Monthly Archives: May 2016

How should we interpret the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy?


The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy 2015 is now out. It is a great example for students of agenda setting and framing because an apparently dry account of recent trends may come to dominate the highest level debates in Scottish politics.

The stakes are high because the figures – showing some drops in attainment at key stages, and major gaps in inequalities of attainment at all stages – are being interpreted in this context:

Allegations of government shenanigans

The SNP Government’s opponents reckon that it delayed the results because they were so bad as to undermine the SNP vote in the Holyrood elections in 2016.

Allegations of misplaced priorities

The SNP Government’s critics reckon that it has funded free tuition for the middle classes at the expense of funding to reduce attainment gaps at school (which make it less likely for people in deprived areas to go to benefit from free University education).

SNP Government priorities

Education will be the big focal point from 2016-21 because the SNP has signalled it as the top priority (symbolised by the fact that John Swinney is now in charge). Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon promised at one point to ‘close the attainment gap completely’ (report on original speech).

The SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more of a mix of aims (using more equivocal language). Its promise to ‘close the attainment gap between young people from the most and those from the least affluent backgrounds’ really means reduce (‘our mission is to make significant progress in closing the gap within the next parliament and to substantially eliminate it within a decade’), while its promise to deliver ‘significant progress in closing the attainment gap within the lifetime of the next parliament and substantially eliminating it within a decade’ betrays the sense that it does not really know how to tell how far it can reduce the gap and declare almost-complete success.

This background gives us a lens through which to view most analysis of the figures

As you’d expect, so far the immediate reaction is rather critical:

The SNP Government response will be trickier-than-usual for the following reasons:

  1. Free University tuition is non-negotiable.

It won’t give up on free University tuition (for Scottish students and, in effect, EU students outside the UK), and it doesn’t accept the argument that its spending on University tuition comes at the expense of its spending on pre-school and school spending. So, it has to find the money, to reduce the attainment gap, from other areas (producing the possibility of limited success in education and worsening results in other high profile areas such as health).

  1. Its ability to link the issue to Scottish independence is now more limited.

The usual (and often plausible) response to the inequalities in attainment gap is to argue that: (a) it is caused largely by socio-economic conditions such as poverty, rather than teaching; and, (b) the Scottish Government does not have the tax/ spending power to reduce the problem at source. Yet, Sturgeon has staked her reputation on making a difference despite these constraints.

So, what happens next?

At some point, we might have a less emotive, less partisan, and more considered look at these figures. If so, I’d like to be clearer on three different kinds of question. The first two are about setting milestones so that we don’t wait until the figures come out before we pronounce success/ failure, and the third is about the figures themselves:

  1. What level of inequality of attainment is OK?

Whatever language the SNP uses, it won’t close this gap completely. Instead, we could benefit from an honest and pragmatic discussion about the level of inequality in attainment that we think is acceptable (at least at each stage of policy development). In Scotland, we tell a good story about consensus politics, but it won’t mean much if the government pretends to hold on to aims it doesn’t think are achievable, while the opposition criticises any gap regardless of progress.

  1. What trends are acceptable?

In agenda setting studies we note the profound effects of trends in data, which can be more important (in gaining attention) than the baseline figures. If we want to try to avoid getting sucked into these lurches of attention to often-minimal change, we could benefit from a sense of perspective on trends. Is any positive effect a cause for celebration or negative effect a cause for prophecies of doom? No. Yet, the stakes are so high that people are ready to pounce at any minute, or at least every year. Governments play that game too, with performance management systems that really don’t help (and, for example, Robert Geyer has a different way to consider long term success and failure).

  1. What do these figures really mean?

I don’t think the survey was designed with these high political stakes in mind. If they are to remain so crucial to political debate, I’d like to see more explanation – to the public and political commentators – of the method and results, to give a clearer sense of how to interpret the baseline figures as well as the trends.

Otherwise, for example, people will point to the wacky drop in attainment progress in S2 (compared to P7) and wonder what the hell happened (particularly since it exposes the major gap in attainment linked to deprivation). The report itself mentions the well-discussed problem of transition from primary to secondary school, but could discuss more the likelihood that this statistical dip is caused partly by measurement (possible explanations include: the expectation for S2 is disproportionately high, given the problems of transition; or, secondary and primary teachers have different view on how well someone is doing when they enter S1).

For further reading, see Lucy Hunter Blackburn’s site Adventures in Evidence, which provides more frequent and in-depth (and critical!) coverage of Scottish education policy than mine.

See also A memo to John Swinney

For some of the coverage, see for example:

Numeracy rate falls among pupils in Scotland, latest figures show




Filed under agenda setting, Scottish politics

The EU referendum: How do you decide?

Andrew Glencross and Paul Cairney give some advice on how to wade through all the information on ‘Brexit’ to make an informed choice. Andrew offers a more thorough discussion in Remain or Leave? A MOOC on the UK Referendum on EU Membership.

We often hear that citizens don’t have enough information to help them make a decision about the EU referendum. Yet, there is too much information. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to  wade through all the campaign claims and evaluate them

We also hear that what we need is an ‘objective’ guide; someone to pull together all the evidence so that people can read it and make an informed decision. This will never happen. There is no objective guide. Indeed, the whole idea of objectivity is misleading. Anyone presenting ‘evidence’ on the debate is giving a partial story. This is clear when you hear people making the best, most optimistic, cases for or against evidence. If you want a well-rounded case, you don’t ask David Cameron or Boris Johnson.

It’s less clear when alleged experts join in, but the biases are still there. Everyone tells you some things and leaves out the rest; they describe to you one simple part of a complicated picture. Then, another expert will tell you the direct opposite. So, there will never come a point when you read enough to make a decision based on ‘the evidence’.

What can you do instead? We suggest two strategies.

Strategy 1: engage critically with any information you receive

Don’t take it at face value. Instead, consider:

Who is giving me the information and to what extent can I trust them?

This is relatively easy when you read a Remain or Leave pamphlet or listen to campaigners in debates. Set your trust levels to low (often, these messages simply reinforce what you believe, or annoy you). Or, at least, try to combine their accounts to see if there is any middle ground (which is not always possible).

It’s harder when people are brought in as ‘experts’. For every business guru, lawyer or university professor on one side, there seems to be an equivalent on the other (although, in some cases such as economic matters, there seems to be an imbalance towards Remain).

Still, it is not a good idea to assume that, just because Professor Something said something it is true. What you should think about professors is that they have excellent reputations based on research and scholarly excellence in a particular field – not that everything they say is gold. Beware, in particular, the Professor with expertise in one field (such as law or economics) trying to give you his/her views of another (such as economics or law).

What do people really mean?

What tends to happen in this debate is that no-one wants to give any ground; on both sides, the goal is to win at all costs. As a result, the debates tend to be very limited and partial, producing more heat than light before another topic has its moment in the limelight. Simple examples include the debate on how many EU migrants actually work in the UK (should we rely on national insurance numbers issued or exit surveys at airport?) or the question of whether the EU has secret plans for a common army (more cooperation in defence can go ahead without UK participation, but that does not mean the outcome will be an EU army).

How much of the information is based on what they claim to know versus what they predict?

Some problems are easy to spot: beware any prediction of Armageddon or of a better world. If a prediction for a new world seems too good to be true, you know to reject it. If someone says that everything will be unambiguously terrible, you can dismiss them quite easily. It’s harder to spot expert predictions based on one part knowledge and nine parts soothsaying. A good general rule is that a prediction becomes less useful for every year into the future it goes. If the future involves people, it is not easy to predict.

How does this information compare with other information?

One way to deal with information from one source is to compare it with as many other information sources as possible. So, for example, if you hear a point made in a debate, or read it in a leaflet, you can compare it with the thoughts of, say, critical media commentators and academics (e.g. UK in a Changing Europe, or the Centre on Constitutional Change). Or, you can simply ask yourself: is this an assertion, with no evidence, or can they back up what they are saying?

Unfortunately, this is not a good enough strategy on its own, largely because:

  1. Much of the relevant information is not available. We don’t know how people will behave after the vote – how, for example, the negotiations with the EU would progress after a Leave vote, how businesses and ‘the markets’ would react, or even if the vote prompts a further referendum in Scotland.
  2. There is too much information to process.
  3. We have to trust some people to give us useful information; to give us an account of the evidence on which we can rely.

Strategy 2: find ways to simplify your decision, to make it ‘good enough’.

So, we need an additional strategy to act intelligently but quickly. Forget the usual bunkum about some people thinking with their hearts and other people with their heads. Forget the idea of staying awake from now until the vote to make sure you’ve considered every Leave and Remain statement.

Instead, we all use short-cuts to make sure that we pay attention to some information and ignore the rest – and, for all of us, those short cuts include our established beliefs (we tend to reject some information if it contradicts our beliefs) and our emotions. Don’t feel bad if you feel passionately about something and can’t quite explain why. Don’t feel inadequate if someone else tells you that their decision is somehow more ‘rational’. Instead, seek simple ways to combine emotions with ‘rationality’:

  1. Work out your priorities. For some, it’s about the future of immigration. For some, it’s about the economy and certainty over trade. For others, it’s about ‘sovereignty’ and a desire to have policy decisions made in Westminster. For you, it may be about all of these things, but they may not be as important as each other. It is worth considering these priorities before you engage with the information.
  2. Work out what you are willing to give up. There is no realistic scenario in which everyone will be better off after a certain vote, or that everything will improve in each area. Rather, we are making important choices about what we are willing to give up to secure something else. For some, the uncertainty about the economy seems to trump all else. For others, it is about a principle that is more important than a guaranteed outcome.
  3. Identify your ‘gut feeling’ about which way to vote and ask yourself why you feel that way.
  4. Don’t be too annoyed. It is easy to decide to vote one way or another because someone in the Leave or Remain camp annoys you, or they appear to present misleading material, or give you a message in a patronising way. It’s not about them – otherwise, I think that most of us would spoil our ballot papers.

Then vote. It really is that simple.


Filed under UK politics and policy

Two ways to understand policymaking in the UK

This is the introduction to the concluding chapter of my hubris book, Policy and Policymaking in the UK:

Let me give you a useful but potentially confusing way to understand policymaking. It involves the ability to generate and compare more than one way in which to interpret the world. So, we consider the advantages of different stories or ‘narratives’ of policymaking.

These stories are simple enough to generate research questions, answers, and profound insights, but each one does not give you the full picture.

It may be tempting to combine their insights to get that complete account of policymaking, but we will likely produce a more complicated, and sometimes contradictory, account without necessarily improving our knowledge (Cairney, 2013). So, instead of getting at the complete truth, we settle for juggling many simple stories and use them to interpret the world in different ways.

If these stories are only told between academics, they do not affect our object of study too much. We can focus on debating their relative merits with reference to a set of well-defined concepts, methods, and case studies.

However, if we find that policymakers and other participants tell similar or competing stories, we need to describe how we and they interpret this process, to determine if their story influences actual decisions and our understanding of them. To put it most simply, their decision to act according to one particular (and possibly mistaken) interpretation of their situation may not solve the problem they set, but it will affect the policy process, its outcomes, and the ways in which we interpret that process. In turn, our conversations with policymakers can produce some debate about the context, meaning, and impact of their decisions.
In the UK, this approach helps produce two main stories which may both be true and seem to contradict each other. Further the elements of each story may appear to be internally inconsistent because they are told by different people in different ways (box 16.1).

How can we make sense of such a situation? We demonstrate why it is valuable to entertain both stories. One represents the scale of the task of policymakers, while the other represents the ways in which policymakers interpret their world and try to operate within it. One is important to help explain the environment in which they operate, and another to explain the ways in which they navigate that environment, using simple stories and rules to turn complex government into manageable strategies. Their stories may not always reflect the reality we describe, but they become a form of reality as soon as they articulate and act on them. Policymakers might present a misleading gloss on their ability to control the policy process, but such stories are often necessary, resistant to change, and have an effect on policymaking and our perception of that process.

This dynamic influences the ways in which we can study and draw conclusions from UK policymaking: simultaneously, we identify cases which demonstrate the limits to and importance of central influence, as policymakers try in vain to exert control over the policy process and outcomes, but often have more success in describing their influence positively, to maintain a strong image of governing competence.
I use this storytelling approach to sum up the insights of the book. I begin by restating the two stories which tend to dominate UK political science in one form or another: a focus on electing a strong and decisive government in a Westminster system which tends to centralise power; qualified by the identification of complex government which limits the effects of that power.

I then discuss what happens when those stories collide: when policymakers need to find a way to balance a pragmatic approach to complexity and the need to describe their activities in a way that the public can understand and support. For example, do they try to take less responsibility for policy outcomes, to reflect their limited role in complex government, and/ or try to reassert central control, on the assumption that they may as well be more influential if they will be held responsible?
Finally, I discuss the implications for the study of UK public policy. Will we ever go beyond the same old phrases, such as that ministers are important but not the only important policymakers, that multi-level governance matters, that Parliament is more important than you think (if you don’t think much of its importance), and that policy dynamics vary markedly from issue to issue?

Full chapter: Cairney CONCLUSION Policy Policymaking UK 13.5.16

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Policy in 500 Words: if the policy cycle does not exist, what do we do?

It is easy to reject the empirical value of the policy cycle, but difficult to replace it as a practical tool. I identify the implications for students, policymakers, and the actors seeking influence in the policy process.


A policy cycle divides the policy process into a series of stages:

  • Agenda setting. Identifying problems that require government attention, deciding which issues deserve the most attention and defining the nature of the problem.
  • Policy formulation. Setting objectives, identifying the cost and estimating the effect of solutions, choosing from a list of solutions and selecting policy instruments.
  • Legitimation. Ensuring that the chosen policy instruments have support. It can involve one or a combination of: legislative approval, executive approval, seeking consent through consultation with interest groups, and referenda.
  • Implementation. Establishing or employing an organization to take responsibility for implementation, ensuring that the organization has the resources (such as staffing, money and legal authority) to do so, and making sure that policy decisions are carried out as planned.
  • Evaluation. Assessing the extent to which the policy was successful or the policy decision was the correct one; if it was implemented correctly and, if so, had the desired effect.
  • Policy maintenance, succession or termination. Considering if the policy should be continued, modified or discontinued.

Most academics (and many practitioners) reject it because it oversimplifies, and does not explain, a complex policymaking system in which: these stages may not occur (or occur in this order), or we are better to imagine thousands of policy cycles interacting with each other to produce less orderly behaviour and predictable outputs.

But what do we do about it?

The implications for students are relatively simple: we have dozens of concepts and theories which serve as better ways to understand policymaking. In the 1000 Words series, I give you 25 to get you started.

The implications for policymakers are less simple because they cycle may be unrealistic and useful. Stages can be used to organise policymaking in a simple way: identify policymaker aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is legitimised by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement and then evaluate the policy. The idea is simple and the consequent advice to policy practitioners is straightforward.  A major unresolved challenge for scholars and practitioners is to describe a more meaningful, more realistic, analytical model to policymakers and give advice on how to act and justify action in the same straightforward way. So, in this article, I discuss how to reconcile policy advice based on complexity and pragmatism with public and policymaker expectations.

The implications for actors trying to influence policymaking can be dispiriting: how can we engage effectively in the policy process if we struggle to understand it? So, in this page (scroll down – it’s long!), I discuss how to present evidence in complex policymaking systems.

Take home message for students. It is easy to describe then assess the policy cycle as an empirical tool, but don’t stop there. Consider how to turn this insight into action. First, examine the many ways in which we use concepts to provide better descriptions and explanations. Then, think about the practical implications. What useful advice could you give an elected policymaker, trying to juggle pragmatism with accountability? What strategies would you recommend to actors trying to influence the policy process?


Filed under 500 words, public policy

We are looking for a PhD student in politics & policy to study fracking

Hannes Stephan and I have secured internal funding for a 3-year PhD which pays £14,296 per year. The details of the advert are here and the wording of the bid is  here.

If you plan to apply, please pay close attention to the list of tasks that we identify. We are looking for someone with advanced training in more than one method, including survey design/ administration, social networks analysis, and discourse analysis. Ideally, you would also have a political (or, at least, social) science background. If not, have a think about the relevant perspectives or skills that you can bring from another discipline.

Of course, you would not be expected to be an expert already, and we (plus some of our colleagues at Stirling and elsewhere) will be there to help you develop your skills. However, we’d still be looking for someone with demonstrable training at a postgraduate level (rather than someone about to embark on an MSc).

You will also see that we describe the PhD in terms of ‘hitting the ground running’: we have an interest in the topic, have already done some work on it, and have set out many of our expectations (this is unusual for PhDs that I supervise, but not for PhDs in other sciences). This is a good thing in many ways, since you will already have a research question and a set of methods to adapt (something that otherwise takes a remarkable amount of time), but also something that limits your ambitions in the short term (certainly, when I did a PhD I pretty much chose something on my own, according to what interested me at the time).

To make up for the latter, I think it’s safe to say that (all going well, if we all live up to expectations, without prejudice, etc.) you will end up in an excellent position to further your career by 2019. All going well, I would expect us to publish together and make enough of an ‘impact’ to make you highly employable in academia (and beyond).

I can also teach you how to say a lot about something without revealing your personal/ political preferences, or to state stubbornly that they are not relevant/ anyone’s business (this will come in handy when people ask you if you are for/ against fracking). People get annoyed when you keep these things to yourself, but this is not the only benefit: there are some practical and intellectual advantages too.

If you have further questions, please feel free to email me or Dr Stephan.

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The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’: Implications for Public Service Delivery

The Scottish Government’s former Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Housden (2013) labelled the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ (SATP) as an alternative to the UK model of government. He described in broad terms the rejection of command-and-control policymaking and many elements of New Public Management driven delivery. Central to this approach is the potentially distinctive way in which it uses evidence to inform policy and policymaking and, therefore, a distinctive approach to leadership and public service delivery. Yet, there are three different models of evidence-driven policy delivery within the Scottish Government, and they compete with the centralist model, associated with democratic accountability, that must endure despite a Scottish Government commitment to its replacement. In this paper, I describe these models, identify their different implications for leadership and public service delivery, and highlight the enduring tensions in public service delivery when governments must pursue very different and potentially contradictory aims. Overall, the SATP may represent a shift from the UK model, but it is not a radical one.

Cairney QMU Leadership and SATP 11.5.16

The paper is to a workshop called ‘Leading Change in Public Services’, at Queen Margaret University, 13th June 2016.


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics

Let’s have another debate on Scottish independence just in case the hermits missed all the others

It did not take long for political parties and commentators to explain the Holyrood election result and state with incredible certainty what it means for the future of the Union. Yet, the election result did not really tell us anything more about the two things we already know:

First, in the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote next month. If most UK voters choose to leave the European Union, and most voters in Scotland vote to remain, we will have a constitutional crisis. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on Scottish independence, it will have the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and the only obstacle will be a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change! It is difficult to see why the Conservatives would bother to oppose a referendum under those circumstances.

Second, in the absence of this event and its consequences, we know that we are just killing a horrible amount of time until the next meaningful opportunity to vote on Scottish independence. In my mind, and assuming that the SNP continues to win elections in Scotland, the gap has always been about ten years: enough to give the sense that time has passed since the last vote, and see if you can produce a ‘generational’ change in attitudes; and, not too long for an independence-friendly party trying to keep it off the top of the agenda and its supporters happy.

So, if the main political parties were being completely honest, they would say that they are pretty much forced to (a) tread water until the referendum next month, then (b) wait for a very long time. Instead, we have the usual political posturing. Equal first prize must go to the Scottish Conservatives, now arguing that its ability to command 24% of Holyrood seats gives it a mandate as the protector of the Union, and the SNP which has signalled its intention to keep the debate going just in case ‘the leopard man’ has not heard about the issue. The parties know that the only other triggers of an early referendum – the SNP’s idea of checking the opinion polls, and the Scottish Greens’ mention of a petition with maybe 100,000 votes – are weak, and yet they feel they have to keep up the longest game of chicken in Scottish political history.

Similarly, it is too soon for commentators to argue that this election marks the complete transformation to identity politics in Scotland. It must be very tempting to argue simply that people vote SNP for independence and the Conservatives for the union, particularly since we all know that we are speculating just now anyway. Still, longer term, more detailed, analysis of trends in SNP support since 2007 suggests, very strongly, that the biggest factor has been ‘valence politics’. The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s belief in independence).

Similarly, the Conservatives went big on their leader (many of their promotional materials did not even mention the party) and used a proxy for governing competence – strong opposition – in the absence of the likelihood of them being in government. Labour may also have suffered because, compared to the SNP and Conservatives, its party and strategy seems shambolic. So, identity politics matters, as the factor which underpins core attitudes, but valence politics may better explain the trends in support for each party.

Still, perhaps the biggest lesson from this election is that if you are determined to make and act on this argument about identity politics you should do it well. The SNP and Conservatives did it well. In contrast, too many senior people in Scottish Labour – including Kezia Dugdale on Good Morning Scotland, and Anas Sarwar – expressed disappointment that the electorate did not think like them (a position criticised by people like John McTernan). The two biggest parties in the Scottish Parliament might be annoyingly narrow-minded, but at least they know what they are doing.




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