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.



1 Comment

Filed under POLU9SP, public policy, Scottish politics

One response to “Key concepts in policymaking: some issues are territorial, some are universal #POLU9SP

  1. Pingback: Key theories in policymaking: how to explain what is going on in Scotland | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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