See also: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Context, Events, Structural and Socioeconomic Factors (you can hear my dulcet tones there, so I won’t do an extra podcast).
You get the idea by now. We began the course with a stylised Westminster model of centralised control and each week we use something new to chip away at that image. This week we focus on the sense that the UK government is (a) constantly responding to events rather than setting the political agenda, and (b) dealing with policy conditions and outcomes that seem to be out of its control.
Big E and small e events
You might get two impressions from the word ‘events’:
- The really big ones that seem to shock half of the population (more or less, or much more). Take your pick from recent Events including Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum, or from economic crises including the global financial crises and shocks to the British Pound. Generally speaking, it is difficult to get a sense from these Events that the UK Government is in control of the agenda or outcome.
- The day-to-day ones. You now get this other sense of events most strongly from social media: people’s attention lurches from issue to issue very quickly, and governments (or individual policymakers) often seem to struggle to respond effectively or set the agenda.
So, as we discussed in week 2, policymakers will often settle for the chance to portray themselves as decisive in responding and adapting to such events rather than controlling them (perhaps particularly in an age in which they struggle more and more to control the flow of information within populations).
Policy conditions: from funnels of causality to globalisation
A reference to policy ‘conditions’ or ‘environments’ is broader. It refers to the context in which policymakers make choices, including:
- Literally, the environment in which people live and the spread of populations in urban and rural areas.
- The demographic profile and trends in birth and ageing.
- Levels of economic activity.
- Social behaviour and attitudes.
- Technological changes which prompt social change, from mass road transit to information technology.
- Governing institutions with rules that constrain and facilitate behaviour.
One main connection between conditions and events is that the former often shape the latter: environmental crises prompt new forms of behaviour, ageing populations prompt a sense of crisis in health and social care, economic downturns panic governments, and so on. You get the idea: this is a far cry from our initial starting point in which we focus on what governments do. If we focus on what surrounds governments we get more of a sense of the limits to what governments can do, and a limited sense of their control of policymaking processes and outcomes.
As the language of ‘structure and agency’ suggests, we need to find a convincing way to describe this sense of limited choice. We (or, at least, I) want to maintain the sense that policymakers are actors making choices but that some choices are far more attractive or possible than others.
So, we have a choice about how to portray these choices. On the one hand, we have accounts which focus on the limits to choice:
- The classic (but now little-discussed) way of thinking about wider conditions is Hofferbert’s ‘funnel of causality’. Its usefulness is to expand our horizons to think about the wider (literal or metaphorical) environment of policymaking in which, for example, geographical conditions influence population concentrations and public behaviour and attitudes influence elite behaviour.
- The concept of ‘globalisation’ prompts us to think about the pressures on domestic governments to respond to global factors often outside of their control. In such cases, their choices about how to respond to external factors are not particularly attractive, such as when they are deciding how to set interest rates to deal with external fluctuations in demand for their currency (who do I mean by ‘they’ these days?), or how willing they are to reduce taxes and offer subsidies to attract foreign direct investment.
On the other hand is the sense that actors mediate such conditions and events: to a large extent they decide how to interpret events, the importance to attach to policy conditions, and which conditions produce events that seem the most urgent or important. In other words, many governments have shown an impressive ability to completely ignore events that other governments would treat as urgent crises.
The latter point is a nice segue to one of the recommended articles for this week, by Hindmoor and McConnell, in which they discuss the UK Government’s response to financial crisis. They remind us that we should understand the processing of events as they occurred, rather than via hindsight. This approach allows us to see that governments have highly imperfect ways to gather information and detect ‘warning signals’ effectively: what seems obvious now would not be obvious then. What now seems like a crisis to which governments inevitably had to respond would then seem very different.
In our groups we can identify and discuss key examples: how have UK governments dealt with demographic change or economic crisis? What kinds of factors are most likely to get their attention (and why?) and how are they likely to deal with them? What are the big events or conditions in UK politics that seem impossible to ignore? And what does our discussion tell us about the idea of a UK political system characterised by central government control and a centralisation of power.