Monthly Archives: July 2015

PhD Students: research is hard and it’s OK to simplify

I’m going to list this under posts for social/ political science PhD students, but it has a broader applicability. The simple message is that: if you are finding it hard to research and write a complicated PhD it’s not all your fault.

There are practical ways to make academic social science research manageable. For example, most of my published work has been an exploration of specific theories, the description of a very specific case study, or a bit of both. The down side to this focus on specific case studies is that it is difficult to produce an overall sense of what is going on in the world (or even one country). It helps to use the same theory as a language with which to consider our accumulated knowledge from many cases, but the policy literature does not have a demonstrably good record on that front: there is a weird mix of detailed case studies in different places/ times/ policy areas, or a collection of large scale comparative studies which focus on a tiny part of the policy process. So, we may find it satisfying to complete a piece of case study research but be frustrated that it is difficult to relate our findings to those of our peers.

With Emily St Denny, I have begun to write a book which aims to do something different: focus on a policy solution – summed up in the terms ‘prevention’ and ‘early intervention’ – that connects many case studies. We are using the same theories and concepts to get a sense of policymaking across 2 governments (UK and Scottish) and many (if not most) government departments. This allows us to identify common practices, policymaking constraints, and lessons that would not be as apparent if the same analysis were conducted by different people at different times, using a range of not-quite-compatible conceptual frameworks (even if we were all aware of, and interested in, each other’s work – which is not as common as we’d like to think).

So, we sort-of solved the problem I described but we also produced a whole set of others, including:

  • With a focused case study or vignette you can limit your analysis to key time periods, decisions, and actors. With our study comes a sense that everything is connected; that every decision to ignore something seems to undermine the analysis arbitrarily.
  • With a case study based on qualitative interviews you can often argue that, by interviewing (say) 20-30 actors you have captured the responses of a large part of the relevant policy making/ influencing ‘population’ (and perhaps much more so than a survey sample in a quantitative project). With our study comes the sense that we are scratching the surface; that our list of interviewees will seem one step up from random.
  • With a detailed case study you can give the sense that you have made sense of a series of important events. With our study comes the temptation to admit that we struggle to make sense of what it going on.
  • You can generally complete case studies on your own. In our case, my sense is that we are only going to achieve some success because we have been funded for two years to work as a team (as part of a far larger team) and, perhaps, because our ESRC funding/ status gives us an ‘in’ with interviewees that I don’t think I enjoyed in the past.
  • If you specialise, you can generate a reputation as an expert in a niche area, and generate some simple lessons from your research. In our case, we either know a little about a lot, or will be tempted to say ‘life is complicated’ or ‘everything is connected’ or tear out our hair while we impart our wisdom (after we say ‘yes, we didn’t know what prevention policy was either’).

This is a very roundabout way of saying that research is hard, and that it is OK to produce a very specific piece of work to make it manageable enough to be completed in a set amount of time (such as a 3-year PhD). It might seem like you are ‘zooming in’ on something fairly unimportant in the grand scheme of things – like a sludgy brown piece of cardboard nothingness in a 10,000 piece jigsaw – but instead you are avoiding the problems that come with too much ‘zooming out’.

See also:

PhD chat

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Comparing Theories of the Policy Process: A Brief Guide for Postgraduates

Paul Cairney (2013) ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How Do We Combine the Insights of Multiple Theories in Public Policy Studies?’ Policy Studies Journal, 41, 1, 1-21  PDF

Paul Cairney and Michael Jones (2015) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach: What Is the Empirical Impact of this Universal Theory?’ Policy Studies Journal, PDF

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3 questions about the call for Police Scotland’s Sir Stephen House’s resignation

Scottish Labour has called for Sir Stephen House’s resignation. Its call is on the back of a problem in Police Scotland’s handling of non-emergency calls (to its 101 number) which led to a major delay in finding two people who died in a car crash. Labour’s position is that this is one of many examples of failures in Police Scotland, that it has lost the confidence of the public, and that the service is feeling the strain of reform – so, House’s resignation is necessary to make sure that a review into Police Scotland’s operations will re-establish its reputation (the Scottish Government does not agree).

This position raises some interesting questions to people who remember the days in which ministers would be held responsible for such mistakes.

  1. What happened to ministerial accountability?

Many bodies need to be separated, somehow, from direct ministerial control to ensure their legitimacy. The police force and legal system are key examples: it would not be proper for a justice minister to have direct control over the arrest and prosecution of individuals, for principled reasons in the short term (they could influence the treatment of their supporters or opponents) and long term (to ensure the consistent application of legal principles and operational practices subject to minimal short term political interference).

In such cases, chief executives of government agencies take responsibility for operational decisions, allowing ministers to reject the historic idea that they should resign whenever anything goes wrong in their departments simply because they are ultimately responsible (‘sacrificial accountability’), to decide whether to redirect queries to other bodies, keep Parliament informed routinely of public body activities, explain problems, or promise to intervene.

The accountability landscape remains unclear when ministers devolve decisions to public bodies, with their own means to demonstrate institutional accountability, but also intervene, in an ad hoc way, to deal with institutional crises or address concerns when ‘operational’ and policy matters seem overlap (such as the ‘stop and search’ of teenagers to reduce knife crime, or the use of firearms by police officers). However, it tends to ensure, at least more than in the past, that the buck generally stops with chief executives.

2. Is the chief executive accountable in a meaningful way?

The reasoning behind a decision not to sacrifice ministers is sound: why call for a ministerial resignation every time something goes wrong in a department, particularly when the problem resulted from events, and decisions made by other people, that the minister could not be reasonably expected to anticipate? Such resignations can be disruptive and counterproductive, prompting a period of flux when a new minster has to learn the job from scratch. It also smacks of cynical symbolism – a gesture to the public, to protect the government, which does not solve the real problem.

In such cases, a minister can be accountable in a more meaningful way when s/he intervenes to address the problems caused by other individuals or organisations, introduces reforms to prevent similar problems arising in the future, and keeps Parliament and the public informed.

If we accept this principle, we should apply it to the chief executives of public bodies. Before deciding that they should resign because they are responsible for poor outcomes, we might first establish that: (a) the decisions they made contributed significantly to the problem; and/ or (b) they are not well placed to intervene to solve it (or that someone else is demonstrably better equipped to do the job). Otherwise, such resignations will be unnecessarily disruptive and expensive (since the political removal of a chief executive, without demonstrating incompetence, will likely involve a decent payoff).

Labour’s statement that ‘The Scottish Police Authority has utterly failed to hold Police Scotland to account in any way’ seems to rely on an argument which harks back to the outmoded notion of sacrificial responsibility that we no longer apply to ministers, while the SPA – when expressing support for House – draws on the idea that chief executives should stay in post while they can solve problems.

3. Can House use the same argument favoured by the SNP?

The SNP generally has an effective set of arguments for poor outcomes in devolved policies: we are constrained by decisions made by the UK Government; their decisions undermine the extent to which we can go our own way; and, sometimes we can only mitigate the worst effects, or deal with the unintended consequences of, their policies.

With Police Scotland, the same argument applies to many of the high profile events that have arisen since its reform: we are driven by policies made by the Scottish Government. This includes a major drive to reform the service as a whole, to streamline some services and save money in some areas – and to do it while maintaining the same number of police officers (another high profile decision of the SNP). The decision to keep police numbers at the same level means that all cost savings will come from organisational reform or reductions in support staff, producing inevitable reductions in local capacity when a national service can be concentrated in fewer units. The decision to have a national service also has a knock on effect on the reporting of police practices – so, practices that have been happening for years (such as stop and search practices) now look more significant or become associated with the policies of a single chief executive.

Overall, I am not simply making an argument to support House. For all I know, he may be to blame in these high profile cases – but I have not seen this argument made well or consistently by people calling for his resignation. Rather, I am saying that his critics, calling for his resignation, should present a more reasoned account, addressing the above points, to demonstrate that he is responsible in a meaningful way. The very broad ‘the buck stops with the chief executive’ argument (perhaps coupled with the suggestion that House is a prickly character) seems misguided in this case.

Motion S4M-13800: Hugh Henry, Renfrewshire South, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 21/07/2015

Police Scotland
That the Parliament expresses its shock and sadness at the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill following a car crash on the M9; calls on the Scottish Government to publish, in full and as quickly as possible, the inquiry by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland into call handling at Police Scotland; expresses concern at what it sees as a number of failings by Police Scotland and the Scottish Government’s ministers, including reductions in the number of services and civilian staff and a lack of transparency over armed officers and stop and search policy; considers that incidents such as this recent tragedy have had a negative impact on public confidence in policing; believes that the Scottish Police Authority has proved to be inadequate, and reluctantly concludes that, in the interests of restoring public trust in Police Scotland, the Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House, should resign with immediate effect.

Supported by: Iain Gray, James Kelly, Anne McTaggart, Hanzala Malik, Lewis Macdonald, Michael McMahon, Elaine Murray, John Pentland, Sarah Boyack, Mary Fee, Duncan McNeil, Patricia Ferguson, Claudia Beamish, Graeme Pearson, Cara Hilton, Jayne Baxter, Jenny Marra, Paul Martin, Siobhan McMahon, Drew Smith, Richard Simpson

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Now that the SNP dominates Scottish politics, it should it have a vision for Scottish Government

This is the claim made in different ways by Scotland’s dream team of Andrew Tickell and Chris Deerin. For Tickell, it’s time to stop gloating about wiping out Scottish Labour and start talking about what the SNP stands for in policy terms. For Deerin, it’s time for Nicola Sturgeon to demonstrate what she has achieved in government rather than in party politics; to show that the SNP has any ideas worthy of its popularity.

deerin policy

In this post, I’ll show you that the Scottish Government has a vision. It might seem bland and motherhood/ apple pie, and maybe almost no one has heard of it, but if you accept it then the questions raised by Tickell and Deerin will seem off-target and unambitious. Instead, there is another, far less discussed, problem that is so big that it goes to the heart of our political system, but so abstract that only the die-hards will want to read further. I’ll put in a picture of Joe Pesci (in JFK) here to suggest that talking about the whole system of government might be entertaining.

Joe Pesci JFK the system

The Scottish Government’s vision

Since 2007, the SNP Government has presented a ‘ten year vision’ which includes:

  • a ‘core purpose – to create a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth’; linked to
  • a ‘purpose framework’, with targets gauging its economic growth, productivity, labour market participation, population, income inequality, regional inequality and (emissions based) sustainability;
  • five ‘strategic objectives’: Enabling businesses and people to increase their wealth and more people to share fairly in that wealth, Helping people to sustain and improve their health, especially in disadvantaged communities, ensuring better, local and faster access to health care, Helping communities to flourish, becoming stronger, safer places to live, offering improved opportunities and a better quality of life, Expanding opportunities to succeed from nurture through to lifelong learning ensuring higher and more widely shared achievements, and Improving Scotland’s natural and built environment and the sustainable use and enjoyment of it.
  • sixteen ‘National Outcomes’ and fifty ‘National Indicators’ of progress towards the fulfilment of its vision.

It also has a clear narrative of how it wants to make policy. Its ‘governance’ strategy is based on a desire to delegate or share policymaking responsibility with key stakeholders in the public, private and third sectors. So, it has set up or reinforced local partnerships, charged with turning a broad vision into something that can be delivered according to the politics and circumstances of local areas. It talks about making sure that service users are at the heart of designing public services. It has also developed a desire to harness high levels of pre-referendum participation by stating its broad aims and inviting the public to help make sense of them. Or, it talks about a new era in which governments no longer do policy to people but with them – which translates into, for example, going into a consultation or meeting without having a fixed Scottish Government position or knowing what the outcome will be. Maybe it will also experiment with other ways to foster participation, such as citizen assemblies or juries or civic forums.

Why this vision is so important

This is a bland vision which includes aims that most people would struggle to criticise. That’s what makes it so important. It’s the kind of vision that political parties try to come up with, using a new mix of words, at every Scottish election. It generates so much cross-party support that it can relied upon as a reference point for the long term. So, for example, when we identify current major inequalities in health or education attainment, we can make reference to the long term vision and ask if there has been stagnation or progress. Then, when we think about that progress, we can point to meaningful outcomes (e.g. increases in community wellbeing) rather than just adherence to arbitrary inputs (e.g. teacher numbers) or outputs (e.g. meeting waiting times). It allows us to come up with more realistic measure of progress than 8-month or annual anniversaries in power – and, as such provides an antidote (albeit only for the few people seeking one) to the usual party political evaluations provided by politicians.

It also allows us to measure progress or decline in one area in relation to another, so that we don’t just extrapolate from one good or bad experience to produce a misleading overall picture. Maybe it even gives you a reference point for debates on, for example, the idea that policymaking remains excessively centralist (or the opposite). Certainly, it presents a realistic response to complex government: it helps elected governments recognise their limited abilities to centralise power to deliver their promises. Within this vision is the sense that elected policymakers are one of many groups of actors with the ability to influence outcomes. To assert otherwise is to mislead the electorate.

In short, even if you put the finest minds on the case – perhaps a collection of party worthies, civil servants, scientists, economists, philosophers, novelists, and poets – I doubt they could come up with a markedly better vision for Scottish policy.

Why this vision is incompatible with the way we understand politics

The bigger problem with this sort of vision is that it is, in important ways, the enemy of the kind of politics that we hold most dear. This can be a positive thing, if a technocratic vision makes up for some of the worst excesses of representative government and party politics. For example, parties don’t really have long term visions – they pretend to have them to win elections. They try to come up with new words to describe what is pretty much the Scottish Government position anyway, but without the sense that any party can promise to be in government long enough to see it through.

Parties also produce manifestos with much more specific aims which scupper long term visions – such as when they make silly short term promises on police officer or teacher or nurse numbers or hospital waiting times, which distort long term justice, education and health policy planning by limiting choice and putting short term aims on inputs/ outputs further up the agenda than long term outcomes. Or, parties make very firm commitments to policy decisions – which makes a nonsense of the idea that politicians and civil servants go into a room without knowing what the outcome will be. Or, more generally, they give the sense, during electoral competition, that central government makes the decisions and is accountable for everything that happens – which goes against the idea that the Scottish Government can delegate and share responsibility with local bodies.

But the adherence to a non-party-specific vision can also take us too far in the other direction. The worrying thing may not be that representative government distorts politics – since it’s the best form of politics we have – but that the alternative distorts representative government. Consider, for example, the implication of the Scottish Government sharing responsibility with everyone – local public bodies, stakeholders, service users – for long term outcomes. With that system, how can you decide how well things are going or who is to blame when things go badly? Sharing responsibility with so many people means not taking the blame (unless we are scapegoating or holding to account some individuals when they appear to be incompetent). It means that the call for an 8-month progress report is too easy to bat away. It means that the Scottish Parliament will struggle to hold the Scottish Government to account for policy progress, and that the electorate will struggle to reward or punish elected governments for what goes on in their name.

If you want the SNP to have a vision, and win elections, keep it bland

Beyond Scottish independence, we know roughly what the SNP wants and that it will take far longer to achieve than in the space of a few elections. We might want some milestones along the way, but also recognise that ‘quick wins’ are not the same as important wins.

In that sense, if you value representative government and party competition, it seems OK to accept that the presentation of a vision is a means to an end to win a game. You don’t bare your soul in a manifesto. You tell people that everything will be OK: the long term vision is already there and we are the most competent group of people to ensure its progress. The SNP is very good at this. It won the 2011 election on the back of it. It is one unheralded part of the SNP’s strategy to remain popular and in government: maintaining an image of governing competence by presenting a bland vision and avoiding major mistakes. It shouldn’t be underrated, particularly since it has allowed the SNP to remain Teflon in the face of a growing number of specific criticisms of its record.

The worrying bit

In short, if any political party tried to sell me another vision in its manifesto, or a new leader tried to claim the credit for policy progress in 8 months, I would take an instant distrust to them (in contrast to the politicians that live to stick it to other politicians – at least you know where you stand).

The only problem is that I don’t really know what I want from them instead, beyond a bland commitment to make society fairer. I know that they can only do so much in government, that they are part of a larger complex system, that their influence on policy outcomes is limited, and that they shouldn’t really take the bulk of the credit or blame for what happens. I know that their manifestos shouldn’t be too specific because some promises have a bewitching effect on debates and distorting effect on policy. Beyond hoping for competent and trustworthy people who seem to share my outlook on life, I’m not sure what else to root for. That seems much more of a problem to me than the lack of a political party’s soul or a leader’s 8-month narrative.

See also:

The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

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

Scotland’s Future Political System

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