Monthly Archives: March 2017

What 10 questions should we put to evidence for policy experts?

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre’s Science Hub is making some videos about evidence and policy, asking 10 questions. Here are my answers (the video will come later):

  1. Who are you?

Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling. I write about public policy, applying theoretical insight to issues such as ‘the politics of EBPM’.

  1. How did you become interested in evidence for policy?

It was always in the back of my mind because it is the latest version of a long-standing interest (in policy studies) about the absence of ‘comprehensive rationality’: what do policymakers do when they can’t consider all information, and what are the consequences for politics and policy? Do they use ‘irrational’ shortcuts? Does their attention tend to lurch? Does policy become incremental or ‘punctuated’? There are many different answers, explored in this ‘1000 Words series’.

  1. Why is evidence-informed policy important?

It’s part of the broader importance of inclusive policymaking based on a diversity of voices and the generation of knowledge about how the world works (alongside a debate about how it should work).

  1. What is the most common misconception about evidence-informed policy?

I think that many scientists are too quick to dismiss politics – and identify ‘policy based evidence’ driven by ideological and emotional politicians – rather than understand the ever-present limits to the use of evidence in policy. I think many also exaggerate the lack of scientific influence on policy by focusing on the most salient issues.

  1. What are the most common mistakes made by researchers or policymakers?

The classic mistake by researchers is to think that you make a good argument by bombarding people with a lot of information without thinking about how they’ll receive it. An important mistake that policymakers can make is to rely too much on the experts they know and trust, rather than seeking ways to identify diverse and ‘state of the art’ sources of information.

  1. What is the single most important advice to researchers/scientists who want to have policy impact?

Think about your audience and how they demand information: get their attention with a simple story, describe the problem in ways they understand (and think about the world), and show that your solution is technically and politically feasible.

  1. How do you change minds with facts and evidence?

Engage for the long term, recognising your ‘enlightenment’ role. Something dramatic would have to happen to change minds immediately and dramatically – it would be akin to a religious conversion. Or, in politics, it’s about finding a sympathetic audience (different minds) in another policymaking venue or hoping for a change of government. In other words, this is about the power of participant as much as the power of evidence and ideas.

  1. How should you communicate uncertainty about the evidence?

Since I study politics, I’d focus on the political choices here. You can communicate uncertainty in academic journals via ‘limitations’ sections and expect robust challenge on your evidence from your peers. In politics, if you show uncertainty – and your competitor does not – you may be at a disadvantage, and may need to do some soul searching about how much uncertainty you hold back. As soon as you become a scientist and advocate, the rules change.

  1. How do you measure the policy impact of evidence?

In ways that are not conducive to ‘impact’ measurement by research bodies! For example, with colleagues, I tracked the influence of evidence on smoking harms on policy. In ‘leading countries’ it took 2-3 decades, and depended on three conditions: (1) key actors ‘frame’ the evidence to set a policy agenda; (2) the policy environment is generally conducive to evidence-informed change; and (3) key actors exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ for each policy change. In most countries, policy change of this scale has not happened. In such cases, we can never say that evidence simply wins the day.

  1. Who or What are your “must-reads”?

I partly took more notice of this topic after reading two articles by Kathryn Oliver and colleagues:

Oliver, K., Innvar, S., Lorenc, T., Woodman, J. and Thomas, J. (2014a) ‘A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers’ BMC health services research, 14 (1), 2.

Oliver, K., Lorenc, T., & Innvær, S. (2014b) ‘New directions in evidence-based policy research: a critical analysis of the literature’, Health Research Policy and Systems, 12, 34

I was struck by the argument here, that policymakers often fund sophisticated models for evidence-based policymaking but don’t understand or use them:

Nilsson, M., Jordan, A., Turnpenny, J., Hertin, J., Nykvist, B. and Russel, D. (2008) ‘The use and non-use of policy appraisal tools in public policy making: an analysis of three European countries and the European Union’, Policy Sciences, 41, 4, 335-55

It’s also worth reading this account, which shows that policymakers don’t have the same respect for a ‘hierarchy’ of evidence/ methods as many scientists:

Bédard, P. and Ouimet, M. (2012) ‘Cognizance and consultation of randomized controlled trials among ministerial policy analysts’ Review of Policy Research, 29, 5, 625-644



For more information, start with my EBPM page

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Scottish Politics in Brexit Britain: is independence inevitable?

CAirney Scottish Politics Brexit Dundee CAfe 2017

This is an updated and shortened version of previous posts, designed for my talk at the Dundee Arts Café tonight. I’d like to thank First Minster Nicola Sturgeon for making me look like the best scheduler of a talk ever:

We don’t know much about the second referendum on Scottish independence, but we can be guided by three basic insights:

  1. Most people make up their mind fairly quickly and may not be swayed too much by the campaign, but there are enough undecided voters to tip the result

2. The campaign will come down to who can tell the best story (to stir the emotions, perhaps with a convincing hero and moral) rather than simply command the facts.

3. Brexit has changed the independence story dramatically, but it could support either Yes/ No campaign.

The rest is mostly gut-driven speculation: I think Yes will win, partly because it has a new way to present its case, and a better campaigner to do so, while (as ridiculous as this sounds) No may look like it is banging on about the same old arguments, and it’s less clear who will do it.

Let’s start with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for Yes:

  1. It reinforces a well-established argument for constitutional change: we voted for X but got Y because we are outnumbered by voters in England. Voting Remain but getting Leave is the latest version of voting Labour or SNP in Scotland but getting a Conservative UK government.
  2. It reinforces the same argument about the effect of that ‘democratic deficit’: ‘London’/’Westminster’ is forcing us to accept policies we did not choose. Voting Leave is the latest version of the ‘bedroom tax’ (and, for older readers, the ‘poll tax’).
  3. It helps challenge the idea that the Scottish independence aim is nationalist and parochial. Suddenly, independence is the cosmopolitan choice if we are rejecting a ‘Little England’ mentality.
  4. Some people who voted to stay in the UK and EU will prefer the EU to the UK (and think an independence vote is the best way to achieve it), or perhaps feel let down by the claim that a No vote in 2014 was to stay in the UK and EU.

Historically, the main response to 1 & 2 came from the Conservative Party, offering concessions in areas such as spending, levels of representation in Westminster, and in Scotland’s status in UK-devolved relations.

Recently, UKIP has been more critical of Scotland’s privileged position in the UK, and even the Conservative party qualifies its support of Scotland’s place in the Union.

Labour’s more recent response has been more interesting, and not what I expected. I figured Scottish Labour would encourage the equivalent of a free vote of its members. Instead, it has rejected indyref2 in favour of a ‘federal’ solution and two anti-referendum strategies:

  1. To describe indyref2 as yet another divisive and destabilising event like Brexit and the election of Trump.
  2. To challenge the idea that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism.

This strategy was generally received badly among people already committed to Yes. It’s too early to gauge its durability or long term effect on the voters thinking about switching, but we already know that the SNP campaigned in indyref1 with a message – for example, ‘to make life better for the people who live here’ – that contrasts heavily with the anti-immigrant rhetoric in some parts of the Leave campaign. Indeed, I’d expect it to reinforce a pro-immigration (or, rather, a very pro-EU citizen) message to provide a deliberate contrast to parts of the Brexit campaign, making it relatively difficult for Labour to maintain an if-you-vote-Yes-you-share-the-same-aim-as-bigots argument (which didn’t work well during the Brexit debate anyway).

Let’s continue with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for No

  1. The No campaign was based on the economic harms of independence, and key symbols (like oil price volatility) have reinforced the message.
  2. We still don’t know what currency an independent Scotland would use.
  3. The Yes vote meant all things to all people, with no sense of what would be realistic.
  4. Brexit shows you that a transition to independence would be far tougher than advertised.

Point 4 is still unfolding. We’ve already seen that the £350m-for-the-NHS argument was misleading, witnessed a reduction in the value of the pound, and seen some hard talking from likely EU negotiators that might be emulated in Scotland-UK discussions (UK hard-talking was a key theme of indyref1). Yet, the effects of such developments are still open to debate (see for example the sterling issue).

More importantly, it’s hard to know how to relate these events to Scotland:

One the one hand, Yes needs a disastrous Brexit to show that it is powerless to ward off disaster. Ideally, it would wait long enough to argue that (a) Brexit is starting to ‘bite’, (b) the UK Government is stiffing Scotland in its negotiations of future devolved powers, but not so long that (c) it disrupts the (not guaranteed) continuation of its EU membership. This time may not arrive, and the date is not in the SNP’s gift.

On the other, No needs a partly-disastrous Brexit to show that separation is painful.

Who will have the best story?

If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that people are driven strongly by emotion, and might put ‘feelings over facts’. I still think that the result itself will come down to who tells the Yes/ No stories and how well they do it, and that Yes has a far better hero (Nicola Sturgeon)/villain (Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Theresa May?) story now than in 2014, while No has the same old boring story of economic disaster and can no longer rely on those leaflets with Salmond’s face on a pound coin. Who will become the face of No (I reckon it will be Davidson), and how can they repackage the same arguments (who knows)?




Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics

Racism and Stories in Scottish Politics

Brexit boosts the case for Scottish independence because it can now be framed more easily as the cosmopolitan choice: vote Yes to get away from a ‘little England’ mentality. This possibility was perhaps in Labour’s mind when it described Scottish nationalism as anything but cosmopolitan. For example, Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism, while former Labour minister Douglas Alexander left less room for doubt.

These claims prompted a small number of commentary pieces supporting or rejecting the idea that Scottish nationalism fosters racism, bigotry, and/ or social division:

  • Claire Heuchan welcomed Khan’s intervention cautiously, highlighting a tendency of Scottish actors to assert their superiority over their English counterparts, and using the opportunity to expand the debate, to highlight important issues that we often ignore, from personal stories of racist abuse and examples of more limited education and employment opportunities for people of colour, to the role of Scotland in the British empire’s colonial past built on slavery and exploitation.
  • In contrast, Robert Somynne identified a civic Scottish nationalism far apart from a ‘western trend towards populism based on tribal and ethnic divisions’, arguing that Khan’s description ‘doesn’t bear out the experience of so many people of colour in Scotland who campaigned in the grassroots’.
  • Kevin McKenna ridiculed Khan’s argument, rejecting the idea of nationalism underpinned by anti-Englishness, identifying a more divisive UK politics of which Labour is a key part, and dismissing Khan and others as part of ‘the leftwing intelligentsia’. John McKee argued that current Scottish nationalism is more about rejecting the British state than British people, while Eric Joyce links it more to rejecting more worrying forms of nationalism pursued by parties like UKIP.

The debate rages on in twitter, but the discussion has not been driven primarily by a willingness to listen, engage constructively, or talk about issues that challenge our beliefs. I don’t suppose you need me to explain why, but it’s worth highlighting three analytically-separate explanations that will likely be present throughout all debates like this:

  1. The devil shift undermines debate

People form coalitions with the people who share their beliefs, and they compete with people who don’t. The ‘devil shift’ describes a form of ‘groupthink’; a tendency of actors in those coalitions to romanticise their own cause and demonise the cause of their opponents: ‘anyone who disagrees with them must be mistaken about the facts, operating from the wrong value premises, or acting from evil motive’ (Sabatier, Hunter and McLaughlin). They question the motives of their opponents but not their allies, subject only their opponent’s arguments to criticism, and think their opponents are more powerful than they are.

If all debates are interpreted through this lens of Scottish independence, you can predict the results: Yes groups will see Khan’s intervention as threatening to their beliefs and aims, No groups will embrace it because it supports their beliefs and aims, and there is little scope for conflict resolution. Indeed, during such debates, we’ll put up with some sketchy characters if they support our cause while denouncing their equivalents in the other coalition.

This dynamic will be apparent each time we interpret each issue. For example, imagine a semi-honest and open discussion about Scotland and the colonial empire. One side might combine two points – Scotland ‘punches above its weight’ in every endeavour, and Scotland was part of the empire – to argue that Scotland played a disproportionate role in colonialism and slavery. The other will remind us of the unequal and coerced alliance of 1707 and/ or blame an unelected elite in Scotland for the Union and empire, to argue that Scottish independence is the best way to reject the colonial past. The same history has a very different villain and moral.

  1. There are two colliding roles of storytelling

We can identify two main roles of personal storytelling: (1) to empower an individual, when they share their experiences of life and feel listened to, and (2) to take forward a political agenda, when they identify a hero/ villain and moral that suits one coalition’s beliefs and aims.

In our case, it is difficult to separate the two, and most people are not willing or able to do so. This may be understandable with Khan’s recent intervention since, although he generally has an important story to tell from his perspective, this specific speech seemed designed to bolster the position of Scottish Labour at its party conference. Heuchan’s experience is more worrying, her motives seemed far less instrumental and her personal story was worth listening to, but almost no-one has simply said ‘thank you for your story’ without adding conditions or objections. There are very few spaces in which people will listen rather than judge.

  1. Some topics are unusually personal

In part, this is because few people like to think that they are racist or bigoted. Some won’t think about the ways in which they benefit from the systematic effects of racism – in which some groups benefit disproportionately from education/ employment opportunities and face a smaller risk of personal abuse – partly because they don’t have to, and it’s generally not an enjoyable experience. Others will flinch at the idea that they are privileged because they are white, often because they have vivid memories of personal experiences of abuse or disadvantage linked to another part of their background, such as their gender, class, religion, or disability.

So, we often want to tell our stories without listing to those of others. If there is no such space in which to exchange the details of such stories, we soon end up with heated, futile debates based on the sense that you don’t understand my experience or perspective before you criticise it. We can’t solve this problem, but we should at least be aware of it, and perhaps be aware that, although the Scottish debate has some unusual features, it is one of many examples of routine divisive politics.



Filed under Folksy wisdom, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, Storytelling

Five advantages of blogging

This is my third ‘hey, let’s blog’ event, so it finally dawned on me to write a blog post about it. See also Fiona Miller’s account of the Stirling event.

I don’t know much about blogging research, so will focus on my personal experience of its advantages. One frequent academic argument against blogging is that it takes you away from more important parts of the job, such as teaching and research. My argument is that it helps you do both things more effectively.

See also the accounts of the disadvantages, which often relate to the ways in which they make you vulnerable to personal abuse on social media (examples 1, 2, 3).

Advantage 1: Clarity

Writing a blog has improved my academic writing. When you blog, you write for a non-specialist audience. You use less jargon or explain its meaning and value. You assume that people will not read your work unless you front-load the ‘reveal’. You need a catchy and tweetable title, to provide a ‘hook’ in the first sentence, and to show your work in a few hundred words (perhaps to encourage people to read more of your work). When you develop these skills, you can use them while writing journal article titles, abstracts, and introductions.

If you like, you can also write a blog post instead of relying on the paper/ powerpoint combo for workshops and conferences, since a 4-paper panel at conferences is usually an endurance test, and a blog post reminds you to say why people should be interested in the paper (e.g. recent examples on evidence/ policy and Scottish independence).

Advantage 2: Timeliness

It can take years for people to read an article you publish in a top journal. Sometimes the article is worth the wait. In other cases, I think it’s best to see this work as part of a package in which the article is one of the last things to appear. There is a good case to be made for taking your time to get articles right, but a less good case to keep it a secret while you do so.

Advantage 3: Exposure

It’s now common to say that we make better links with practitioners and policymakers by making our writing more accessible (short, punchy, and one click away). In my experience, the biggest payoff has been with other academics. Politics colleagues will mention my blog (and textbook) more than my articles. I can also use introductory blog posts to communicate ideas with colleagues in other disciplines – and/ or in other countries – without expecting them to do weeks of homework on the foundational texts. In each case, it works partly because we struggle to find the time to read, and appreciate a short story. Indeed, my articles are one click away on my website, but very, very, very, very few people read them.

However, you don’t need a personal blog. In fact, my most exposureyish posts have been elsewhere, including two in the Guardian’s political science blog (on evidence-based policymaking, and (with Kathryn Oliver) the dilemmas that arise when we seek it), some on the LSE blog (I tried really hard to compare tobacco and alcohol policy – look! There’s a video!), and many in The Conversation.

Advantage 4: Teaching and Learning

Teaching. The most-used page of my website hosts a series of 1000 Word summaries of policy concepts (the ‘policy cycle’ got 26000 hits in 2016). I use them, like a gateway drug, to teach undergraduate and MPP modules: they can get a feel for the concept quickly then do further reading. They now come with podcasts, which I use instead of lectures (for workshops). Other academics also use the podcasts, particularly when their students are new to policy studies (e.g. David P. Carter).

Learning. I also ask my students to write blog posts as part of their coursework, to help them learn how to write in a concise and punchy way for a non-academic audience. In most cases, students excel at this kind of work, as part of a package of assessment in which they learn how to communicate the same insights in many different ways.

Advantage 5: Unexpected benefits

When I started blogging I didn’t really know what it was for. I used to copy and paste my article abstracts, or complain about David Cameron’s handling of Scottish independence. This was at a time in which colleagues at my former University were reticent about self-publicity, and sending round a link to a new journal article via the departmental email was pushing it a bit. Now, self-promotion seems to be part of the job, and we might expect some benefits without really knowing what they’ll be. For example, my links with some very interesting people in places like the European Commission and Alliance for Useful Evidence have arisen largely from blogging.

We all have different things that tickle us in life. For me, the most tickling part of the unexpected benefit of blogging is that I now (almost!) top the following google searches: policy cycle, multiple streams, advocacy coalition framework, punctuated equilibrium theory, the politics of evidence based policymaking, and the psychology of policymaking. I’m also doing my best to push out the other Paul Cairney from the first page of google, but Wikipedia is getting in the way. The more serious point is that a personal blog might need to generate attention through social media first, before it catches fire and rises up the search engine pages.

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