Monthly Archives: April 2016

Policy in 500 Words: how much does policy change?

You should get the impression from 1000 words that most policy changes are small or not radically different from the past: Lindblom identifies incrementalism; punctuated equilibrium  highlights a huge number of small changes and small number of huge changes; the ACF compares routine learning by a dominant coalition to a ‘shock’ which prompts new subsystem and policy dynamics; and multiple streams identifies the conditions (rarely met) for major change.

Yet, I just gave you the impression that we don’t know how to define policy. If we can’t define it well, how can we measure it well enough to come to this conclusion so consistently?

Why is the measurement of policy change important?

We miss a lot if we equate policy with statements rather than outputs/ outcomes. We also miss a lot if we equate policy change with the most visible outputs such as legislation. I list 16 different policy instruments, although they tend to be grouped into smaller categories: focusing on regulation (including legislation) and resources (money and staffing) to accentuate the power at policymaker’s disposal; or regulatory/ distributive/ redistributive to suggest that some policy measures are more difficult to ‘sell’ than others.

We also give a limited picture if we equate change with outputs rather than outcomes, since a key insight from policy studies is that there is generally a gap between policymaker expectations and the actual result.

What are the key issues in measurement?

So, as in defining policy change, we need to make choices about what counts as policy in this instance to measure how much it has changed. For example, I have (a) written on one output as a key exemplar of policy change –  legislation to ban smoking in public places for Scotland, England/ Wales, the UK, and (almost) EU – to show that a government is signalling major changes to come, but also (b) situated that policy instrument within a much broader discussion – of many tobacco policies in the UK and across the globe – to examine the extent to which it is already consistent with a well-established direction of travel.

To make such choices we need to consider:

  • Breadth (to give the ‘big picture’) versus depth (to note important details forensically)
  • How much we expect policy to change, given the size of the problem (a big feature in public health studies, which criticise government inaction)
  • How radical policy change looks from the ‘top’ (at the point of central government choice) or the ‘bottom’ (longer-term delivery of policy by other bodies)
  • What policies mean (what problem were policymakers trying to solve?)
  • How consistent ‘policy’ seems when made of often-contradictory instruments

How do we solve the problem?

The problem is that we can produce very different accounts of policy change from the same pool of evidence, by accentuating some measures and ignoring others, or putting more faith in some data more than others (e.g. during interviews).

500 words p30 UPP

Sometimes, my preferred solution is to compare more than one narrative of policy change. Another is simply to ‘show your work’.

Take home message for students: ‘show your work’ means explaining your logical process and step-by-step choices. Don’t just write that it is difficult to define policy and measure change. Instead, explain how you assess policy change in one important way, why you chose this way, and shine a light on the payoffs to your approach. Read up on how other scholars do it, to learn good practice and how to make your results comparable to theirs. Indeed, part of the benefit of using an established theory, to guide our analysis, is that we can engage in research systematically as a group.

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PS Here is the way in which I describe these issues to MPP students writing theory-driven coursework on policy and policy change (using the case study of UK tobacco policy as a guide):

 

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Policy in 500 Words: what is public policy and why does it matter?

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. We then conclude that there is no single, satisfying, definition of public policy. Instead, there are many which accentuate different aspects of the policy process, prompting you to consider the additional questions you have to ask to make sense of policy.

Why do we ask more questions?

Think about how to research a specific policy issue. I’ll use the example ‘what is tobacco policy?’ to illustrate the importance of additional questions:

  • Does ‘government action’ include what policymakers say they will do as well as what they actually do? Many governments have made a commitment to tobacco control, but there is immense variation in substantive commitment across the globe. Since initial commitment is not a great guide to what happens next, you miss a lot if you equate policy with initial choices.
  • Does it include the effects of a decision as well as the decision itself? The history of tobacco control suggests that policymakers were not sure of the effect of their policy instruments. We study outcomes because they may not resemble the initial policy aims (however committed a government is).
  • What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Some actors work with elected policymakers to make policy, and others make key decisions as they carry policy out. So, we miss a lot if we ignore the role of unelected actors.

500 words policymakers

  • Does public policy include what policymakers do not do? Tobacco control demonstrates the importance of power exercised to keep important issues off the public, media and government agenda to slow down policy change. We miss a lot if we only focus on relatively visible choices.

500 words cairney et al 2012

Why does our definition matter so much?

Our definition helps turn too much information into the most important data. A focus on policy choices gives you a different answer than a focus on outcomes. You will also struggle to show that policies caused outcomes (it is easier to demonstrate that a ban on smoking in public places caused people stop smoking indoors than altogether). Your choice of measures will influence your conclusions. Also note how normative policy research has to be: you evaluate policy change partly by assessing how much you think it should have changed under the circumstances.

Why does the question matter so much?

It matters because, until you study policy in depth, you may equate it with the pronouncements of elected policymakers. You might assume they are the only people that matter, or that they can achieve the things they promise. Instead, we use policy theories to highlight policymaking complexity, the diffusion of power, the involvement of many actors, and the limits to central government control. We can only hold policymakers to account in a meaningful way if we know who they are and what they are truly capable of.

Take home message for students: don’t just write about how hard it is to define policy. Instead, show what definition you are using, explain why, and show awareness that other definitions are available. Similarly, when you get into policymaking, don’t just say that it is complicated. Tell people how best to understand it: on what should you focus (and, at least implicitly, what can you afford to ignore)? This will make your empirical work so much better.

Series: Policy in 500 words

PS Here is the way in which I describe these issues to MPP students writing theory-driven coursework on policy and policy change (using the case study of UK tobacco policy as a guide):

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The politics of implementing evidence-based policies

This post by me and Kathryn Oliver appeared in the Guardian political science blog on 27.4.16: If scientists want to influence policymaking, they need to understand it . It builds on this discussion of ‘evidence based best practice’ in Evidence and Policy. There is further reading at the end of the post.

Three things to remember when you are trying to close the ‘evidence-policy gap’

Last week, a new major report on The Science of Using Science: Researching the Use of Research Evidence in Decision-Making suggested that there is very limited evidence of ‘what works’ to turn scientific evidence into policy. There are many publications out there on how to influence policy, but few are proven to work.

This is because scientists think about how to produce the best possible evidence rather than how different policymakers use evidence differently in complex policymaking systems (what the report describes as the ‘capability, motivation, and opportunity’ to use evidence). For example, scientists identify, from their perspective, a cultural gap between them and policymakers. This story tells us that we need to overcome differences in the languages used to communicate findings, the timescales to produce recommendations, and the incentives to engage.

This scientist perspective tends to assume that there is one arena in which policymakers and scientists might engage. Yet, the action takes place in many venues at many levels involving many types of policymaker. So, if we view the process from many different perspectives we see new ways in which to understand the use of evidence.

Examples from the delivery of health and social care interventions show us why we need to understand policymaker perspectives. We identify three main issues to bear in mind.

First, we must choose what counts as ‘the evidence’. In some academic disciplines there is a strong belief that some kinds of evidence are better than others: the best evidence is gathered using randomised control trials and accumulated in systematic reviews. In others, these ideas have limited appeal or are rejected outright, in favour of (say) practitioner experience and service user-based feedback as the knowledge on which to base policies. Most importantly, policymakers may not care about these debates; they tend to beg, borrow, or steal information from readily available sources.

Second, we must choose the lengths to which we are prepared to go ensure that scientific evidence is the primary influence on policy delivery. When we open up the ‘black box’ of policymaking we find a tendency of central governments to juggle many models of government – sometimes directing policy from the centre but often delegating delivery to public, third, and private sector bodies. Those bodies can retain some degree of autonomy during service delivery, often based on governance principles such as ‘localism’ and the need to include service users in the design of public services.

This presents a major dilemma for scientists because policy solutions based on RCTs are likely to come with conditions that limit local discretion. For example, a condition of the UK government’s license of the ‘family nurse partnership’ is that there is ‘fidelity’ to the model, to ensure the correct ‘dosage’ and that an RCT can establish its effect. It contrasts with approaches that focus on governance principles, such as ‘my home life’, in which evidence – as practitioner stories – may or may not be used by new audiences. Policymakers may not care about the profound differences underpinning these approaches, preferring to use a variety of models in different settings rather than use scientific principles to choose between them.

Third, scientists must recognise that these choices are not ours to make. We have our own ideas about the balance between maintaining evidential hierarchies and governance principles, but have no ability to impose these choices on policymakers.

This point has profound consequences for the ways in which we engage in strategies to create impact. A research design to combine scientific evidence and governance seems like a good idea that few pragmatic scientists would oppose. However, this decision does not come close to settling the matter because these compromises look very different when designed by scientists or policymakers.

Take for example the case of ‘improvement science’ in which local practitioners are trained to use evidence to experiment with local pilots and learn and adapt to their experiences. Improvement science-inspired approaches have become very common in health sciences, but in many examples the research agenda is set by research leads and it focuses on how to optimise delivery of evidence-based practice.

In contrast, models such as the Early Years Collaborative reverse this emphasis, using scholarship as one of many sources of information (based partly on scepticism about the practical value of RCTs) and focusing primarily on the assets of practitioners and service users.

Consequently, improvement science appears to offer pragmatic solutions to the gap between divergent approaches, but only because they mean different things to different people. Its adoption is only one step towards negotiating the trade-offs between RCT-driven and story-telling approaches.

These examples help explain why we know so little about how to influence policy. They take us beyond the bland statement – there is a gap between evidence and policy – trotted out whenever scientists try and maximise their own impact. The alternative is to try to understand the policy process, and the likely demand for and uptake of evidence, before working out how to produce evidence that would fit into the process. This different mind-set requires a far more sophisticated knowledge of the policy process than we see in most studies of the evidence-policy gap.  Before trying to influence policymaking, we should try to understand it.

Further reading

The initial further reading uses this table to explore three ways in which policymakers, scientists, and other groups have tried to resolve the problems we discuss:

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

  1. This academic journal article (in Evidence and Policy) highlights the dilemmas faced by policymakers when they have to make two choices at once, to decide: (1) what is the best evidence, and (2) how strongly they should insist that local policymakers use it. It uses the case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’ to show that it often seems to favour one approach (‘approach 3’) but actually maintains three approaches. What interests me is the extent to which each approach contradicts the other. We might then consider the cause: is it an explicit decision to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ or an unintended outcome of complex government?
  2. I explore some of the scientific  issues in more depth in posts which explore: the political significance of the family nurse partnership (as a symbol of the value of randomised control trials in government), and the assumptions we make about levels of control in the use of RCTs in policy.
  3. For local governments, I outline three ways to gather and use evidence of best practice (for example, on interventions to support prevention policy).
  4. For students and fans of policy theory, I show the links between the use of evidence and policy transfer

You can also explore these links to discussions of EBPM, policy theory, and specific policy fields such as prevention

  1. My academic articles on these topics
  2. The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking
  3. Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words
  4. Prevention policy

 

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What happens when policymakers have multiple, potentially contradictory, objectives? The curious case of Scotland’s ‘fiscal framework’

It is common in policy studies to state that policymakers or governments have many potentially-contradictory objectives:

  • When we focus on ‘complex government’ we note their large size, tendency to break functions down into specialist departments and units, and for those units to produce policies which undermine those of others.
  • When we focus on policymakers, we question their ability to produce a consistent set of rank-ordered preferences.

Indeed, Lindblom’s famous suggestion is that policymakers only know how to rank their preferences when they are forced to choose between them.

Yet, in the case of Scotland’s finances, the other option is to defer those choices (perhaps indefinitely, perhaps until events supersede the original problem).

In that sense, the deferment of a key part of Scotland’s ‘fiscal framework’ is part of a fine tradition in Scottish politics to try one’s hardest not to talk about the size of the Scottish Government budget. The mythical ‘Barnett formula’ served this purpose well by providing an almost automatic way to adjust the size of the grant that the Treasury gives to the Scottish Government.

Here is the curious bit

Then came the famous ‘Vow’ which promised to maintain Barnett, and then came the new fiscal framework to deliver greater Scottish Government fiscal autonomy while also protecting the Barnett formula.

The problem is that these developments are starting to show how contradictory Scotland’s devolution settlement is becoming:

  • The ‘Barnett formula’ is a way to adjust the Treasury’s allocation of funds to the Scottish Government. Giving the Scottish Government a greater ability to control taxation reduces the role of the Barnett formula that the party leaders vowed to protect (in part, this only seems like such a contradiction because ‘Barnett’ is often used to describe Scotland’s good financial settlement, not the formula itself).
  • The two key principles underpinning the new fiscal framework – neither government should be disadvantaged by the decision to devolve (the Smith Commission’s ‘no detriment’ principle) and the reforms should not provide greater public services for one area without an equivalent rise in its taxes (‘taxpayer fairness’) – do not get along. As Bell, Eiser, and Phillips argue:

it is impossible to design a block grant adjustment system that satisfies the spirit of the ‘no detriment from the decision to devolve’ principle at the same time as fully achieving the ‘taxpayer fairness’ principle: at least while the Barnett Formula remains in place.

Instead, they present three main options which come closer to one principle and further from the other.

So, to resolve this issue once and for all, the UK Government needs to form an agreement with the Scottish Government (or make a decision based on the extent to which it wants to please the Scottish Government), knowing that it will likely satisfy one policy aim at the expense of the other.

What seems to have happened is (a) an agreement between governments that neither government wants (a ‘compromise’), secured by (b) an agreement to see how it goes for 5 years before revisiting the issue again. In part, this allows the UK Government and the Conservative party to argue that it has delivered ‘the vow’ and put off the big fiscal decision until after the 2016 election.

So, the new framework no longer delivers the advantage of the Barnett formula (the ability to continue for a long period with minimal attention, combining a generous block settlement sort-of-adjusted according to population). Instead, we may be treated to the same tense negotiation and ‘compromise’ every run up to a Scottish Parliament election.

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What happens when we are too distracted by referendums to pay attention to policy?

It is common for people to argue that our obsession with the UK constitution distracts us from the day to day business of policymaking. It was a feature of the Scottish independence referendum and seems to be a feature of the Brexit debate. There are a few variations of the argument, but they seem to relate to two general concerns plus (now) an extra concern for the devolved governments:

(1) central government ministers indulge their obsession with a referendum instead of solving policy problems

(2) other actors (the media, parliament, the interested public) will pay attention to the referendum instead of keeping pressure on ministers to solve policy problems.

(3) the Brexit referendum will overshadow devolved elections.

The Scottish referendum suggests that some of these concerns were misplaced because it provided an opportunity to debate the ‘big questions’ of policy (such as, for example, should Scotland become a social democratic state?) and attracted the interest of parts of the public that usually don’t engage in (party) politics.

Still, some people retained the sense that we were talking about post-independence public services while the services themselves were going to crap (the usual examples relate to education attainment, the NHS, and Police Scotland).

All I want to add to this discussion is this point:

Such arguments presuppose that ministers make a big difference when they pay attention to policy problems, particularly when many potentially-critical audiences are watching them like hawks. In other words, they have the resources (including money, staffing, ideas, cognitive skills, and ‘political will’) to turn around services and close inequalities in outcomes.

There are two main reasons to qualify this assumption.

  1. Policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny fraction of their responsibilities anyway

There are 101 theories and concepts in policy studies which describe the limits to ministerial and central government control. The big message is that policymakers already ignore almost all of the issues for which they could take responsibility (and the ‘semi-sovereign public’ ignores far more). This is not to say that more distractions won’t make a difference. Rather, my point is to reject the binary distinction between total and zero policymaker attention.

  1. Elections can be bigger distractions than referendums

High stakes elections tend to prompt political parties to make promises that are achievable and easy to explain with simple stories. There is not much incentive to tell voters that policy problems (and policymaking systems) are complex, central governments can only do so much to solve them (especially within 5 year electoral terms), and maybe they should delegate a lot of this responsibility to local actors. So, the short term promises often provide far bigger distractions to long term aims.  This is not to say that more distractions won’t make things worse. Rather, my point is to reject the idea that we were half-way to solving life’s big problems before people got obsessed with the constitution. Or maybe my point is that a lot of media and public attention prompts policymakers to do silly things, to try to look like they are trying to solve policy problems. A distraction is not always unwelcome.

I expand on both points in this post, so won’t repeat them here. Still, if you have read a few of my posts now, you might be getting the impression that I just make these same points in each one. If so, my message to you is: thank you for reading a few of my posts. I enjoy the hits.

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The Scottish Parliament election 2016: the talking points so far

It would be tempting to ignore the Scottish Parliament election campaigns in 2016 because the result seems like a foregone conclusion: the SNP will form a majority government for the next 5 years. Yet, let’s not give in to that temptation by confusing the boring predictability of the result with its monumental nature. It will represent the peak of a transformation in Scottish electoral politics since 1999 that almost no-one predicted (apart from the Nostradamus-style harbingers of doom and wild optimists). As a result, it presents an intriguing mix of talking points: some of them relate to the specific issues that have arisen so far, while others are bubbling under the surface.

The big talking point: the likely result 

The SNP’s victory will happen despite an electoral system (‘mixed-member proportional’) designed to be far more proportional than the plurality system of Westminster: 56 seats from regional lists, using the d’Hondt divisor, offset some of the distribution of the 73 constituency seats determined by a plurality vote. Yet, they only make it more proportional. The SNP’s 50% share of the vote secured 56 of 59 MPs (95%) in the 2015 UK General election. If, as seems likely from the polls, it can maintain that level of support in constituency votes, it might already secure a majority before the regional votes are counted (one forecast is a total of 72, or 56%, of seats, compared to Labour’s 32 and Conservatives’ 18).

The likelihood of an SNP majority has produced a weird game of chicken in which we all know what will happen regardless of the campaign but the party leaders still dare each other to declare the result, knowing that admitting defeat opens you to claims of defeatism (as with Conservative leader Ruth Davidson) while hinting at victory wins you the most ‘arrogant’ prize. Further, while the smaller parties mattered in 2003, they have now become a sideshow. The most consistently serious party remains the Scottish Greens which may secure as many (4) seats as the former-coalition-government Scottish Liberal Democrats, with the increasingly comic UKIP likely to receive none.

Talking points in the election so far

The main talking point is that the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 did not settle the constitutional debate. Instead, the main opposition parties (and Scottish Labour in particular) have woven into their 2015 and 2016 campaigns the idea that the SNP will use any election victory to push for a second referendum. Yet, the only plausible trigger (in the short term) relates to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: if most voters in Scotland vote to stay in, and most voters in the UK overall vote to leave, it would ‘almost certainly’ prompt SNP demands for the second vote.

The prospect of a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum also prompted the main UK parties to promise substantially greater devolution (before the May 2016 election) to secure a No vote. So, the Scotland Act 2016 contains provisions to enhance the Scottish Government’s powers, including a greater ability to modify income tax rates and bands and reform some aspects of social security.

Greater devolution has prompted much debate but no resolution on how to use the so-called ‘Scottish rate of income tax’. What could have been a values-driven discussion about the benefits and costs of raising income tax to fund services, or about who should win and lose from taxation changes, has generally turned into a pedantic and (perhaps deliberately) confusing debate about the meaning of ‘progressive’ taxation (David Eiser describes a rise in SRIT as ‘slightly progressive’), the likely income from each 1p change in taxation, and the unintended consequences of greater higher-rate taxation in Scotland.  Further, since we all know the SNP will win the election, it is relatively hard to take seriously the tax plans of the other parties, including Scottish Labour’s planned 1p rise and the Scottish Conservatives’ unfulfilled hopes to reduce it (alongside its proposal to reintroduce tuition fees). Similarly, gone are the days when the Scottish Greens’ more radical income and land tax plans had any chance of success.

The lack of a settled constitution has also contributed to the lack of a proper debate on the SNP’s record in office – which is weird if you consider that, until recently, the main factor in the SNP’s electoral success in 2007 and 2011 is ‘valence politics’, which describes the tendency for political parties to promise similar things and run campaigns on things like the image of their leader, their vision for the future, and their image of governing competence. The SNP did particularly well to maintain an image of competence in 2011, but it is tempting to think that the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon, and the post-referendum bump for the SNP, has made this less of an issue in 2016. Opposition parties have been trying to maximise concerns about the performance of the NHS and Police Scotland, and the SNP’s failure to reduce the ‘attainment gap’, but there is little evidence to suggest that anything sticks – particularly when crises like the Edinburgh schools closures can generate attention but call into question Labour’s record on capital finance up to 2007.

Some important points are often not talking points …

One issue which could have hurt the SNP is ‘fracking’ because there is some internal division in the SNP about the Scottish Government’s decision to maintain a moratorium rather than complete ban on shale oil and gas development (Scottish Labour now supports a ban). Yet, the moratorium, along with with Sturgeon’s recent description of her position as ‘highly sceptical about fracking’ and the decision of the SNP’s leadership not to debate the issue at its annual conference, has meant that it can remain a non-talking point until after the election.

… but sometimes that’s a good thing

Perhaps the most promising non-talking point was Kezia Dugdale’s decision to ‘share with the world that I’m in love with a woman’, generally receive praise, and establish the Scottish Parliament as the home to an unusually large number of LGB party leaders. There is also some evidence to suggest that gender-based equality of selection is ‘catching on’ again (and reinforced by the high number of women in party leadership roles) after a few false dawns. Although the SNP will dominate party politics for years to come, some issues like ‘microcosmic representation’ are bigger than parties.

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Is politics and policymaking about sharing evidence and facts or telling good stories? Two very silly examples from #SP16

Sometimes, in politics, people know and agree about basic facts. This agreement provides the basis on which they can articulate their values, debate policy choices, and sell their choices to a reasonably well informed public. There are winners and losers from the choices, but at least it is based on a process in which facts or evidence play a major part.

Sometimes, people don’t seem to agree on anything. The extent to which they disagree seems wacky (as in the devil shift). So, there is no factual basis for a debate. Instead, people tell stories to each other and the debate hinges on the extent to which (a) someone tells a persuasive story, and (b) you already agree with its ‘moral’ and/ or the person telling you the story.*

Silly example one: the Scottish rate of income tax (SRIT)

The SRIT is a great example because it shows you that people can’t even agree on how to describe the arithmetic underpinning policy choices. My favourite example is here, on how to describe % increases on percentages:

cashley blair m srit

This problem amplifies the more important problem: the income tax is toxic, few politicians want to touch it, and they would rather show you the dire effects of other people using it. Currently, the best way to do this is to worry about the effect of any tax rise on the pay of nurses (almost always the heroes of the NHS and most-uncalled-for victims of policy change). So, if you combine the arithmetic debate with the focus on nurses, you get this:

cashley et al nurses srit

What you make of it will, I think, depend largely on who you trust, such as Calum C for the SNP/ Yes versus Blair M for Labour/ No. Then if you want to read more you can, for example, choose to read some Scottish Labour-friendly analysis of its plans to increase the SRIT by 1p while compensating lower earners (a, b), see it as a disaster not criticised enough by the BBC, or take your pick of two stories on the extent to which it did a ‘U-turn’.

This is before we even get to the big debate! What could have been a values-driven discussion about the benefits and costs of raising income tax to fund services, or about who should win and lose from taxation changes, has generally turned into a pedantic and (deliberately?) confusing debate about the meaning of ‘progressive’ taxation (David Eiser describes a rise in SRIT as ‘slightly progressive’), the likely income from each 1p change in taxation, and the unintended consequences of greater higher-rate taxation in Scotland.

So, your choice is to (a) do a lot of reading and critical analysis to get your head around the SRIT, or (b) decide who to trust to tell you what’s what.

Silly example two: who should you give your ‘second vote’ to?

The SNP will gain a majority in the Scottish Parliament despite an electoral system (‘mixed-member proportional’) designed to be far more proportional than the plurality system of Westminster: 56 seats from regional lists, using the d’Hondt divisor, offset some of the distribution of the 73 constituency seats determined by a plurality vote. Yet, they only make it more proportional. The SNP’s 50% share of the vote secured 56 of 59 MPs (95%) in the 2015 UK General election. If, as seems likely from the polls, it can maintain that level of support in constituency votes, it might already secure a majority before the regional votes are counted.

So, if the SNP wins almost all of the constituency seats, the competition for votes has taken on an unusual dimension: all the other parties will be getting all or most of their seats from the regional vote.

This situation has prompted some debate about the extent to which SNP-voters should (a) vote SNP twice (#bothvotessnp) to secure a very small number of extra seats in the regions where they don’t win all constituency contests, or (b) give their ‘second’/regional vote to a Yes-supporting smaller party like the Scottish Greens or RISE.

Here comes the silly bit. When John Curtice sort-of-seemed-not-really to suggest that people should choose option b (see original report by the ERS, described in The Herald) you’d think that he’d put a bag of shit on the SNP’s doorstep and the ERS had set fire to it and rung the doorbell.

So, unless you are willing to read about the kind of sophisticated calculations discussed in the ERS report, your next choice is to listen to a story about (a) people out to get the heroic SNP by duping voters into increasing the chances of more Union-loving MSPs (e.g. Labour or Conservative) getting in through the back door, or (b) those plucky heroes, such as the Greens or RISE, standing up to the villainous SNP.

In both cases, it is inevitable that many people will base their decisions on such stories, which is why they look so silly but matter so much.

 

*For the most part, the cause is the ‘complexity’ of the world and our need to adapt to it by ignoring most of it. To do so, we (just like policymakers) use major cognitive short cuts – including our emotional, gut, and habitual responses – to turn too-much information into a manageable amount. This process helps make us susceptible to ‘framing’ when people present that information to us in a particular way.

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The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

Well, it’s really a set of messages, geared towards slightly different audiences, and summed up by this table:

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP.JPG

  1. This academic journal article (in Evidence and Policy) highlights the dilemmas faced by policymakers when they have to make two choices at once, to decide: (1) what is the best evidence, and (2) how strongly they should insist that local policymakers use it. It uses the case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’ to show that it often seems to favour one approach (‘approach 3’) but actually maintains three approaches. What interests me is the extent to which each approach contradicts the other. We might then consider the cause: is it an explicit decision to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ or an unintended outcome of complex government?
  2. I explore some of the scientific  issues in more depth in posts which explore: the political significance of the family nurse partnership (as a symbol of the value of randomised control trials in government), and the assumptions we make about levels of control in the use of RCTs in policy.
  3. For local governments, I outline three ways to gather and use evidence of best practice (for example, on interventions to support prevention policy).
  4. For students and fans of policy theory, I show the links between the use of evidence and policy transfer.

Further reading (links):

My academic articles on these topics

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Prevention policy

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Filed under 1000 words, ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

The big accountability lie: in Scottish Parliament elections you have to pretend that you’ll succeed (part 2)

In part 1 of this amazing drama I restricted the discussion of ‘governance’ to Scotland. What happens when you expand it to include ‘multi-level governance’ in the UK and EU? It makes it even more difficult to talk about central government control and holding the Scottish Government to account, in a meaningful way, since it shares policymaking responsibility with UK and EU-level authorities.

The concept of MLG helps us understand the wider context of Scottish policymaking. In part 1 we discussed the idea of governance as ‘horizontal’ power diffusion by identifying, for example, the role of interest groups in territorial policy communities, and one aspect of ‘vertical’ diffusion by identifying the extent to which the Scottish Government shares power with local public bodies (see also the so-called ‘Scottish approach to policymaking’).

So, imagine MLG as the formation of policy networks that span more than one level of government, and the ‘emergence’ of policies and practices from multi-level activity. It is important to identify which actors are responsible for those outcomes in theory, to inform discussions of accountability, but difficult to know who to blame in practice when there are blurry boundaries between the actors who make or influence policy. This problem is exacerbated, not solved, by further constitutional change, which is built on a level of shared responsibility, between the UK and Scottish Government, not envisaged in the original devolution ‘settlement’.

Multi-level policymaking: the division of responsibilities

To get a flavour of these overlaps, let’s start with the original settlement, set out in the Scotland Act 1998, which stated which policy areas would remain reserved to the UK Government. Reserved areas are in the left hand column, which allows us to work out the main responsibilities of the Scottish Government. In the middle are some examples of UK/ Scotland overlaps, followed by examples of policy issues that are devolved and ‘Europeanised’.

table 10.1

If we simply compare the left/ right columns, the divisions seem fairly clear. Indeed, compared to many other systems – in which, for example, national and regional governments might share control over healthcare or education – they are.

The ‘Europeanisation’ of policy

Yet, many policy areas were becoming controlled or influenced increasingly by the European Union as they were being devolved. Further, the UK Government is the Member State, with three main implications:

  1. It is responsible for the implementation of EU directives across the UK, which gives it a monitoring role on Scottish policy in devolved areas.
  2. It tends to treat the EU as an extension of foreign affairs/ international relations – a reserved issue – rather than a collection of policy areas which can be reserved or devolved.
  3. It is difficult to consider constitutional change without taking into account key EU rules, in areas such as corporation tax and renewable energy obligations.

Outside of the obvious areas, such as EU rules on free trade and the free movement of people, the most Europeanised and devolved areas tend to be in:

  • Agriculture and fishing. The Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy are negotiated and set at the EU level, often with minimal Scottish Government involvement but with some discretion during implementation.
  • Environmental regulation. Similarly, Scotland’s environmental policies begin with the need to be consistent with EU rules in areas such as water quality and environmental protection.

Then, there is a miscellany of EU advice and regulations with the potential to have a major impact on otherwise devolved policies. For example, the ‘working time directive’ has an impact on doctors’ working conditions, while the habitat directive impacts on planning processes. This is on top of a more general sense that EU rules on trade and the free movement of people have a major impact on any policy area.

The blurry boundaries between reserved and devolved issues

There are many examples of areas in which at least two levels of government are involved. In some cases, this potential for multi-level involvement produced uncertainty about how to act:

  • In the very early years, Scottish ministers expressed uncertainty about their role in issues such as industrial policy and a register of sex offenders.
  • The ‘smoking ban’ raised interesting issues about the ‘purpose test’ to determine who is primarily responsible for key policies. It is part of a larger set of tobacco control policy instruments produced by Scottish, UK, and EU policymakers.
  • Scottish Parliament legislation to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol has been delayed by court action (it is currently being considered by the ECJ).

In some cases, there were tensions about the overlaps of responsibilities:

  • The Scottish Government’s policy on ‘free personal care’ for older people reduced many people’s entitlement to UK government social security payments. It faced similar issues when proposing a local income tax.
  • The UK’s Home Office policy on ‘dawn raids’ on unsuccessful asylum seekers was carried out in Scotland by a devolved police force.

In others, an overlap of responsibilities seems inevitable, since many policy areas are ‘cross-cutting’; they involve many policy instruments and government departments:

  • Fuel and child poverty are addressed with a mix of taxes, benefits, and public services.
  • Cross-cutting UK initiatives – such as the New Deal and Sure Start – require a degree of cooperation with devolved public services.
  • The Scottish Government’s ‘Fresh Talent’ initiative required Home Office approval.

In other words, overlaps are inevitable when any government tries to combine devolved discretion with national control.

So what?

Although this has been a far more boring post, the issues of accountability strategies are a bit more interesting. The debate, in this case, relates to the extent to which:

  • the SNP in government can blame the messy constitution settlement for its limited room for manoeuvre – an argument that it uses, but sparingly, because it also needs to maintain an image of governing competence (which is not supported well by the continuous claim of powerlessness)
  • the opposition parties can criticise this focus, and make the ‘use the powers you have before you ask for more’ argument, but sparingly, because they must know that the Scottish system is a big mess.

This should at least make it more bearable to watch an election debate (perhaps behind a cushion) because very little of this comes up but you know it’s there. Imagine a warring family that only argues about who should take the bins out or pick up their socks when you know what’s really going on under the surface.

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The big accountability lie: in Scottish Parliament elections you have to pretend that you’ll succeed (part 1)

The Scottish Conservatives took some grief for campaigning to become the opposition party in Holyrood. We all know they won’t come close to winning, but many people would like them to go through the ridiculous charade of pretending to try. Yet, this is only the second most ridiculous pretence in Scottish politics. The first is that the governing party is in control of Scottish government and can therefore be held to account in a meaningful way in Holyrood elections. While one problem will go away next month, the other is a fundamental flaw in our political system that will rip us apart at the seams.

For the people who read beyond the first paragraph, let me lay this out in a less dramatic way by highlighting the gulf between two ways of thinking about Scottish government.

  1. The language of Scottish elections.

The language of elections is one of ambition, high stakes competition, central government control, and accountability through elections:

  • Parties compete to tell you the tantalizing transformations they can deliver with Scottish Government powers.
  • The elections are high stakes because much power is held in Scottish central government.
  • If there is high central control, with major ‘levers’ of policy change, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame. Education doing well? Praise the SNP. NHS in a slump? Blame the SNP. Police Scotland having a nightmare? Blame the SNP. Wee Jimmy tripped and fell over a wonky slab in Largs? Blame the SNP.

So, the underlying message of Scottish Parliament elections is: let’s blame or praise the central government because it is in control and has the levers to make things happen. It’s much the same, only more so, in Westminster elections.

  1. The language of governance and policy studies

Most policy studies suggest that central government can achieve far less than you’d care to think. We use many phrases to highlight the limits to central control and the pragmatic ways in which the centre shares policymaking responsibility with other actors such as local public bodies and ‘stakeholders’. Key concepts include:

  • Policy communities. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy.
  • Governance (not government). There is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, we often think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government.
  • Complexity, or complex government. In complex policymaking systems, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them. Consequently, there is a large literature which tries to produce pragmatic responses to deal with the limits to central government control.

The language of accountability does not mix well with the language of complexity

I want you to imagine that you’ve put new denim jeans in with your whites wash: one part of the wash has really messed up the other. Now, I want you to think of this as a clever analogy: the language of elections is the denim and it’s really messing up your governance whites.

There are good reasons for central governments to share power and responsibility with other actors, including:

  • civil servants have the capacity, knowledge, and networks to research and make detailed policies;
  • many public bodies like ‘quangos’ need to be at ‘arm’s length’ from ministers to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of their public;
  • local governments have their own mandates, often possess a keener sense of the needs of local communities, and can work in partnership with local stakeholders and public bodies to produce long term strategies for their areas
  • stakeholders provide knowledge and advice on how to deliver policies in specialised areas
  • service users often have profound insights on the public services they receive

So, alongside fighting elections, the Scottish Government tries to produce pragmatic ways to share policymaking responsibility and encourage new mechanisms of accountability: institutional, local, community, service user.

The only problem is this: almost no one buys these forms of accountability, partly because it looks like the central government is trying to shirk responsibility for its actions. Come election time, you have to pretend that you are in charge of all of it. So, it’s difficult to argue during the rest of the time – for example, when ‘being held to account’ by the Scottish Parliament, or criticised in the media – that things are really not your fault.

The worst of it comes when governments try to adapt to both of those things, producing highly contradictory strategies:

  • On the one hand, they pursue thinks like ‘prevention’ strategies which encourage relatively hands-off policymaking for the long term in cooperation with local bodies.
  • On the other, they make election promises – e.g. on the numbers of police officers, teachers, and nurses they’ll employ – and maintain performance management systems to show that they are in charge and making some progress. These actions to achieve short term electoral success can really mess up the long term strategies.

So what?

The upshot is this: we could use our knowledge of this contradiction in language to get beyond simplistic debates in which the elected central government gets all the praise or blame for outcomes in devolved areas in Scotland. It might help produce more honest and sensible policymaking. However, can you imagine any big party ever willing to try? When the Scottish Conservatives get this much shit for admitting they won’t win office, can you imagine a larger party admitting that it won’t achieve that much in office because it’s one part of a complex system?

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The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking:3 messages

Really, it’s three different ways to make the same argument in the number of words that suits you:

  1. Guardian post (700 words): ‘When presenting evidence to policymakers, scientists and other experts need to engage with the policy process that exists, not the one we wish existed’
  2. Public Administration Review article (3000 words) To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty (free version)
  3. Book (40,000 words)The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking (free version)

For even more words, see my EBPM page

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A Tale of Two Dinners

Marking season has kept me from regular blogging, so let me give you a short anecdote while we wait for normal service to resume.

The year: 1997.

The place: Belfast.

The event: Political Studies Association annual conference dinner.

Your hero: a 24 year old man with long ginger hair. Note the long hair. I’m talking about a beautiful, glossy bob which was really something to behold from behind.

The dinner was a silver service affair, with different people bringing each part: one for potatoes/ vegetables and one for the big ticket item. I’m vegetarian and it was 1997, so I was already pretty excited to hear that the main event was a pie rather than veggie lasagne.

So, the first person comes round and says to me, ‘vegetables, madam?’ The person next to me and I chuckle about this and I get an extra potato because the silver server is a bit embarrassed and distracted by the handsome* mug sporting what-they-thought-to-be a lady’s haircut.

Then the next person comes round: ‘vegetarian, madam?’ So, I say to the person next to me, ‘that’s twice it’s happened!’ I also put up two fingers to reinforce the immense twiceness of the situation. The silver server thinks that I am asking for two pies. No doubt, they would normally refuse, but since they think they’ve just offended me, they pop down two pies on my plate and get the hell out of there.

That is the story of how I got two dinners at the PSA Belfast conference in 1997.

 

 

*not handsome

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