Monthly Archives: September 2015

New forms of politics and policymaking in Scotland: participatory and deliberative democracy resurgent? #POLU9SP

When Neil McGarvey and I wrote the first edition of Scottish Politics, we devoted a full chapter (11) to definitions of democracy and post-1999 developments in Scottish democracy. In the second edition, we removed that chapter because there was nothing new to say.

Although the principles behind phrases such as ‘deliberative’ and ‘participative’ democracy are important, I felt that they often represented empty rhetoric in Scotland. In Scotland, we talked a lot about doing things differently, but produced political practices that would not seem out of place in Westminster.

Then came the debate on Scottish independence: the 85% turnout to vote Yes or No, the sense that Scotland was now – or again? – a hub for deliberation and high participation, and a new Scottish Government agenda on translating that participation into something longer term, to produce examples of participatory policymaking.

So, maybe we will have a chapter on participation in the 3rd edition. I doubt it. I reckon Scottish politics will soon revert to its old self.

I base this expectation on a logical argument about the relationship between representation and other forms of democracy, the previously too-high expectations for new Scottish politics, and a sense of unfulfilled expectations in the Scottish experience since devolution.

What can compete with representative (and pluralist) democracy?

In Scottish Politics (pp220-4), we argue that ‘new politics’ involves reforms to four kinds of democracy:

Representative democracy

This will remain the most important democratic mechanism because ‘direct democracy at a national level would involve too many participants with too little time to devote to politics, and insufficient knowledge to apply to the wide range of responsibilities of the modern state. The main alternative is representative or indirect democracy in which popular sovereignty is expressed through regular elections of representatives acting on their behalf’.

We lose sight of its importance when thinking about other forms of democracy as somehow replacing representative. Instead, we should treat any other activity as a bonus, and consider how it fits in to the bigger picture.

In this category, the most important developments relate to:

(1) the more proportional electoral system – mixed member proportional (MMP) – for the Scottish Parliament (previous lecture)

(2) successful attempts by some parties to make sure that MSPs better represent the social background of the population than their MP counterparts. I say ‘some parties’ but note from Scottish Politics – and these articles by Keating & Cairney, and Cairney, Keating & Wilson – that only Scottish Labour achieved gender parity among their MSPs (these issues are explored in greater depth by scholars such as Kenny and MacKay). In other ways, the experience is more mixed. The Scottish Parliament is often no better at ‘microcosmic’ representation in other key categories – such as ethnicity, disability, and sexuality – and it has its own version of a ‘political class’ divorced from the ‘real world’ outside of politics.

Pluralist Democracy

This category is the most relevant to the course, since it relates to the pervasiveness of ‘policy communities’ or networks in policymaking. Elections produce mass participation every 4 or 5 years, while policymaking and delivery happens all the time. Policymakers and ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups form relationships, build up trust, and engage regularly with each other. They discuss the principles and details of policies in a way that few actors can do without the specialist knowledge and time to engage.

In this category, the most important developments relate to:

(1) a vague sentiment, expressed by the SCC, to avoid speaking to the ‘usual suspects’ and, instead, to broaden consultation to many participants (an aim explored in the literature on the ‘Scottish policy style’). This sentiment was re-stated by the SNP government in 2007 as an attempt to consult beyond the ‘establishment’. In both cases, it is a soundbite that ignores the logic of consulting with the most interested, expert, and active groups (a point explored well by Jordan and Stevenson, which Neil and I discuss in chapter 11).

(2) A role for Scottish Parliament committees to oversee the quality of Scottish Government consultation, and take action – in relation to draft legislation – if it is not satisfied. I think that 2 committees have used this power in 16 years, but what does this statistic signify: that committees don’t have many powers in practice, or that the Scottish Government consults so well that the power only needs to be used rarely?

Participatory and deliberative democracy

For me, initiatives to increase participatory and deliberative democracy should be seen in this initial context of representative and pluralist democracy. Why start with a focus on initially exciting, but ultimately disappointing, new forms of participation without first stating that most participation is through elections and most deliberation in networks?

The SCC got the ball-of-hype rolling by declaring that Scotland has, ‘consistently declared through the ballot box the wish for an approach to public policy which accords more closely with its collective and community traditions’. We can talk in the lecture about how well substantiated such claims are.

Perhaps more importantly, the SCC did not design the details of devolution. So, while we may wonder what it might have come up with, we can say with greater certainty that the most important developments relate to:

(1) A Scottish Civic Forum to act as a new forum for participation and deliberation among a self-selecting public. It ran from 1999-2006. Well-established interest groups described it as a ‘talking shop’ and did not use it (they had their own access to government), but some community groups and individuals did. Yet, it was difficult to get many people involved (particularly in regional events) and even more difficult to feed its reports into government and parliamentary processes.

(2) A petitions process coordinated by the Scottish Parliament. See Chris Carman’s report and journal article on this. My take is that, although the petitions process gives people a way to engage in politics and, in a very small number of cases, set the parliament’s or government’s agenda on one or two issues, it is peripheral to the policy process.

(3) A wider sense that a powerful Scottish Parliament would become the hub for such initiatives and, through regular debate, become the main arena for public deliberation (see next lecture, but don’t get your hopes up).

Did we revisit those expectations during the debate on Scottish independence?

No, not really. Instead, we saw some interesting attempts to generate interest in participatory and deliberative forms of democracy beyond government and parliament – see ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max, and my take on it – but without meaningful ‘ownership’ of those initiatives by government or parliament. For example, have a look at the Scottish Government’s White Paper on Scottish independence and see what you can spot.

For me, the most telling part of this limited debate was the reference, by advocates of reform, to phrases like ‘politics is broken’ in 2014 when the same phrases were used to push forward political reforms in Scotland from 1999. This sense of déjà vu gives you an indicator of how far the ‘new Scottish politics’ has changed practices in Scotland.

What are the prospects for new forms of participation?

For me, deliberative and participatory politics represents the personal equivalent of things that I would like to do if I had the time. I have a list of colleagues that I’d like to work with more, and I have a vague desire to play a round of golf before I die. At the same time, in most cases, I know that I will never have the time. Indeed, when you care about something enough, you make the time.

To put it another way, when you don’t have the time or enthusiasm for something, it might be better just to stop pretending that a vague aim might pan out one day. It just gets in the way of a more meaningful discussion of what’s actually happening while we pretend that loads of people are participating in new ways of doing politics in Scotland.

Other opinions are available

There are people who know more about these things than me, or are younger and more optimistic about life. For example, Oliver Escobar is doing work on this topic as part of What Works Scotland, and his PhD is here. You might also bump into Peter Matthews or Vikki McCall on the other side of campus and ask them what they are up to.

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Devolution and ‘new politics’ in Scotland: the implications for policymaking #POLU9SP

The phrases ‘new Scottish politics’ or ‘new politics’ should be understood with reference to ‘old Westminster’. They represented important reference points for the ‘architects of devolution’, or the reformers keen to present devolution as a way to transfer policymaking responsibilities and reform political practices.

These aims can be associated with two documents specific to Scotland. The first is the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s (1995) Scotland’s Parliament: Scotland’s Right, which made a general case for political reform:

the coming of a Scottish Parliament will usher in a way of politics that is radically different from the rituals of Westminster: more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational.

The second is the Consultative Steering Group’s (1998) Shaping Scotland’s Parliament, which designed the operation of the Scottish Parliament with regard to four key principles: ‘power sharing’, ‘accountability’, ‘equal opportunities’, and ‘openness and participation’.

However, I’ll show you that the debate links to a broader distinction between ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracy.

This focus on new political behaviour was an important reference point for politicians and commentators in the early years of devolution. Now, you don’t hear it so much. Yet, it gives us a reference point, to highlight limited progress towards ‘new politics’ and identify continuities in politics and policymaking despite these expectations for novelty.

In particular, I’ll show you, in a series of lectures, that Scottish devolution came with a set of measures combining new and ‘old Westminster’ elements, and it soon became a political system that would not look out of place in the ‘Westminster family’. Then, we can note that the slow or limited progress of new politics did not feature prominently in the debate on Scottish independence. Although the previous debate on constitutional change gave advocates a major opportunity to pursue political reforms, the independence debate did not. Finally, we can discuss the overall implications for policymaking: did the new politics agenda change how people make policy in Scotland?

From a ‘majoritarian’ to a ‘consensus’ democracy?

When you read some of the literature describing new Scottish politics as an alternative to old Westminster politics, note how similar it sounds to Lijphart’s discussion of majoritarian and consensus democracies. Neil McGarvey and I summarise Lijphart’s argument in Scottish Politics (see also my co-authored comparisons with the UK, Sweden, and Switzerland):

(click on them to make them bigger)

BOX 1.4 lIJPHART

box 8.2 Lijphart

These discussions suggest that, for many commentators, ‘Westminster’ represents an archetypal centralised political system with an adversarial and top-down political culture. This is an image that we should examine critically throughout the course rather than take for granted.

For now, note the link between the formalised rules to govern behaviour, such as on the style of election or the division of powers between organisations, and the informal rules or ‘cultures’ that they are alleged to promote. In particular, note that we might hesitate to expect that a shift in the voting system, from plurality to proportional, will necessarily prompt a major shift in political culture.

Scottish politics: combining new and ‘old Westminster’ elements

‘New politics’ is a meaningless phrase without a clear definition or reference to specific objectives. In Scottish politics, you can take your pick from quite a long list of ‘old Westminster’s’ alleged failings (the next section is in pages 12 and 13 of the 1st ed of Scottish Politics):

Electoral system – the first-past-the-post system exaggerates majorities and excludes small parties. It tends to result in a majority which, combined with a strong party system, ensures that one party dominates proceedings.

Executive dominance – this ‘top-down’ system, in which power is concentrated within government, is not appropriate for a Scottish system with a tradition of civic democracy and the diffusion of power. In Westminster, the centre not only has the ability for force legislation through (and ignore wider demands), but also to dominate the resources devoted to policy. Parliament does not possess the resources to hold the executive to account.

Adversarial style – most discussions in Westminster take place in plenary sessions (the whole House sits together) with a charged partisan atmosphere. There is insufficient scope for detailed and specialist scrutiny in an atmosphere conducive to consensual working practices. This extends to committees – the partisan nature of politics undermines real scrutiny and there are limited resources to investigate or monitor departments. Given the distinction between select and standing committees, there may be a problem of coordination and a lack of potential for long-term consensual styles to emerge.

Too much power is vested in the House of Lords – an unelected and unrepresentative second chamber.

Although the government may consult with interest groups, this tends to be with the ‘usual suspects’. This reliance on the most powerful and well resourced groups (such as big business) reinforces the concentration of power in a ruling class.

Since power is concentrated at the centre there are limited links between state and civic society. Outside of the voting process, there are limited means for ‘the people’ to influence government.

Parliamentary overload – Parliament is too focused on scrutinizing government legislation. This leaves MPs with too little time to devote to their constituencies.

Parliament as a whole does not reflect the people that elect it in terms of microcosmic representation. There is a particular lack of women in Parliament as well as a tendency for MPs to be drawn from a ruling class’.

These deficiencies would therefore be addressed with a number of aims:

A proportional electoral system with a strong likelihood of coalition and bargaining between parties.

A consensual style of politics with a reduced role for party conflict.

Power-sharing rather than executive dominance.

A strong role for committees to initiate legislation, scrutinize the activity of the executive and conduct inquiries

Fostering closer links between state and civic society through parliament (e.g. with a focus on the right to petition parliament and the committee role in obliging the executive to consult widely)

Ensuring that MSPs have enough time for constituency work by restricting business in the Scottish Parliament to three days per week.

Fostering equality in the selection of candidates and making the Scottish Parliament equally attractive to men and women’.

Why did so few people discuss ‘new politics’ during the independence referendum?

In this lecture, I’m going to ask what you think of this list: how many of these aims do you think have been fulfilled? For example, is the Scottish Parliament more representative in terms of social background?

We can discuss briefly why you think that an evaluation of devolution, and a discussion of further political reform, did not seem to be a central feature of the independence referendum debate. Did most people assume that a Yes vote was – yet againa rejection of ‘Westminster politics’ without thinking about the extent to which it was different from Holyrood politics? Or, if it didn’t come up much, what were people talking about instead?

We can then go into some detail on participation, the role of the Scottish Parliament, and ‘pluralist democracy’ in subsequent lectures.

What can we conclude about the distinctiveness of Scottish policymaking?

Finally, we will come back to the main theme or guiding question of the course: what difference do these things make to policymaking in Scotland?

In particular, let’s see what you think of these two arguments:

  1. The argument specific to Scotland. Despite these hopes for greater ‘power sharing’ between the government, parliament, and ‘the people’, Scottish government largely operates in the same way as UK government. Most policy is processed by governments who consult with ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups.
  2. The more general argument. There is a ‘universal’ logic to this kind of policymaking in majoritarian and consensus democracies. Although they look different, they engage in very similar policy processes.

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How does ‘complexity thinking’ improve our understanding of politics and policymaking?

Presentation to ‘A jurisprudence of complexity? Rethinking the relationship between law and society’, University of Lancaster, 25th September 2015

It is customary to describe complexity theory as new, exciting, and interdisciplinary. Its advocates suggest that it offers a new way of seeing the world, a scientific paradigm to replace ‘reductionism’, a way for many academic disciplines to use the same language to explain key processes, and the potential for an impressively broad and rich empirical base. Robert Geyer and I explore these themes in the introduction and conclusion to our edited Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy.

In this short discussion, I present a more critical discussion of these high expectations, examining how they translate into something new for political and policy science, and asking: what does complexity theory offer policy studies? I suggest that its focus on greater interdisciplinarity is potentially misleading, that its theoretical appeal may be more about conceptual consolidation than novelty, and that it may take some time to demonstrate its empirical value in relation to more established theories. We can use this discussion to draw parallels between the study of policy and legal processes.

Interdisciplinarity: a language that spreads across disciplines?

Complexity theory can be sold as a way to encourage interdisciplinarity: if we all have the same theoretical outlook, use the same language, and perhaps even use the same research methods, we can combine disciplinary approaches to tackle major social and environmental problems. Yet, there are three obstacles worth discussing:

First, it is possible that we can only maintain a similar language if it is highly abstract or superficially similar. The danger is that the same words mean different things in each discipline, and that we may not always appreciate major differences in reference points. I often get this impression when speaking with natural scientists about complexity ideas in physics and biology. In some cases, we have found interesting differences in language that are easily resolved – such as that ‘first’ order change means almost no change in policy studies (with reference to Hall) but major change in physics (akin to Hall’s 3rd order, Kuhnian change) – and others that are more difficult to overcome, such as the meaning of ‘chaos’ and the role of deterministic arguments (which seem more useful to explain natural rather than social systems).

In complexity, a key difference may be in the discussion of ‘emergence’ in the absence of a central brain or central control. In cell biology we can witness completely local interaction without a centre. In politics, there is a centre – central government – and our focus is on emergence despite its role. These are different processes which require different explanation.

Second, at least for me, complexity theory makes most sense when grounded in a well-established literature. As I discuss below, its value to policy studies may be to consolidate a range of concepts rather than provide a completely new way of thinking. The drawback is that, if this process is also necessary in each discipline, the necessity to make specific sense of complexity in each discipline undermines a general understanding: it takes time and training to become sufficiently aware of the relevant literature in each discipline; and, the translation involves using well-established concepts in one discipline that mean little in another.

Third, there are major differences of approach and understanding even within single disciplines. For example, when I wrote a policy focused piece on complexity in 2012, each reviewer noted the profound absence of discussion of particular individuals (such as Prigogine) or schools (such as Santa Fe or Brussels) without noting the same absences. Put me in a room with 5 other political scientists, interested in complexity, and I’m not sure how long it would take us to agree our terms.

A new way of looking at the world?

A lot of complexity’s claims to novelty come from a sense that complexity theory is ‘anti-reductionist’. In some subjects, it marks a major challenge to the old ways of doing science, in which, for example, we establish general laws or study individual parts of larger systems.

In the social sciences, there have been decades-long debates about the use of systems to explain social and political behaviour, and a greater sense of anti-reductionism – and ‘post-positivism’ – for some time. There may be examples in political science in which scholars identify simple regularities or trends in behaviour, but also a tradition of case study analysis to generate rich descriptions of specific decisions and events. It may therefore be more difficult to establish the sense that complexity is a new way of thinking, rather than simply the right way to think.

A newISH way of looking at the world?

Perhaps a more important ‘new’ way of seeing the world comes from complexity theory’s ability to bring together many strands of the political science literature into one framework, with reference to four main components of complex systems and their relevance to, for example, the limits to central government control.

Negative and positive feedback

First, ‘negative and positive feedback’ describes the suggestion that, in complex systems, some inputs of energy are dampened while others are amplified. Thus, small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects. This process can be linked to Jones and Baumgartner’s work on information processing. The cognitive ability of policymakers, and their ability to gather information, is limited. They can only pay attention to a small fraction of the issues for which they are responsible. They have to ignore most and promote a few to the top of their agenda. They receive the same amount of information over time, ignoring most for long periods (negative feedback) and paying disproportionate attention to some (positive feedback). Consequently, the controlling capacity of the centre is limited to the small number of issues to which policymakers pay particular attention or energetically seek to solve.

Strange attractors: regularities of behaviour which may be interrupted by short bursts of change

Second, positive and negative feedback extends to other parts of the system. For example, the instructions of central governments may be dampened or amplified by actors responsible for policy delivery. Much depends on the patterns of attention paid by policymakers at the ‘centre’. In theory, they could pay attention to, and influence, any part of the system. However, to do so, they have to ignore most other parts. Consequently, all rules that develop in institutions or policy networks could be challenged at any time, but most tend not to be. In this sense, ‘strange attractors’ describes the tendency for regular patterns of policymaking behaviour to persist in most cases despite the ever-present potential for policy instability (again, this is a feature of Baumgartner and Jones’ work).

Sensitivity to initial conditions and ‘path dependence’

Third, ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ describes the tendency for events and decisions made in the distant past to contribute to the formation of institutions that influence current practices. When a commitment to a policy is established it produces ‘increasing returns’ over time: as people adapt to, and build ‘institutions’ around, the initial decision, it becomes increasingly costly to choose a different path. Initial choices are reinforced when the rules governing systemic behaviour become established and difficult to change. As a result the bulk of policy is repetitive: most policy decisions are based on legislation that already exists, most public expenditure is devoted to activities that continue by routine, and policy implementation continues long after policymakers have lost interest. ‘Critical juncture’ begins to describe the infrequent and often dramatic series of events or decisions that challenge such routines.

‘Emergence’ from the interaction between elements at a local level

The idea of ‘emergence’, in policy studies, can relate to attempts by central governments to control the system (or, in some cases, encourage ‘localism’). Emergence refers to behaviour which results from local interaction, based on locally define rules, with an emphasis on the extent to which local behaviour takes place despite central government policies or rules.

This concept resonates with the well-established literature on policy implementation and governance. For example, Lipsky frames local behaviour in terms of the limits to which actors can meet central demands, and the extent to which they draw on their own judgement and professional training when interacting with service users. Local actors face so many targets, rules and laws that no public agency or official can be expected to fulfil them all. In fact, many may be too vague or even contradictory, requiring ‘street level bureaucrats’ to choose some over others. Or, central governments may introduce performance measures which limit the discretion of delivery organizations but relate to a small part of government business.

The theme of emergence has also been a key feature of modern accounts of ‘governance’. They examine how governments have sought to respond to limited central control, particularly during the peak of New Public Management (NPM) which describes the application of private business methods to government (including attempts to secure order through hierarchical management structures and targets for public bodies to meet). They often note that central governments struggle to maintain order and, in many cases, have exacerbated their limited control by introducing a wide range of new public service delivery functions which rely on public bodies and organisations in the third and private sectors for their success.

Newish normative advice for policymakers

The same point about newishness can be said for complexity theory’s practical or normative advice: it is justified in a new (and often convincing) way, but the advice itself is not new. Complexity theory’s focus on the lack of central government control on local behaviour and policy outcomes can be linked closely to the need to be pragmatic in government, to act with a sense of realism regarding what policymakers can achieve.

If policymakers deny their reliance on other actors to help them understand and adapt to their policy-making environment, they are doomed to make the same mistakes as their predecessors. Instead, central government policymakers should embrace interdependence, to pursue more pragmatic solutions based on increasing the freedom of local actors to learn and adapt to environmental signals, such as the responses they get from service users. To address the ever-presence of uncertainty, they should make greater use of trial and error policy making. To address the inevitable gap between policymakers’ aims and policy outcomes, they should change their expectations and the way they think about policy success and evaluation.

These are the kinds of recommendations provide by Lindlom 55 years ago (when policymakers were men):

Making policy is at best a very rough process. Neither social scientists, nor politicians, nor public administrators yet know enough about the social world to avoid repeated error in predicting the consequences of policy moves. A wise policy-maker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes and at the same time will produce unanticipated consequences he would have preferred to avoid. If he proceeds through a succession of incremental changes, he avoids serious lasting mistakes.

Such advice may be used by policymakers in parts of the UK and Scottish Governments, although without reference to the intricacies of complexity theory.

What is its original empirical base?

A large part of our handbook is devoted to chapters which outline new ways of thinking in a range of disciplines, or discuss the benefits of particular methods such as agent based modelling. Some chapters discuss empirical case studies, but without giving us the ability to combine their insights to help produce accumulated knowledge (at least in a straightforward way). For people seeking a payoff in terms of a bank of empirical case studies, complexity theory may seem like a source of as-yet-untapped potential. It is reasonable for scholars to wonder if we will ever get beyond a focus on new thinking and methods, towards a series of studies which can be linked to each other in a meaningful way.

The rise of systematic reviews of the literature perhaps magnify this problem, either because (a) there is now some evidence of accumulated knowledge in more established theories, or (b) the reviews show how difficult it is to accumulate knowledge when empirical studies make only vague reference to a common theory and struggle to ‘operationalise’ key concepts in a way that can be compared meaningfully to other studies (examples include multiple streams analysis – Jones et al, and Cairney and Jonessocial construction theory, and the advocacy coalition framework).

Conclusion: what is complexity theory useful for?

And yet we persist with complexity theory perhaps because, if we rejected theories on the basis of the concerns I raise, we would have no theories left.

More positively, for me, it offers a way of thinking about, organising, and explaining empirical studies. For example, Emily St Denny and I are working on a book/ papers in which we use the language of complexity to explore the interaction between new policy solutions/ ideas and the old ways of doing things in policymaking systems. Although it is not easy to compare our results with others, it is valuable to use a complexity framework to provide detailed understanding of cases, and to use multiple viewpoints – zooming in to examine the perception of actors, or zooming out to observe systems and their environments – to understand the same processes.

Instead of leading to the rejection of complexity theory, these concerns prompt us to explore common topics with people in other disciplines carefully, and perhaps to reduce the claims we make about theoretical and empirical novelty while we do so. For example, the way Robert and I describe Thomas Webb’s chapter ties it closely to the themes in politics and policymaking that I discussed:

‘He draws on complexity terms, such as emergence and contingency, to argue that the legal process cannot be boiled down to a set of simple laws and rules to be implemented by government bodies such as the courts. Rather, people interpret rules and interact with each other to produce outcomes that are difficult to predict with reference to the statute book’.

Complexity also helps us think about practical problems, such as our ability to be pragmatic (and, as Robert would say, ‘humble’) or somehow manage or influence emergent behaviour (this is an immediate concern in some discussions, such as discussed by Tara Fenwick in relation to education and the classroom).

In politics, perhaps the biggest practical question relates to traditional notions of democratic accountability: how can governments let go of order and claim to be in control enough to take responsibility for their actions? Perhaps in politics and law, we may start to wonder if the law is actually made by legislators, or in practice, and how we should respond. Complexity theory doesn’t answer the question – and the literature sometimes seems to provide contradictory advice – but it gives us a useful language in which to discuss it.

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How to present policy analysis to many audiences #POLU9SP

This is the only week in which I will encourage you to find advice on policy analysis by using a search engine like Google. However, you need to do it with a critical eye. You will find two kinds of advice, only one of which is useful in a straightforward way:

  1. Most of the advice will tell you to be concise, to keep it short for a busy audience, readable, to minimise jargon, and up-to-date, to give the impression of comprehensive research. This advice is sound.
  2. Some will get you to organise the advice as if the policy process were ordered into a series of discrete stages, akin to a policy cycle. This advice can be problematic.

A key message of this course is that policy processes are more like complex systems than ordered cycles. Therefore, good policy analysis should reflect on policymaking as much as policy. There is no point in coming up with a well-researched analysis of a problem and a brilliant solution if, for example, you recommend it to someone without the willingness or ability to pay attention to it or use it.

We can reinforce this point with reference to the previous lecture’s focus on 5 key concepts common to policy theories:

  1. There are many actors involved in policymaking, at multiple levels. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume that you can make a recommendation effectively by only speaking to one policymaker or organisation, or only seeing the problem through their eyes.
  2. Many ‘institutions’ have their own ‘standard operating procedures’ or rules which take time to understand and influence.
  3. Many policymakers or departments have a well-established or powerful clientele which you should take into account.
  4. Your analysis might be a quick response to major social change or a key event, not a process in which you have years to plan.
  5. Your analysis may be more persuasive if couched in a language that tends to dominate discussion or with reference to the entrenched beliefs of policymakers or key participants.

Or, we can make the point with reference to the implications of complexity theory, discussed in the last lecture:

  • In complex systems, it is unwise to expect ‘law-like behaviour’; a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
  • Policymaking systems are difficult to control and analysts should be prepared for the possibility that their policy interventions do not have the desired effect. Governments may be learning that they cannot simply make a policy and expect successful implementation by using a top-down, centrally driven policy strategy.
  • Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must learn and adapt quickly.

Complexity, the Scottish approach, and policy analysis

The advice that tends to come from complexity studies is generally consistent with the ‘Scottish approach’ that we have begun to discuss: rely less on short term and rigid targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment; encourage trial-and-error projects that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly; and, set broad or realistic parameters for success and failure. However, policymakers are also under pressure to act to solve emerging problems and take responsibility for national strategies.

This context makes policy analysis tricky: you want to recognise the ways in which governments understand their policymaking task, and seek to operate for the long term, but also the pressures they are under to act quickly and take control.

Bardach’s 8 steps

One text which tries to combine policy analysis with a recognition of policymaking context is Eugene Bardach’s A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis. His steps to policy analysis provide one (but not the only) way to structure your coursework in a way that combines empirical analysis and political awareness:

  1. ‘Define the problem’ involves the selective use of information (and eye-catching statistics), ideology, and persuasion, to help your problem compete with others.
  2. ‘Assemble some evidence’ involves ‘hustling’ relevant data in an efficient way.
  3. ‘Construct the alternatives’ involves generating politically feasible policy solutions.
  4. ‘Select the criteria’ involves recognising the political nature of policy evaluation, which is influenced by the measures you choose to determine success.
  5. ‘Project the outcomes’ involves predicting only relevant outcomes; the ones that key actors care about (such as cost savings or value for money).
  6. ‘Confront the trade-offs’ can involve working out how much of a bad service policymakers will accept to cut costs.
  7. ‘Decide’ involves looking at your case to see if it is persuasive.
  8. ‘Tell your story’ involves tailoring your case to the biases of your audience. A policy analysis is not for everyone. It is a case made to a specific audience, or several stories for different audiences.

Examples in Scotland

You should think about possible examples as soon as possible, and we can discuss your ideas in lectures this week and tutorials in week 3. Possible examples include:

  • Why and how would you introduce more class testing in compulsory education? In this case, you could identify the relevance of the Scottish system of education, the moves in the 1990s to reject testing, and the role and influence of education unions or the teaching profession, and weigh these factors against the need to be seen to be responding to things like a perceived decline in pupil attainment and major inequalities in attainment.
  • Can you make a case for private sector delivery in the Scottish NHS? The NHS was a key feature of the independence debate. Would it be feasible for any party to propose more private sector delivery? If only the Conservatives would try, how would you recommend they do it?
  • How would you structure your advice on fracking to the current SNP-led Scottish Government?

The coursework

It will be difficult for you to reflect on all of these factors in each piece of coursework, particularly since the blog needs to be eye-catching and the policy analysis needs to be short. However, you will have more space to explain your reasoning in the oral presentation and explore the politics of policymaking, and explain policy change, in the longer essay. This combination of exercises will, I hope, give you the chance to communicate similar information to different audiences, and reflect on how you do it.

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Key theories in policymaking: how to explain what is going on in Scotland #POLU9SP

This is quite a long read and I will likely spread the discussion over more than one lecture. In this post I provide the ‘universal’ concepts to consider, and we can discuss in the lecture how they apply specifically to Scottish policymaking.

In week 1, we discussed the concept of ‘bounded rationality’ and theories which explore its implications. What happens when policymakers do not have the ability to gather all relevant information and make policy in an orderly way? They focus on a small number of issues and ignore or delegate the rest, their attention lurches from issue to issue, they make quick and often emotional decisions, and they are susceptible to persuasion and simple stories which exploit their emotions and biases and reinforce their beliefs.

We then discussed the ‘universal’ and territorial aspects of such theories: all policymakers face these limitations, but a Scottish frame of reference influences the kinds of issues which receive most attention and the stories that gain most traction.

So far, our conceptual focus has been on the role of key individuals: the policymakers in charge, and the actors who seek influence. This week, we extend the analysis to the ‘environments’ or ‘systems’ in which they operate. Most theories combine this dual focus on:

  1. the cognitive limits of policymakers and the ways in which they think, and
  2. the conditions under which they make choices, including: the rules they follow, the networks in which they participate, the socioeconomic context in which they operate, and their deeply held beliefs.

There are too many relevant concepts and theories to cover in one lecture, and I wouldn’t expect you to become familiar with all of them by the end of the year (in fact, it would be better to have an inside-out knowledge of one).

Instead, as an introduction to the study of policymaking, we can discuss the concepts that most theories have in common, and look at one example of a theory – complexity theory – which can be used to consolidate several discussions.

Key questions in policy theory

These concepts can be turned into the questions we should ask when we try to understand and explain the environment in which ‘boundedly rational’ policymakers make choices:

  • Actors. Which actors are involved in policymaking, and at what level of government do they operate?

This is not an easy question to answer if we accept the need to focus on more than just the elected people in ministerial posts. There may be thousands of actors involved in policymaking, and ‘actors’ is a very broad term which includes individuals or organisations, including private companies, interest groups and governments bodies.

A common argument in policy theory is that we have witnessed a shift since the early post-war period, characterised by centralized and exclusive policymaking, towards a fragmented multi-level system involving a much larger number of actors.

  • Institutions. What rules or ‘standard operating procedures’ have developed within policymaking organisations and how do they influence the development of policy?

The term ‘institution’ is often used loosely to describe important organisations such as governments or legislatures. Really, it refers to the rules, ‘norms’, and other practices that influence policymaking behaviour.  Some rules are visible or widely understood, such as constitutions or the ‘standing orders’ of parliaments. Others are less visible – the ‘rules of the game’ in politics, or organisational ‘cultures’ – and may only be understood following in-depth study of particular organisations.

These rules develop in different ways in many parts of government, prompting us to consider what happens when many different actors develop different expectations of politics and policymaking.  For example, it might help explain a gap between policies made in one organisation and implemented by another. It might cause government policy to be contradictory, when many different organisations produce their own policies without coordinating with others. Or, governments may contribute to a convoluted statute book by adding to laws and regulations without thinking how they all fit together. Such problems may be magnified when policymaking is multi-level.

  • Networks or ‘subsystems’. What is the balance of power between ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups?

In week 1, we linked the formation of policy networks to bounded rationality: ministers and senior civil servants delegate, and more junior civil servants form relationships with the actors giving them information and advice. In some cases, we can identify close relationships based, for example, on a shared understanding of the policy problem and an adherence to unwritten ‘rules of the game’. In others, these networks are large, there are many actors involved, there is less incentive to follow the same rules (such as to keep discussions relatively quiet), and there is more competition to ‘frame’ the problem to be solved.

  • Context and events. How does the socio-economic and political context influence policy? Which events have prompted or undermined policy development?

‘Context’ describes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a country’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and social attitudes. This wider context is in addition to the ‘institutional’ context, when governments inherit the laws and organisations of their predecessors.

Important ‘game changing’ events can be routine, such as when elections produce new governments with new ideas, or unanticipated, such as when crises or major technological changes prompt policymakers to reconsider existing policies.

In each case, we should consider the extent to which policymaking is in the control of policymakers. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – examples include major demographic change (such as an ageing population), the role of technology in driving healthcare demand, climate change, extreme events, and ‘globalisation’. Yet, governments often show that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time or, at least, decide how and why they are important.

  • Ideas.  What is the role of beliefs, knowledge, evidence and learning in shaping the way that policymakers understand and seek to solve problems?

‘Ideas’ is a quite-vague term to describe beliefs, or ways of thinking, and the extent to which they are shared within groups, organisations, networks and political systems. There are three kinds of inter-related ideas to discuss. First, an idea can be a policy solution: ‘I have an idea’ to solve a policy problem. Second, ideas relate to persuasion as a resource in the policy process. Actors can use money and other sources of power to influence policy, but also argument and manipulation. Third, ideas refer to shared beliefs or a shared language used by policy participants: the ‘core beliefs’, ‘paradigms’, ‘hegemonic’ ideas, or ‘monopolies’ of ideas that are often so important because people take them for granted.

The latter provides the context in which people use arguments and persuasion and within which certain policy solutions are conceivable. So, not everyone has the same opportunity to raise attention to problems and propose their favoured solutions. Some can exploit a dominant understanding of the policy problem, while others have to work harder to challenge existing beliefs. A focus on ideas is a focus on power: to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; and, to keep some issues on the agenda at the expense of others.

Using theory to bring these concepts together

Any one of these elements could be used to explain why the policy process is ‘complex’ and so difficult to understand and predict. Or, many theories try to explain how the policy process works by describing the interaction between all of those elements: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/

One example is complexity theory, which discusses the properties of complex policymaking systems:

  1. The same amount of activity can have no effect or a huge effect. For example, someone presenting the same information may be ignored by policymakers or receive disproportionate attention.
  2. Decisions made in the past can produce a long term momentum or ‘path dependence’. For example, the current ‘welfare state’ or national health service can be traced at least as far back as the 1940s.
  3. Policymaking involves long periods of organizational inactivity followed by bursts of activity in some areas. Policy can remain the same for decades, only to change dramatically and quickly.
  4. ‘Systemic’ behaviour results from the interaction between actors who share information and follow particular rules. Policymaking behaviour often seems to ‘emerge’ from local interaction and despite the efforts of central governments to control it.

Complexity theory is a good example to consider because it helps us think about the ways in which you might present policy advice when you have to take into account the vagaries of policymaking. We can discuss this link between theory and advice in the next lecture.

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Key concepts in policymaking: some issues are territorial, some are universal #POLU9SP

In the course, we maintain a basic distinction between policy and policymaking: policy refers largely to the choices that governments make, while policymaking refers to the way in which they make those choices. This helps us consider the Scottishness of policy and policymaking and the relationship between the two:

  • Governments in different regions or eras face different problems and may produce different policies. Or, they may have different priorities and ideas. Even so, they might make policy in the same way each time.
  • Some governments try to make policy in a distinctive way. This might have an impact on the policies they select, but it is possible for two different governments to make policy in different ways but choose the same things. This possibility prompts us to ask ourselves why it matters if they engage in different processes (or, I’ll ask you why it matters).

In the first part of the course we focus on policymaking. We examine critically the idea that there is a Scottish way to make policy, focusing on three aspects: all governments face ‘universal’ policymaking constraints such as ‘bounded rationality’; the Scottish and UK governments make similar trade-offs when considering issues such as centralism and localism; and, we need to consider why the Scottish Government might develop a reputation for certain kinds of policymaking.

Universal policymaking issues: the example of bounded rationality’

The phrase that we will keep coming back to is ‘bounded rationality’ since it is central to the development of most policy theories. It contrasts with an ‘ideal-type’ – ‘comprehensive rationality’ – in which a policymaker has a perfect ability to translate her values and aims into policy following a comprehensive study of all choices and their effects. Instead, policymakers have limited resources: the time to devote to research, the information to inform decisions, the knowledge to understand the policy context, and the ability to pay attention to issues.

Consequently, they cannot process issues comprehensively. By necessity, they have to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty relates to the amount of information we have to inform policy and policymaking. Ambiguity relates to the way in which we understand policy problems. The policy process is therefore about (1) the short cuts that policymakers use to gather information and understand complex issues, and (2) the ways in which policy participants compete to determine which information is used and how policymakers understand problems.

This process is described in several ways by policy theories, including:

Punctuated equilibrium theory. Policymakers do not have the ability to pay attention to all of the issues for which they are responsible. So, they ignore most issues and promote a small number to the top of their agenda.

Networks theories. Policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants who, in turn, rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade information for access to government. This process often becomes routine: civil servants begin to trust and rely on certain organisations and they form meaningful relationships. If so, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist ‘policy communities’ that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement. Network theories tend to consider the key implications, including a tendency for governments to contain ‘silos’ and struggle to ‘join up’ government when policy is made in so many different places.

Social construction theory. To make decisions quickly, policymakers use shortcuts to gather information, partly by relying on a small number of sources, and partly by using emotional, gut-level and habitual short cuts to decisions.

Narrative policy framework. To influence policymakers, participants design simple stories (with a setting, characters, plot, and moral) to manipulate the ways in which they understand complex problems.

These theories present examples of ‘universal’ aspects of policymaking. All policymakers deal with ‘bounded rationality’ by using shortcuts. The territorial aspect refers to the specific shortcuts and frames of reference that policymakers in Scotland use: the nature of policy communities; the types of issues likely to gain attention; the kinds of emotional biases exhibited in Scotland; and, the stories most likely to be told Scotland (what stories might get the most traction in Scotland?).

Similar trade-offs: centralism and localism

Central governments face the same basic trade-off between national and local policymaking. They produce a national strategy which can include reference to uniform standards to avoid a ‘postcode lottery’. At the same time, central governments encourage local discretion and policy flexibility, to recognise the legitimacy of local policymaking and/or encourage community or service user participation in the design and delivery of public services. So, governments may set very broad aims and build an expectation of variation into the design of policy.

The question for us is: how does the Scottish Government address this trade-off (and how does it differ from, for example, the UK Government)? Does it always encourage local flexibility (or, can you think of cases in which it seeks to impose policies or centralise policymaking)?

This potential for local discretion may also prompt us to consider what ‘Scottish policy’ means. Does it suggest that all public bodies in Scotland (and perhaps their stakeholders) are working towards the same national aims (can you think of examples of national aims or Scottish policies)? Or, for example, how do central governments use evidence to encourage but not oblige local authorities to learn from ‘best practice’?

Does the Scottish Government deserve its policymaking reputation?

In the course, we will explore two key questions about the Scottish Government’s reputation for policymaking:

  1. Does it actually live up to its reputation, or can we identify important similarities between Scottish and (for example) UK Government policymaking styles?
  2. If there is a distinctly Scottish style, how can we best explain it?

The most obvious explanation is that the Scottish Government has chosen to foster a particularly consensual style to reflect the ‘new politics’ agenda in the run up to devolution. An alternative explanation is that Scotland’s style of policymaking results largely from the size of the Scottish Government and public sector: the government is relatively small, and relies on (a) widespread consultation to boost its research capacity, and (b) goodwill from the public sector to implement policy; and, it is possible for ministers to maintain personal relationships with chief executives of public bodies.

Overall, we consider the extent to which (a) all governments face the same issues when making policy, and (b) can deal with these issues in a distinctive way. Maybe there is a ‘Scottish approach’ to policy and policymaking, but let’s use good scholarship to identify it, not just assume it is there.

 

 

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Introduction: can there be a ‘Scottish approach’ to policymaking? #POLU9SP

A key part of this course is to examine critically the idea that political practices in Scotland are distinctively Scottish. Many ‘Scottish’ practices are often part of more general trends that also occur in Scotland. What we often describe as ‘Scottish’ turn out to be lazy assertions or exaggerations, from the vague ‘wha’s like us?’ suggestion that Scots are a breed apart, to specific assertions about a greater left-wing population in Scotland.

In each case, it is useful to consider the meaning of, and evidence behind, such statements, to separate territorial practices from ‘universal’ trends. So, in Peter Lynch’s course, you can explore the Scottishness of Scottish politics through the study of social attitudes, parties, and voting behaviour. In mine, we focus on Scottish politics and policymaking.

Weeks 1 and 2: theories, concepts, and policy analysis

We begin by discussing a range of theories and concepts to help explain ‘the policy process’. This discussion allows us to identify the elements of politics and policymaking that we would expect to find in all political systems, then explore Scotland-specific aspects.

For example, a key phrase in policy theory is ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers do not have the ability to pay attention to all of the issues for which they are responsible. So, they ignore most issues and promote a small number to the top of their agenda. To make decisions quickly, they use shortcuts to gather information, partly by relying on a small number of sources, and partly by using emotional, gut-level and habitual short cuts to decisions. That is the ‘universal’ aspect of policymaking. The territorial aspect refers to the specific shortcuts and frames of reference that policymakers in Scotland use. In the first lecture, we can discuss what those shortcuts might be.

In week 2, we discuss how you might produce policy-relevant analysis in that context: how do you describe a policy problem and recommend a solution to a ‘boundedly rational’ policymaker?

Weeks 3 and 4: ‘new Scottish politics’

In politics, a ‘Scottish approach’ could relate to several things, including ‘new Scottish politics’. This phrase refers to its opposite ‘old Westminster’. The pursuit of Scottish devolution in the 1990s was accompanied by plans for political reforms in areas such as:

  • Participatory democracy, with a focus on the right to petition parliament and a new civic forum, to reflect a Scottish system with an alleged tradition of civic democracy and the diffusion of power.
  • Deliberative democracy, with the Scottish Parliament at the heart of debate and the hub for new voices.
  • Representative democracy, including a more proportional electoral system and greater representation of women in the Scottish Parliament.
  • Pluralist democracy, including a new focus by the Scottish Government (overseen by Scottish Parliament committees) on not merely consulting the ‘usual suspects’.
  • Consensus democracy, including cooperation between a minority or coalition government with opposition parties, and between the Scottish Government and its ‘stakeholders’.

So, in weeks 3 and 4 we look at Scottish political practices since 1999 and consider the extent to which ‘new politics’ developed.

Week 5: the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’

In policymaking, a ‘Scottish approach’ can refer to one broad and one specific set of practices. The first is called ‘Scottish policy style’ in a lot of the academic literature. The phrase describes the Scottish Government’s reputation for two practices:

  1. A consultation style which is relatively inclusive and consensual.
  2. A ‘governance’ style which places unusually high levels of trust in public bodies.

The second is called the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ (SATP) by the Scottish Government. It refers to three guiding principles for policymaking:

  1. An evidence-based process driven by an ‘improvement’ method.
  2. An ‘assets based’ approach.
  3. ‘Co-production’ of policy by the Scottish Government, public bodies, communities and service users.

So, in week 5 we try to clarify the meaning of these phrases, and examine critically the Scottish Government’s reputation for making policy in a distinctive way.

Weeks 6 and 7: Multi-level policymaking

Then, we examine the extent to which policymaking in Scotland can be uniquely ‘Scottish’ when key responsibilities are still held by the UK government and many policy areas are ‘Europeanised’. When making policy, the Scottish Government receives its funding from HM Treasury, implements European Union directives, and shares responsibility with the UK government for many decisions. In many ways, further devolution – via the new Scotland Act – will complicate these relationships further.

Weeks 8-10 Scottish policy

Finally, we discuss the extent to which all of these factors help produce distinctly Scottish policies. We note the difference between policy change and divergence, and between a change in policy choices and the implementation of those choices. We identify high profile examples of policy divergence to consider how representative they are of the overall picture. We consider important examples of Scottish policymaking and policy change, to see what they tell us about ‘universal’ aspects of the policy process.

Finally, we consider what effect constitutional change would have on this picture of Scottish politics. For example, would Scottish independence produce a markedly new, Scottish policy process?

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