Monthly Archives: October 2015

12 things to know about studying public policy

Here is a blog post on 12 things to know about studying public policy. Please see the end of the post if you would like to listen to or watch my lecture on this topic.

  1. There is more to politics than parties and elections.

Think of policy theory as an antidote to our fixation on elections, as a focus on what happens in between. We often point out that elections can produce a change in the governing party without prompting major changes in policy and policymaking, partly because most policy is processed at a level of government that receives very little attention from elected policymakers. Elections matter but, in policy studies, they do not represent the centre of the universe.

2. Public policy is difficult to define.

Imagine a simple definition: ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’. Then consider these questions. Does policy include what policymakers say they will do (e.g. in manifestos) as well as what they actually do? Does it include the policy outcome if it does not match the original aim? What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Does public policy include what policymakers decide to not do? Is it still ‘public policy’ when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name?

3. Policy change is difficult to see and measure.

Usually we know that something has changed because the government has passed legislation, but policy is so much more: spending, economic penalties or incentives (taxes and subsidies), social security payments and sanctions, formal and informal regulations, public education, organisations and staffing, and so on. So, we need to sum up this mix of policies, asking: is there an overall and coherent aim, or a jumble of policy instruments? Can we agree on the motives of policymakers when making these policies? Does policy impact seem different when viewed from the ‘top’ or the ‘bottom’? Does our conclusion change when we change statistical measures?

4. There is no objective way to identify policy success.

We know that policy evaluation is political because left/right wing political parties and commentators argue as much about a government’s success as its choices. Yet, it cannot be solved by scientists identifying objective or technical measures of success, because there is political choice in the measures we use and much debate about the best measures. Measurement also involves (frequently) a highly imperfect proxy, such as by using waiting times to measure the effectiveness of a health service. We should also note the importance of perspective: should we measure success in terms of the aims of elected policymakers, the organisations carrying out policy, or the people who are most affected? What if many policymakers were involved, or their aims were not clear? What if their aim was to remain popular, or have an easy time in the legislature, not to improve people’s lives? What if it improved the lives of some, but hurt others?

5. There is no ‘policy cycle’ with well-ordered stages.

Imagine this simple advice to policymakers: identify your aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is ‘legitimised’ by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement, and then evaluate the policy. If only life were so simple. Instead, think of policymaking as a collection of thousands of policy cycles, which interact with each other to produce much less predictable outcomes. Then note that it is often impossible in practice to know when one stage begins and another ends. Finally, imagine that the order of stages is completely messed up, such as when we have a solution long before a problem arises.

6. Policymakers are ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’.

A classic reference point is the ‘ideal-type’ of comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality which helps elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility. In the real world, we identify ‘bounded rationality’, challenge all of the assumptions of comprehensive rationality, and wonder what happens next. The classic debate focused on the links between bounded rationality and incrementalism. Our current focus is on ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ responses to the need to make decisions quickly without comprehensive information: limiting their options, and restricting information searches to sources they trust, to make their task manageable; but also making quick decisions by relying on instinct, gut, emotion, beliefs, ideology, and habits.

7. We talk of actors, but not on stage.

Most policy theories use the word ‘actor’ simply to describe the ability of people and organisations to deliberate and act to make choices. Many talk about the large number of actors involved in policymaking, at each level and across many levels of policymaking. Some discuss a shift, in many countries since the early post-war period, from centralized and exclusive policymaking, towards a fragmented multi-level system involving a much larger number of actors

8. We talk of institutions, but not buildings.

In political science, ‘institution’ refers to the rules, ‘norms’, and other practices that influence policymaking behaviour.  Some rules are visible or widely understood, such as constitutions. Others are less visible, such as the ‘rules of the game’ in politics, or organisational ‘cultures’. So, for example, ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracies could have very different formal rules but operate in very similar ways in practice. 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.

9. We have 100 ways to describe policy networks.

Put simply, ‘policy network’ describes the relationships between policymakers, in formal positions of power, and the actors who seek to influence them. It can also describe a notional venue – a ‘subsystem’ – in which this interaction takes place. Although the network concept is crucial to most policy theories, it can be described using very different concepts,and with reference to different political systems. For example, in the UK, we might describe networks as a consequence of bounded rationality: elected 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

10. We struggle to separate power from ideas.

Policy theory is about the relationship between power and ideas (or shared beliefs). These terms are difficult to disentangle, even analytically, because people often exercise power by influencing the beliefs of others. Classic power debates inform current discussions of ‘agenda setting’ and ‘framing’. Debates began with the idea that we could identify the powerful by examining ‘key political choices’: the powerful would win and benefit from the outcomes at the expense of other actors. The debate developed into discussions of major barriers to the ‘key choices’ stage: actors may exercise power to persuade/ reinforce the popular belief that the government should not get involved, or to keep an issue off a government agenda by drawing attention to other issues. This ability to persuade depends on the resources of actors, but also the beliefs of the actors they seek to influence.

11. We talk a lot about ‘context’ and events, and sometimes about ‘complexity’ and ‘emergence’.

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 – think for example of a ‘demographic timebomb’ – but governments show that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time or, at least, decide how and why they are important. This question of policymaker control is also explored in discussions of ‘complexity theory’, which highlights the unpredictability of policymaking, limited central government control, and a tendency for policy outcomes to ‘emerge’ from activity at local levels.

12. It can inform real world policymaking, but you might not like the advice.

For example, policymakers often recognise that they make decisions within an unpredictable and messy, not ‘linear’, process. Many might even accept the implications of complexity theory, which suggests that they should seek new ways to act when they recognise their limitations: use trial and error; keep changing policies to suit new conditions; devolve and share power with the local actors able to respond to local areas; and so on. Yet, such pragmatic advice goes against the idea of Westminster-style democratic accountability, in which ministers remain accountable to Parliament and the public because you know who is in charge and, therefore, who to blame. Or, for example, we might use policy theory to inform current discussions of evidence-based policymaking, saying to scientists that they will only be influential if they go beyond the evidence to make manipulative emotional appeals.

For more information, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

To listen to the lecture (about 50 minutes plus Q&A), you can download here or stream:

You can also download the video here or stream:

To be honest, there is little gain to watching the lecture, unless you want to laugh at my posture & shuffle and wonder if I have been handcuffed.



Filed under 1000 words, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis?

Cairney jones psj pic

John Kingdon published his Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies in 1984. What has happened since then? Put simply, it is now a classic text, and it took off in a way that Kingdon did not expect. Put less simply, it contributed to the intellectual development of policy theory and inspired a huge number of studies under the banner of ‘multiple streams analysis’ (or the ‘multiple streams approach’, MSA).

In our PSJ article, Michael Jones and I sum up this theoretical and empirical contribution and give some advice about how to produce effective MSA analysis.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 1. ‘Universal’ concepts.

Kingdon identifies many elements of the policy process that we describe as ‘universal’ because they are abstract enough to apply to any case study.

  1. Ambiguity and competition for attention.
  • There are many ways to understand and frame any policy problem, but the policy agenda can often be dominated by one ‘frame’.
  • There are many problems to solve, but few reach the top of the policy agenda.
  • There are many possible solutions to problems, but very few gain attention and even fewer gain support.
  1. Decision-making processes are neither ‘comprehensively rational’ nor ‘linear’.
  • New information is difficult to gather and subject to manipulation.
  • Actors have limited resources such as time and cognitive ability. This limitation forces people to make choices before they have considered all possibilities and made sure that their preferences are clear.
  • The policy process does not follow a policy cycle with ordered stages, in which (i) a policymaker identifies a problem, (ii) a bureaucracy produces many possible solutions, and (iii) the policymaker selects the best solution according to her aims and values.

These ‘universal’ insights underpin MSA’s specific contribution, in which Kingdon draws on the ‘garbage can model’ to suggest that we think of these three ‘stages’ (metaphorically) as independent streams which must come together at the same time, during a ‘window of opportunity’ before any major policy change will take place:

  1. Problem stream – attention lurches to a policy problem.
  2. Policy stream – a solution to that problem is available.
  3. Politics stream – policymakers have the motive and opportunity to turn it into policy.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 2. New theories and perspectives.

Let’s take one example of Kingdon’s influence: on the early development of punctuated equilibrium theory (PET). In their own ways, MSA and PET are both ‘evolutionary’ theories, although they identify different kinds of evolutionary metaphors or processes, and present somewhat different implications:

  • Kingdon uses the evolutionary metaphor partly to help explain slow and gradual policy development despite lurches of attention and the importance of windows of opportunity. Note the importance of the idea of ‘feasibility’ and ‘softening’, as potential policy solutions emerge from the ‘policy primeval soup’. Kingdon is describing the slow progress of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community, which challenges the notion that policies will change whenever attention lurches to a new problem. On the contrary, a feasible solution must exist, and these solutions take a lot of time to become both technically and politically feasible, before policymakers develop the motive and opportunity to adopt them.
  • Baumgartner and Jones identify the conditions under which Kingdon’s picture of slow progress, producing ‘partial mutations’ should be replaced by their identification of fast, disruptive, ‘pure mutation’. For example, major ‘policy punctuations’ may occur when issues break out of one policymaking ‘venue’. In such cases, more radical change may be acceptable to the policymakers – in other venues – that are less committed to existing policies and, therefore, less likely to select a policy solution only when it has been ‘softened’.

Such examples (explored in more depth in our article, and in my article on evolutionary policy theory) highlight the potential to trace the long term intellectual development of policy theory back to influential scholars such as Kingdon.

MSA’s empirical contribution: 1. How useful is the metaphor?

Michael and I identify a blessing and a curse, related to two aspects of Kingdon’s original work:

  1. The barriers to entry are low. If you are looking for an easy way into policy theory, you can read some of Kingdon’s book and feel you have gained some insight.
  2. The metaphor is flexible. You don’t have to learn a huge codebook or set of rules before you dive into empirical analysis.

The blessing is that both factors allow a lot of material to be produced in diverse and perhaps innovative ways. The curse is that it is difficult to see the accumulated results from all that effort. If the MSA is there to help explain one case, and one case only, then all is well. If we want more – to compare a lot of cases in a meaningful way – we have a problem.

MSA’s empirical contribution: 2. How have other scholars used the metaphor?

Michael Jones and his colleagues identified a huge number of MSA studies: over 300 applications, in over 40 countries, in 10 years. However, they also identify a high proportion of theoretical superficiality: scholars mention Kingdon, but do not go into much detail on the meaning of key MSA concepts, or explain how they used those concepts in a meaningful way to explain policy or policymaking.

Michael and I zoomed in to focus on the ‘state of the art’, to see how the best studies used MSA. We found some interesting work, particularly in studies which extended Kingdon’s original focus on the US federal government (in the 1980s) to subnational and supranational studies, and used MSA to explain developments in many other countries. The best work identified how the MSA related to wider policy theory discussions and/or how we might adapt MSA to deal with new cases. However, we also found a lot of applications which made cursory reference to theory or the MSA literature, or studies which used MSA largely as a way to identify their own models.

It all adds up to a lot of activity but it is difficult to know how to sum up its value. The flexibility of the MSA has allowed people to take it in all sorts of directions, but also to use it in a way that is difficult to relate to Kingdon’s original study or important new developments (put forward by scholars such as Zahariadis).

Where do we go from here? Some simple rules for you to consider.

So, we propose three simple rules to help maintain MSA flexibility but allow us to accumulate empirical insights or encourage conceptual development: demonstrate proficiency with MSA; speak to MSA; and, speak to broader policy research.

In other words, a lot has been written about MSA and policy theory since 1984. The world has changed, and so too have the ways in which we describe it. So, put simply, it would be weird if people continued to produce scholarly research based simply on one book written in the 80s and little else (you might be surprised about how much of this approach we found, and how few people explained MSA concepts before presenting their empirical analysis).

We don’t call for a set of rigid rules to allow systematic comparison (although I really like the suggestion by a colleague, presented with tongue firmly in cheek, that we have become the ‘multiple streams Taliban’). Instead, at the very least, we encourage people not to submit Kingdon-inspired articles for review until they have read and digested a lot of the MSA literature. That way, we’ll be able to go beyond the sense that we are all using the same conceptual descriptions without knowing if we mean the same thing or if my results can be compared usefully with yours.


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice?

I’m sure that policy theory, based on political science, improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking (EBPM), particularly when compared to atheoretical accounts in disciplines such as health and environmental sciences. Below, I present two key messages: respond to ambiguity as much as uncertainty, and focus on complexity, not linearity.

I’m less sure that I can offer more realistic advice about how people with full time jobs outside of lobbying can engage in policymaking.

So, in this post, I outline some broad implications, but note that my advice has major behavioural, ethical, and resource implications that may not always be feasible or attractive to scientists engaged primarily in science.

I can now tell a good story about the limits to EBPM studies when they are based primarily on the perspectives of health and environmental scientists. First, I provide a caricature of some scientists who express high frustration with politicians:

‘We know what the evidence is, so why won’t they do anything about it?’

‘Why do they only select the ‘evidence’ that suits their personal agendas?’

‘Evidence-based policy? More like policy-based evidence, am I right guys?’.

Second, I point to the problems with their proposed solutions:

  • A focus on the better supply of evidence only helps reduce uncertainty, not ambiguity. You won’t persuade policymakers to act just by providing more evidence or reducing a 100000 word report to 1000 words.
  • Instead of complaining about cynical or unscientific policymakers, recognise how unrealistic it is to expect one magic moment in which the policymaker in charge ‘gets it’ then sets in motion a radically new policy direction. Such hopes are based on the idea of a ‘linear’ policy process with well-ordered stages of decision making.

In short, policy theory helps improve such discussions by identifying important ways to think about policy, trying to clarify how policymakers think, and providing evidence of the ways in which policy processes work, rather than how we would like them to work (in some cases, with reference to ‘evidence based medicine’). This is the first step towards better advice on how to adapt to and seek to influence that process with evidence.

It’s harder to tell a good story about what you do with these new insights, particularly when we consider the implications on the scientific profession.

Let’s start with two key recommendations based on insights from policy studies:

  1. Focus on ambiguity as much as uncertainty

Policymakers use two short cuts to turn infinite information into a manageable decision

  • ‘rational’: limiting their options, and restricting information searches to sources they trust, to make their task manageable.
  • ‘irrational’: making quick decisions by relying on instinct, gut, emotion, beliefs, ideology, and habits.

So, a strategy to reduce scientific uncertainty by producing more, and more accessible, evidence only addresses one short cut. Further, it may often be ineffective, because policymakers are more likely to accept ‘evidence’ from a wider range of sources. We know that not everyone reads, understands, prioritises, or appreciates the beauty of, a well-crafted peer-reviewed academic journal article. So, it is sensible to seek new ways to present information, using shorter reports and employing ‘knowledge brokers’, but also to recognise the limits to such processes when policymaking remains so competitive and policymakers draw on knowledge that they (not you) trust.

Policy advocates also need solutions based on ambiguity, to reflect a tendency for policymakers to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Many policy theories can be adapted to give advice on that basis:

  • combine facts with emotional appeals, to prompt lurches of policymaker attention (punctuated equilibrium)
  • tell stories which manipulate people’s biases, apportion praise and blame, and highlight the moral and political value of solutions (narrative policy framework)
  • produce ‘feasible’ policy solutions and exploit a time when policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt it (multiple streams)
  • interpret new evidence through the lens of the pre-existing beliefs of actors within coalitions, some of which dominate policy networks (advocacy coalition framework).
  1. Focus on complexity, not linearity

Too many studies in (for example) health sciences portray policymaking with reference to a simple cycle with well-ordered stages and a single event in which ‘the evidence’ informs a game-changing decision made by an easily identifiable person in authority. In contrast, policy studies identify messier policymaking which takes place in a volatile policy environment, exhibiting:

  1. a wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government
  2. a proliferation of rules and norms followed by different levels or types of government
  3. close relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and influential actors
  4. a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  5. shifting policy conditions and events that can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

This bigger picture shifts our analysis and gives us more realistic ways in which to adapt, to work out: where the action is; which actors are making the most important decisions; the rules of engagement with those actors; the best way to present an argument tailored to their specific beliefs; the language they use to establish criteria for feasible policies; how to identify and work with powerful allies with privileged access to policymakers; and, how to use crises or vivid events to prompt lurches of policymaker attention.

There are three main problems with such advice

  1. Manipulation is a dirty word

Options A and B require you to be manipulative. I don’t really mean ‘Machiavellian’, but rather be prepared to propose simple messages, designed to influence debate, by expressing greater scientific certainty than you may be comfortable with and/ or with reference to emotionally-charged discussions that have little to do with your evidence.

It is customary for scientists to express uncertainty and a desire not to go ahead of the evidence. Yet, you are competing with people who do not have such sensibilities. They don’t play by your rules, and many will not even know that such rules exist. Further, they will win even though they are less knowledgeable than you. While you go back to produce and check ‘the evidence’, they will recognise that you need to make an impact now, with what you have, while the issue is salient and policymakers feel they have to act despite high uncertainty.

On the other hand, if you become an advocate, you may lose a key resource: some people think that you are an objective scientist, devoted to the truth. It is a legitimate strategy to choose to remain aloof from policymaking, to maintain your personal image and that of your profession. Fair enough, if you recognise that it is a choice with likely consequences.

It was a choice faced by advocates of tobacco control, many of whom felt that they had to go beyond the evidence to compete with powerful tobacco companies. It is a choice faced by organisations such as Public Health England, faced with their belief that too-many people think cigarettes and e-cigarettes are equally harmful, and the need to choose between saying ‘more evidence is needed’ (taking themselves out of the debate, and perhaps reinforcing the effects of poor public knowledge) or that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful (to influence behaviour while they gather more evidence). It is also a choice faced by food scientists competing to influence policy on GM food with (a) certain companies protecting their business, and (b) groups warning about Frankenstein foods.

2. It seems like a full time job

Options C and D require you to engage in policy advocacy for years, if not decades, to build up enough knowledge of the people involved (who is worth knowing? Who are your allies? What arguments work with certain people?) and know when to push a policy solution. There is not a clear professional incentive to engage in such activity. University incentives are changing, in countries such as the UK, but I’d still hesitate to advise a younger colleague to go for ‘impact’ instead of publishing another article in a prestigious peer-reviewed academic journal.

3. Policymakers don’t always act according to this advice

Policymakers will recognise that they make decisions within an unpredictable and messy, not ‘linear’, process. Many might even accept the implications of policy theories such as complexity theory, which suggests that they should seek new ways to act when they recognise their limitations: use trial and error; keep changing policies to suit new conditions; devolve and share power with the local actors able to respond to local areas; and so on.

Yet, such pragmatic advice goes against the idea of Westminster-style democratic accountability, in which ministers remain accountable to Parliament and the public because you know who is in charge and, therefore, who to blame.

Policymakers often maintain two faces simultaneously: the public face, to compete in elections and assert an image of control, and the less public face, to negotiate with many actors and make pragmatic choices. So, for example, there is high potential for them to produce ‘good politics, bad policy’ decisions, and you should not automatically admonish them whenever they reject the choice to produce ‘bad politics, good policy’. You’ll likely just piss them off and make them more reluctant to take your advice next time.

All three concerns produce a major dilemma about how to engage

Imagine a reaction to this well-meaning advice: you need to simplify evidence, and manipulate people or debates, when you engage in high level salient debates, while knowing that the big decisions take place elsewhere; you will have to influence different people with different arguments further down the line; it might take you years to work out who best to influence; and, by then, it might be too late.

Suddenly, the original advice – produce short reports, employ knowledge brokers, engage in academic-practitioner workshops – seems pretty attractive.

So, it may take more time to produce feasible advice based on the implications of policy theory. In the meantime, at least this discussion should help us clarify why there is a gap between scientific evidence and policymaking, and prompt some pragmatic advice: do it right or don’t do it at all; if you engage half-heartedly in the policy process, expect little reward; and, policy influence requires an investment that many scientists may be unwilling or unable to fund (and many investments will not pay off).


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

The Scottish Question

Book review to appear in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 

The Scottish Question by James Mitchell (Oxford University Press, 2014)

I’d like to start by telling you what the ‘Scottish Question’ is, and how we might answer it. For example, maybe it is about Scotland’s constitutional future, which was to be solved by a simple referendum on Scottish independence. Yet, this didn’t happen. First, as we have seen since the 55% ‘No’ vote in 2014, the referendum only settled the matter for a few hours. It did not produce a decisive answer to a ‘once in a generation’ question. Instead, it merely stiffened the resolve of two sides of the debate, with advocates for No seeking, often in vain, to describe another new devolution plan (outlined in the Scotland Bill in 2015) as a final settlement, and advocates for Yes finding new ways to express their commitment to political change, such as when the Scottish National Party’s membership swelled to over 100000 members in a few weeks after the referendum.

Second, even a Yes vote would not have settled the matter. It would have produced major constitutional change, but not a clear sense of what Scottish independence is for (simply to enhance political autonomy, or also to change public policy?), or how it would impact on Scotland’s place in the UK, EU, and the wider world. It would not settle the question about the future role of the Scottish Government as, for example, a beacon of Nordic social democracy or a more British mix of support for extensive public services and social security but opposition to higher taxes, because such fundamental debates on the welfare state have played second fiddle to debates on the British state. Many people talked about independence as if it was synonymous with new forms of social democracy, but they were only able to do so – at least without too much criticism – because ‘Yes’ represented many things to many people; a box in which different people could invest their hopes and dreams, without needing to have the same hopes as other Yes supporters.

In other words, we were faced with a simple referendum question, but it was also a simplistic question, underpinned by a multitude of inter-related questions, which often remained implicit, or were articulated in very different ways by different people.

James Mitchell wrote ‘The Scottish Question’, and predicted this sense of perpetually unfinished business, well in advance of that referendum. He suggests that the same confusion and sense of uncertainty that we face now has been described and addressed in a multitude of ways in the past. Each time, we tend to call it the ‘Scottish Question’ even though:

‘There is little agreement on what the question is, far less its answer. It has involved a shifting mix of linked issues. These have included questions of national identity; Scotland’s constitutional status and structures of government; party politics; and everyday public policy concerns’ (p4).

As such, Mitchell describes the ‘Scottish question’ in a way that makes the subject familiar to students of public policy: many people are involved in making a notional decision, and they struggle to articulate their preferences, aims, or interests. Consequently, they struggle to compare their aims with those of the actors who do not share their preferences. Then, they make a decision that produces the vague sense that some people got what they wanted, at the expense of the preference of others, but without a clear sense of resolution. The issue keeps coming up, again and again, as new events unfold, more people with different perspectives become involved, and people think again and re-articulate their preferences. The process is messy and unpredictable and does not satisfy enough people to settle the matter once and for all. Any reference to an objective standard, or key principles to guide the debate, or a killer piece of evidence to skew the debate in the favour of one side, tends to fail, since the issue involves a mix of facts, values, and emotional appeals, and no single principle can guide what often appears to be an anomalous policy problem made more complicated by the accumulated effects of decisions made in the past. Instead, debates take place with reference to stories, constructed to turn a complex matter into a simple narrative involving heroes and villains, and a strong moral dimension, to exploit people’s emotions or help them translate a complex matter into a manageable solution.

In that context, Mitchell’s key point is that, if the Scottish Question is so difficult to frame and solve, and it has been approached in so many different ways, the current outcome was not inevitable and the future remains uncertain. More specifically, to better understand the present situation, we have to understand a series of historical decisions, based on the many ways in which people have tried to describe and solve the question over the past three centuries.

Mitchell’s book represents a vitally important examination of this historic record, partly through the lens of current debates, but with a challenge to consider the era-specific way in which we tend to interpret these developments.

First, for example, early chapters chart: the development of Scottish national identity before its ‘Other’ became ‘Thatcherism’ or ‘London’; the series of decisions that led to the development of Scottish governing institutions now controlled by the Scottish Government; the unsteady development of the now-dominant SNP; the crucial importance of Labour to devolution, coupled with its longstanding reluctance to embrace it until the 1970s; and, old encounters with contemporary questions, such as the ‘West Lothian Question’ (now addressed with English votes for English laws, or EVEL), which began as a dilemma prompted by Irish home rule.

Second, Mitchell shows us that Scotland’s contemporary default position – to consider all UK and many international political decisions through the lens of the Scottish constitutional debate – contrasts somewhat with historical debates, such as when the modern state developed, and raised new issues about the role of the welfare state, state intervention, and nuclear weapons, across the UK, without the constant sense that there was a distinctive Scottish angle. Even by the 1970s, SNP MPs new to Westminster discovered that ‘Finding a particularly Scottish angle was not always easy’ (p180).

Third, Mitchell identifies major generational shifts in thinking about the same issues. Perhaps the best example comes from Gordon Brown’s concern, in the early 1980s, that no-one had solved the dilemma of devolution through the lens of class: how do you maintain the role of the UK state, to redistribute income and maintain uniform levels of social security, and devolve policy decisions to Scotland? Notably, Brown maintained that the SNP were ‘tartan Tories’ because they were prepared to give up on redistribution and uniform entitlement to further Scottish autonomy (p165). This may seem remarkable to contemporary students of Scottish politics, since ‘tartan Tories’ has largely been replaced by the idea of ‘red Tories’ (which, for some, includes Brown) prepared to work with the Conservative party to obstruct Scottish independence and, in doing so, guarantee greater inequalities during a prolonged period of UK Conservative ‘austerity’ policies.

Overall, The Scottish Question is a welcome addition to the literature, and a useful antidote to the idea that we are in unchartered waters or that we will always think this way about the UK constitution. The dominance of the SNP in Scotland, and an increasing sense that there will be a second referendum, suggests to many people that Scottish independence is inevitable, but Mitchell’s book shows us that many other alleged inevitabilities did not occur. Such predictions, based on superficial contemporary analysis, are generally no match for historical explanation based on forensic examination.

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Filed under Scottish politics

Women don’t understand facts (and fracking)

A recent poll suggests that women are far less likely to support commercial fracking than men. For a while, the same divide was detected in relation to Scottish independence. The common factor is that you can learn a lot from people’s attitudes to gender by how they try to explain these divides.

A common starting point is that women are less likely to take risks (quick and cheap Google examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Then lots of people make fools of themselves by adding to the explanation: women prefer security/ a ‘safety blanket’ because their role is to nurture, earth mothers are closer to the environment, men are buccaneers, men are more ‘rational’ when they consider risk, and so on.

Or, perhaps they are misreported. I don’t know.

For example, it is now being reported in the Times that Professor Averil MacDonald (‘the new champion of the shale gas industry’) says: ‘Vast numbers of women are opposed to fracking because they “don’t understand” and follow their gut instinct rather than the facts’ (the same interpretation can be found in the Guardian, Daily Mail, and Independent).

The message that I think MacDonald was presenting is this: people are less likely to support fracking if they didn’t study particular sciences at school; and, women are less likely to have studied those sciences at school. Maybe, at its core, is a good point about challenging the barriers to women studying, and choosing a career in, certain science subjects (i.e. these findings might give us a window of opportunity to discuss such barriers).

Turned into a newspaper headline it becomes this: “Fracking? Women ‘don’t understand the science’”.

Beyond this point, there are four other things worthy of discussion:

  1. You can’t separate your values from your empirical studies and scientific explanations

Some people like to present themselves as objective truth-seeking scientists, but they are kidding themselves or trying to kid other people. Scientific study is infused with our values, from what is worthy of our study, to how to study it, and what counts as good research, evidence, and explanation. Normally, you just see the end without considering all the assumptions that people make at the beginning. Or, people engage in inductive science, then struggle with post-hoc explanation (‘umm, like, women are different, eh?’).

  1. You can’t separate politics from explanation

Part of the problem with gender-based conclusions is that people jump to explanations based on the too-broad category ‘women’ (or ‘men’) without considering the political implications of treating one gender as one group of people. Maybe it gets you somewhere initially, as a way of efficiently identifying correlations, but it gets you nowhere if you then try and come up with one overarching explanation for what is going on. It’s quite bad science and it’s very bad politics, contributing to unsubstantiated stereotypes. The overall correlation also distracts us from more detailed explanations based on gender and a wide range of other factors, which contributes to a further political problem: it reinforces the argument that somehow the difference between a positive or negative political choice boils down to the attitudes of women.

  1. People go beyond their expertise

It is common for people to develop an undeserved general reputation for expertise, built on specific expertise in one discipline or field. It’s always worth being particularly skeptical when people with a background in natural science pronounce on social behaviour, or indeed when political scientists try to explain psychology or how gravity works. Just as you wouldn’t ask me to give a lecture on the combustion engine, don’t rely primarily on STEM professors to explain the outcomes of surveys.

  1. All people combine ‘rational’ and gut-level shortcuts

If you read something like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you won’t find him saying that only women make gut, intuitive, or emotional decisions. We’re all at it. In fact, in my forthcoming Palgrave ‘Pivot’ book The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking* I use that basic insight to explain policymaking: Policymakers cannot consider all evidence relevant to policy problems. They use two shortcuts: ‘rational’ ways to establish the best evidence, and ‘irrational’ decision-making, drawing on emotions and beliefs to act quickly.

*Yes, I wrote this post largely to advertise my next publication.

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Filed under agenda setting, feminism, Fracking, public policy, Social change

The politics of evidence and randomised control trials: the symbolic importance of family nurse partnerships

I have reblogged this post on EBPM and the Family Nurse Partnership, with an update, at the bottom, on its first RCT-based evaluation (which did not recommend continuing the programme in its current form).

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

We await the results of the randomised control trial (RCT) on family nurse partnerships in England. While it looks like an innocuous review of an internationally well-respected programme, and will likely receive minimal media attention, I think it has high-stakes symbolic value in relation to the role of RCTs in British government.

EBM versus EBPM?

We know a lot about the use of evidence in politics – and we hear that politicians play fast and loose with it. We also know that some professions have a very clear idea about what counts as evidence, and that this view is not shared by politicians and policymakers. Somehow, ‘politics’ gets in the way of the good production and use of evidence.

A key example is the ideal of ‘Evidence Based Medicine’ (EBM), which is associated with a hierarchy of evidence in which the status of the RCT is only exceeded by…

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Filed under Public health, public policy, UK politics and policy

Early thoughts on the SNP conference: 2 speeches postponing independence and social democracy

The SNP describes itself as ‘a social democratic political party committed to Scottish independence’. However, two key speeches at the SNP’s annual conference in 2015 suggest that both aims will have to be postponed. Instead, the political dynamic in Scotland and the UK will continue to contribute to a strange and often inconsistent social and economic strategy that would not be chosen in a fully reserved UK or fully independent Scotland.

The first speech, by Nicola Sturgeon, confirmed that, although she believes that support for Scottish independence may have risen since the referendum, she does not foresee a second referendum in the near future (unless the UK population votes to leave the EU on the back of votes in England and opposition in Scotland). Instead, Scotland will enjoy further devolution in some areas, such as a greater ability to set income tax rates and vary some social security benefits, and continue to deliver most public services, without having complete control in either.

Consequently, it is not possible for the Scottish Government to take a ‘social democratic’ approach, often linked to the idea of ‘Nordic’ social democracy, to combine (a) spending decisions based on an appeal to universal service provision, and (b) redistribution through taxation. Instead, there is great potential for inconsistent UK/ Scottish strategies: the Scottish Government to oversee a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (on universal free services with no means testing) while the UK Government maintains a tax and benefits policy that many people will perceive to be insufficiently redistributive.

These issues arise infrequently on the Scottish political agenda, partly because Scottish independence has drawn attention away from serious debates on budget priorities. Further, a continued sense of constitutional uncertainty – built on the SNP leadership’s short term acceptance of devolution, but long term hope for independence – may help minimise economic debate and maintain an economic system that few would design.

The second speech, to be delivered by John Swinney, Scotland’s equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, confirms that the SNP likes to combine ‘social democratic’ ideas on spending, but strategies on taxation that would generally not look out of place in George Osborne’s Red Box. Swinney will propose to give local authorities the power to reduce rates of business tax (well in advance of Osbourne granting the same powers in England). This initiative follows a series of speeches by Alex Salmond, while First Minister, which suggested that the SNP would also like to reduce corporation taxes and airport charges, to increase economic competitiveness and encourage inward investment. It also reinforces the SNP Government’s decision to (effectively) ‘freeze’ the rates of council tax, which remain the more regressive option than its previous plans to introduce a local income tax, and likely aversion to raising income tax (the most toxic taxation instrument) in any meaningful way (although compare my account with John Swinney’s).

In that context, the economic lines between a Conservative UK government and SNP Scottish Government are far less clear than we might deduce from the vociferous debates that took place during the referendum debate in 2014 and were repeated in the run up to the UK general election. Indeed, the biggest dividing lines were in areas that the SNP knew it could not control – when it argued for an alternative to ‘austerity’ and a slower rate of budget cuts to allow for economy boosting investment – which make the differences seem more rhetorical than substantive.

In cases where the SNP has demanded more powers successfully, its actions tend to relate to ‘hot button’ issues, such as its intention to mitigate the effects of the ‘bedroom tax’. Rather than propose a major reform of tax and benefit provision to get to the ‘root causes’ of socio-economic inequalities via redistribution, it talks instead about the use of public service delivery to mitigate their effects. This strategy relies largely on public service reforms, localism, and the idea of ‘prevention’ policies – to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives to improve their life chances, through interventions such as parenting programmes – which are also promoted by the UK Government. Further, these strategies generally come in second place behind the higher profile spending decisions which often exacerbate inequalities. For example, the SNP Government maintains free tuition fees in Universities which, in the absence of redistributive fiscal policy, and the continued presence of an attainment gap, doubly reinforces major inequalities in education.

These decisions sometimes receive critical attention, but from opposition parties which remain remarkably unpopular in Scotland, and a media that many supporters of the SNP or independence view with incredible mistrust. As long as independence remains the main reported story of SNP conferences, and the SNP remains unusually popular, few will pay meaningful attention to these socio-economic policy issues.


Filed under Scottish politics