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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One response to “Two ways to understand policymaking in the UK

  1. Pingback: Is there any hope for evidence in emotional debates and chaotic government? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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