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:

Framing

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

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