Monthly Archives: June 2016

What we know about consultation and policy-making

Here are some notes for today’s workshop on ‘consultation’, at the Law Reform and Public Policy Group, School of Law, University of Glasgow. I discuss key insights from policy theory, the idea of a ‘draft Act’, and how the ‘Scottish policy style’ fits into this discussion.

My second favourite phrase, as an undergraduate at Glasgow’s top University, was Brian Hogwood’s: ‘if consultation means everything, then maybe it means nothing’. It was a call to ‘unpack’ the term, whose meaning could range from cosmetic consultation in public to crucial interventions in private.

My first favourite was Grant Jordan and Jeremy Richardson’s ‘policy community’, which describes an important relationship between policymakers and some of the actors they consult (see also ‘informal governance’, including Alison Woodward’s example of the ‘velvet triangle’). The logic is as follows:

1. Policymakers are subject tobounded rationality’: they cannot process issues comprehensively. By necessity, they have to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty relates to the amount of information we have to inform policy and policymaking. Ambiguity relates to the way in which we understand policy problems. The policy process is therefore about (1) the short cuts that policymakers use to gather information and understand complex issues, and (2) the ways in which policy participants compete to determine which information is used and how policymakers understand problems.

2. Policymakers and key actors form policy networks or communities. To deal with bounded rationality, they delegate responsibility to civil servants who, in turn, rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade information for access to government. This process often becomes routine: civil servants begin to trust and rely on certain organisations and they form meaningful relationships. If so, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist ‘policy communities’ that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement. Network theories tend to consider the key implications, including a tendency for governments to contain ‘silos’ and struggle to ‘join up’ government when policy is made in so many different places.

3. Note the relevance to our current focus on ‘evidence-based policymaking. In most cases, policymakers use consultation to reduce uncertainty: they gather information to help identify the size of a problem on which they already have a view. In some, they use it to reduce ambiguity: only some actors will influence how they understand and try to solve a policy problem, and therefore what further information they will seek.

4. Note the importance of pluralist democracy to some policymakers. Consider the implications of bounded rationality to democracy: we put our faith in representative democracy, but ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities. A lot of practical responsibility is in the hands of civil servants, who partly seek legitimacy by consulting far and wide, to generate the ‘ownership’ of policy among key actors, professional groups, and perhaps ‘civil society’. This takes place well before, for example, a government presents a draft Act to Parliament and, in many cases, it produces policy without subsequent reference to Parliament.

If you put all these things together, you can see the importance of different kinds of consultation.

Consider a simple spectrum of consultation. At one end is cosmetic consultation: policymakers are paying high attention and they already know how they feel about a problem. So, they consult as part of a ‘standard operating procedure’ in which governments seek legitimacy, but the consultation will not influence their decision. Perhaps it comes towards the end of their deliberations.

At the other end is super-meaningful consultation, but perhaps with a small number of key people: they get together regularly, identify the issues that deserve most attention, and agree on how to ‘frame’ or understand the problem.

So, in our discussions, we might discuss how a range of activities fit in: the ‘trawling’ exercises to gain as many views as possible; working groups to generate questions for consultation; commissions to process rather technical looking issues, generally out of the public spotlight; other ‘pre-consultation’ with key actors before public consultation; and so on.

You can also see how the ‘Scottish Policy Style’ or ‘Scottish Approach’ fits in

We talk about a distinctive Scottish style or approach or system, but within the context that I describe above. There are three key reference points:

  1. Cultural. In the olden days we talked of new Scottish politics versus old Westminster: Scottish policymaking would be more consensual and participative; the Scottish Government would share power with the Scottish Parliament; the Parliament would be the hub for much consultation, or at least oversee the Scottish Government process; the Parliament would have a better gender balance; and, policymakers would not simply consult the ‘usual suspects’.
  2. Practical. In reality, most explanations for a Scottish policymaking culture relate to size and scale: it is easier for senior policymakers to form personal networks with key actors in interest and professional groups and with leaders of public bodies; and, a government with relatively low capacity relies relatively highly on external sources of information and advice.
  3. Storytelling. Note that the Scottish Government tells a particular story about its approach, built on high consultation and trust in public bodies, stakeholders and service users, which informs its approach to evidence gathering and policy delivery: the Scottish Approach to Policymaking.

An agenda for the study of consultation in Scotland

It is useful to talk of a Scottish style of consultation, but investigate rather than assume its distinctiveness, and to interpret that distinctiveness rather than assume it relates broadly to a Scottish political culture.

This is true even before we consider consultation in a multi-level system, of which the Scottish Government is one of many governments that groups may want to consult.

I usually do this research through interviews with pressure participants and civil servants, which often involves trying to separate the story we tell about Scotland (where everyone knows everyone else) from the other drivers for policy and policymaking (education, mental health legislation, general, more general, even more general).

Other methods worth discussing include consultation analysis (Darren Halpin used to analyse the number and types of responses to open consultations), networks analysis to gauge the interaction between policy makers and participants, and comparative analyses in which we examine, for example, the extent to which consultation on legal reform resembles that of other sectors. If not, what makes ‘the law’ distinctive?

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Policy bubbles and emotional policymaking

I am at a workshop today on policy ‘bubbles’, or (real and perceived) disproportionate policy responses. For Moshe Maor, a bubble describes an over-reaction to a problem, and a negative policy bubble describes under-reaction.

For Maor, this focus on bubbles is one way into our increasing focus on the role of emotion in policymaking: we pay disproportionate attention to problems, and try to solve some but not others, based on the ways in which we engage emotionally with information.

This focus on psychology is, I think, gaining a lot of traction in political science now, and I think it is crucial to explaining, for example, processes associated with ‘evidence-based policymaking’.

In taking this agenda forward, there remain some outstanding issues:

How much of the psychology literature is already reflected in policy studies? For example, see the social construction of target populations (emotion-driven treatment of social groups), ACF (on loss aversion and the devil shift), and the NPF (telling stories to exploit cognitive biases).

What insights remain untapped from key fields such as organisational psychology? I’ll say more about this in a forthcoming post.

How can we study the psychology of policymaking? Most policy theory begins with some reference to bounded rationality, including PET and the identification of disproportionate information processing (policymakers pay disproportionate attention to some issues and ignore the rest). It is largely deductive then empirical: we make some logical steps about the implications of bounded rationality, then study the process in that light.

Similarly, I think most studies of emotion/ policymaking take insights from psychology (e.g. people value losses more than gains, or they make moral judgements then seek evidence to justify them) and then apply them indirectly to policymaking (asking, for example, what is the effect of prospect theory on the behaviour of coalitions).

Can we do more, by studying more directly the actions of policymakers rather than merely interpreting their actions? The problem, of course, is that few policymakers may be keen on engaging in the types of study (e.g. experiments with control groups) that psychologists have used to establish things like fluency effects.

How does policymaker psychology fit into broader explanations of policymaking? The psychology of policymakers is one part of the story. The other is the system or environment in which they operate. So, we have some choices to make about future studies. Some might ‘zoom in’ to focus on emotionally-driven policymaking in key actors, perhaps at the centre of government.

Others may ‘zoom out’. The latter may involve ascribing the same basic thought processes to a large number of actors, examining that process at a relatively abstract level. This is the necessary consequence of trying to account for the effects of a very large number of actors, and to take into account the role of a policymaking environment, only some of which is in the control of policymakers.

Can we really demonstrate disproportionate policy action? The idea of a proportionate policy response interests me, because I think it is always in the eye of the beholder. We make moral and other personal evaluative statements when we describe a proportionate solution in relation to the size of the problem.

For example, in tobacco policy, a well-established argument in public health is that a proportionate policy response to the health effects of smoking and passive smoking (a) has been 20-30 years behind the evidence in ‘leading countries’, and (b) has yet to happen in ‘laggard’ countries. The counterargument is that the identification of a problem does not necessitate the favoured public health solution (comprehensive tobacco control, towards the ‘endgame’ of zero smoking) because it involves major limits to personal liberties and choice.

Is emotion-driven policymaking necessarily a bad thing?

[excerpt from my 2014 PSA paper ] This is partly the focus of Alter and Oppenheimer (2008) when they argue that policymakers spend disproportionate amounts of money on risks with which they are familiar, at the expense of spending money on things with more negative effects, producing a ‘dramatic misallocation of funds’. They draw on Sunstein (2002), who suggests that emotional bases for attention to environmental problems from the 1970s prompted many regulations to be disproportionate to the risk involved. Further, Slovic’s work suggest that people’s feelings towards risk may even be influenced by the way in which it is described, for example as a percentage versus a 1 in X probability (Slovic, P. 2010: xxii).

Haidt (2001: 815) argues that a focus on psychology can be used to improve policymaking: the identification of the ‘intuitive basis of moral judgment’ can be used to help policymakers ‘avoid mistakes’ or allow people to develop ‘programs’ or an ‘environment’ to ‘improve the quality of moral judgment and behavior’. Similarly, Alter and Oppenheimer (2009: 232) worry about medical and legal judgements swayed by fluid diagnoses and stories.

These studies compare with arguments focusing on the positive role of emotions of decision-making, either individually (see Constantinescu, 2012, drawing on Frank, 1988 and Elster, 2000 on the decisions of judges) or as part of social groups, with emotional responses providing useful information in the form of social cues (Van Kleef et al, 2010).

Policy theory does not shy away from these issues. For example, Schneider and Ingram (2014) argue that the outcomes of social construction are often dysfunctional and not based on a well-reasoned, goal-oriented strategy: ‘Studies have shown that rules, tools, rationales and implementation structures inspired by social constructions send dysfunctional messages and poor choices may hamper the effectiveness of policy’. However, part of the value of policy theory is to show that policy results from the interaction of large numbers of people and institutions. So, the poor actions of one policymaker would not be the issue; we need to know more about the cumulative effect of individual emotional decision making in collective decision-making – not only in discrete organisations, but also networks and systems.

And finally: if it is a bad thing, should we do something about it?

Our choice is to find it interesting then go home (this might appeal to the academics) or try to limit the damage/ maximise the benefits of policymaker psychology to policy and society (this might appeal to practitioners). There is no obvious way to do something, though, is there?

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Brexit and the inevitability of Scottish Independence

image for POLU9SP

My gut says that there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence and that Yes will win comfortably. Yet, predicting political events and outcomes right now is like predicting the weather. The result is not inevitable, largely because the key factors prompting people to vote No have not gone away – and, in some ways, the No case is now stronger. I’ll explain this by (a) comparing the likely Yes and No stories during the next campaign, and (b) speculating wildly about the extent to which key parties will campaign as hard for No in the second referendum.

Brexit is a Godsend for the strongest Yes stories: 1. only independence can remove the democratic deficit and guarantee that we make our own decisions.

It sounds like the Brexit ‘take our country back’ story, in which a remote government in a remote city makes decisions on our behalf without us having any say (it’s ‘London’ for Scotland, whereas in England/ Wales it can be London or ‘Brussels’).

Yet, there are key differences: the SNP is pro-immigration (its nationalism is ‘civic’, not ‘ethnic’) and the ‘democratic deficit’ means something else. When applied to the EU, it means that (a) few people know how it works and who, if anyone, is accountable, and (b) that it is difficult to vote for EU policymakers in the same way as we vote for national governments.

When applied to Scotland, it means that most voters in Scotland have tended to vote Labour or SNP in Westminster elections, but they often get a UK Tory government. So, a government with no legitimacy in Scotland makes decisions on our behalf, and there is nothing the Scottish Government can do about it.

In the campaign for devolution, this story developed in opposition to the Thatcherite imposition of things like the poll tax. In the campaign for independence, the poll tax became the bedroom tax.

In the next campaign for independence, the Brexit vote will become an important symbol for this argument: we voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU and we are being dragged out against our will by England (and Wales).

I think this argument will win the day, for two reasons. First, most of the 45% who voted Yes in 2014 seem like a sure bet for the next vote. Second, there are some people who voted No on the assumption of remaining in the UK in the EU. They now have to choose between (a) in the UK and out of the EU, or (b) in the EU and out of the UK.

  1. Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice

Crucially, the Brexit is a godsend for the argument that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. It was too easy for opponents to argue in 2014 that nationalism was parochialism: by focusing on Scotland, you are removing yourself from the world. The counter-argument – let’s become independent to play a more positive role in that world – was relatively difficult to make.

Now, the door is open to argue that the Brexit vote reflects a Little England mentality, and that only Scottish independence offers the chance to cooperate fully with our European partners. In Scotland, cosmopolitan voters will share a campaign with nationalist voters.

Put these parts together and you have this story: independence is the only solution to being ruled from afar by the Tories who are determined (with the help of UKIP) to turn us into a Little England state which blames immigrants or the rest of the world for its problems.

Yet, the No story remains powerful too, for two original reasons and one new reason.

The No story: 1. Economic damage, uncertainty, and the currency issue

‘Better Together’ campaigned hard on the idea that a Yes vote will be economically damaging, producing a major government deficit in the short term with no guarantee of improvement in the long term (note that the rest of the UK is Scotland’s biggest trading partner, and we need their partnership). They also argued successfully that Scotland could no longer use Sterling if independent (which really meant that the Scottish Government would no longer enjoy the same crucial relationship with the Bank of England).

Most No voters will have felt good about their decision because the price of a barrel of oil plummeted after 2014, giving the impression that Scotland’s short term economic deficit would have been even higher. Further, the currency issue remains unresolved, and the main alternatives to using the pound with the UK Government/ BoE’s blessing (Sterlingisation, a Scottish pound, joining the Euro) still won’t seem like brilliant prospects to undecided voters.

The No story: 2. The Yes vote meant all things to all people.

A further No argument related to the idea that all sorts of people were making all sorts of claims about a future independent Scotland, and that they couldn’t all be right. The Scottish Government’s ‘White Paper’ was more sensible, but was still built on hope more than expectation. So, if you don’t share that optimism, it just looks like a long document designed to look professional and reassuring without really providing a blueprint for action or a measured set of expectations.

A third new part of the story: we now see what happens when you vote to leave (and it’s bad)

The biggest effect of the Brexit on the No story is that we can already see what happens when people vote to leave a political union:

(1) We immediately see that people were making all sorts of promises that they couldn’t keep, and/ or that key people backtrack very quickly (examples after the Brexit vote include the ridiculous £350m for the NHS claim, and the now more modest claims about immigration). It’s easy to say what you are leaving behind, but not what you will do instead.

(2) We immediately see some frightening economic consequences.

(3) We are about to discover how our former political partners will react, and it doesn’t look like they’ll simply hug us and wish us all the best.

So, (4) the No campaign will be about emphasising this uncertainty and the poor consequences of political divorce as they are happening in real time.

In the end, it comes down to who will tell these Yes/ No stories and how well they do it

The main problem for a new No campaign is that I don’t think it will have the same backing. In the first campaign, almost all of the main parties against independence signed up to a common project. Yet, it was damaging to Scottish Labour and I doubt they’ll sign up a second time to represent the ‘Red Tories’, particularly since many members will vote Yes next time.

It will be largely down to Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives, who campaigned in 2016 as the SNP’s main opposition and the defenders of the UK. Although they did pretty well in the Holyrood elections, pretty well means 23% of the vote.

In contrast, the SNP is a highly professional outfit, which lost a referendum but gained a huge membership, has a very popular leadership, and still enjoys an incredibly strong image of governing competence (particularly for a party in government for 9 years).

If you want to put it more simply and to personalise the next campaign, I simply say this:

Nicola Sturgeon has already perfected the look of someone pissed off with UK Government incompetence, reluctantly proposing a second referendum to deal with the mess, and able to reject most arguments about economic and political uncertainty as bloody rich coming from the people who just voted to leave the EU. Salmond might have looked too (‘I told you so’) smug to pull it off, but Sturgeon looks genuinely annoyed rather than opportunistic.

Who can perform the same function for the No side? There are almost no London-based politicians that could generate the same kind of respect that Sturgeon enjoys. Ruth Davidson is the next best thing, but she will spend a fair amount of each debate being a bit embarrassed about the situation in which she finds herself, through no fault of her own.

So, the irony may be that No has, in some ways, a stronger case in the second referendum but a far lower chance of success: it will lose because there will be no-one out there able to tell the No story.

This emphasis on telling simple stories well matters more than we would like to admit. The facts don’t speak for themselves: you turn them into a story to engage with people’s existing biases and tendency to base decisions on very little information.  So, who will tell and listen to the No story the next time around?

See also:

We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

Heresthetics and referendums

I also wrote a million posts on the last Scottish referendum

 

 

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Wham! A history of the UK in the EU

wham

There is a spooky parallel between the Wham! story and the UK’s involvement in the European Union. To truly appreciate it, you have to listen to all of the relevant songs in their entirety and not worry too much about the details (e.g. the years).

  1. The UK’s entry into the EU was subject to intense debate (Album: Fantastic)

One side portrayed the positive case a bit too strongly, as Club Tropicana, in which drinks (i.e. the wine lake) were free and membership was a smiling face (e.g. smiling at the thought of common regulations).

The other side couldn’t think of anything worse than ‘death by matrimony’ (i.e. at the coercive effects of a union).

2. Some choppy years (Album: Make it Big)

Some supporters began to worry about missing it when you hit that high (i.e. the fast pace of neofunctionalism without sufficient UK attention) while making it clear that they weren’t planning on going solo (i.e. EU withdrawal).

However, by this time, opposition was hardening. Critics of the EU made some strong statements about her wanting everything she sees (i.e. there being no limits to European integration), the need to work constantly to Give you money, All to give you money (ooh) (i.e. pay millions of pounds per day to the EU), and the immense disappointment at hearing about having a baby (i.e. EU expansion) coupled with a passive aggressive statement about expressing happiness under duress (i.e. you can’t complain about the EU to the PC brigade).

Still, during this period, stoicism won out. Eurosceptics were worried about hearing some stories about another lover (i.e. secret negotiations about more expansion) but they still didn’t want their freedom. Girl, all they wanted then was you (i.e. to retain membership in the hope of better relations – doo, doo, dooo).

3. A reframed relationship (Album: Music From the Edge of Heaven)

By the New Labour years, a new story emerged, based on the phrase If you’re gonna do it, do it right – right? Do it with me (i.e. it’s time for the UK to show leadership and set the EU agenda).

However, the general feeling is that this effort was in vain, and that giving EU my heart came with the risk of the very next day EU giving it away.

By then, Eurosceptics had had enough, describing sarcastically the EU’s designer clothes (bought with a UK subsidy), signalling a desire to say Au revoir, mon amour (again, sarcastically, in pigeon French), and hinting at the hope of splitting up to avoid your mind games while still sometimes having sex (i.e. let’s have a trade agreement without political union).

4. The solo years

By this time, George Michael was getting freaked out about his predictive powers, going solo to see if he could break the spell. He knew that the gift was still there when he predicted that the bankers and big business would get away with their role in the financial crisis

Then, much like Christopher Walken in the Dead Zone, he couldn’t keep quiet when he saw what was coming during the Brexit referendum. His last good song, Freedom, was a scathing criticism of the idea of state independence in an interdependent world, coupled with the prediction of a campaign based on – albeit uncoordinated – falsehoods and false hope.

George’s final word on the subject is that,  All we have to do now Is take these lies and make them true somehow. It is a tale of making the best of bad situations; a message of hope in a bleak future.

George’s only complaint by the end was that very few people heeded his warnings, preferring instead to hold on to the misguided belief that these were nothing more than catchy pop songs. Where would we be today if more people had listened to George?

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We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

A key theme of some of the early analysis of Brexit is that many voters followed their feelings rather than paying attention to facts*.

For some people, this is just a part of life: to describe decision-making as ‘rational’ is to deny the inevitable use of heuristics, gut feelings, emotions, and deeply held beliefs.

For others, it is indicative of a worrying ‘post-truth politics’, or a new world in which campaigners play fast and loose with evidence and say anything to win, while experts are mistrusted and ignored or excluded from debates, and voters don’t get the facts they need to make informed decisions.

One solution, proposed largely by academics (many of whom are highly critical of the campaigns) is largely institutional: let’s investigate the abuse of facts during the referendum to help us produce new rules of engagement.

Another is more pragmatic: let’s work out how to maximise the effectiveness of experts and evidence in political debate. So far, we know more about what doesn’t work. For example:

  • Don’t simply supply people with more information when you think they are not paying enough attention to it. Instead, try to work out how they think, to examine how they are likely to demand and interpret information.
  • Don’t just bemoan the tendency of people to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Instead, try to work out how to produce evidence-based stories that can compete for attention with those of campaigners.
  • Don’t stop at providing simpler and more accessible information. People might be more likely to read a blog post than a book or lengthy report, but most people are likely to remain blissfully unaware of most academic blogs.

I’m honestly not sure how to tell good stories to capture the public imagination (beyond that time I put the word ‘shite’ in a title) but, for example, we have a lot to learn from traditional media (and from some of the most effective academics who write for them) and from scholars who study story-telling and discourse (although, ironically, discourse analysis is often one of the most jargon-filled areas in the Academy).

We have been here before (in policy studies)

This issue of agenda setting is a key feature in current discussions of (the alleged lack of) evidence-based policymaking. Many academics, in areas such as health and environmental policy, bemoan the inevitability of ‘policy based evidence’. Some express the naïve view that policymakers should think like scientists and/ or that evidence-based policymaking should be more like the idea of evidence-based medicine in which there is a hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to facts.

Yet, a more pragmatic solution is to work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the policymaking context in which they operate. Only then can we produce evidence-based strategies based on how the world works rather than how we would like it to work.

See also:

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking:3 messages

Evidence-based policymaking: lecture and Q&A

‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ and the Study of Public Policy

Paul Cairney (2016) The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking (London: Palgrave Pivot) PDF

Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, Early View (forthcoming) DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF

* Then, many people on twitter vented their negative feelings about other people expressing their feelings.

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Heresthetics and referendums

Heresthetic(s) describes the importance of the order of choice on political choices. The Scottish referendum process could become a brilliant example ….

William Riker invented the term heresthetics (or heresthetic) to describe the importance of a particular kind of manipulation:

one can help produce a particular choice if one can determine the context of, or order in which people make, choices.

Put simply, if you want to make something happen, it may be better to influence the institutions in which people make decisions, or frame issues to determine which particular aspect of a problem to which people pay attention, than change their minds about their preferences.

The prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence could provide a nice, simple, example of this process.

Ideally, you would want to know about people’s preferences in considerable detail. After all, life is more complicated than binary choices suggest, and people are open to compromise. Yet, we tend to produce very simple binary referendums because they would otherwise be very difficult for most of the public to understand or for policymakers to interpret.

So, the way in which we simply that choice matters (for example, in Scotland, it led to the rejection of a third option – super dee duper mega max devolution – on the ballot paper, and therefore limited the choices of people who might have that third option as their first preference).

So too does the way in which we make several simple choices in a particular order.

Imagine a group of people – crucial to the outcome – whose main preference is that Scotland stays inside the UK in the EU:

  1. In a referendum in which Scotland votes first, this group votes No to Scottish independence on the assumption that the result will best reflect their preferences (helping produce 55% No).
  2. In a referendum in which Scotland votes after the UK (and the UK votes to leave the EU), many people will change their choice even if they have not changed their preferences (they would still prefer to be in the UK and EU, but that is no longer an option). So, some will choose to be in the UK out of the EU, but others will choose out of the UK and in the EU.

So, the order of choice, and the conditions under which we make choices, matters even when people have the same basic preferences. The people who voted No in the first referendum may vote Yes in the second, but still say that their initial choice was correct under the circumstances (and quite right too). Or, there may not be a second opportunity to choose.

This dynamic of choice is true even before we get into the more emotional side (some people will feel let down by the argument that a No vote was to stay in the EU).

Further reading:

If you want the Scottish argument in a less dispassionate form, read this by Alan Massie. If you want something more concise, see this tweet:

If you want more on heresthetic, google William Riker and take it from there.

Or, have a look at my series on policymaking. In two-dozen different ways, these posts identify these issues of framing, rules, and the order of choice. Search, for example, for ‘path dependence’ which describes the often profound long term effects of events and decisions made in a particular order in the past.

Note, of course, that only some choice situations are open to direct manipulation. In our case, I don’t think anyone managed to produce a Leave vote in the EU referendum to get a second crack at Scottish independence 😉

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It is weird to blame David Cameron for a vote in a referendum

I argued last week that we should take a minute to celebrate the principle of a referendum because it’s as close as we’ll get to direct democracy in action.

This morning, very few people on my twitter timeline agree (presumably because I tend to follow people who voted Remain). Many blame David Cameron for holding the referendum in the first place.

For me, this is a weird argument because it suggests that representative democracy, in which we elect people to make decisions for us, always trumps direct democracy, in which we signal our decisions directly. It is the ‘government knows best’ mentality that many people would be quick to criticise in other cases (such as when the government makes unpopular choices).

So, I wonder if the argument is as simple as: I blame Cameron for the referendum because it delivered a result that I oppose.

The reality is that almost 52% voted to leave the EU, and it would be ridiculous to blame Cameron for the views of 17,410,742 people.

It seems to be problematic to blame Cameron for not showing enough leadership to either:

(a) ignore strong demands for a referendum (wouldn’t we normally blame elites for being elitist if they took this stance?)

(b) win the argument (didn’t he seem like the person most committed to Remain throughout the campaign, backed by major speechwriting resources?)

(c) make sure that the referendum didn’t provide a forum in which others could stir up division and fear, and lie about the likely outcomes (shouldn’t we blame people like Nigel Farage instead?).

So, in a week in which many of us have begun to call for more respect for hard working politicians, I suggest that we at least give some respect to Cameron for his efforts before we write him off as a dud.

 

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Brexit: What next for Scotland?

Only hours after the Brexit result, we are already talking about the future of Scotland in the UK.

The theme of almost all commentary so far is that we don’t know what will happen next. For example, Craig McAngus describes the need to weigh up a moment of opportunity with the great uncertainty about the likelihood of a Yes vote this time. I make a similar argument in the Conversation (reproduced below) about Salmond’s phrase ‘Scotland being dragged out of the European Union’:

“The truth is that we don’t know what will happen in Scotland following the Brexit referendum, even though it is tempting to say that Scottish independence now seems inevitable. And, dare I say it, this is possibly the worst time – immediately after an emotionally draining campaign and result – in which to deliberate and come to a decision.

Certainly, the UK vote provides the only plausible trigger, in the short term, to have a second referendum on Scottish independence. For some time, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has argued that, if most voters in Scotland vote to stay in, and most voters in the UK overall vote to leave, it would prompt SNP demands for the second referendum. At the time of writing, this case couldn’t seem symbolically stronger: the vote to leave is 52% across the UK, but in Scotland 62% voted to Remain.

Yet, it is too soon to tell if today’s result will prompt a major and sustained upswing in support for independence. This is partly because it is also too soon to predict Scotland’s place in EU negotiations. The second referendum story requires a heroic and cosmopolitan Scotland fighting to leave the parochial UK to remain in the EU. So, we first need to know Scotland’s likely status in the EU before we can identify the heroes and villains of our next story”.

See also:

EU referendum result: Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland sees its future as part of the EU as Brexit confirmed

SNP Government will seek Scots EU deal

Sturgeon: Vote makes clear Scotland sees its future in EU

 

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Celebrate the referendum, and celebrate politics, even if it looks crap

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It’s hard to find anyone to say a good word about the UK’s referendum on EU membership. Yet, we should take a minute to celebrate, at the very least, the principle of a referendum. In principle, we’ll have most of the voting public coming together to make a decision on a matter of major importance to British politics. Leaders make their pitch, and we make an important choice. It’s as close as we’ll get to direct democracy in action.

Instead, it’s tempting to blame the referendum for such a bad-looking outcome: manipulative campaigners are stirring up division and fear, and lying about the likely outcomes; people with limited knowledge are basing their decisions on their values and emotions in the relative absence of ‘facts’; and, some people are exploiting the opportunity to be abusive or violent in the name of politics. Or, to put it in a far vaguer way, there is a bad ‘climate’ associated with the referendum, and it just doesn’t feel right.

However, if this is what we think of political elite behaviour, and of the limits to the knowledge and deliberative capacity of the public, I can’t think of any political mechanism that would help. For example:

  1. With representative democracy, we’d have 5-year elections in which people make uninformed choices about parties doing anything to get elected.
  2. With pluralist democracy, we’d have governments selling favours to vested interests.
  3. When developing new forms of accountability, we’d have fat cat quango chief executives lining their own pockets at the public’s expense, local community councils and partnerships manipulating processes to make sure that nothing bad happens in their own back yard, and service users cheating the system to get better public services than other people – and all of this would be overseen by parliamentarians and other politicians who don’t give a shit.

Consider the consequences of rejecting referendums

I think we often think the worst of people, and despair of certain political mechanisms, when they don’t deliver what we want. We fear the consequences of political outcomes that don’t reflect our values or interests and – particularly during a heated referendum in which so many people are involved – get a bit of a shock when we see how many people hold opposing views so passionately. For the people most engaged in debate, this can be a visceral experience that reduces our ability to take a step back and give us more time to consider events and their meaning.

Perhaps a small part of us thinks that our opponents are idiots, or at least that they would change their minds if they were more informed, less stupid, less emotional, and less vulnerable to manipulation by political leaders (and that the people who share our views are heroic deliberators basing their decisions on evidence).

If so, it might be safer and less worrying to hold on to political mechanisms which limit such debates, but only when the status quo suits us. When it reinforces a position to which we oppose, we are more likely to be up in arms, decrying the ability of a political class to close off debate, for their own interests, using institutions, biased arguments, and other resources to boost their power.

Instead, I recommend two things:

  1. Blame the worst offenders by name, rather than the mechanisms they use to get what they want.
  2. Consider how to make decisions by combining emotions and evidence.

 

Of course, this has been a big set-up for further reading:

There are some good concepts which help us think through these issues:

On the links between power and policymaking

On ‘framing’ to manipulate political debate and policy choices

On the role of institutions and ‘standard operating procedures’ to (for example) help close off debate

On the networks of influence in which only some people are members (in any political system)

On multi-level governance, complexity, and complex government (to show us that, while the EU looks distant and hard to understand, the UK suffers many of the same problems)

On the role of emotion and ‘irrationality’ versus evidence in politics and policymaking

(If you just want a source for the picture see here)

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How can we close the ‘cultural’ gap between the policymakers and scientists who ‘just don’t get it’?

policymaker scientist culture

There are many polite and optimistic studies of the cultural gap between policymakers and scientists. They recommend things like academic-practitioner workshops and knowledge brokers to generate a common language or shared set of policy aims.

The audience for these recommendations is, I think, academics and policymakers who are reasonable and empathetic, already with the ability to recognise the motivations of each other and adapt their strategies accordingly.

Yet, you will also find many examples of unreasonable actors who simply bemoan the fact that other people ‘just don’t get it’ (which really means that other people don’t think like them). How do we get them together?

A common solution proposed by scientists is to make sure that more policymakers are trained in science and that they consult routinely with scientists – but what are the equivalent solutions for scientists? Possible options include:

Retirement. We could wait for one generation of scientists to retire and be replaced by a new generation of scientists with more training in policy engagement.

Early training. We could incorporate more knowledge of policymaking into PhD and early career training, perhaps supplemented by placements in government to see how it works.

Identify specific people. Not everyone should, wants or needs to, engage with policymakers. Instead, maybe we can find simple heuristics to find the people most willing and able to go out of their comfort zone while presenting information outside the Academy. My favourite shortest short cut is to identify people who have written at least twice for The Conversation (by the second one, you accept that you might be simplifying your argument, working with an editor changing your argument, and/or likely to see a click-bait title change at the last minute).

Simple strategies for most people. In the absence of selection, we might simply encourage awareness about the most effective ways in which to present information to busy policymakers. This largely involves using evidence to answer at least two of three questions – what is the problem, why should I care, and what should I do? – preferably in one page of A4 or less. If you don’t do it, someone else (with less evidence and/or a poorer grasp of it) will.

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There is no blueprint for evidence-based policy, so what do you do?

In my speech to COPOLAD I began by stating that, although we talk about our hopes for evidence-based policy and policymaking (EBP and EBPM), we don’t really know what it is.

I also argued that EBPM is not like our image of evidence-based medicine (EBM), in which there is a clear idea of: (a) which methods/ evidence counts, and (b) the main aim, to replace bad interventions with good.

In other words, in EBPM there is no blueprint for action, either in the abstract or in specific cases of learning from good practice.

To me, this point is underappreciated in the study of EBPM: we identify the politics of EBPM, to highlight the pathologies of/ ‘irrational’ side to policymaking, but we don’t appreciate the more humdrum limits to EBPM even when the political process is healthy and policymakers are fully committed to something more ‘rational’.

Examples from best practice

The examples from our next panel session* demonstrated these limitations to EBPM very well.

The panel contained four examples of impressive policy developments with the potential to outline good practice on the application of public health and harm reduction approaches to drugs policy (including the much-praised Portuguese model).

However, it quickly became apparent that no country-level experience translated into a blueprint for action, for some of the following reasons:

  • It is not always clear what problems policymakers have been trying to solve.
  • It is not always clear how their solutions, in this case, interact with all other relevant policy solutions in related fields.
  • It is difficult to demonstrate clear evidence of success, either before or after the introduction of policies. Instead, most policies are built on initial deductions from relevant evidence, followed by trial-and-error and some evaluations.

In other words, we note routinely the high-level political obstacles to policy emulation, but these examples demonstrate the problems that would still exist even if those initial obstacles were overcome.

A key solution is easier said than done: if providing lessons to others, describe it systematically, in a form that describes the steps to take to turn this model into action (and in a form that we can compare with other experiences). To that end, providers of lessons might note:

  • The problem they were trying to solve (and how they framed it to generate attention, support, and action, within their political systems)
  • The detailed nature of the solution they selected (and the conditions under which it became possible to select that intervention)
  • The evidence they used to guide their initial policies (and how they gathered it)
  • The evidence they collected to monitor the delivery of the intervention, evaluate its impact (was it successful?), and identify cause and effect (why was it successful?)

Realistically this is when the process least resembles (the ideal of) EBM because few evaluations of success will be based on a randomised control trial or some equivalent (and other policymakers may not draw primarily on RCT evidence even when it exists).

Instead, as with much harm reduction and prevention policy, a lot of the justification for success will be based on a counterfactual (what would have happened if we did not intervene?), which is itself based on:

(a) the belief that our object of policy is a complex environment containing many ‘wicked problems’, in which the effects of one intervention cannot be separated easily from that of another (which makes it difficult, and perhaps even inappropriate, to rely on RCTs)

(b) an assessment of the unintended consequence of previous (generally more punitive) policies.

So, the first step to ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is to make a commitment to it. The second is to work out what it is. The third is to do it in a systematic way that allows others to learn from your experience.

The latter may be more political than it looks: few countries (or, at least, the people seeking re-election within them) will want to tell the rest of the world: we innovated and we don’t think it worked.

*I also discuss this problem of evidence-based best practice within single countries

 

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Politics and law-making in the Scottish Parliament

These are some notes for my short talk to the Scottish Public Law Group Annual Conference on the 13th June 2016. My session includes Andy Beattie, Chief Parliamentary Counsel (role includes drafting Scottish Government legislation) and Lynda Towers (former solicitor to the Scottish Parliament). So, as the only non-lawyer in the building, I am largely there as the entertainment. Or, in the more formal legal language of the invite, providing ‘reflections on the influence/impact of minority government on law/policy making, in addition to a more general policy/political studies perspective on law-making at Holyrood’.

I’d like to keep my discussion short, so will make a small number of points:

  1. The uncertain importance of new politics.

In the olden days (1999), people talked about the Scottish Parliament and its committees representing the heart of ‘new Scottish Politics’. The phrase accompanied a vague suggestion about ‘power sharing’ and the committees having a more important role than their Westminster counterparts. Some of this related to necessity, and you can see the results (e.g. there is no second chamber, so they ‘front loaded’ the legislative process). Some of it related to vague hopes for a new culture of policymaking, and you struggle to see the results.

  1. The importance of draft Acts.

The old literature on UK politics (on ‘policy communities’) talks about the political importance of draft Acts: by the time a bill gets to Parliament, the government (and its allies, involved in negotiating the policy in the draft) does not want to change it. It can modify at the margins, but a major change to the bill will necessitate more negotiation as well as more drafting. I think you can see this play out under ‘normal’ conditions: a government will signal which parts of the bill it can be flexible with, and the parts it will try to protect almost unchanged.

  1. The meaning of high quality legislation.

I was struck by Andy Beattie’s reference (in his slides) to ‘Drafting legislation to: deliver Scottish Government policy; and, secure the Scottish Parliament’s reputation for making high quality law which serves the people of Scotland well’. We might discuss two criteria for ‘high quality’ which don’t always mix well: one is the professional/ technical criteria reflecting the skill in turning broad policy aims into specific laws and regulations; another is the political criteria reflecting the chance for Parliament to debate and change legislation when introduced. Maybe they don’t always rub up badly against each other, but the thing that would possibly help – ‘pre-legislative scrutiny’ or engagement – often seems as or more visible in ‘old Westminster’.

  1. The impact of minority government.

Put simply, I didn’t see much difference during the last phase of minority government. There were two clear examples of major legislation not brought forward (on a referendum on independence, and on local income tax) and one important rejected section (on the minimum unit price of alcohol), but these examples related largely to temporary party politics rather than the more enduring government-legislature relationship.

  1. The importance of ‘anticipated reactions’.

A key argument (made most strongly about Westminster) is that the power of Parliaments comes in the actions of ministers and civil servants. We talk of ‘anticipated reactions’ to describe the lengths that the government takes to ensure that the legislation it drafts will not be vulnerable to too much parliamentary opposition. This seems important, but so too does the need for government and parliament actors to tell that story because it suits almost everyone involved.

 

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What does it take to turn scientific evidence into policy? Lessons for illegal drugs from tobacco

This post contains preliminary notes for my keynote speech ‘The politics of evidence-based policymaking’ for the COPOLAD annual conference, ‘From evidence to practice: challenges in the field of drugs policies’ (14th June). I may amend them in the run up to the speech (and during their translation into Spanish).

COPOLAD (Cooperation Programme on Drugs Policies) is a ‘partnership cooperation programme between the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean countries aiming at improving the coherence, balance and impact of drugs policies, through the exchange of mutual experiences, bi-regional coordination and the promotion of multisectoral, comprehensive and coordinated responses’. It is financed by the EU.

My aim is to draw on policy studies, and the case study of tobacco/ public health policy, to identify four lessons:

  1. ‘Evidence-based policymaking’ is difficult to describe and understand, but we know it’s a highly political process which differs markedly from ‘evidence based medicine’.
  2. Actors focus as much on persuasion to reduce ambiguity as scientific evidence to reduce uncertainty. They also develop strategies to navigate complex policymaking ‘systems’ or ‘environments’.
  3. Tobacco policy demonstrates three conditions for the proportionate uptake of evidence: it helps ‘reframe’ a policy problem; it is used in an environment conducive to policy change; and, policymakers exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ for change.
  4. Even the ‘best cases’ of tobacco control highlight a gap of 20-30 years between the production of scientific evidence and a proportionate policy response. In many countries it could be 50. I’ll use this final insight to identify some scenarios on how evidence might be used in areas, such as drugs policy, in which many of the ‘best case’ conditions are not met.

‘Evidence-based policymaking’ is highly political and difficult to understand

Evidence-based policymaking (EBPM) is so difficult to understand that we don’t know how to define it or each word in it! People use phrases like ‘policy-based evidence’, to express cynicism about the sincere use of evidence to guide policy, or ‘evidence informed policy’, to highlight its often limited impact. It is more important to try to define each element of EBPM – to identify what counts as evidence, what is policy, who are the policymakers, and what an ‘evidence-based’ policy would look like – but this is easier said than done.

In fact, it is far easier to say what EBPM is not:

It is not ‘comprehensively rational’

Comprehensive rationality’ describes, in part, the absence of ambiguity and uncertainty:

  • Policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner – they know what they want and about the problem they seek to solve.
  • Policymakers and governments can gather and understand all information required to measure the problem and determine the effectiveness of solutions.

Instead, we talk of ‘bounded rationality’ and how policymakers deal with it. They employ two kinds of shortcut: ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds and sources of information, and ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, habits, and what is familiar to them, to make decisions quickly.

It does not take place in a policy cycle with well-ordered stages

Policy cycle’ describes the ides that there is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, and pursuing their goals in a series of clearly defined and well-ordered stages, such as: agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, and evaluation.

It does not describe or explain policymaking well. Instead, we tend to identify the role of environments or systems.

When describing less ordered and predictable policy environments, we describe:

  • a wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government
  • a proliferation of rules and norms followed by different levels or types of government
  • important relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors (with material resources, or the ability to represent a profession or social group)
  • a tendency for certain ‘core beliefs’ or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  • shifting policy conditions and events that can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

When describing complex policymaking systems we show that, for example, (a) the same inputs of evidence or policy activity can have no, or a huge, effect, and (b) policy outcomes often ‘emerge’ in the absence of central government control (which makes it difficult to know how, and to whom, to present evidence or try to influence).

It does not resemble ‘evidence based medicine’ or the public health culture

In health policy we can identify an aim, associated with ‘evidence-based medicine’ (EBM), to:

(a) gather the best evidence on the effectiveness of policy interventions, based on a hierarchy of research methods which favours, for example, the systematic review of randomised control trials (RCTs)

(b) ensure that this evidence has a direct impact on healthcare and public health, to exhort practitioners to replace bad interventions with good, as quickly as possible.

Instead, (a) policymakers can ignore the problems raised by scientific evidence for long periods of time, only for (b) their attention to lurch, prompting them to beg, borrow, or steal information quickly from readily available sources. This can involve many sources of evidence (such as the ‘grey literature’) that some scientists would not describe as reliable.

Actors focus as much on persuasion to reduce ambiguity as scientific evidence to reduce uncertainty.

In that context, ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is about framing problems and adapting to complexity.

Framing refers to the ways in which policymakers understand, portray, and categorise issues. Problems are multi-faceted, but bounded rationality limits the attention of policymakers, and actors compete to highlight one ‘image’ at the expense of others. The outcome of this process determines who is involved (for example, portraying an issue as technical limits involvement to experts), who is responsible for policy, how much attention they pay, their demand for evidence on policy solutions, and what kind of solution they favour.

Scientific evidence plays a part in this process, but we should not exaggerate the ability of scientists to win the day with reference to evidence. Rather, policy theories signal the strategies that actors adopt to increase demand for their evidence:

  • to combine facts with emotional appeals, to prompt lurches of policymaker attention from one policy image to another (punctuated equilibrium theory)
  • to tell simple stories which are easy to understand, help manipulate people’s biases, apportion praise and blame, and highlight the moral and political value of solutions (narrative policy framework)
  • to interpret new evidence through the lens of the pre-existing beliefs of actors within coalitions, some of which dominate policy networks (advocacy coalition framework)
  • to produce a policy solution that is feasible and exploit a time when policymakers have the opportunity to adopt it (multiple streams analysis).

This takes place in complex ‘systems’ or ‘environments’

A focus on this bigger picture shifts our attention from the use of evidence by an elite group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’ to its use by a wide range of influential actors in a multi-level policy process. It shows actors that:

  • They are competing with many others to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience.
  • Support for particular solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem.
  • Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others
  • There is a language – indicating which ideas, beliefs, or ways of thinking are most accepted by policymakers and their stakeholders – that takes time to learn.
  • Well-established beliefs provide the context for policymaking: new evidence on the effectiveness of a policy solution has to be accompanied by a shift of attention and successful persuasion.
  • In some cases, social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, and some forms of evidence can be used to encourage that shift. However, major policy shifts are rare.

In other words, successful actors develop pragmatic strategies based on the policy process that exists, not the process they’d like to see

We argue that successful actors: identify where the ‘action is’ (in networks and organisations in several levels of government); learn and follow the ‘rules of the game’ within networks to improve strategies and help build up trust; form coalitions with actors with similar aims and beliefs; and, frame the evidence to appeal to the biases, beliefs, and priorities of policymakers.

Tobacco policy demonstrates three conditions for the proportionate uptake of evidence

Case studies allow us to turn this general argument into insights generated from areas such as public health.

There are some obvious and important differences between tobacco and (illegal) drugs policies, but an initial focus on tobacco allows us to consider the conditions that might have to be met to use the best evidence on a problem to promote (what we consider to be) a proportionate and effective solution.

We can then use the experience of a ‘best case scenario’ to identify the issues that we face in less ideal circumstances (first in tobacco, and second in drugs).

With colleagues, I have been examining:

Our studies help us identify the conditions under which scientific evidence, on the size of the tobacco problem and the effectiveness of solutions, translates into a public policy response that its advocates would consider to be proportionate.

  1. Actors are able to use scientific evidence to persuade policymakers to pay attention to, and shift their understanding of, policy problems.

Although scientific evidence helps reduce uncertainty, it does not reduce ambiguity. Rather, there is high competition to define problems, and the result of this competition helps determine the demand for subsequent evidence.

In tobacco, the evidence on smoking and then passive smoking helped raise attention to public health, but it took decades to translate into a proportionate response, even in ‘leading’ countries such as the UK.

The comparison with ‘laggard’ countries is crucial to show that the same evidence can produce a far more limited response, as policymakers compare the public health imperative with other ‘frames’, relating to their beliefs on personal responsibility, civil liberties, and the economic consequences of tobacco controls.

  1. The policy environment becomes conducive to policy change.

Public health debates take place in environments more or less conducive to policy change. In the UK, actors used scientific evidence to help reframe the problem. Then, this new understanding helped give the Department of Health a greater role, the health department fostered networks with public health and medical groups at the expense of the industry and, while pursuing policy change, policymakers emphasised the reduced opposition to tobacco control, smoking prevalence, and economic benefits to tobacco,.

In many other countries, these conditions are far less apparent: there are multiple tobacco frames (including economic and civil liberties); economic and trade departments are still central to policy; the industry remains a key player; and, policymakers pay more attention to opposition to tobacco controls (such as bans on smoking in public places) and their potential economic consequences.

Further, differences between countries have largely endured despite the fact that most countries are parties to the FCTC. In other words, a commitment to evidence basedpolicy transfer’ does not necessarily produce actual policy change.

  1. Actors generate and exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ for major policy change.

Even in favourable policy environments, it is not inevitable that major policy changes will occur. Rather, the UK’s experience of key policy instruments – such as legislation to ban smoking in public places (a major commitment of the FCTC) – shows the high level of serendipity involved in the confluence of three necessary but insufficient conditions:

  1. high policymaker attention to tobacco as a policy problem
  2. the production of solutions, introducing partial or comprehensive bans on smoking in public places, that are technically and politically feasible
  3. the willingness and ability of policymakers to choose the more restrictive solution.

In many other countries, there has been no such window of opportunity, or only an opportunity for a far weaker regulation.

So, this condition – the confluence of three ‘streams’ during a ‘window of opportunity’ – shows the major limits to the effect of scientific evidence. The evidence on the health effects of passive smoking have been available since the 1980s, but they only contributed to comprehensive smoking bans in the UK in the mid-2000s, and they remain unlikely in many other countries.

Comparing ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios for policy change

These discussions help us clarify the kinds of conditions that need to be met to produce major ‘evidence based’ policy change, even when policymakers have made a commitment to it, or are pursuing an international agreement.

I provide a notional spectrum of ‘best’ and ‘worst’ case scenarios in relation to these conditions:

  1. Actors agree on how to gather and interpret scientific evidence.
  • Best case: governments fund effective ways to gather and interpret the most relevant evidence on the size of policy problems and the effectiveness of solutions. Policymakers can translate large amounts of evidence on complex situations into simple and effective stories (that everyone can understand) to guide action. This includes evidence of activity in one’s own country, and of transferable success from others.
  • Worst case: governments do not know the size of the problem or what solutions have the highest impacts. They rely on old stories that reinforce ineffective action, and do not know how to learn from the experience of other regions (note the ‘not invented hereissue).
  1. Actors ‘frame’ the problem simply and/or unambiguously.
  • Best case: governments maintain a consensus on how best to understand the cause of a policy problem and therefore which evidence to gather and solutions to seek.
  • Worst case: governments juggle many ‘frames’, there is unresolved competition to define the problem, and the best sources of evidence and solutions remain unclear.
  1. A new policy frame is not undermined by the old way of thinking about, and doing, things
  • Best case: the new frame sets the agenda for actors in existing organisations and networks; there is no inertia linked to the old way of thinking about and doing things.
  • Worst case: there is a new policy, but it is undermined by old beliefs, rules, pre-existing commitments (for example, we talk of ‘path dependence’ and ‘inheritance before choice’), or actors opposed to the new policy.
  1. There is a clear ‘delivery chain’ from policy choice to implementation
  • Best case: policymakers agree on a solution, they communicate their aims well, and they secure the cooperation of the actors crucial to policy delivery in many levels and types of government.
  • Worst case: policymakers communicate an ambiguous message and/ or the actors involved in policy delivery pursue different – and often contradictory – ways to try to solve the same problem.

In international cooperation, it is natural to anticipate and try to minimise at least some of these worst case scenarios. Problems are more difficult to solve when they are transnational. Our general sense of uncertainty and complexity is more apparent when there are many governments involved and we cannot rely on a single authoritative actor to solve problems. Each country (and regions within it) has its own beliefs and ways of doing things, and it is not easy to simply emulate another country (even if we think it is successful and know why). Some countries do not have access to the basic information (for example, on health and mortality, alongside statistics on criminal justice) that others take for granted when they monitor the effectiveness of policies.

Further, these obstacles exist in now-relatively-uncontroversial issues, such as tobacco, in which there is an international consensus on the cause of the problem and the appropriateness and effectiveness of public solutions. It is natural to anticipate further problems when we also apply public health (and, in this case, ‘harm reduction’) measures to more controversial areas such as illegal drugs.

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The future of Scotland in the UK: does the remarkable popularity of the SNP make independence inevitable?

This post provides notes for my lecture on the 15th June at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, as part of the Ringvorlesung: The Future of the UK: Between Internal and External Divisions.

The advertised abstract reads:

The vote to remain in the UK, in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, did not settle the matter. Nor did it harm the fortunes of the pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party. Instead, its popularity has risen remarkably, and major constitutional change remains high on the agenda, particularly during the run up to a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. This continued fascination with the constitution overshadows the day-to-day business of Scottish politics. Cairney highlights one aspect in particular: the tendency for limited public and parliamentary scrutiny of substantive policy issues when they are viewed through a constitutional (rather than substantive policy) lens, producing an image of weak accountability.

I’ll begin my talk by apologising passive-aggressively for not being a specialist in this field. I know some things about Scottish politics, but specialise in public policy rather than elections, referendums, social attitudes, and the future. On that basis, I’ll:

  • Explain why the Scottish National Party’s popularity is remarkable
  • Note that none of us have predicted it – or indeed much of the short history of devolution – too well, and use this point as a cautionary tale
  • Describe why independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)
  • Shoehorn in some analysis of the links between our fascination with the constitution and the more humdrum world of actual policy.

The remarkable popularity of the SNP

The SNP’s popularity is remarkable in two main ways:

  1. In 1999, the main party was Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour had dominated Westminster and local elections in Scotland for decades before the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 (it also won a plurality of European Parliament seats, but with far lower margins):

  • Westminster (plurality electoral system). Labour won most Scottish seats in every election from 1959-2010. In 1997, it won 46% of the vote and 56 (78%) of 72 Scottish Westminster seats (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 45). The SNP won 22% of the vote and 6 (8%) seats. A similar pattern continued until 2010: Labour dominated Scottish Westminster seats even when the SNP began to win Holyrood elections.
  • Local elections (plurality until 2003, single transferable vote from 2007). In 1995, its 44% of the vote translated into 613 (53%) of 1155 seats and it remained the largest party until 2007 (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 51).

This dominance produced an expectation that Scottish Labour would become the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the foreseeable future. In that context, the fortunes of Labour and the SNP changed remarkably quickly (see table 3). In 1999 and 2003, the main limit to Labour dominance was the electoral system: it won the majority of constituency seats comfortably but few regional seats (it also won most constituency seats in 2007). By 2011, this position had reversed and, by 2016, the regional list was the only thing standing between Scottish Labour and electoral oblivion.

In contrast, by 2011 the SNP achieved a majority of Scottish Parliament seats because the regional element of the mixed-member proportional system (56 of 129 seats) was not large enough to offset SNP dominance of constituency seats. This is a remarkable outcome if we accept the well-shared story that Holyrood’s electoral system was ‘chosen by Labour to stop the SNP ever the getting the majority it needed to push hard on the independence agenda’ (Cairney, 2011: 28).

  1. The SNP’s popularity did not dip after the 2014 referendum

You could be forgiven for thinking that a No vote in the referendum on Scottish independence would damage the SNP. If it is a single issue party, and most voters rejected its position on the issue, wouldn’t you expect it to suffer? Yet, here is what happened instead:

It’s not so remarkable if you know that the SNP is not a single issue party. Instead, it is a highly professional organisation which has won elections on the back of valence politics as well as identity.

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 national identify and support for independence).

So, (a) it’s worth noting that the SNP is doing well partly because 45% of the vote will not win you a referendum, but it (plus a bit more) will do very nicely in a not-super-proportional election system, but (b) there is far more to the SNP’s story than a translation of national identity into support for independence into support for the SNP.

None of us predicted it well: a cautionary tale

You’ll always find someone who claims that they predicted these developments correctly, but that’s because of the immense number and range of hyperbolic predictions – from the claim that devolution provided a ‘stepping stone’ to independence, to the claim that it would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’ – rather than the predictability of politics.

So, for example, in retrospect we can say that devolution provided an important new platform for the SNP, but at the time we did not know that it would use this platform so effectively from the mid-2000s.

Similarly, maybe some people in the future will look back to argue that Scottish independence was inevitable, but without being able to predict the detailed mechanisms of decisions and events.

Scottish independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)

I’ll try to sell you the idea that 10 years is the magic figure between Scottish referendums: a short enough distance to keep pro-independence actors content, and long enough to hope that enough people have changed their minds. We now have 5-yearly elections, so it would be a commitment in the 2021 Holyrood election to hold it in 2024.

However, it’s no more than an idea because nothing about this process is inevitable:

Even a second referendum is not inevitable

In the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote this 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 main 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.

In the absence of this constitutional crisis, is difficult to see how the SNP could justify – and, more importantly, expect to win – another referendum within five years of the first. This problem is reflected in the SNP’s manifesto and Sturgeon’s defence of its vague position. It appears to want to keep independence on the agenda for the long term without proposing a referendum within five years. So, its idea is that, in the absence of a Brexit crisis, the only other prompt is a major and sustained upswing in support for independence:

the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people’ (Scottish National Party, 2016: 23).

Sturgeon confirmed that this measure would be from opinion polls – ‘We would have to see, in a range of polls over a period of time, that independence had become the preferred option of the majority’ – but without stating how many polls, what level of support, or how sustained (BBC News, 2016b).

The unsatisfactory nature of this position seems reinforced by the SNP’s electoral position in 2016: the last referendum was fairly recent, it lacks a strong statement of intent in its manifesto, it now relies on the Scottish Greens (2016: 35) to produce a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, and the Greens’ trigger for a second referendum – a petition by maybe 100,000 voters – seems equally vague and problematic.

Don’t assume that we can predict the future (revisited)

These limitations are not problematic in the longer term: the SNP can afford to wait until the time is right for a second referendum. Yet, think about some of the other conditions that need to be met before a second vote is worthwhile:

  1. There is a sustained rise in support for Scottish independence. From opinion polls, the SNP would be looking for levels of sustained support (high 50s, low 60s?) that are not present even in single surveys.
  2. The SNP sustains a Holyrood majority, or it has enough pro-independence allies in Holyrood. At the heart of our short-term discussion is the assumption that the SNP continues to do remarkably well in elections. Yet, Scottish Labour provides a cautionary tale, or the evidence of how quickly a party’s support can disappear. Further, the SNP wouldn’t even have to lose much support to give the sense that it lost ‘momentum’.
  3. The SNP can recreate 2011. Instead, it would just have to lose the sense of moral victory that it secured in 2011: the appearance of its Holyrood ‘avalanche’ election victory made a referendum difficult to oppose; its opposition lost ground, and the UK Government struggled to explain why it would not support a referendum. This feeling is difficult to recreate even if (as in 2016) it secures a similar proportion of votes.

Dissatisfaction with devolution is not the same as support for independence

It is possible that Scottish devolution will never seem like a ‘settlement’. Instead, we have had a routine process in which: (a) there is a proposed devolution settlement, (b) it sticks for a while, (c) there is a rise in support for independence or further devolution, (d) there is another settlement.

So far, this has happened in 1999 (the first modern settlement), from the SNP’s first Holyrood win in 2007 (producing the Scotland Act 2011), and during the referendum itself (producing the Scotland Act 2016).

The difference this time is the sense – often generated by supporters and opponents of independence – that the 2016 Act is the final offer. If so, we have two key scenarios:

  1. This offer proves to be too unpopular to maintain support for devolution, there is a further referendum, and no-one can offer more devolution in exchange for a No vote.
  2. The 2016 Act finally helps address the idea of a ‘democratic deficit’ in which (a) most people in Scotland vote for one party in a UK General election (usually Labour, now SNP) but get another (often Conservative), and (b) this problem helps produce the sense that the UK Government is imposing unpopular policies on Scotland. For the new Act to work, you would need to generate the widespread sense, among the public, that a Scottish Government could choose to mitigate the effects of a UK Government (perhaps without raising taxes).

What happens in the meantime? The humdrum world of scrutiny and policymaking

In the meantime, Scottish politics exhibits an unusual twist on the usual tale of Westminster politics:

  1. We have the familiar disconnect between two understandings of politics, in which (a) we use elections and some parliamentary scrutiny to praise or blame governments, but also (b) recognise the limits to central control, which undermine a meaningful sense of accountability.
  2. This confusion is complicated by devolution and ‘multi-level governance’ in which we are not always sure about which level of government is responsible for which policy.
  3. It is complicated further by the 2016 Act, in which there are many new shared responsibilities between the Scottish and UK Governments.
  4. So, politicians tell very different stories about what the Scottish Government can do, who is in charge, and who should take the blame for policy outcomes.
  5. And the Scottish Parliament continues to struggle to know how best to try to hold the Scottish Government to account (and it might soon struggle a bit more).

Perhaps one possible exception is the new debate on educational attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon staked a large part of her reputation on reducing the gap in attainment between students in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. Before the election, she promised to ‘close the attainment gap completely’.

Although the SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more equivocal language (reflecting the sense that it does not know how much it can reduce the gap), it remains significant: as an issue in which there are constitutional complications (the Scottish Government does not control fully the economic and social security ‘levers’ affecting levels of deprivation), but the SNP is not using them to qualify its aims.

This example supplements several ongoing debates of high party political importance, in which there is not a constitutional element (on, for example, the Scottish Government’s ‘named person’ policy and legislation on ‘offensive behaviour’ in relation to football).

So, maybe such cases suggest that, for at least the next few years, we will pretend that there is a Scottish devolution settlement, and that we are not just killing time until the next referendum.

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The background of new MSPs

There is an interesting set of stories, by David Leask and colleagues in the Herald, about the background of MSPs. I take an interest as part of a team of scholars comparing backgrounds in Westminster and devolved assemblies.

Normally, one measure uses education as a proxy for class: we look at the proportion of members who went from private schools on to Oxford or Cambridge. We then normally find that, for example, Conservative MPs are more likely than most to have come via this route.

In the Scottish Parliament, compared to Westminster, you tend to find fewer members with this background, partly because there are fewer Conservatives, but also because there are subtle differences: fewer people in Scotland go to private schools (this is difficult to gauge, but is maybe 4-6% in Scotland compared to 7% in England, and it’s higher in places like Edinburgh and Aberdeen) and places like Glasgow University are bigger recruiting grounds than Oxbridge.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the mix of state school backgrounds. Many people recently noted the stark differences in attainment between schools in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. So, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if (as we might expect) MSPs are far more likely to come from the least deprived areas? The Herald has done the heavy lifting by providing the list of secondary schools attended by MSPs, but it will take a bit of work to get a clear picture (the SSLN is newish, and many of MSPs’ previous schools no longer exist).

Why does it matter?

With colleagues such as Lynn Bennie, I hope to go into this question in more detail. We want to speak individually to MSPs to get their individual stories, to help us build up a picture of the barriers they faced before becoming candidates with a shot of winning a seat. One key barrier relates to gender, as a traditional source of selection bias and a factor in the supply of candidates, and another is broadly described as class. It would be interesting to see how education and poverty-related factors contributed to barriers to candidacy, and if many MSPs faced them (and using proxy measures can only take us so far).

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Filed under Scottish politics, Social change

Is there any hope for evidence in emotional debates and chaotic government?

Two recent news features sum up the role of emotion and ‘chaos’ in policymaking.

The first is ‘Irritation and anger’ may lead to Brexit, says influential psychologist in The Telegraph. The headline suggests that people may vote Leave for emotional reasons, rather than with reference to a more ‘rational’ process in which people identify the best evidence and use it to weight up the short and long term consequences of action.

Yet, the article confirms that we’re all at it! To be human is to use emotional, gut-level, and habitual thinking to turn a complex world, with too much information, into a good enough decision in a necessary short amount of time.

In debate, evidence is mentioned a lot, but only to praise the evidence backing my decision and rejecting yours. Or, you only trust the evidence from people you trust. If you trust the evidence from certain scientists, you stress their scientific credentials. If not, you find some from other experts. Or, if all else is lost, you reject experts as condescending elites with a hidden agenda. Or, you say simply that they can’t be that clever if they agree with smarmy Cameron/ Johnson.

Lesson 1: you can see these emotional and manipulative approaches to policymaking play out in the EU referendum. Don’t assume that policymaking behind closed doors, on other issues, is any different.

The second feature is Lost in Transit: chaos in government research in The Economist.

It describes a Sense about Science report which (a) was commissioned ‘following a spate of media stories about government research being suppressed or delayed’, and (b) finds that ‘The UK government spends around £2.5 billion a year on research for policy, but does not know how many studies it has commissioned or which of them have been published’.

The Economist reports the perhaps-unexpected result of the inquiry:

But the main gripe is the sheer disorganisation of it all. The report’s afterword states that “Sir Stephen looked for suppression and found chaos”.

Such accounts reflect the two contradictory stories that we often tell about government. The first relates to the Westminster model of democratic accountability which helps concentrate power at the centre of government: if you know who is in charge, you know who to blame.

The second, regarding complex government, describes a complicated world of public policy in which no-one seems to be in control. For example, we make reference to: the huge size and reach of government; the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making; the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy; the multi-level nature of policymaking; and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other.

The problem with the first story is that (a) although it is easy to tell during elections and inquiries, (b) you always struggle to find it when you actually study government.

The problem with the second is that, (a) although it seems realistic when you study government, (b) few people will buy it when they are seeking to hold ministers and governments to account. This problem may be exacerbated by the terms of reference of reports: few will accept a pragmatic response, based on the second story of complexity, if you start out by using the first story of central control to say that you will track down and solve the problem!

Lesson 2: if you assume central control you will find chaos (and struggle to produce feasible recommendations to deal with it). The manipulation of evidence takes place in a complex policymaking system over which no individual or ‘core executive’ has control. Indeed, no single person or organisation could even pay attention to all that goes on within government. This insight requires pragmatic inquiries and solutions, not the continuous reassertion of central control and discovery of ‘chaos’.

It might be possible to develop a third lesson if we put these two together. One part of the EU debate reflects our inability to understand EU policymaking and relate it to the relatively clear processes in the UK, in which you know who is in charge and therefore who to blame. The EU seems less democratic because it is so complex and remote. Yet, if we follow this other story about complexity in the UK, we often find that UK politics is also difficult to follow. Its image does not describe reality.

Lesson 3: when you find policymaking complexity in the EU, don’t assume it is any better in the UK! Instead, try to compare like with like.

See also

I expand on both lessons in The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking

Cock-up, not conspiracy, conceals evidence for policy

Government buries its own research – and that’s bad for democracy

The rationality paradox of Nudge: rational tools of government in a world of bounded rationality

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy

Did the Scottish Parliament just vote to ban fracking?

Not really.

Almost every headline reports that the Scottish Parliament voted to ban fracking on the 1st June 2016 (Guardian, BBC, Scotsman, National, STV, Holyrood).

The headlines are technically correct but super-misleading.

If watching from afar, you might deduce that Scottish Government policy is now (or about to be) in favour of a complete ban. Or, if you know more about the Scottish Parliament process, you might at least see it as a major defeat for the SNP under minority government even if the vote is not binding (indeed, the Guardian’s second headline states that the ‘Vote does not create binding policy but is significant defeat for SNP so soon into new parliamentary term’).

In both cases, you would be wrong because:

  • 33 of 123 available MSPs voted for the ban, 29 opposed, and 62 abstained.
  • The 33 were from the 3 smallest parties in the Scottish Parliament.
  • It is clear to everyone that the amendment-to-motion only passed because the SNP abstained.

The vote was embarrassing (particularly since it was on an amendment to a motion proposed by the SNP’s Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham) rather than binding. Its main effect is to produce this picture (source: BBC News) of the SNP squirming in the chamber.

BBC fracking 2016.JPG

In the past, a vote like this might have had more important effect. For example, the SNP agreed in 2007 (at the beginning of its previous spell of minority government) to reconsider the Edinburgh trams project after most of opposition parties voted in its favour. That motion was not binding, but the SNP took it far more seriously because the other parties could generate a vague sense of the ‘will of the Parliament’.

In the case of fracking, there is no such sense. Instead, the three smallest parties are restating their manifesto commitments, the now-more-important Conservatives are voting the other way, and the SNP is trying to ignore the whole thing.

This vote is unlikely to change the course of events too much: the SNP government still intends to delay things (while maintaining a moratorium) while it commissions and processes more research. The biggest factors are still likely to be public opinion, business versus environmental group pressure, and the level of disagreement within the SNP itself.

For more on fracking in Scotland, see:

Briefing: Unconventional Onshore Oil and Gas (or here)

Fracking posts

Holyrood election 2016 briefing

 

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Filed under Fracking, Scottish politics