Daily Archives: September 22, 2015

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.


Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics