic case is the Harvard professor who travelled the world selling new public management, backed notionally by the US government (Common, 1998: 441). In this case the entrepreneur is perhaps guaranteed some level of success and is always on the road and looking for business rather than waiting for the right opportunity to act.

‘Entrepreneur’ is used in rational choice to explain why some individuals seek to provide public services or form political parties or interest groups when we assume that most free ride (McLean, 1987: 29). In business, entrepreneurs are innovative actors who provide a good or service that otherwise may not be provided; in return for their services they take a profit. The amount of profit depends partly on the level of competition by different entrepreneurs (1987: 28). In politics, it may be more difficult to sell goods, particularly when they are non-excludable (Chapter 7). Political entrepreneurs may profit through other means: when people make voluntary donations; when organizations pay politicians to try to secure contracts or other favours; and, through taxation. Again, the amount of profit depends in part on the level of competition: a high taxing, corrupt politician might be replaced by a cleaner and cheaper opponent (1987: 29). In other cases, politicians pursue measures simply because they believe that there will be an electoral payoff (Mclean, 2002: 541). In the case of organizations, there are people who value a good or service so much that they pay for it regardless of the ability of others to free ride. Or, there are entrepreneurs, driven partly by ideology, who provide a cheap solution to a problem shared by many in exchange for a donation to pursue further initiatives (McLean, 1987: 32).

Mintrom and Vergari (1996: 431; see also Mintrom and Norman, 2009) use ‘entrepreneur’ in a similar way to Kingdon (someone selling ideas) and to rational choice (someone solving a collective action problem) to explain change within the ACF. For example, coalitions are born when entrepreneurs frame issues to encourage members with common beliefs to coalesce around an issue.

Overall, while ‘entrepreneur’ may be a key concept used to explain the timing and degree of policy innovations, we need to be clear about how we use the term. Who are the entrepreneurs? What is their role? What skills do they posses? Do entrepreneurs sell ideas or services? Do they benefit from policy outcomes that favour their beliefs, or material outcomes? Is an entrepreneur a domestic actor joining streams from within, or an external actor applying pressure (or both)?

Posted for comparison with ‘knowledge broker’ – EBPM and ‘knowledge brokers’

Some of these theories about entrepreneurs are discussed in the 1000 Words and 500 Words series on policy theories.

See also: Practical Lessons from Policy Theories


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EBPM and ‘knowledge brokers’

This is another endnote in a chapter (3) that I am writing for The Science of Policymaking. I suggest that the identification of a ‘knowledge broker’ in practitioner studies is as problematic as the widely used but little understood term ‘policy entrepreneur’ in policy studies. So, an ostensibly simple recommendation (‘use a knowledge broker’) may, on its own, have little practical value.

Systematic reviews (such as by Oliver et al, in which you can chase up the other references) identify the word ‘broker’ but the individual studies to which they refer do not add up to a coherent account of who they are or what their role is:

  • Dobbins et al’s (2009: 2) focus is on employing someone specifically to disseminate evidence. Their base description is someone working ‘one-on-one with decision makers to facilitate evidence-informed decision making’, as opposed to the provision of databases and computer-generated messages – then they try to test, with an RCT, an anecdotal expectation that they act ‘as a catalyst for systems change, establishing and nurturing connections between researchers and end users’, ‘improve the quality and usefulness of evidence that is employed in decision making’, and ‘a decision-making culture that values the use of evidence (2009: 3). Their evidence, based largely on brokerage provided by one person, is that they may be less important than computer generated tailored messages.
  • Ritter (2009: 72) suggests that policymakers draw on ‘experts’, but expertise relates to broad knowledge of the field and a track record of engagement in government (so, there is not necessarily a direct link to scientists trying to supply new evidence).
  • El-Jahardi et al (2012: 9) report that 45% of surveyed practitioners responded that they need brokers (‘people who bring researchers and their target audiences together and build relationships among them to make knowledge transfer and exchange more effective’) but that little evidence exists on their role or impact.
  • Jack et al (2010) describe something different: ‘cultural brokers’, sharing information between an ‘aboriginal community’ and a community of researchers and policymakers.
  • Jönsson et al (2007: 8) speculate that members of policy networks can be brokers.
  • In some cases, articles which do not use the word ‘brokerage’ might still demonstrate a clearer role for specific professionals to address demand for evidence, such as to help commissioners gather and understand limited evidence on specialist services (Chambers et al, 2012: 144), or to facilitate a compromise between political and scientific beliefs (van Egmond et al, 2011: 34).

In short, I look forward to Oliver et al’s specific review of brokers, to see if there is more out there.

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Can you want evidence based policymaking if you don’t really know what it is?

This is an old post with a new title. It occurred to me that the phrase ‘evidence based policy making’ has a ‘bewitching’ effect. It seems impossible not to want it when you see the words in it. Yet, the problem is that not only do we not really know what it means, but we also do not know what each word means. I try to define them below, but these definitions don’t take us very far. ‘Evidence’ is assertion backed by information. ‘Based’ seems like a metaphor. ‘Policy’ is one of the worst-defined words in politics (up there with power and democracy). Policymaking implies there is a policymaker, but we don’t always know who it is.

This seems like just a semantic discussion, but I think that there is a lot of confusion in the EBPM literature simply because people begin by complaining that we don’t have it without really saying what we don’t have. A focus on things like ‘evidence informed’ doesn’t make things much better, because it is difficult to point to a policy and show how we would know if it related to the evidence, and to give it a mark out of ten. I think what people are often describing is the extent to which they feel that policymakers listen to what they have to say, and act on that basis. In some cases, people are quick to say that a policy is ‘not evidence based’ if policymakers only listen to some of what they have to say and/ or only adopt some of their recommendations (so it is less of a mark out of ten and more of a 0 or 1 code). For me, this is the most they could reasonably hope for – policy made with some regard to a wide range of the available evidence. It is less catchy, but it gives more equal status to the policymaking part of EBPM, in comparison with many accounts of EBPM which suggest that the policy process mangles *the* evidence; that we should judge the process’ merit according to how much the process dilutes scientific evidence.

I was re-reading this sentence …

“The term ‘evidence based policy making’ (EBPM) is in common currency in media and social media. Generally, it is a vague, aspirational term, rather than a good description of the policy process”

… and, before I knew it, I felt the need to define a whole bunch of other things in an end-note. Instead of biting my nails about these definitions, I am going to reproduce them here, and decide only to worry if anyone takes the time to object:

“Unfortunately, it is not the only term to be defined vaguely:

  • Policy. There is no single accepted definition of policy. I use the working definition ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ to raise important qualifications: (a) it is problematic to conflate what people say they will do with what they actually do; (b) a policy outcome can be very different from the intention; (c) policy is made routinely through cooperation between elected and unelected policymakers and actors with no formal role in the process; (d) policymaking is also about the power not to do something (Cairney, 2012a: 24-5.
  • It is also important to identify the components or policy instruments that make up policies, including: the level of spending; the use of economic incentives/ penalties; regulations and laws; the use of voluntary agreements and codes of conduct; the provision of public services; education campaigns; funding for scientific studies or advocacy; organisational change; and, the levels of resources/ methods dedicated to policy implementation (2012a: 26).
  • Policymakers. The intuitive definition is ‘people who make policy’, but there are two important distinctions: (1) between elected and unelected people, since actors such as civil servants also make important decisions (2) between people and organisations, with the latter used as a shorthand to refer to a group of people making decisions collectively with reference to a decision-making rule (an ‘institution’). These distinctions are crucial, to remind us that advocates would miss something important if they focused their energies only on elected politicians. They also produce a conceptual problem by blurring the dividing line between the people who make and influence In most respects, this is appropriate, since terms such as ‘policy community’ suggest that policy decisions are made, in some sense, by a collection of people with formal responsibility and informal influence. We just need to be careful to make clear what we mean by ‘policymakers’ in specific discussions.
  • Evidence and scientific evidence. We can define evidence as an argument or assertion backed by information. Scientific evidence therefore describes information produced in a particular way. Some (including me) use ‘scientific’ broadly, to refer to information gathered systematically using recognised methods. Others refer to a specific hierarchy of scientific methods, with randomized control trials (RCTs) and quantitative systematic review/ meta-analysis at the top (see Nutley et al, 2013).
  • Also note the difference between two kinds of evidence-based activity relating to: the size of the problem (for example, the number of smokers and the link between smoking and ill health); and, the effectiveness of the solution (for example, the effect of higher taxes and health warnings on consumption).”

The endnote will appear in The Science of Policymaking

See also Defining policy shows how messed up it seems (as part of the 1000 words series)

‘The strange new world of evidence-free government’ by Zoe Williams

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