Monthly Archives: January 2016

Three lessons from a comparison of fracking policy in the UK and Switzerland

What do we learn about UK hydraulic fracturing for shale energy (‘fracking’) policy and policymaking by comparing it to Switzerland?

  1. Current UK policy outcomes do not seem so different from a country in which anti-fracking actors are successful

The UK Government looks like it is as strongly pro-fracking as it can possibly be. Prime Minister David Cameron famously declared: ‘we’re going all out for shale‘ and Chancellor George Osborne oversaw many policies to encourage initial exploration and investment. Yet, the UK’s outcomes – no commercial fracking – are not so different from Switzerland, in which the most affected Cantons have introduced moratoriums or bans. These moratoriums are now in place in Scotland and Wales, and the UK Government has yet to overturn an English local authority decision to withhold planning permission for development.

  1. The UK does not live up to its ‘top down’, ‘majoritarian’ reputation

These outcomes often seem surprising because the UK government has a reputation built on a misleading image of ‘majoritarian’ (Westminster) democracies in which central governments hoard power and impose policies from the top down. So, for example, as soon as Cameron declared himself ‘all out for shale’, you’d be forgiven for thinking he could flick a switch and make it so.

This is what makes the Switzerland comparison so relevant: it has the opposite image, of a consensus democracy with a federalist structure and participative politics. Switzerland has an established culture of direct and regular participation via referendums. Direct-democratic instruments oblige public authorities to negotiate policy solutions with minority groups. Federalism offers ‘veto points’ and allows actors to defy a policy solution favoured by central government.

Yet, the difference in policymaking does not reflect the difference in these images (if anything, Swiss policy has been far more quick and decisive).

The main reason for the lack of difference is that these reputations only tell one part of the story. The most visible aspects of political systems may differ, but central governments routinely devolve policymaking and/ or negotiate political settlements in less visible subsystems. The contentious, high profile statements and subsequent disputes may represent the most visible part of policymaking, but the negotiation of settlements out of the public spotlight is far more common and routine.

  1. The UK policy process is more competitive, less consensual (but not in the way you might think)

So, we find differences in UK and Swiss policymaking, but they are far more subtle than you’d expect if you focused on high profile events and reputations. They happen in subsystems, in which coalitions of pro- and anti-fracking actors share information to influence the policy agenda.

Normally, you would expect actors to share certain information with their allies and withhold it from their competitors (such as political information on how best to ‘frame’ the issue and lobby governments), or to only share certain types of information (such as when coalitions compete to interpret technical or scientific information). However, this effect is far more pronounced in the UK, in which there is more competition and less trust. So, the ‘majoritarian’ UK seems to produce a more competitive policy process even though it shares with Switzerland a tendency to make policy in subsystems, often out of the public spotlight.

You can read more in this draft paper, which also describes how we use the same theory (Advocacy Coalition Framework) and method (survey data and documentary analysis) to compare policy and policymaking systematically in two ‘most different’ countries:

Cairney Fischer Ingold Fracking UK Switzerland 18.01.16




Filed under agenda setting, Fracking, public policy, UK politics and policy

How not to write a public policy article (combining theory & empirical study)*

There is no ‘general theory’ of public policy.

No theory can help explain or describe all of the details, of decisions and events, in a case study.

All theories have gaps and flaws.

So, what do we do about it?

The simplest strategy is to adopt a well-established theory (some examples here), get to know it in great detail, describe its literature comprehensively, and show how its insights help explain something important. You’d get a decent PhD from this approach and could, I think, build a solid academic career by keeping things this simple.

The alternative is to be more ambitious, to seek to make your mark on policy theory. In this case, it’s hard to say how to do it, but it is important to stress what not to do:

  1. Assert that existing theories should be rejected without demonstrating an inside-out knowledge of them.
  2. Propose a new hybrid theory without explaining its original elements or describing how the new study can be compared to the old.
  3. Build an argument for a new theory on the insights from one case study (not to be confused with scholars using cases as illustrative examples, to help give form to abstract concepts).

I say that as someone who: (a) reads 10-20 journal article submissions per year and sees the same combination of these three mistakes, and (b) reviews collections of articles, often struggling to see how they relate to each other, even when they claim to represent the same theory.

What I see is a tendency for scholars to underplay the importance of the old/ established literature and overreach when making claims for their new approach. Then, they provide a detailed case study, with elements not explained by the old theory, to justify the new.

I guess the driver is an incentive in academia that produces unintended consequences. When starting out as academics we soon get the sense that we need to establish our academic credentials by showing how we provide ‘added value’ to knowledge. So:

Who wants to read an article from someone who is just diligent and competent, can explain a theory in depth, and demonstrate its ability to help you ask the right questions and answer them well? I do.

Wouldn’t you rather read about a brand new theory that sweeps aside everything that came before? Usually, no. Not unless you can demonstrate its added value in a systematic way, rather than simply saying that other relevant theories fail to explain something and are flawed. There is no ‘general theory’ of public policy that explains everything. No theory can help explain or describe all of the details, of decisions and events, in a case study. All theories have gaps and flaws. So, building a new theory primarily on the back of the flaws of an old one shouldn’t really impress anyone.


*in my humble/ grumpy opinion/ Other opinions are available


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12 things to know about studying public policy

Reposted to highlight the inclusion of an audio/ video lecture on the topic. On the principle that you can’t read and listen to the same material at the same time, I’d recommend reading each paragraph then listening to see if the post/ lecture is consistent. There is little added value to *watching* the lecture, unless you want to watch me sway.

Paul Cairney: Politics & 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…

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How can you tell the difference between policy-based-evidence and evidence-based-policymaking?

‘Policy-based evidence’ (PBE) is a great phrase because you instantly know what it means: a policymaker decided what they wanted to do, then sought any old evidence to back up their policy.

‘Evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) is a rotten phrase largely because no one knows or agrees what it means. So, you can never be sure if a policy was ‘evidence-based’ even when policymakers support apparently well-evidence programmes.

The binary distinction only works politically, to call something you don’t like PBE when it doesn’t meet a standard of EBPM we can’t properly describe.

To give you a sense of what happens when you try to move away from the binary distinction, consider this large number of examples. Which relate to PBE and which to EBPM?

  1. The evidence on problems and solutions come first, and policymakers select the best interventions according to narrow scientific criteria (e.g. on the effectiveness of an intervention).
  2. The evidence comes first, but policymakers do not select the best interventions according to narrow scientific criteria. For example, their decision may be based primarily on economic factors such as value for money (VFM).
  3. The evidence comes first, but policymakers do not select the best interventions according to narrow scientific criteria or VFM. They have ideological or party political/ electoral reasons for rejecting evidence-based interventions.
  4. The evidence comes first, then policymakers inflate the likely success of interventions. They get ahead of the limited evidence when pushing a programme.
  5. Policymakers first decide what they want to do, then seek evidence to back up their decisions.
  6. Policymakers recognise a problem, the evidence base is not well developed, but policymakers act quickly anyway.
  7. Policymakers recognise a problem, the evidence is highly contested, and policymakers select the recommendations of one group of experts and reject those of another.
  8. Policymakers recognise a problem after it is demonstrated by scientific evidence, then select a solution built on evidence (on its effectiveness) from randomised control trials.
  9. Policymakers recognise a problem after it is demonstrated by scientific evidence, then select a solution built on evidence (on its effectiveness) from qualitative data (feedback from service users and professional experience).
  10. Policymakers recognise a problem after it is demonstrated by scientific evidence, then select a solution built on their personal experience and assessment of what is politically feasible.
  11. Policymakers recognise a problem without the use of scientific evidence, then select a solution built on evidence (on its effectiveness) from randomised control trials.
  12. Policymakers recognise a problem without the use of scientific evidence, then select a solution built on evidence (on its effectiveness) from qualitative data (feedback from service users and professional experience).
  13. Policymakers recognise a problem without the use of scientific evidence, then select a solution built on their personal experience and assessment of what is politically feasible.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Things get more confusing when you find combinations of these descriptions in fluid policies, such as when a programme is built partially on promising evidence (e.g. from pilots), only to be rejected or supported completely when events prompt policymakers to act more quickly than expected. Or, an evidence-based programme may be imported without enough evaluation to check if it works as intended in a new arena.

In a nutshell, the problem is that neither description captures these processes well. So, people use the phrase ‘evidence informed’ policymaking – but does this phrase help us much more? Have a look at the 13 examples and see which ones you’d describe as evidence informed.

Is it 12?

If so, when you use the phrase ‘evidence-informed’ policy or policymaking, which example do you mean?

For more reading on EBPM see:


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Social Construction of Target Populations

(podcast download)

The ‘social construction of target populations’ (SCTP) literature identifies:

  1. The value judgements that policymakers express when justifying their agendas to legislatures and the public.
  2. The enduring impact of these value-driven policies beyond the terms of single elections (and often long after they have left office).

Schneider, Ingram and Deleon identify the importance of this process in three main steps.

First, when competing for elected public office, people articulate value judgements and make fundamental choices about which social groups should be treated differently by government bodies. They present arguments for rewarding ‘good’ groups with government support and punishing ‘bad’ groups with sanctions. This description, which may seem rather simplistic, highlights the tendency of policymakers to make quick and superficial judgements, and back up their impressions with selective facts, before distributing rewards and sanctions. There is a crucial ‘fast thinking’ element to policymaking. Policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to ‘institutionalize’ their understanding of a policy problem and its solution.

Second, these judgements can have an enduring ‘feed-forward’ effect: fundamental choices based on values are reproduced in the institutions devoted to policy delivery. Policy designs based on emotionally-driven thinking often become routine and questioned rarely in government.

Third, this decision has an impact on citizens and groups, who participate more or less in politics according to how they are characterised by government. Some groups can become more or less powerful, and categorised differently, if they have the resources to mobilise and challenge the way they are perceived by policymakers (and the media and public). However, this outcome may take decades in the absence of a major event, such as an economic crisis or game-changing election.

Overall, past policies, based on rapid emotional judgements and policymakers’ values, provide key context for policymaking. The distribution of rewards and sanctions is cumulative, influencing future action by signalling to target populations how they are described and will be treated. Social constructions are difficult to overcome, because a sequence of previous policies, based on a particular framing of target populations, produces ‘hegemony’: the public, media and/ or policymakers take this set of values for granted, as normal or natural, and rarely question them when engaging in politics.

SCTP builds on classic discussions of power, in which actors exercise power to reinforce or challenge policymaker and social attitudes. For example, if most people assume that people in poverty deserve little government help, because they are largely responsible for their own fate, policymakers have little incentive to intervene. In such cases, power and powerlessness relates to the inability of disadvantaged groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy or a problem to be solved. Or, people may take for granted that criminals should be punished because they are engaging in deviant behaviour. To challenge policies based on this understanding, groups have to challenge fundamental public assumptions, reinforced by government policy, regarding what constitutes normal and deviant behaviour. Yet, many such groups have no obvious way in which to mobilise to pursue their collective interests.

SCTP depicts this dilemma with a notional table (page 102) in which there are two spectrums: one describes the positive or negative ways in which groups are portrayed by policymakers, the other describes the resources available to groups to challenge or reinforce that image. The powerful and positively constructed are ‘advantaged’; the powerful and negatively constructed are ‘contenders’; the powerless and positively constructed are ‘dependents’; the powerless and negatively constructed are ‘deviants’. As such, the table represents an abstract account of policymaking context, in which some groups are more likely to be favoured or stigmatised by government, and some groups are better able to exploit their favourable, or challenge their unfavourable, image.

 sctp 2007

It represents the starting point to empirical analysis since, although some examples seem intuitive (many ‘criminals’ are punished by government and have minimal ways in which to mobilise to influence policy), many are time-specific (the ‘feminist movement’ has been more or less active over time) and place-specific (gun manufacturers are high profile in the US, but not the UK). Different populations are also more or less favoured by policymakers at different levels of government – for example, ‘street level’ professionals may treat certain ‘deviant’ populations, such as intravenous drug users, more sympathetically – and may, for example, find it easier to mobilise at local than national levels. Further, people do not fit neatly into these categories – many ‘mothers’ are also ‘scientists’ and/ or part of the ‘feminist movement’ – and may mobilise according to their own perception of their identity.

Still, SCTP demonstrates that policymakers can treat people in certain ways, based on a quick, emotional and simplistic understanding of their background, and that this way of thinking should not be forgotten simply because it is taken for granted. Indeed, governments may go one step further to reinforce these judgements: capitalising on ‘fast thinking’ in the population by constructing simple ‘narratives’ designed to justify policy action to a public that may be prone to accept simple stories that seem plausible, confirm their biases, exploit their emotions, and/ or come from a source they trust. Actors compete to tell ‘stories, to quickly assign blame to one group of people, or praise another, even though that group is heterogeneous and cause/effect is multifaceted. The winner of this competition may help produce a policy response which endures for years, if not decades.

This post is part of the ‘1000 words’ series

For more on social construction, see:

Social Construction and Policy Design

Who are the most deserving and entitled to government benefits?



Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy

Alcohol: the Harmful versus Healthy Debate

Reblogged in 2018 to coincide with latest debate on the health risks of alcohol


Reblogged in 2016 to coincide with the latest headlines: ‘Drinkers Told Any Alcohol Carries Cancer Risk ‘
See also: After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Next?

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

I predict a lot of debate and attention to the idea that alcohol consumption is healthy or harmful. A key strategy for public health groups and other advocates of further alcohol controls (such as a minimum unit price of alcohol) is to reframe the debate – by challenging the idea that alcohol can be healthy, in particular circumstances, if consumed in small amounts. A key strategy for the alcohol industry is to maintain that image so that they can argue that alcohol policy should be targeted at problem drinkers only. One is a public health argument calling for general policy measures that influence the drinking habits of the population (e.g. raise prices, ban promotion). The other is an individualised argument calling for specific measures that deal with particular people (e.g. provide NHS services for alcoholism; change police powers to deal with anti-social behaviour). So, the *way we understand the evidence* is…

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