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:

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

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

  1. Pingback: How to present policy analysis to many audiences #POLU9SP | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s