Monthly Archives: March 2016

Hydraulic fracturing policy in comparative perspective: how typical is the UK experience?

This paper – Cairney PSA 2016 UK fracking 15.3.16– collects insights from the comparative study of ‘fracking’ policy, including a forthcoming book using the ‘Advocacy Coalition Framework’ to compare policy and policymaking in the US, Canada and five European countries (Weible, Heikkila, Ingold and Fischer, 2016), the UK chapter, and offshoot article submissions comparing the UK with Switzerland. It is deliberately brief to reflect the likelihood that, in a 90-minute panel with 5 papers, we will need to keep our initial presentations short and sweet. I am also a member of the no-powerpoint-collective.

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

Category: Fracking

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When presenting evidence to policymakers, engage with the policy process that exists, not the process you wish existed

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling This post will appear in The Guardian’s Political Science blog. It is based on his book The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking, launched by the Alliance for Useful Evidence and developed on his EBPM webpage.

‘Evidence-based policymaking’ is now central to the agenda of scientists: academics need to demonstrate that they are making an ‘impact’ on policy, and scientists want to close the ‘evidence-policy gap’. The live debate on energy policy is one of many examples in which scientists bemoan a tendency for policymakers to produce  ideological rather than ‘evidence based’ decisions, and seek ways to change their minds.

Yet, they will fail if they do not understand how the policy process works. To do so requires us to reject two romantic notions: (1) that policymakers will ever think like scientists; and, (2) that there is a clearly identifiable point of decision at which scientists can contribute evidence to key policymakers to make a demonstrable impact.

To better understand how policymakers think, we need a full account of ‘bounded rationality’. This phrase partly describes the fact that policymakers can only gather limited information before they make decisions quickly. They will have made a choice before you have a chance to say ‘more research is needed’! To do so, they use two short cuts: ‘rational’ ways to gather quickly the best evidence on solutions to meet their goals, and ‘irrational’ ways – including drawing on emotions and gut feeling – to identify problems even more quickly.

This insight shows us one potential flaw in academic strategies. The most common response to bounded rationality in scientific articles is to focus on the supply of evidence: develop a hierarchy of evidence which privileges the systematic review of randomised control trials, generate knowledge, and present it in a form that is understandable to policymakers. We need to pay more attention to the demand for evidence, following lurches of policymaker attention, often driven by quick and emotional decisions. For example, there is no point in taking the time to make evidence-based solutions easier to understand if policymakers are not (or no longer) interested. Instead, successful advocates recognize the value of emotional appeals and simple stories to generate attention to a problem.

To identify when and how to contribute evidence, we need to understand the complicated environment in which policy takes place. There is no ‘policy cycle’ in which to inject scientific evidence at the point of decision. Rather, the policy process is messy and often unpredictable, and better described as a complex system in which, for example, the same injection of evidence can have no effect or a major effect. It contains: many actors presenting evidence to influence policymakers in many levels and types of government; networks which are often close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others; and, a language within policymaking institutions indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ (such as ‘value for money’). Social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, or even prompt policymakers to change completely the ways in which they understand a policy problem. However, while lurches of attention are common, changes to well-established ways of thinking in government are rare, or take place only in the long term.

This insight shows us a second potential flaw in academic strategies: the idea that research ‘impact’ can be described as a set-piece event, separable from the policy process as a whole. It compares with the kind of advice – develop a long-term strategy – that we would generate from policy studies: invest in the time to find out (a) where the ‘action is’, and (b) how you can boost your influence as part of a coalition of like-minded actors looking of opportunities to raise attention to problems and push your solutions.

Unfortunately, these insights mostly help us identify what not to do. Further, the alternatives may be difficult to accept (how many scientists would make manipulative or emotional appeals to generate attention to their research?) or deliver (who has the time to conduct research and seek meaningful influence?). However, by engaging with these practical and ethical dilemmas, that the policy process creates for advocates of scientific evidence, we can help produce strategies better suited to the complex real world than a simple process that we wish existed.

Pivot cover


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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies

In the 24 other posts in this series, I know the material well and am thinking primarily about communicating it to a new audience. In this post, I would like to (a) admit my limited understanding of topics such as feminist and postcolonial studies, and concern about oversimplifying key points, but (b) set out some thoughts about the links between them and the topics I discuss on this site. I would appreciate your comments and suggestions on relevant further reading for students of public policy.

Let’s begin with a transition from two other posts: combining theories, and critical policy studies/ the NPF. Both posts raise the same basic question: what is science? This question leads to a series of concerns about the criteria we use to determine which theories are most worthy of our investment, and the extent to which social scientific criteria should emulate those in natural science.

One set of criteria, which you can find in the ‘policy shootout!’, relates to the methods and principles we might associate with some branches of natural science (and use, for example, to support astronomy but not astrology):

  • A theory’s methods should be explained so that they can be replicated by others.
  • Its concepts should be clearly defined, logically consistent, and give rise to empirically falsifiable hypotheses.
  • Its propositions should be as general as possible.
  • It should set out clearly what the causal processes are.
  • It should be subject to empirical testing and revision

If we were to provide a caricature of this approach, we might associate it with other explicit or implicit principles, such as:

  1. The world exists independently of our knowledge of it, and our role is to develop theories to help us understand its properties (for example, discover its general laws).
  2. These principles help us produce objective science: if the methods and results can be replicated, they do not depend on individual scientists.

In other words, the caricature is of a man in a white lab coat gathering knowledge of his object of study while remaining completely separate from it. Such principles are generally difficult to maintain, and relatively tricky in the study of the social world (and it seems increasingly common for one part of PhD training to relate to reflexivity – see what is our role in social scientific research)? However, critical challenges go far beyond this point about false objectivity.

The challenge to objective science: 1. the role of emancipatory research

One aspect of feminist and postcolonial social science is to go beyond the simple rejection of the idea of objective social science: a further key (or perhaps primary) aim is to generate research with emancipatory elements. This may involve producing research questions with explicit normative elements and combining research with recommendations on social and political change.

The challenge to objective science: 2. a rejection of the dominant scientific method?

A second aspect is the challenge to the idea that one dominant conception of scientific method is correct. Instead, one might describe the scientific rules developed by one social group to the exclusion of others. This may involve historical analysis to identify the establishment of an elite white male dominance of science in the ‘West’, and the ‘Western’ dominance of science across the world.

To such scientists, a challenge to these criteria seems ridiculous: why reject the scientific principles that help us produce objective science and major social and technological advances? To their challengers, this response may reflect a desire to protect the rules associated with elite privilege, and to maintain dominance over the language we use to establish which social groups should be respected as the generators of knowledge (the recipients of prestige and funding, and perhaps the actors most influential in policy).

The challenge to objective science: 3. the democratisation of knowledge production

A third is the challenge to the idea that only well-trained scientists can produce valuable knowledge. This may involve valuing the knowledge of lived experience as a provider of new perspectives (particularly when people are in the unusual position to understand and compare their perspective and those of others). It also involves the development of new research methods and principles, combined with a political challenge to the dominance of a small number of scientific methods (for example, see rejections of the hierarchy of knowledge at which the systematic review of randomised control trials is often at the top).

Revisiting the live debate on the NPF and critical/ interpretive studies

This seems like good context for some of the debate on the NPF (see this special issue). One part of the debate may be about fundamentally different ideas about how we do research: do we adhere to specific scientific principles, or reject them in favour of a focus on, for example, generating meaning from statements and actions in particular contexts?

Another part may reflect wider political views on what these scientific principles represent (an elitist and exclusionary research agenda, whose rules reinforce existing privileges) and the role of alternative methods, in which critical policy studies may play an important part. In other words, we may be witnessing such a heated debate because critical theorists see the NPF as symbolic of attempts by some scholars to (a) reassert a politically damaging approach to academic research and (b) treat other forms of research as unscientific.

Where do we go from here?

If so, we have raised the stakes considerably. When I wrote previously about the problems of combining the insights and knowledge from different theories, it often related to the practical problems of research resources and potential for conceptual misunderstanding. Now, we face a more overt political dimension to social research and some fundamentally different understandings of its role by different social groups.

Can these understandings be reconciled, or will they remain ‘incommensurable’, in which we cannot generate agreement on the language to use to communicate research, and therefore the principles on which to compare the relative merits of approaches? I don’t know.

Initial further reading

Paying attention to this intellectual and political challenge provides a good way ‘in’ to reading that may seem relatively unfamiliar, at least for students with (a) some grounding in the policy theories I describe, and (b) looking to expand their horizons.

Possibly the closest link to our focus is when:

First, we know that policy problems do not receive policymaker attention because they are objectively important. Instead, actors compete to define issues and maximise attention to that definition. Second, we do the same when we analyse public policy: we decide which issues are worthy of study and how to define problems. Bacchi argues that the ‘conventional’ policy theorists (including Simon, Bardach, Lindblom, Wildavsky) try to ‘stand back from the policy process’ to give advice from afar, while others (including Fischer, Drysek, Majone) “recognise the analysts’ necessarily normative involvement in advice giving” (p200). Combining both points, Bacchi argues that feminists should engage in both processes – to influence how policymakers and analysts define issues – to, for example, challenge ‘constructions of problems which work to disempower women’ (p204). This is a topic (how should academics engage in the policy process) which I follow up in a study of EBPM.

For a wider discussion of feminist studies and methods, have a look at:

  • Fonow and Cook’s ‘pragmatic’ discussion about how to do feminist public policy research based on key principles:

‘Our original analysis of feminist approaches to social science research in women’s studies revealed some commonalities, which we articulated as guiding principles of feminist methodology: first, the necessity of continuously and reflexively attending to the significance of gender and gender asymmetry as a basic feature of all social life, including the conduct of research; second, the centrality of consciousness-raising or debunking as a specific methodological tool and as a general orientation or way of seeing; third, challenging the norm of objectivity that assumes that the subject and object of research can be separated from each other and that personal and/or grounded experiences are unscientific; fourth, concern for the ethical implications of feminist research and recognition of the exploitation of women as objects of knowledge; and finally, emphasis on the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research and research results’ (Fonow and Cook, 2005: 2213).

  • Lovenduski on early attempts to reinterpret political science through the lens of feminist theory/ research.

Note the links between our analysis of power/ideas and institutions as the norms and rules (informal and formal, written and unwritten) which help produce regular patterns of behaviour which benefit some and exclude others (and posts on bounded rationality, EBPM and complexity: people use simple rules to turn a complex world into manageable strategies, but to whose benefit?).

With feminist research comes a shift of focus from sex (as a primarily biological definition) and gender (as a definition based on norms and roles performed by individuals), and therefore the (ideal-type) ‘codes of masculinity and femininity’ which underpin political action and even help define which aspects of public policy are public or private. This kind of research links to box 3.3 in Understanding Public Policy (note that it relates to my discussion of Schattschneider and the privatisation/ socialisation of conflict, which he related primarily to ‘big business’).

box 3.3 gender policy

Then see two articles which continue our theme of combining theories and insights carefully:

  • Kenny’s discussion of feminist institutionalism, which seems like one of many variants of new institutionalism (e.g. this phrase could be found in many discussions of new institutionalism: ‘seemingly neutral institutional processes and practices are in fact embedded in hidden norms and values, privileging certain groups over others’ – Kenny, 2007: 95) but may involve ‘questioning the very foundations and assumptions of mainstream institutional theory’. Kenny argues that few studies of new institutionalism draw on feminist research (‘there has been little dialogue between the two fields’) and, if they were to do so, may produce very different analyses of power and ‘the political’. This point reinforces the problems I describe in combining theories when we ignore the different meanings that people attach to apparently identical concepts.
  • Mackay and Meier’s concern (quoted here) that new institutionalism could be ‘an enabling framework – or an intellectual strait-jacket” for feminist scholarship’. Kenny and Mackay identify similar issues about ‘epistemological incompatibilities’ when we combine approaches such as feminist research and rational choice institutionalism.

So far, I provide one link between postcolonial studies and public policy, since this seems like the best way ‘in’.

  • Munshi and Kurian’s identify the use of ‘postcolonial filters’ to reinterpret the framing of corporate social responsibility, describing ‘the old colonial strategy of reputation management among elite publics at the expense of marginalized publics’ which reflects a ‘largely Western, top-down way of doing or managing things’. In this case, we are talking about frames as structures or dominant ways to understand the world. Actors exercise power to reinforce a particular way of thinking which benefits some at the expense of others. Munshi and Kurian describe a ‘dominant, largely Western, model of economic growth and development’ which corporations seek to protect with reference to, for example, the ‘greenwashing’ of their activities to divert attention from the extent to which ‘indigenous peoples and poorer communities in a number of developing countries “are generally the victims of environmental degradation mostly caused by resource extractive operations of MNCs in the name of global development”’ (see p516).

It is also worth noting that I have, in some ways, lumped feminism and postcolonialism together when they are separate fields with different (albeit often overlapping and often complementary) traditions. See for example Emejulu’s Beyond Feminism’s White Gaze.

Hopefully some more suggested readings will appear in the comments section …

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What is Policy?

what is policy

(you can stream the podcast here or right click and save this link)

The first thing we do when studying public policy is to try to define it – as, for example, the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes. This sort of definition produces more questions:

  • Does ‘government action’ include what policymakers say they will do as well as what they actually do? An unfulfilled promise may not always seem like policy.
  • Does it include the effects of a decision as well as the decision itself? A policy outcome may not resemble the initial policy aims.
  • What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Many individuals, groups and organisations influence policy and help carry it out.
  • Does public policy include what policymakers do not do. Policy is about power, which is often exercised to keep important issues off the public, media and government agenda.

The second thing we do is point to the vast scale of government, which is too big to be understood without some simplifying concepts and theories. It is also too big to be managed. We soon learn that the vast majority of policymaking takes place in the absence of meaningful public attention. The ‘public’ simply does not have the time to pay attention to government. Even when it pays attention to some issues, the debate is simplified and does not give a good account of the complicated nature of policy problems.

We also learn that government is too big to be managed by elected policymakers. Instead, they divide government into manageable units and devolve almost all decisions to bureaucrats and organisations (including ‘street level’).  They are responsible for government, but they simply do not have the time to pay attention to anything but a tiny proportion.

So, a big part of public policy is about what happens when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name. That’s what makes it seem so messed up and so interesting at the same time.

It’s also what makes policy studies look so weird. We often reject a focus on high-profile elected policymakers, because we know that the action takes place elsewhere. We often focus on the day-to-day practices of organisations far removed from the ‘top’ or the ‘centre’. We ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ to gain several perspectives on the same thing. We spend a lot of time gnashing our teeth about how you can identify and measure policy change (still, no-one has cracked this one) and compare it with the past and the experience of other countries. We try to come up with ways to demonstrate that inaction is often more significant than action. When you ask us a question, your eyes will glaze over while we try to explain, ‘well, that’s really 12 questions’. We come up with wacky names to describe policymaking and bristle if you call it ‘jargon’. It’s because policymaking is complicated and it takes skill, and some useful concepts, to make it look simple.

To read more, see: Policy Concepts in 1000 words

box 2.1 UPP


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy, UK politics and policy