Monthly Archives: January 2018

Policy in 500 words: uncertainty versus ambiguity

In policy studies, there is a profound difference between uncertainty and ambiguity:

  • Uncertainty describes a lack of knowledge or a worrying lack of confidence in one’s knowledge.
  • Ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem.

Both concepts relate to ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers do not have the ability to process all information relevant to policy problems. Instead, they employ two kinds of shortcut:

  • ‘Rational’. Pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain sources of information.
  • ‘Irrational’. Drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, and habits.

I make an artificially binary distinction, uncertain versus ambiguous, and relate it to another binary, rational versus irrational, to point out the pitfalls of focusing too much on one aspect of the policy process:

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve uncertainty by generating more information or drawing greater attention to the available information.

Actors can try to solve uncertainty by: (a) improving the quality of evidence, and (b) making sure that there are no major gaps between the supply of and demand for evidence. Relevant debates include: what counts as good evidence?, focusing on the criteria to define scientific evidence and their relationship with other forms of knowledge (such as practitioner experience and service user feedback), and what are the barriers between supply and demand?, focusing on the need for better ways to communicate.

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve ambiguity by focusing on one interpretation of a policy problem at the expense of another.

Actors try to solve ambiguity by exercising power to increase attention to, and support for, their favoured interpretation of a policy problem. You will find many examples of such activity spread across the 500 and 1000 words series:

A focus on reducing uncertainty gives the impression that policymaking is a technical process in which people need to produce the best evidence and deliver it to the right people at the right time.

In contrast, a focus on reducing ambiguity gives the impression of a more complicated and political process in which actors are exercising power to compete for attention and dominance of the policy agenda. Uncertainty matters, but primarily to describe the role of a complex policymaking system in which no actor truly understands where they are or how they should exercise power to maximise their success.

Further reading:


The politics of evidence-based policymaking

To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty

How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies

Here is the relevant opening section in UPP:

p234 UPP ambiguity

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Filed under 500 words, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Storytelling

Of my two favourite NE Scotland beaches, this one is less touched by Trump

I love St Cyrus beach. This fact may explain why I took so many short videos along the 90 minute round trip. On days like today, you almost get the whole beach to yourself because of the weather. Yet, it’s the best time to go because the waves are so dramatic, the water against the rocks is hypnotic, and the sand blows along the surface in such a beautiful way. Coco and Mabel are keen too.



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

This post describes a new article published in British Politics (Open Access).

In retrospect, I think the title was too subtle and clever-clever. I wanted to convey two meanings: imaginative as a euphemism for ridiculous/ often cynical and to argue that a government has to be imaginative with evidence. The latter has two meanings: imaginative (1) in the presentation and framing of evidence-informed agenda, and (2) when facing pressure to go beyond the evidence and envisage policy outcomes.

So I describe two cases in which its evidence-use seems cynical, when:

  1. Declaring complete success in turning around the lives of ‘troubled families’
  2. Exploiting vivid neuroscientific images to support ‘early intervention’

Then I describe more difficult cases in which supportive evidence is not clear:

  1. Family intervention project evaluations are of limited value and only tentatively positive
  2. Successful projects like FNP and Incredible Years have limited applicability or ‘scalability’

As scientists, we can shrug our shoulders about the uncertainty, but elected policymakers in government have to do something. So what do they do?

At this point of the article it will look like I have become an apologist for David Cameron’s government. Instead, I’m trying to demonstrate the value of comparing sympathetic/ unsympathetic interpretations and highlight the policy problem from a policymaker’s perspective:

Cairney 2018 British Politics discussion section

I suggest that they use evidence in a mix of ways to: describe an urgent problem, present an image of success and governing competence, and provide cover for more evidence-informed long term action.

The result is the appearance of top-down ‘muscular’ government and ‘a tendency for policy to change as is implemented, such as when mediated by local authority choices and social workers maintaining a commitment to their professional values when delivering policy’

I conclude by arguing that ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’ are political slogans with minimal academic value. The binary divide between EBP/ PBE distracts us from more useful categories which show us the trade-offs policymakers have to make when faced with the need to act despite uncertainty.

Cairney British Politics 2018 Table 1

As such, it forms part of a far wider body of work …

In both cases, the common theme is that, although (1) the world of top-down central government gets most attention, (2) central governments don’t even know what problem they are trying to solve, far less (3) how to control policymaking and outcomes.

See also:

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

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking?

(found by searching for early intervention)

See also:

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

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

(found by searching for prevention)

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), POLU9UK, Prevention policy, UK politics and policy

The Politics of Evidence revisited

This is a guest post by Dr Justin Parkhurst, responding to a review of our books by Dr Joshua Newman, and my reply to that review.

I really like that Joshua Newman has done this synthesis of 3 recent books covering aspects of evidence use in policy. Too many book reviews these days just describe the content, so some critical comments are welcome, as is the comparative perspective.

I’m also honoured that my book was included in the shortlist (it is available here, free as an ebook: for interested readers) and I’d like to follow on from Paul to add some discussion points to the debate here – with replies to both Joshua and Paul (hoping first names are acceptable).

Have we heard all this before?

Firstly, I agree with Paul that saying ‘we’ve heard this all before’ risks speaking about a small community of active researchers who study these issues, and not the wider community. But I’d also add that what we’ve heard before is a starting point to many of these books, not where they end up.

In terms of where we start: I’m sure many of us who work in this field are somewhat frustrated at meetings when we hear people making statements that are well established in the literature. Some examples include:

  • “There can be many types of evidence, not just scientific research…”
  • “In the legal field, ‘evidence’ means something different…”
  • “We need evidence-based policy, not policy-based evidence…”
  • “We need to know ‘what works’ to get evidence into policy…”

Thus, I do think there is still a need to cement the foundations of the field more strongly – in essence, to establish a disciplinary baseline that people weighing in on a subject should be expected to know about before providing additional opinions. One way to help do this is for scholars to continue to lay out the basic starting points in our books – typically in the first chapter or two.

Of course, other specialist fields and disciplines have managed to establish their expertise to a point that individuals with opinions on a subject typically have some awareness that there is a field of study out there which they don’t necessarily know about. This is most obvious in the natural sciences (and perhaps in economics). E.g. most people (current presidents of some large North American countries aside?) are aware that don’t know a lot about engineering, medicine, or quantum physics – so they won’t offer speculative or instinctive opinions about why airplanes stay in the air, how to do bypass surgery, or what was wrong with the ‘Ant-Man’ film. Or when individuals do offer views, they are typically expected to know the basics of the subject.

For the topic of evidence and policy, I often point people to Huw Davies, Isabel Walter, and Sandra Nutley’s book Using Evidence, which is a great introduction to much of this field, as well as Carol Weiss’ insights from the late 70s on the many meanings of research utilisation. I also routinely point people to read The Honest Broker by Roger Pielke Jr. (which I, myself, failed to read before writing my book and, as such, end up repeating many of his points – I’ve apologised to him personally).

So yes, I think there is space for work like ours to continue to establish a baseline, even if some of us know this, because the expertise of the field is not yet widely recognised or established. Yet I think is it not accurate for Joshua to argue we end up repeating what is known, considering our books diverge in key ways after laying out some of the core foundations.

Where do we go from there?

More interesting for this discussion, then, is to reflect on what our various books try to do beyond simply laying out the basics of what we know about evidence use and policy. It is here where I would disagree with Joshua’s point claiming we don’t give a clear picture about the ‘problem’ that ‘evidence-based policy’ (his term – one I reject) is meant to address. Speaking only for my own book, I lay out the problem of bias in evidence use as the key motivation driving both advocates of greater evidence use as well as policy scholars critical of (oversimplified) knowledge translation efforts. But I distinguish between two forms of bias: technical bias – whereby evidence is used in ways that do not adhere to scientific best practice and thus produce sub-optimal social outcomes; and issue bias – whereby pieces of evidence, or mechanisms of evidence use, can obscure the important political choices in decision making, skewing policy choices towards those things that have been measured, or are conducive to measurement. Both of these forms of bias are violations of widely held social values – values of scientific fidelity on the one hand, and of democratic representation on the other. As such, for me, these are the problems that I try to consider in my book, exploring the political and cognitive origins of both, in order to inform thinking on how to address them.

That said, I think Joshua is right in some of the distinctions he makes between our works in how we try to take this field forward, or move beyond current challenges in differing ways. Paul takes the position that researchers need to do something, and one thing they can do is better understand politics and policy making. I think Paul’s writings about policy studies for students is superb (see his book and blog posts about policy concepts). But in terms of applying these insights to evidence use, this is where we most often diverge. I feel that keeping the focus on researchers puts too much emphasis on achieving ‘uptake’ of researcher’s own findings. In my view, I would point to three potential (overlapping) problems with this.

  • First – I do not think it is the role or responsibility of researchers to do this, but rather a failure to establish the right system of evidence provision;
  • Second – I feel it leaves unstated the important but oft ignored normative question of how ‘should’ evidence be used to inform policy;
  • Third – I believe these calls rest on often unstated assumptions about the answer to the second point which we may wish to challenge.

In terms of the first point: I’m more of an institutionalist (as Joshua points out). My view is that the problems around non-use or misuse of evidence can be seen as resulting from a failure to establish appropriate systems that govern the use of evidence in policy processes. As such, the solution would have to lie with institutional development and changes (my final chapter advocates for this) that establish systems which serve to achieve the good governance of evidence.

Paul’s response to Joshua says that researchers are demanding action, so he speaks to them. He wants researchers to develop “useful knowledge of the policy process in which they might want to engage” (as he says above).  Yet while some researchers may wish to engage with policy processes, I think it needs to be clear that doing so is inherently a political act – and can take on a role of issue advocacy by promoting those things you researched or measured over other possible policy considerations (points made well by Roger Pielke Jr. in The Honest Broker). The alternative I point towards is to consider what good systems of evidence use would look like. This is the difference between arguing for more uptake of research, vs. arguing for systems through which all policy relevant evidence can be seen and considered in appropriate ways – regardless of the political savvy, networking, or activism of any given researcher (in my book I have chapters reflecting on what appropriate evidence for policy might be, and what a good process for its use might be, based on particular widely shared values).

In terms of the second and third points – my book might be the most explicit in its discussion of the normative values guiding efforts to improve evidence, and I am more critical than some about the assumption that getting researchers work ‘used’ by policymakers is a de-facto good thing. This is why I disagree with Joshua’s conclusion that my work frames the problem as ‘bridging the gap’. Rather I’d say I frame the problem as asking the question of ‘what does a better system of evidence use look like from a political perspective?’ My ‘good governance of evidence’ discussion presents an explicitly normative framework based the two sets of values mentioned above – those around democratic accountability and around fidelity to scientific good practice – both of which have been raised as important in discussions about evidence use in political processes.

Is the onus on researchers?

Finally, I also would argue against Joshua’s conclusion that my work places the burden of resolving the problems on researchers. Paul argues above that he does this but with good reason. I try not to do this. This is again because my book is not making an argument for more evidence to be ‘used’ per se. (and I don’t expect policy makers to just want to use it either). Rather I focus on identifying principles by which we can judge systems of evidence use, calling for guided incremental changes within national systems.

While I think academics can play an important role in establishing ‘best practice’ ideas, I explicitly argue that the mandate to establish, build, or incrementally change evidence advisory systems lies with the representatives of the people. Indeed, I include ‘stewardship’ as a core principle of my good governance of evidence framework to show that it should be those individuals who are accountable to the public that build these systems in different countries. Thus, the burden lies not with academics, but rather with our representatives – and, indirectly with all of us through the demands we make on them – to improve systems of evidence use.


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The global study of governance and public policy

Cairney GPP Iran

I was invited by Dr Emamian from the Governance and Policy Think Tank to deliver this short lecture at the first ‘governance and public policy conference’ in Iran. I was unable to attend, so recorded a set of short video presentations supplemented by blog discussion. The topics to be covered include the importance of a scholarly network for policy studies, the need for a set of core policy concepts to act as a technical language for that network, and the need to apply that language to explain shifts in government and regulation towards ‘regulatory governance’.

Please note that my choice to record the videos in my garden (while I look up) seemed good at the time, for some very good reasons that I won’t get into. However, you will see that I become increasingly cold and annoyed at being cold. I can only apologize for my face and the fact that I was too cold to remember to put on my professional voice.

Using shared concepts in a scholarly network of policy researchers

Our aim may be to produce a global network of policy scholars, in two main ways:

  1. To foster meetings and discussion, such as via this conference and others such as the ICPP and ECPR
  2. To make sure that we are talking about the same thing. Most of the theories to which I refer are based on studies of countries like the US and UK. Their prominence contributes to a ‘global north’ perspective which can be useful in the abstract but with uncertain applicability across the globe.

For example, when considering the applicability of US-inspired theories, think about their taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of a political system, in which leaders in many levels and types of government are elected regularly, there is a constitution guaranteeing a division of powers across legislative-executive-judicial branches and between federal/subnational levels, and people describe a ‘pluralist’ system in which many groups mobilise and counter-mobilise to influence policy.

What happens when we stop taking this political context for granted? Do these theories remain as relevant?

Which concepts do we use?

I describe two main abstract concepts then invite you to think about how to apply them in more concrete circumstances.

  1. Bounded rationality, not comprehensive rationality.

No-one can understand fully the world in which we live. Individuals can only understand and pay attention to a tiny part of key aspects of the world such as political systems.

Indeed, a handy phrase to remember is that almost all people must ignore almost everything almost all of the time.

Yet, they must make choices despite uncertainty, perhaps by adopting ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics. In other words, we may see all human choices as flawed when compared with an ideal of perfect decision-making. On the other hand, we may marvel at the ways in which humans make often-good choices despite their limitations.

Individual policymakers use two short-cuts to gather enough information to make choices:

  • ‘Rational’, in which they adopt measures to ensure that they have good enough information to inform decisions. For example, they prioritise certain written sources of information and draw on people they consider to be experts.
  • ‘Irrational’, in which they rely on things like gut instinct, habit, and emotion to make snap decisions.

In that context, policy scholarship involves the study of how people make and influence those choices. One part is about the role of evidence, in which people produce information to reduce uncertainty about the nature of the world. However, the more important study is of how people understand the world in the first place. As policy scholars, we focus on ambiguity, to describe the many ways in which people choose to understand the same problems, and the exercise of power to influence those choices.

  1. A complex policymaking environment, not a policy cycle.

Things get more complicated when we move from the analysis of (a) key individuals to (b) the interaction between many individuals and organisations in a complex policymaking ‘system’ or ‘environment’. Policy scholars describe this environment in many different ways, using different concepts, but we can identify a core set of terms on which to focus:

  • Actors. There are many policy influencers and policymakers in many authoritative venues spread across many levels and types of government.
  • Institutions. Each venue has its own rules, including the formal, written-down, and easy to understand rules, versus the informal norms, cultures, and practices which are difficult to identify and describe.
  • Networks. Policymakers and influencers form relationships based on factors such as trust, authority, and the exchange of resources such as information and support.
  • Ideas. People communicate their beliefs, about policy problems and potential solutions, within a wider understanding of the world (often described as a paradigm or hegemony). Some of that understanding is taken-for-granted and not described, and people limit their analysis and argument according to the ways in which they think other people see the world.
  • Socioeconomic context and events. Policymakers often have to respond to policy conditions and events over which they have limited control, such geographic, demographic, and economic factors. These factors help produce non-routine ‘events’ alongside more predictable events such as elections (or other means to ensure a change of government).

In that context, policy scholarship focuses on producing theories to explain what happens when policymakers have limited control over their political systems and policymaking environments.

How far do these concepts travel?

As you can see, these concepts are widely applicable because they are abstract. What happens when we try to apply them to specific countries or case studies? For example:

  1. We talk about policymakers using cognitive, moral, and emotional shortcuts, but those shortcuts can vary profoundly across the globe.
  2. Each political system has a different collection of authoritative venues, formal and informal rules of politics, networks of power, ways to describe how the world works and should work, and socioeconomic context.

This is where our global network becomes valuable, to help us describe how we make sense of the same concepts in very different ways, and consider the extent to which such discussions are comparable.

Example: how do governments address an ‘era of governance’?

One way to foster such discussion is to consider how governments address the limits to their powers. These limits are described in many different ways, from a focus on ‘complexity’ and policy outcomes which ‘emerge’ from local activity (despite attempts by central governments to control outcomes), to a focus on the shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’.

As policy scholars, we can make several useful distinctions to describe these dynamics, such as to separate an actual shift in policymaking from government to governance, versus a shift in the way we now describe government.

Or, we can separate how governments can, do, and should address the limits to their powers.

I’d say that most policy scholarship focuses on how governments operate: how they actually address problems and what are the – intended and unintended – consequences.

However, these studies are trying to describe the tensions between what governments can do, given the limits I describe, and what they think they should do, given their position of authority and their need to describe their success.

For example, some systems may be more conducive to the support for ‘polycentric governance’, in which many authoritative venues cooperate to address problems, while others are built on the idea of central control and the concentration of authority in a small group of actors.

Therefore, the study of actual policymaking and outcomes will vary markedly according to the ways in which government actors feel they need to assert an image of control over a policy environment which is almost immune to control.

Perhaps an ‘era of governance’ describes some recognition by many governments that they need to find new ways to address their limited control over policy outcomes, both domestically and globally. However, an enduring theme in political science and policy studies is that we do not explain policymaking well if we restrict our attention to the ‘rational’ decisions of a small number of actors. Let’s not make too many assumptions about their power and motive.

Further reading:

The New Policy Sciences

How to Communicate Effectively with Policymakers

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking

Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.

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