Monthly Archives: August 2017

Stop Treating Cognitive Science Like a Disease


At the beginning is a guest post by Professor Steven Sloman, responding to Professor Daniel Sarewitz’s post in the Guardian called Stop treating science denial like a disease.  At the end is Dan Sarewitz’s reply. If you are wondering why this debate is now playing out on my website, there is a connection of sorts, in: (a) the work of the European Commission’s JRC, with Sloman speaking at its annual conference EU4Facts, and (b) the work of INGSA on government-science advice, in which Sarewitz plays a key role.  

Modern science has its problems. As reviewed in a recent editorial by Daniel Sarewitz, many branches of science have been suffering from a replication crisis. Scientists are under tremendous pressure to publish, and cutting scientific corners has, in some fields, become normal. This, he thinks, justifies a kind of science denialism, one that recognizes that not every word expressed by a scientist should be taken on faith.

Sarewitz is right on a couple of counts: Not every branch of science has equal authority. And in many areas, too much of too little value is being published. Some of it does not pass even weak tests of scientific care and rigor. But his wild claim in favor of denialism is bluster: Science is making faster progress today than at any time in history.

Sarewitz’s intended victim in his piece is cognitive science. He argues that cognitive science appeals to a deficit model (my term) to explain science denialism. People are ignorant, in Sarewitz’s parody of cognitive science, and therefore they fail to understand science. If only they were smarter, or taught the truth about science, they wouldn’t deny it, but rather use it as a guide to truth, justice, and all things good.

This is a position in cognitive science, especially cognitive science of the 70’s and 80’s. But even cognitive science makes progress and today it is a minority view. What does modern cognitive science actually suggest about our understanding of science denial? The answer is detailed in our book The Knowledge Illusion that Sarewitz takes issue with. He would have done well to read it before reviewing it because what we say is diametrically opposed to his report, and largely consistent with his view, though a whole lot more nuanced.

The deficit model applies to one form of reasoning, what we call intuition. The human brain generates beliefs based on naïve causal models about how the world works. These are often sketchy and flawed (consider racists’ understanding of people of other races). Individuals are quite ignorant about how the world works, not because people are stupid, but because the world is so complex. The chaotic, uncertain nature of the universe means that everything we encounter is a tangle of enormous numbers of elements and interactions, far more than any individual could comprehend, never mind retain. As we show in our book, even the lowly ballpoint pen represents untold complexity. The source of ignorance is not so much about the biology of the individual; it’s about the complexity of the world that the individual lives in.

Despite their ignorance, humans have accomplished amazing things, from creating symphonies to laptops. How? In large part by relying on a second form of human reasoning, deliberation. Deliberation is not constrained wholly by biology because it extends beyond the individual. Deliberative thought uses the body to remember for us and even to compute. That’s why emotions are critical for good decision making and why children use their fingers to count. Thinking also uses the world. We compute whether it’s safe to cross the street by looking to see if a car is coming, and we use the presence of dirty dishes on the counter to tell us whether the dishes need doing.

But more than anything, deliberation uses other people. Whether we’re getting our dishwasher fixed, our spiritual lives developed, or our political opinions formed, we are guided by those we deem experts and those we respect in our communities. To a large extent, people are not the rational processors of information that some enlightenment philosophers dreamed about; we are shills for our communities.

The positive side of this is that people are built to collaborate; we are social entities in the most fundamental way, as thinkers. The negative side is that we can subscribe to ideologies that are perpetuated to pursue the self-interest of community leaders, ideologies that have no rational basis. Indeed, the most fervent adherents of a view tend to know the least about it. Fortunately, we have found (not just assumed as Sarewitz says) that when people are asked to explain the consequences of the policies they adhere to, they become less extremist as they discover they don’t really understand.

Scientists live in communities too, and science is certainly vulnerable to these same social forces. That’s why the scientific method was developed: to put ideas to the test and let the cream rise to the top. This takes time, but because science reports eventually to the truth inherent in nature, human foible and peer review can only steer it off course temporarily.

Cognitive science has historically bought into the deficit model, treating failures of science literacy as a kind of disease. But Sarewitz should practice the care and rigor that he preaches by reporting correctly: Cognitive science, like many forms of science, is slowly getting it right.

Reply by Dan Sarewitz

Normally I don’t respond to this kind of thing but a couple points demand rebuttal.

First:  I actually did read their book, cover-to-cover.  Neither the Guardian piece, nor the longer talk from which it draws, are book reviews, they are critiques of the larger intellectual program that The Knowledge Illusion positions itself within.

Second, the idea that deliberative and collaborative activities are a powerful sources of human creativity that overcome the cognitive limits of the individual is an entirely familiar one that has been well-recognized for centuries.  As Professor Sloman indicates, it occupies much of his book, and much of his comment above.  But it was not relevant to my concerns, which were how Sloman and co-author Fernbach position human cognitive limits as a source of so much difficulty in today’s world.  They write:  “Because we confuse the knowledge in our heads with the knowledge we have access to, we are largely unaware of how little we understand.  We live with the belief that we understand more than we do.  As we will explore in the rest of the book, many of society’s most pressing problems stem from this illusion.” [p. 129, my italics]  They wrote this, I didn’t.

Third, having read their book carefully, I am indeed well aware that Sloman and Fernbach understand the limits of the deficit model.  But as they make clear in a subsection of chapter 8, entitled “Filling the Deficit,” they still believe that IF ONLY people understood more about science, then “many of the societies most pressing problems” could be more effectively addressed:  “And the knowledge illusion means that we don’t check our understanding often or deeply enough.  This is a recipe for antiscientific thinking.” [p. 169] A page later they write: “[P]erhaps it is too soon to give up on the deficit model.”

This is where my posting sought to engage with Professor Sloman’s book.  I don’t think that people’s understanding of scientific knowledge has much at all to do with “many of society’s most pressing problems,” for reasons that I point toward in the Guardian piece, and have written extensively about in many other forums.  Professor Sloman may not agree with this position, but his comments above fail to indicate that he actually recognizes or understands it.

Finally, Professor Sloman writes, both tendentiously and with an apparently tone-deaf ear, that my “wild claim in favor of denialism is bluster: Science is making faster progress today than at any time in history.”  The progress of science is irrelevant to my argument, which addresses the intersection of politics and a scientific enterprise that is always pushing into the realm of the uncertain, the unknown, the unknowable, the contestable, the contingent—even as it also, sometimes and in some directions, makes magnificent progress.

Perhaps there is a valuable discussion to be had about whether poor understanding of science by the public is relevant to “many of society’s most pressing problems.”  My view is that this is an overblown, distracting, and to some extent dangerous belief on the part of some scientists, as I indicate in the Guardian post and in many other writings.  Professor Sloman may disagree, but his complaints here are about something else entirely, something that I didn’t write.

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Filed under Psychology Based Policy Studies, Uncategorized

Here’s why there is always an expectations gap in prevention policy

Prevention is the most important social policy agenda of our time. Many governments make a sincere commitment to it, backed up by new policy strategies and resources. Yet, they also make limited progress before giving up or changing tack. Then, a new government arrives, producing the same cycle of enthusiasm and despair. This fundamental agenda never seems to get off the ground. We aim to explain this ‘prevention puzzle’, or the continuous gap between policymaker expectations and actual outcomes.

What is prevention policy and policymaking?

When engaged in ‘prevention’, governments seek to:

  1. Reform policy. To move from reactive to preventive public services, intervening earlier in people’s lives to ward off social problems and their costs when they seem avoidable.
  2. Reform policymaking. To (a) ‘join up’ government departments and services to solve ‘wicked problems’ that transcend one area, (b) give more responsibility for service design to local public bodies, stakeholders, ‘communities’ and service users, and (c) produce long term aims for outcomes, and reduce short term performance targets.
  3. Ensure that policy is ‘evidence based’.

Three reasons why they never seem to succeed

We use well established policy theories/ studies to explain the prevention puzzle.

  1. They don’t know what prevention means. They express a commitment to something before defining it. When they start to make sense of it, they find out how difficult it is to pursue, and how many controversial choices it involves.
  2. They engage in a policy process that is too complex to control. They try to share responsibility with many actors and coordinate action to direct policy outcomes, without the ability to design those relationships and control policy outcomes. Yet, they need to demonstrate to the electorate that they are in control. When they make sense of policymaking, they find out how difficult it is to localise and centralise.
  3. They are unable and unwilling to produce ‘evidence based policymaking’. Policymakers seek ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather enough information to make ‘good enough’ decisions. When they seek evidence on preventing problems before they arise, they find that it is patchy, inconclusive, often counter to their beliefs, and unable to provide a ‘magic bullet’ to help make and justify choices.

Who knows what happens when they address these problems at the same time?

We draw on empirical and comparative UK and devolved government analysis to show in detail how policymaking differs according to the (a) type of government, (b) issue, and (c) era in which they operate.

Although it is reasonable to expect policymaking to be very different in, for example, the UK versus Scottish, or Labour versus Conservative governments, and in eras of boom versus austerity, a key part of our research is to show that the same basic ‘prevention puzzle’ exists at all times. You can’t simply solve it with a change of venue or government.

Our book – Why Isn’t Government Policy More Preventive? – is in press (Oxford University Press) and will be out in January 2020, with sample chapters appearing here. Our longer term agenda – via IMAJINE – is to examine how policymakers try to address ‘spatial justice’ and reduce territorial inequalities across Europe partly by pursuing prevention and reforming public services.



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

Evidence based policymaking: 7 key themes

7 themes of EBPM

I looked back at my blog posts on the politics of ‘evidence based policymaking’ and found that I wrote quite a lot (particularly from 2016). Here is a list based on 7 key themes.

1. Use psychological insights to influence the use of evidence

My most-current concern. The same basic theme is that (a) people (including policymakers) are ‘cognitive misers’ seeking ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information for action, so you won’t get far if you (b) bombard them with information, or (c) call them idiots.

Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers (shows how to use psychological insights to promote evidence in policymaking)

Using psychological insights in politics: can we do it without calling our opponents mental, hysterical, or stupid? (yes)

The Psychology of Evidence Based Policymaking: Who Will Speak For the Evidence if it Doesn’t Speak for Itself? (older paper, linking studies of psychology with studies of EBPM)

Older posts on the same theme:

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

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

These complaints about ignoring science seem biased and naïve – and too easy to dismiss

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

2. How to use policy process insights to influence the use of evidence

I try to simplify key insights about the policy process to show to use evidence in it. One key message is to give up on the idea of an orderly policy process described by the policy cycle model. What should you do if a far more complicated process exists?

Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking: 3 messages (3 ways to say that you should engage with the policy process that exists, not a mythical process that will never exist)

Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs (shows how entrepreneurs are influential in politics)

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking? and What does it take to turn scientific evidence into policy? Lessons for illegal drugs from tobacco and There is no blueprint for evidence-based policy, so what do you do? (3 posts describing the conditions that must be met for evidence to ‘win the day’)

Writing for Impact: what you need to know, and 5 ways to know it (explains how our knowledge of the policy process helps communicate to policymakers)

How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points (presentation to European Parliament-European University Institute ‘Policy Roundtable’ 2016)

Evidence Based Policy Making: 5 things you need to know and do (presentation to Open Society Foundations New York 2016)

What 10 questions should we put to evidence for policy experts? (part of a series of videos produced by the European Commission)

3. How to combine principles on ‘good evidence’, ‘good governance’, and ‘good practice’

My argument here is that EBPM is about deciding at the same time what is: (1) good evidence, and (2) a good way to make and deliver policy. If you just focus on one at a time – or consider one while ignoring the other – you cannot produce a defendable way to promote evidence-informed policy delivery.

Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy (summary of and link to our article on this very topic)

We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it? (presentation to the Scottish Government on 2016)

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

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

The politics of implementing evidence-based policies

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the intersection between evidence and policy transfer

Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

The politics of evidence and randomised control trials: the symbolic importance of family nurse partnerships

What Works (in a complex policymaking system)?

How Far Should You Go to Make Sure a Policy is Delivered?

4. Face up to your need to make profound choices to pursue EBPM

These posts have arisen largely from my attendance at academic-practitioner conferences on evidence and policy. Many participants tell the same story about the primacy of scientific evidence challenged by post-truth politics and emotional policymakers. I don’t find this argument convincing or useful. So, in many posts, I challenge these participants to think about more pragmatic ways to sum up and do something effective about their predicament.

Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice? (shows how our knowledge of policymaking clarifies dilemmas about engagement)

The role of ‘standards for evidence’ in ‘evidence informed policymaking’ (argues that a strict adherence to scientific principles may help you become a good researcher but not an effective policy influencer)

How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking? From ‘honest brokers’ to ‘research purists’ and Machiavellian manipulators (you have to make profound ethical and strategic choices when seeking to maximise the use of evidence in policy)

Principles of science advice to government: key problems and feasible solutions (calling yourself an ‘honest broker’ while complaining about ‘post-truth politics’ is a cop out)

What sciences count in government science advice? (political science, obvs)

I know my audience, but does my other audience know I know my audience? (compares the often profoundly different ways in which scientists and political scientists understand and evaluate EBPM – this matters because, for example, we rarely discuss power in scientist-led debates)

Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking? (no)

Idealism versus pragmatism in politics and policymaking: … evidence-based policymaking (how to decide between idealism and pragmatism when engaging in politics)

Realistic ‘realist’ reviews: why do you need them and what might they look like? (if you privilege impact you need to build policy relevance into systematic reviews)

‘Co-producing’ comparative policy research: how far should we go to secure policy impact? (describes ways to build evidence advocacy into research design)

The Politics of Evidence (review of – and link to – Justin Parkhurt’s book on the ‘good governance’ of evidence production and use)


5. For students and researchers wanting to read/ hear more

These posts are relatively theory-heavy, linking quite clearly to the academic study of public policy. Hopefully they provide a simple way into the policy literature which can, at times, be dense and jargony.

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

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

Practical Lessons from Policy Theories (series of posts on the policy process, offering potential lessons for advocates of evidence use in policy)

Writing a policy paper and blog post 

12 things to know about studying public policy

Can you want evidence based policymaking if you don’t really know what it is? (defines each word in EBPM)

Can you separate the facts from your beliefs when making policy? (no, very no)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure (Evaluation) (using evidence to evaluate policy is inevitably political)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning (so is learning from the experience of others)

Four obstacles to evidence based policymaking (EBPM)

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it? (read about it)

How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making? (on translating policy theories into useful advice)

The role of evidence in UK policymaking after Brexit (argues that many challenges/ opportunities for evidence advocates will not change after Brexit)

Why is there more tobacco control policy than alcohol control policy in the UK? (it’s not just because there is more evidence of harm)

Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking and The politics of evidence-based policymaking: focus on ambiguity as much as uncertainty and Revisiting the main ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy: focus on ambiguity, not uncertainty and The barriers to evidence based policymaking in environmental policy (early versions of what became the chapters of the book)

6. Using storytelling to promote evidence use

This is increasingly a big interest for me. Storytelling is key to the effective conduct and communication of scientific research. Let’s not pretend we’re objective people just stating the facts (which is the least convincing story of all). So far, so good, except to say that the evidence on the impact of stories (for policy change advocacy) is limited. The major complication is that (a) the story you want to tell and have people hear interacts with (b) the story that your audience members tell themselves.

Combine Good Evidence and Emotional Stories to Change the World

Storytelling for Policy Change: promise and problems

Is politics and policymaking about sharing evidence and facts or telling good stories? Two very silly examples from #SP16

7. The major difficulties in using evidence for policy to reduce inequalities

These posts show how policymakers think about how to combine (a) often-patchy evidence with (b) their beliefs and (c) an electoral imperative to produce policies on inequalities, prevention, and early intervention. I suggest that it’s better to understand and engage with this process than complain about policy-based-evidence from the side-lines. If you do the latter, policymakers will ignore you.

The UK government’s imaginative use of evidence to make policy 

What do you do when 20% of the population causes 80% of its problems? Possibly nothing.

The theory and practice of evidence-based policy transfer: can we learn how to reduce territorial inequalities?

We need better descriptions than ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’: the case of UK government ‘troubled families’ policy

How can you tell the difference between policy-based-evidence and evidence-based-policymaking?

Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

The politics of evidence and randomised control trials: the symbolic importance of family nurse partnerships

Two myths about the politics of inequality in Scotland

Social investment, prevention and early intervention: a ‘window of opportunity’ for new ideas?

A ‘decisive shift to prevention’: how do we turn an idea into evidence based policy?

Can the Scottish Government pursue ‘prevention policy’ without independence?

Note: these issues are discussed in similar ways in many countries. One example that caught my eye today:


All of this discussion can be found under the EBPM category:

See also the special issue on maximizing the use of evidence in policy

Palgrave C special


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, public policy, Storytelling, UK politics and policy

How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs

Tanya Krister

This is a guest post by Professor Tanya Heikkila (left) and  Professor Krister Andersson (right), discussing how to use insights from the institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework to think about how to design policy effectively. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Policy design is hard work. Attempts in the United States Congress to repeal and replace, or even revise, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the spring and summer or 2017 are good examples of the challenges.  Even setting aside issues of congressional partisanship, key lawmakers and President Trump seemed taken aback by how complex both the ACA and the underlying health care insurance issue are. Lawmakers struggled for several months, and failed, to come up with viable policy options that could make health insurance in the U.S. more cost-efficient, while providing flexibility to states, private firms, and individuals who must comply with the policy.

The recent experience in the US with revising the ACA is illustrative of a larger question:

How do policymakers or analysts navigate and design effective policies around complex collective problems?

Tips from the IAD framework

In general, these tips encourage a policymaker or analyst to take a step back and start with the basics—what we might call the research lessons for sound policy design. Below we offer a summary of three basic lessons.

1. People are capable of solving collective problems from the bottom-up, both outside and within government settings.

Some conventional wisdom has suggested that it’s best to leave policy design up to the “experts,” which might include technocrats, senior elected officials, or even benevolent dictators.

Institutional analysis research has shown, however, that people who are most closely tied to or affected by a policy issue, are not only capable but often best at designing policies. Excluding these groups from the design stage is likely to lead to weakened legitimacy resulting in less compliance.

One might assume that this idea only applies to localized issues, or problems that are small in scope.  Yet, in many formal policy settings or government venues, decision-makers similarly must learn to embrace the wisdom of their collectives, and of the actors affected by the policy issue.

Of course this takes time, because to do this well requires the development of trust, experience, and adequate information gathering. And in the case of a complex decision-making body like the US Congress, policymakers may believe it’s more important to take advantage of a political window of opportunity and push through decisions quickly. Additionally, individual elected officials may believe that their interests are best served by taking a position on an issue that seems to be most politically palatable to their constituents, without thinking in the interest of the whole country (or even their states).

This line of thinking back-fired in the summer of 2017 with the ACA repeal efforts. A more robust approach, as supported by the IAD-logic, would be for elected officials to take the time to build and open dialogue, work directly with key constituents in thinking about the best approach for health care for the country, and spend time with each other, in Congress and in state legislatures, to make to design and/or adapt policy toward more productive ends.

2. Use a framework to navigate the complexity of policy design

We can’t devise, amend, or adapt policy effectively without understanding it. Yet, people have a natural tendency to engage in reactionary and emotional reasoning when they are passionate about an issue. Even when not colored by emotional reasoning, policymakers and analysts also come with their own professional and cultural biases that can lead to ‘blind spots’.

Frameworks can help us guard against the tendency toward biased analyses or a focus on features of a policy that are most obvious. A good framework provides a toolkit for identifying the general factors that policymakers and other stakeholders should consider when developing new policies or trying to understanding existing policies.

The IAD framework, for instance, helps identify:

  • the relevant actors for devising and implementing policy
  • their information, knowledge motivations, and interactions
  • the various types of rules these actors already use
  • the biophysical and community context surrounding the actors
  • the evaluative criteria appropriate for assessing the policy in question.

It also helps us understand what external or broader rules can constrain or enable particular actions.  In other words, it makes us aware of our ‘blind spots’ and enables a deeper understanding of the factors that are important for effective policy design.

3. Stop looking for panaceas. Instead, understand the nuance of policy design

There are no silver bullets to policy designs. General blueprint solutions rarely work and it is important to design contextually appropriate policy interventions.

This requires scrutinizing the design elements of policies (e.g., the types of rules embedded in policies), and how they interact with the incentives and information that different actors use in devising or implementing a policy.

It also involves deep knowledge of the factors that can structure their choices in light of the local context where policies are used.  Policy designs ultimately are more likely to be successful when they acknowledge the autonomy and problem-solving capabilities of people whose behavior the interventions are trying to change.

In the context of the ACA, for instance, policymakers need to be tuned into the ways in which different rules for participating in health exchanges can affect the incentives for participation, which can be critical for keeping insurance costs down.

While these types of recommendations may seem intuitive, we often fail to follow them. Perhaps this is because they require extra time, which may mean we miss our windows of opportunity.

Ultimately, resisting the temptation to rush policy analysis and design, and instead engaging with people who understand the policy, using an analytical framework to mitigate our biases, and paying close attention to the nuances of policy design helps us produce more successful policies.


Filed under Uncategorized

Telling Stories that Shape Public Policy

This is a guest post by Michael D. Jones (left) and Deserai Anderson Crow (right), discussing how to use insights from the Narrative Policy Framework to think about how to tell effective stories to achieve policy goals. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Imagine. You are an ecologist. You recently discovered that a chemical that is discharged from a local manufacturing plant is threatening a bird that locals love to watch every spring. Now, imagine that you desperately want your research to be relevant and make a difference to help save these birds. All of your training gives you depth of expertise that few others possess. Your training also gives you the ability to communicate and navigate things such as probabilities, uncertainty, and p-values with ease.

But as NPR’s Robert Krulwich argues, focusing on this very specialized training when you communicate policy problems could lead you in the wrong direction. While being true to the science and best practices of your training, one must also be able to tell a compelling story.  Perhaps combine your scientific findings with the story about the little old ladies who feed the birds in their backyards on spring mornings, emphasizing the beauty and majesty of these avian creatures, their role in the community, and how the toxic chemicals are not just a threat to the birds, but are also a threat to the community’s understanding of itself and its sense of place.  The latest social science is showing that if you tell a good story, your policy communications are likely to be more effective.

Why focus on stories?

The world is complex. We are bombarded with information as we move through our lives and we seek patterns within that information to simplify complexity and reduce ambiguity, so that we can make sense of the world and act within it.

The primary means by which human beings render complexity understandable and reduce ambiguity is through the telling of stories. We “fit” the world around us and the myriad of objects and people therein, into story patterns. We are by nature storytelling creatures. And if it is true of us as individuals, then we can also safely assume that storytelling matters for public policy where complexity and ambiguity abound.

Based on our (hopefully) forthcoming article (which has a heavy debt to Jones and Peterson, 2017 and Catherine Smith’s popular textbook) here we offer some abridged advice synthesizing some of the most current social science findings about how best to engage public policy storytelling. We break it down into five easy steps and offer a short discussion of likely intervention points within the policy process.

The 5 Steps of Good Policy Narrating

  1. Tell a Story: Remember, facts never speak for themselves. If you are presenting best practices, relaying scientific information, or detailing cost/benefit analyses, you are telling or contributing to a story.  Engage your storytelling deliberately.
  2. Set the Stage: Policy narratives have a setting and in this setting you will find specific evidence, geography, legal parameters, and other policy consequential items and information.  Think of these setting items as props.  Not all stages can hold every relevant prop.  Be true to science; be true to your craft, but set your stage with props that maximize the potency of your story, which always includes making your setting amenable to your audience.
  3. Establish the Plot: In public policy plots usually define the problem (and polices do not exist without at least a potential problem). Define your problem. Doing so determines the causes, which establishes blame.
  4. Cast the Characters:  Having established a plot and defined your problem, the roles you will need your characters to play become apparent. Determine who the victim is (who is harmed by the problem), who is responsible (the villain) and who can bring relief (the hero). Cast characters your audience will appreciate in their roles.
  5. Clearly Specify the Moral: Postmodern films might get away without having a point.  Policy narratives usually do not. Let your audience know what the solution is.

Public Policy Intervention Points

There are crucial points in the policy process where actors can use narratives to achieve their goals. We call these “intervention points” and all intervention points should be viewed as opportunities to tell a good policy story, although each will have its own constraints.

These intervention points include the most formal types of policy communication such as crafting of legislation or regulation, expert testimony or statements, and evaluation of policies. They also include less formal communications through the media and by citizens to government.

Each of these interventions can frequently be dry and jargon-laden, but it’s important to remember that by employing effective narratives within any of them, you are much more likely to see your policy goals met.

When considering how to construct your story within one or more of the various intervention points, we urge you to first consider several aspects of your role as a narrator.

  1. Who are you and what are your goals? Are you an outsider trying to affect change to solve a problem or push an agency to do something it might not be inclined to do?  Are you an insider trying to evaluate and improve policy making and implementation? Understanding your role and your goals is essential to both selecting an appropriate intervention point and optimizing your narrative therein.
  2. Carefully consider your audience. Who are they and what is their posture towards your overall goal? Understanding your audience’s values and beliefs is essential for avoiding invoking defensiveness.
  3. There is the intervention point itself – what is the best way to reach your audience? What are the rules for the type of communication you plan to use? For example, media communications can be done with lengthy press releases, interviews with the press, or in the confines of a simple tweet.  All of these methods have both formal and informal constraints that will determine what you can and can’t do.

Without deliberate consideration of your role, audience, the intervention point, and how your narrative links all of these pieces together, you are relying on chance to tell a compelling policy story.

On the other hand, thoughtful and purposeful storytelling that remains true to you, your values, your craft, and your best understanding of the facts, can allow you to be both the ecologist and the bird lover.



Filed under public policy, Storytelling

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?

Swann Kim

This is a guest post by William L. Swann (left) and Seo Young Kim (right), discussing how to use insights from the Institutional Collective Action Framework to think about how to improve collaborative governance. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Collective Action_1

Many public policy problems cannot be addressed effectively by a single, solitary government. Consider the problems facing the Greater Los Angeles Area, a heavily fragmented landscape of 88 cities and numerous unincorporated areas and special districts. Whether it is combatting rising homelessness, abating the country’s worst air pollution, cleaning the toxic L.A. River, or quelling gang violence, any policy alternative pursued unilaterally is limited by overlapping authority and externalities that alter the actions of other governments.

Problems of fragmented authority are not confined to metropolitan areas. They are also found in multi-level governance scenarios such as the restoration of Chesapeake Bay, as well as in international relations as demonstrated by recent global events such as “Brexit” and the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. In short, fragmentation problems manifest at every scale of governance, horizontally, vertically, and even functionally within governments.

What is an ‘institutional collective action’ dilemma?

In many cases governments would be better off coordinating and working together, but they face barriers that prevent them from doing so. These barriers are what the policy literature refers to as ‘institutional collective action’ (ICA) dilemmas, or collective action problems in which a government’s incentives do not align with collectively desirable outcomes. For example, all governments in a region benefit from less air pollution, but each government has an incentive to free ride and enjoy cleaner air without contributing to the cost of obtaining it.

The ICA Framework, developed by Professor Richard Feiock, has emerged as a practical analytical instrument for understanding and improving fragmented governance. This framework assumes that governments must match the scale and coerciveness of the policy intervention (or mechanism) to the scale and nature of the policy problem to achieve efficient and desired outcomes.

For example, informal networks (a mechanism) can be highly effective at overcoming simple collective action problems. But as problems become increasingly complex, more obtrusive mechanisms, such as governmental consolidation or imposed collaboration, are needed to achieve collective goals and more efficient outcomes. The more obtrusive the mechanism, however, the more actors’ autonomy diminishes and the higher the transaction costs (monitoring, enforcement, information, and agency) of governing.

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Three ways to improve institutional collaborative governance

We explored what actionable steps policymakers can take to improve their results with collaboration in fragmented systems. Our study offers three general practical recommendations based on the empirical literature that can enhance institutional collaborative governance.

First, institutional collaboration is more likely to emerge and work effectively when policymakers employ networking strategies that incorporate frequent, face-to-face interactions.

Government actors networking with popular, well-endowed actors (“bridging strategies”) as well as developing closer-knit, reciprocal ties with a smaller set of actors (“bonding strategies”) will result in more collaborative participation, especially when policymakers interact often and in-person.

Policy network characteristics are also important to consider. Research on estuary governance indicates that in newly formed, emerging networks, bridging strategies may be more advantageous, at least initially, because they can provide organizational legitimacy and access to resources. However, once collaboratives mature, developing stronger and more reciprocal bonds with fewer actors reduces the likelihood of opportunistic behavior that can hinder collaborative effectiveness.

Second, policymakers should design collaborative arrangements that reduce transaction costs which hinder collaboration.

Well-designed collaborative institutions can lower the barriers to participation and information sharing, make it easier to monitor the behaviors of partners, grant greater flexibility in collaborative work, and allow for more credible commitments from partners.

Research suggests policymakers can achieve this by

  1. identifying similarities in policy goals, politics, and constituency characteristics with institutional partners
  2. specifying rules such as annual dues, financial reporting, and making financial records reviewable by third parties to increase commitment and transparency in collaborative arrangements
  3. creating flexibility by employing adaptive agreements with service providers, especially when services have limited markets/applications and performance is difficult to measure.

Considering the context, however, is crucial. Collaboratives that thrive on informal, close-knit, reciprocal relations, for example, may be severely damaged by the introduction of monitoring mechanisms that signal distrust.

Third, institutional collaboration is enhanced by the development and harnessing of collaborative capacity.

Research suggests signaling organizational competencies and capacities, such as budget, political support, and human resources, may be more effective at lowering barriers to collaboration than ‘homophily’ (a tendency to associate with similar others in networks). Policymakers can begin building collaborative capacity by seeking political leadership involvement, granting greater managerial autonomy, and looking to higher-level governments (e.g., national, state, or provincial governments) for financial and technical support for collaboration.

What about collaboration in different institutional contexts?

Finally, we recognize that not all policymakers operate in similar institutional contexts, and collaboration can often be mandated by higher-level authorities in more centralized nations. Nonetheless, visible joint gains, economic incentives, transparent rules, and equitable distribution of joint benefits and costs are critical components of voluntary or mandated collaboration.

Conclusions and future directions

The recommendations offered here are, at best, only the tip of the iceberg on valuable practical insight that can be gleaned from collaborative governance research. While these suggestions are consistent with empirical findings from broader public management and policy networks literatures, much could be learned from a closer inspection of the overlap between ICA studies and other streams of collaborative governance work.

Collaboration is a valuable tool of governance, and, like any tool, it should be utilized appropriately. Collaboration is not easily managed and can encounter many obstacles. We suggest that governments generally avoid collaborating unless there are joint gains that cannot be achieved alone. But the key to solving many of society’s intractable problems, or just simply improving everyday public service delivery, lies in a clearer understanding of how collaboration can be used effectively within different fragmented systems.


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Why Advocacy Coalitions Matter and How to Think about Them

Chris and Karin

This is a guest post by Professor Chris Weible (left) and Professor Karin Ingold (right), discussing how to use insights from the Advocacy Coalition Framework to think about how to engage in policymaking. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

There are many ways that people relate to their government.  People may vote for their formal representatives through elections.  Through referendums and initiatives, people can vote directly to shape public policy.  More indirect ways include through informal representation via political parties or interest groups and associations.

This blog addresses another extremely important way to relate government via “advocacy coalitions.”

What are advocacy coalitions?

Advocacy coalitions are alliances of people around a shared policy goal. People associated with the same advocacy coalition have similar ideologies and worldviews and wish to change a given policy (concerning health, environmental, or many other issues) in the same direction.

Advocacy coalitions can include anyone regularly seeking to influence a public policy, such as elected and government officials, members of political parties or interest groups, scientists, journalists, or members of trade unions and non-for-profit/ ‘third sector’ organizations.

The coalition is an informal network of allies that usually operate against an opposing coalition consisting of people who advocate for different policy directions.  As one coalition tries to outmaneuver the other, the result is a game of political one-upmanship of making and unmaking public policies that can last years to decades.

Political debates over normative issues endure for a long time, advocacy coalitions have the ability to span levels of government from local to national, and they integrate traditional points of influence in a political system, from electoral politics to regulatory decision-making.

How to think about coalitions and their settings

Consider the context in which political debates over policy issues occur. Context might include the socio-cultural norms and rules that shape what strategies might be affected and the usefulness of political resources.

The ACF elevates the importance of context from an overlooked set of opportunities and constraints to a set of factors that should be considered as conditioning political behavior.  We can develop coalition strategies and identify key political resources, but their utility and effectiveness will be contextually driven and will change over time. That is, what works for political influence today might not work in the future.

How to become involved in an advocacy coalition?

People engage in politics differently based on a range of factors, including how important the issue is to them, their available time, skills, and resources, and general motivations.

  • People with less time or knowledge can engage in coalitions as “auxiliary participants.”
  • Individuals for whom an issue is of high relevance, or those who see their major expertise in a specific subsystem, might want to shape coalition politics and strategies decisively and become “principal participants.”
  • People wanting to mitigate conflict might choose to play a “policy broker” role
  • People championing ideas can play the role of “policy entrepreneurs.”
  • General citizens can see themselves playing the role of a “political soldier” contributing to their cause when called upon by the leaders of any coalition.

How do coalitions form and maintain themselves? 

Underlying the coalition concept is an assumption that people are most responsive to threats to what they care about. Coalitions form because of these threats that might come from a rival’s proposed policy solutions, a particular characterization of problems, and from major events (e.g., a disaster). Motivated by fundamental values, the chronic presence of threats from opponents is another reason that coalitions persist. People stay mobilized because they know that, if they disengage, people with whom they disagree may influence societal outcomes.

How to identify an advocacy coalition?

There is no single way to identify a coalition, but here are four strategies to try.

  1. Look for people holding formal elected or unelected positions in government with authority and an interest to affect a public policy issue.
  2. Identify people from outside of government participating in the policy process (e.g., rulemaking, legislative hearings, etc.).
  3. Identify people with influential reputations that often seek to influence government through more informal means (e.g., blogging).
  4. Uncover those individuals who are not currently mobilized but who might be in the future, for example by identifying who is threatened or who could benefit from the policy decision.

These four strategies emphasize formal competences and informal relations, and the motivations that actors might have to participate in an issue.

This blog is more about how to think about relations between people and government and less on identifying concrete strategies for influencing government. Political strategies are not applicable all the time and vary in degree of success and failure based on a gamut of factors.

The best we can do is to offer ways of thinking about political engagement, such as through the ideas that are summarized here and then trust people to assess their current situation, and act in effective ways.


Filed under public policy