Monthly Archives: July 2018

We are recruiting a Lecturer or Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling

I am the pre-interview contact point and these are my personal thoughts on that process, which blend background information and some helpful advice. This advice is designed to mimic – as far as possible – the conversation we might have if you knew me and called me up for an informal conversation. If I’m doing it right, no candidate will be disadvantaged by having no personal or other connection to the University before submission. There is also an update at the end.

Please see our Vacancy page for the details and ‘further particulars’ (FPs). The lectureship is almost certainly an ‘open ended’ contract and we do not have a ‘tenure-track’ system in which you need to prepare for a key hurdle while in post.

There are 10 politics staff in our division, so you will have the chance to play an important part of a group which is small enough to act collectively.

Why do we make reference to ‘feminist or post-colonial approaches’ in the FPs?

We now have a 5 women/ 5 men balance but almost all of our staff are white European. The latter sends one signal about our recruitment to date, but we hope that our FPs send another. We are not interested in projecting the sense that we support any staffing imbalances that currently exist. So, we worded the further particulars to ‘signal’ that we have realistic hopes of producing a more diverse and gender-balanced short list. Usually, job adverts will have a pro-forma statement about equalities, but we are trying to go one step further to signal – albeit with rather subtle cues – that we have thought about this issue a bit more; that we’d like to expand our networks and the ways in which our staff approach the study of politics. We are trying to make sure that our current set up does not put off people of colour from applying, signal that we have had some success in recruiting from a subject pool in which there is (I think) a relatively good gender balance, and signal support for research topics that might help expand our current offering.

These notes are also there to address a potentially major imbalance in the informal side to recruitment: if you do not have the contacts and networks that help give you the confidence to seek information (on the things not mentioned in the further particulars), here is the next best thing: the information I’d give you on the phone. However, if you reach interview stage, we really should talk. This post is no substitute for more in-depth questions from a small group of candidates about to take the final step.

We hope to make this kind of informal advice a routine part of the application process, as part of our commitment to innovative best practice and Athena SWAN. Therefore, if you find it useful, but have some advice on how to make it better, please let me know.

Here are some tips on the application and interview processes.

The application process:

  • At this stage, the main documents are the CV and the cover letter.
  • You should keep the cover letter short to show your skills at concise writing. Focus on what you can offer the Division specifically, given the nature of our call and further particulars.
  • Shortlisted candidates at the SL level will likely be established lecturers with a strong record on publications, income, and leadership, so what makes you stand out? Lecturers will be competing with many people who have completed a PhD, so what makes your CV stand out?
  • Note that you will have the chance to play an important part of a group which is small enough (10 in Politics, as part of a larger Division with History) to act collectively. You can, for example, influence its research direction (as a group, we hold regular 90 minute research workshops for that purpose) and make key contributions to our teaching programme reviews. If so, what would you say?
  • Focus on what you have already done when discussing what you will promise to do over the next five years. Those plans seem more realistic if there is already some sort of track record.
  • We take teaching very seriously. Within our division, we plan an overall curriculum together, discuss regularly if it is working, and come to agreements about how to teach and assess work. We pride ourselves on being a small and friendly bunch of people, open to regular student contact and, for example, committed to meaningful and regular feedback. You might think about how you would contribute in that context. In particular, you should think about how you would deliver large undergraduate courses (in which you may only be an expert on some of the material) as well as the smaller, more specialist and advanced, courses closer to your expertise.
  • There is a lot of advice out there about how to write a cover letter, including describing your teaching and research philosophies. Some of it might be universally applicable, but beware advice geared (for example) towards a US market in which the assumptions and requirements can be very different. I tend to be quite ‘practical’ when reading them at the first stage (as one of several people doing the shortlisting). I am looking for efficient ways to identify who meets/ does not meet the criteria listed in the FPs and, to be honest, at this stage I am more interested in the ‘nuts and bolts’ issues on things like publication record and the specific courses you have taught (topic, size, duration of experience, etc.) than your wider philosophy. My colleague from the Faculty across the lake, Dr Peter Mathews, also describes his process here:

and here

The interview process

By the interview stage, you should almost certainly have a conversation with me to make sure that you are well prepared. For example, here are the things that you really should know at that stage:

  • The teaching and research specialisms of the division and their links to cross-divisional research.
  • The kinds of courses that the division would expect you to teach.

Perhaps most importantly, you need to be able to articulate why you want to come and work at Stirling. ‘Why Stirling?’ (then perhaps ‘Why this division?’) is almost always the first question in an interview, so you should think about it in advance. We recommend doing some research on Stirling and the division/ faculty, to show in some detail that you have a considered reply (beyond ‘it is a beautiful campus’). We will see through a generic response in a heartbeat and, since it is the first question, your answer will set the tone for the rest of the interview. You might check, for example, who you might share interests with in the Division, and how you might  develop links beyond the division (for example, the Centre for Gender & Feminist Studies in our school) or faculty (such as the Faculty of Social Sciences) – since this is likely to be a featured question too. Try not to depend too much on our website though (just in case it’s out of date in some respects).

  • Then you might think about what you would bring to the University in a wider sense, such as through well-established (domestic and international) links with other scholars in academic networks.
  • Further, since ‘impact’ is of major importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

The presentation plus interview format

In our system there tend to be presentations to divisional (and other interested) staff in the morning, with interviews in the afternoon. The usual expectation is that if you can’t make the date, you can’t get the job (although we can make accommodations to, for example, help you interview via Skype).

  • We recommend keeping the presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. If in doubt, keep it short. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in research and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University.
  • Almost all of the interview panel will not be in the audience for your presentation (I’ll be the likely exception), and they will not be briefed before your interview. So, treat them as separate exercises for separate audiences.
  • The usual interview panel format at this level is five members: one subject specialist from the Division (me), one other member of the Faculty (not necessarily from our division), the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Humanities (Prof Richard Oram), a senior manager of the University (in the chair), and a senior academic in another Faculty (for example, Dean of Natural Sciences Prof Maggie Cusack).
  • So, it is possible that only 1 member of your panel will be a specialist in Politics. This means that (at the very least) you need to describe your success – in your cover note, CV, and interview – in a way that a wider audience will appreciate. For example, you would have to explain the significance of a single-author article in the APSR or ISQ! Or, if you prefer, you would have to explain why you would publish somewhere more appropriate.

It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well. You might struggle to retain all of our names (nerves!), so focus on the types of question we ask – for example, the general question to get you started will be from the senior manager, and the research question from the divisional representative. There are often more men than women on the panel, and they are usually all-white panels, but I hope that we are providing other more useful signals about our commitment to equality and diversity.

I am happy to answer your questions. We can try email first – – and then phone or Zoom if you prefer.

Good luck!


I’ve spoken with a few candidates so far, and here are some things that come up fairly regularly. I’m more direct/ frank on the phone, but you can still get the idea here:

  1. I’m telling potential applicants that it’s not really me they need to impress. Instead, I help them think about how to frame their CV and cover note in relation to (a) what they are good at and (b) what we need. The answer to the ‘why Stirling’ question is often about the good fit between candidate and position.
  2. I’m describing the difference between immediate needs (in a team of about 10) and longer term benefits. For example, it would be good to describe your contribution to learning across many degree subjects, but better to project that you could organise and teach on at least one of our four sub-honours modules (British Isles, Ideologies, Comparative, Political Thinkers) or take on the 3rd year methods course, which is currently, the biggest job of our departing SL. You wouldn’t actually teach/ coordinate more than one, but the ability to do so gives us an idea of your experience (and the difference between someone who has done it or would be doing it for the first time). Another example is research. Interdisciplinarity is great. I am a convert and a big fan. However, more immediately, we need you to show us how you would boost our Unit of Assessment’s submission to the REF.
  3. People occasionally wonder aloud in some way if I’m doing all I can to recruit a woman of colour. Instead, I’m trying to do one small thing to address our context, which can be simplified as follows: (a) if we provide a generic statement of the post and a pro forma on equality and diversity, we often find that about 3/4 of the applicants are men (and almost all of the people contacting me directly are men); (b) if we project just a little bit of self awareness, about half of the applicants are women. The last time we advertised this specific post, more than 3/4 of applicants were men and the shortlist of five was all men.  This time, I expect 50/50. I’m not confident about how to encourage a more ‘level playing field’ for people of colour as effectively, so I’d appreciate any sensible suggestions.
  4.  I have never heard any senior manager rule out the best candidates for immigration reasons.
  5. It’s not cheating to send me an email

See also:

Some older advice about interviews

Previous posts on our recruitment


Filed under Athena Swan, Uncategorized

How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas

If you have read Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? and What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? then join me as we get into the thornier dilemmas in this punchline post. Maybe you already appreciate the importance of bounded rationality and policymaking complexity. Maybe you’ve read the gazillion posts which think through the relationship between ‘evidence based policymaking’ and policy theories and now hope that there’s nothing more to say. Well, you hope in vain.

This post compares some general bland advice, based on these posts, to the dilemmas that you might encounter if you really take key parts of these theories to heart.

FUSE slide 5 bland

My first aim is to compare the ‘how to’ advice that you might take from policy theories versus the grey literature.

Policy concepts describe a wider context in which to produce practical advice:

  • If there are so many potential authoritative venues, devote considerable energy to finding where the ‘action’ is.
  • Even if you find the right venue, you will not know the unwritten rules unless you study them intensely.
  • Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour some sources of evidence.
  • Research advocates can be privileged insiders in some venues and excluded completely in others.
  • If your evidence challenges an existing paradigm, you need a persuasion strategy good enough to prompt a shift of attention to a policy problem and a willingness to understand that problem in a new way.
  • You can try to find the right time to use evidence to exploit a crisis leading to major policy change, but the opportunities are few and chances of success low.
  • And so on.

In that context, theory-informed studies recommend investing your time over the long term – to built up alliances, trust in the messenger, knowledge of the system, and to seek ‘windows of opportunity’ for policy change – but offer no assurances that any of this investment will ever pay off.

The despair does not stop there. More specific theories and studies help us combine practical considerations with the ethical dilemmas that evidence advocates face when trying to be effective in a highly political policymaking environment.

First, refresh your memory of key images of the policy process. Or, if you are on a PC, you can keep the two tabs open for comparison.

Second, consider the following staircase analogy in which the ethical dilemmas – regarding how far you should go to get attention for your evidence – seems to become more problematic with each upwards step:

Step 1: Change levels of attention to issues, not minds.

The narrative policy framework (NPF) suggests that ‘narratives’ – consisting of a setting, characters, plot, and moral – can produce a measurable policy impact, but primarily to reinforce the beliefs of policy actors. The existing beliefs of the audience often seem more important than the skills of the storyteller. Therefore, to maximise the impact of evidence, (a) tell a story which appeals to the biases of your audiences, and (b) employ ‘heresthetic’ strategies in which we try to increase the salience of one belief at the expense of another rather than ask someone to change their belief entirely.

Step 2: Engage only with actors who share your beliefs.

The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) suggests that actors enter politics to turn their beliefs into policy. In highly salient issues, coalition actors romanticise their own cause and demonize their opponents. This competition extends to the use of evidence: each coalition may demand different evidence, or interpret the same evidence differently, to support their own cause. If so, the most feasible strategy may be to treat evidence as a resource to support the coalitions which support your cause, and to engage minimally with competitor coalitions who seek to ignore or discredit your evidence. Only in less salient issues will we find a ‘brokerage’ role for scientists.

Step 3: Exercise power to limit debate and dominate policymaker attention.

Punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) suggests that policy actors frame issues to limit external attention. If they can define a problem successfully as solved, bar the technical details relating to regulation and implementation, they can help reduce external attention and privilege the demand for evidence from scientific experts.

Step 4. Frame evidence to be consistent with objectionable beliefs.

Social construction and policy design theory (SCPD) suggests that, when dealing with salient issues, policymakers exploit social stereotypes strategically, or rely on their emotions, to define target populations as deserving of government benefits or punishments. Some populations can challenge (or exploit the rewards of) their image, but many are powerless to respond. Or, in lower salience issues, there is more scope for bureaucrats and experts to contain discussion to small groups (as in the discussion of PET). In both cases, many social groups become disenchanted with politics because they are punished by government policy and excluded from debate. To find an influential audience for evidence, one may be most effective by framing evidence to be sympathetic to stereotype-led or other forms of misleading political strategy.

The main role of these discussions is to expose the assumptions that we make about the primacy of research evidence and the lengths to which we are willing to go to privilege its use. Policy studies suggest that the most effective ways to privilege research evidence may be to:

  • manipulate the order in which we consider issues and make choices
  • refuse to engage in debate with our competitors
  • frame issues to minimise attention or maximise the convergence between evidence and the rhetorical devices of cynical politicians.

However, they also expose stark ethical dilemmas regarding the consequences for democracy. Put simply, the most effective evidence advocacy strategies may be inconsistent with wider democratic principles and key initiatives such as participatory policymaking.

If so, these discussions prompt us to consider the ways in which we can value research evidence up to a certain point, to produce more ‘co-productive’ strategies which balance efforts to limit participation (to privilege expertise) and encourage it (to privilege deliberative and participatory forms of democracy). This approach is more honest and realistic than the more common story that science is, by its very nature, the antidote to populist or dysfunctional politics.

[If you came here in error, or to continue your adventure, go to page 100]

See also:

EBPM key themes

Policy theories in 1000 words (or short podcasts) and 500 words


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles

Read this discussion first, then have a look at this table. It sums up two debates which ‘play out at the same time: epistemological and methodological disagreements on the nature of good evidence; and, practical or ideological disagreements regarding the best way for national policymakers to translate evidence into local policy and practice’.

The table describes three ideal-type approaches to the need to combine two judgements on: (1) how best to produce and share evidence, and (2) the most appropriate way to balance central and local government responsibilities.

3 ideal types EBPM

It provides a simple way to think about how far you would go to privilege the use of scientific evidence in policy.

For example, let’s say that you like the look of a hierarchy of evidence in which RCTs and their systematic review are at the top. Are you happy to minimise local autonomy (to co-produce and redesign public services) to ensure fidelity to the same policy intervention?

Or, let’s say that you favour governance principles which emphasise localism, respect for user-driven service design, and sharing practitioner experience. Are you happy to dispense with many scientific ways to evaluate policy success?

Or, let’s say that you want good evidence and respectful governance. Does the improvement method give you the best or worst of both worlds?

Reflecting on these choices, I suggest that:

‘A commitment to ‘scaling up evidence-based best practice’ seems like an innocuous and technical exercise that can be built primarily on academic expertise. However, we can identify the role of politics when we highlight the choices that scientists and governments make to gather evidence and ensure policy diffusion. These choices are not simply technical. Rather, they are between fundamentally different approaches to evidence and governance. Policymaking strategies can vary markedly, based on attitudes to hierarchies of evidence and the willingness of central governments to encourage local policymakers to learn and adapt rather than impose the same model’.

Dr Kathryn Oliver and I conclude that:

‘Evidence-based policymaking is not just about the need for policymakers to understand how evidence is produced and should be used. It is also about the need for academics to reflect on the assumptions they make about the best ways to gather evidence and put the results into practice, in a political environment where other people may not share, or even know about, their understanding of the world; and the difference between the identification of evidence on the success of an intervention, in one place and one point in time (or several such instances), and the political choice to roll it out, based on the assumption that national governments are best placed to spread that success throughout the country’

Put more simply, ‘good evidence’ for policy involves a two-sided political choice, on: (1) whose evidence claims should matter, and (2) how much government centralisation you need, to make sure that your knowledge claim counts.

Put more strongly, ignorance of these dilemmas is no excuse for making evidential choices without considering the consequences for governance.

See also:

The evidence policy gap: changing the research mindset is only the beginning

If scientists want to influence policymaking, they need to understand it

“Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks: a case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’”

‘Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?’

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

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

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


[If you came here in error, or to continue your adventure, go to page 100]


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

How else can we describe and seek to fill the evidence-policy gap?

There is a common story within science that describes a new era in politics: policymakers do not pay sufficient respect to expertise or attention to good quality evidence.

Common solutions are supply side, to produce better evidence and communicate it more effectively, and demand side, to reform how governments process evidence and improve science literacy among policymakers.

One part of this story emphasises wide academic agreement on how to assess evidence quality – with reference to scientific methods – and technical improvements to communication skills and organisational processes to close the evidence-policy gap. The other part emphasises policymakers irrationality or cynicism and political system dysfunction, producing ‘policy based evidence’ rather than ‘evidence based policy’.

Policy studies help us tell a less alarmist and more consistent story on the use of evidence:

  • Policymakers have always combined ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ cognitive shortcuts to evidence. No person or organisation has the ability to process all information, and cognitive efficiency is necessary to policy choice.
  • It would be a mistake to assess evidence quality narrowly in relation to a hierarchy of research methods or exaggerate the extent to which academics adhere to this hierarchy.
  • Policymakers identify problems and place certain demands on evidence: to help solve problems quickly, and maintain their image of governing competence, credibility, or political support. Policy relevance and availability are necessary gauges of quality, and an evidence-informed solution must be technically and politically feasible.

Conclusion 1. Reframe supply side solutions on production and communication. Evidence syntheses should combine an inclusive assessment of research quality and policy relevance. Communication should relate to the framing of evidence to influence the ways in which policymakers (a) define problems, and (b) describe the political feasibility of solutions.

  • Too many commentators declare policymaking failure in (explicit or implicit) comparison to an ideal-type, such as the policy cycle, in which (a) a core group of policymakers can make choices and process them in a straightforward evidence-informed way, through a series of orderly stages, and therefore (b) researchers know how and when to present evidence.
  • Policymaking is better understood as a complex environment or system over which the ‘centre’ has limited control. Policymakers must delegate most responsibilities to many other organisation and networks, and respond to socio-economic conditions and events out of their control. Consequently, the ‘action’ takes place in many different parts of the system, there are many different ‘rules of the game’, and policy often seems to ‘emerge’ locally without central direction. If we think of these dynamics as inevitable features of political systems, not dysfunctions to be solved, we can produce more pragmatic ways to encourage the use of evidence within them.

Conclusion 2. Reframe demand side solutions to take systemic factors into account. Interventions to improve evidence processing or literacy in a small part of government will be ineffective if they do not take into account policymaking scale, and key factors such as the division of policymaking responsibilities across systems, pervasiveness of subsystems, and the limited coordinative capacity of a political system’s ‘centre’.

In the next posts, we consider the practical and ethical dilemmas that arise when you seek the greater use of evidence in policy:

  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles (go to page 101)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas (go to page 526)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 3. Use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers (go to page 300 then scroll down to point 3)

[If you came here in error, or to continue your adventure, go to page 100]


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Encourage ‘knowledge management for policy’

Knowledge management for policy impact by Lene Topp, David Mair, Laura Smillie (from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, JRC & Paul Cairney (not from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, JRC)

Put down that huge blue pen again. Step even further away from the flipchart. The JRC did all those exercises for you, and there are no more sticky circles or fluorescent post-its left.

In this article, we show the payoffs to a wide information-gathering exercise, from expert workshops to literature reviews, to produce advice on how to close the evidence-policy gap. We recommend that relevant organisations should develop teams of researchers, policymakers, and ‘knowledge brokers’ to produce eight key practices:

  1. research synthesis, to generate ‘state of the art’ knowledge on a policy problem
  2. management of expert communities, to maximise collaboration
  3. understanding policymaking, to know when and how to present evidence
  4. interpersonal skills, to focus on relationships and interaction
  5. engagement, to include citizens and stakeholders
  6. effective communication of knowledge
  7. monitoring and evaluation, to identify the impact of evidence on policy
  8. policy advice, to know how to present knowledge effectively and ethically.

We do so in colour:

Figure 1

We describe the problems that these 8 skills are designed to solve:

Table 1

Then we scare you with a cautionary tale:

Table 2 Topp et al

We conclude:

‘In recommending eight skills, we argue that ‘pure scientists’ and ‘professional politicians’ cannot do this job alone. Scientists need ‘knowledge brokers’ and science advisors with the skills to increase policymakers’ demand for evidence. Policymakers need help to understand and explain the evidence and its implications. Brokers are essential: scientists with a feel for policy and policymakers understanding how to manage science and scientists.

Many scientists are in a great position to move into this new profession, providing a more robust form of knowledge-based consultancy, built on a crucial understanding of scientific methods and evidence assessment. However, working between science and policy is hard to manoeuver, and the training we identify is more like a career choice than a quick fix. Science and policy worlds are interconnected, but not always compatible. Therefore, knowledge managers need to professionalise, to develop new skills, and work in teams with a comprehensive set of skills unlikely to be held by one person’.

It already sounds like a career choice, doesn’t it? Still, we need to think further:

  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles (go to page 101)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas (go to page 526)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 3. Use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers (go to page 300 then scroll down to point 3)

[If you came here in error, or to continue your adventure, go to page 100]


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Tips from the ‘how to’ literature from the science community

Put down that huge blue pen. Step away from the flipchart.

There is now a large literature on the strategies that people might use to promote the use of evidence in policy, so you no longer have to start from first principles in your workshop.

Thanks to Dr Kathryn Oliver and colleagues, we now have systematic reviews of the peer reviewed academic evidence on the ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy (click here) and the ‘grey literature’, which includes newspaper editorials, blogs, and practitioner reports:

  1. Kathryn Oliver and Paul Cairney (2019) ‘The Dos and Don’ts of influencing policy: a systematic review of advice to academics’, Palgrave Communications Open Access (PDF )
  2. Paul Cairney and Kathryn Oliver (2018) ‘How should academics engage in policymaking to achieve impact?’ Political Studies Review  (PDF)

The advice from the peer reviewed literature can be summed up as follows:

  1. Produce better quality evidence on policy problems and solutions.
  2. Improve dissemination strategies to increase policymaker access to research: write more concise and less jargon-filled reports, boost resources for dissemination, and remove paywall obstacles to accessing research.
  3. Develop relationships with policymakers, to address the unpredictability of politics, or the importance of timing, serendipity, and ‘windows of opportunity’ to act.
  4. Engage directly, in academic-practitioner workshops, or use intermediaries such as ‘knowledge brokers’, to break down communications and cultural barriers associated with the different incentives, rhythms, and language of researcher and policymakers.
  5. Encourage policymakers to be more science literate, to appreciate the role of evidence and ways to separate high- and low-quality sources

The grey literature is fairly similar.

Kathryn and I summarise key themes and individual recommendations from 78 publications as follows:

  1. Do high quality research.

Use specific well-established research designs, methods, or metrics.

  1. Make your research relevant and readable.

Provide and disseminate easily-understandable, clear, relevant and high-quality research. Aim for the general but ‘not ignorant’ reader. Produce good stories based, for example, on emotional appeals or humour to expand your audience

  1. Understand the policy process, policymaking context, and key actors.

Note the busy and constrained lives of policy actors Maximise your use of established ways to engage, such as in advisory committees. Be pragmatic about what ‘success’ looks like, accepting that research rarely translates into policy options directly

  1. Be ‘accessible’ to policymakers: engage routinely, flexibly, and humbly.

As publicly-funded professionals, it is the job of academics to engage with policy and publics. Discuss topics beyond your narrow expertise, as a representative of your discipline or the science profession. Be humble, courteous, professional, and recognise the limits to your skills when giving policy advice. Respect policymakers’ time and expertise.

  1. Decide if you want to be an ‘issue advocate’ or ‘honest broker’

There is a commonly-cited ethical dilemma about whether to go beyond providing evidence to recommend specific policy options or remain an ‘honest broker’ explaining the options. If making recommendations, use storytelling to persuade policymakers of a course of action. However, note the consequences of becoming a political actor. David Nutt famously lost his advisory role after publicly criticising government drugs policy, some describe the loss of one’s safety if adopting an activist mindset, and anecdotal conversations describe the risk of losing credibility in government if seen as too evangelical while giving policy advice. However, more common consequences include criticism within one’s peer-group, being seen as an academic ‘lightweight, being used to add legitimacy to a policy position, and the risk of burnout.

  1. Build relationships (and ground rules) with policymakers.

Relationship-building activities require major investment and skills, but working collaboratively is often necessary to get evidence into policy. Academics could identify policy actors to provide better insight into policy problems, act as champions for their research, and identify the most helpful policy actors, who may advisors rather than ministers. However, collaboration can also lead to conflict and reputational damage. Therefore, when possible, produce ground rules acceptable to academics and policymakers. Successful engagement may require all parties to agree about processes (ethics, consent, and confidentiality) and outputs (data, intellectual property).

  1. Be ‘entrepreneurial’ or find someone who is

Much advice projects an image of a daring, persuasive scientist, comfortable in policy environments and always available when needed. Develop media and marketing skills. If not willing or able to act in this way, hire brokers to act on your behalf.

  1. Reflect continuously: should you engage, do you want to, and is it working?

Academics may be a good fit in the policy arena if they enjoy the work or are passionate about the issue. Even so, keep track of when and how you have had impact, and revise your practices continuously.

At first glance, some of this advice appears to be consistent with key reference points in policy studies. For example, multiple streams analysis suggests that ‘policy entrepreneurs’ can make the difference to the uptake of evidence because they recognise three key requirements: tell stories to help draw attention to one way to frame a policy problem; have an evidence-informed and technically/ politically feasible policy solution ready, to attach to a lurch of attention to a problem; and, exploit the temporary willingness and ability of policymakers to select that solution. Yet, MSA only makes sense in relation to the wider policymaking environment which adds a sense of scale to this advice. Put simply, most entrepreneurs fail, and their success depends more on their environment than their skills.

Therefore, to provide more context for – and make more sense of – this ‘how to’ advice, we need to go further:

  • What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Encourage ‘knowledge management for policy’ (go to page 568)
  • How else can we describe and seek to fill the evidence-policy gap? (go to page 400)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles (go to page 101)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas (go to page 526)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 3. Use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers (go to page 300 then scroll down to point 3)

[If you came here in error, or to continue your adventure, go to page 100]


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM)

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?

The first post in this series asks: Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? It is based on talks that I have been giving since 2016, mostly to tap into a common story told by people in my audience (and the ‘science community’ more generally) about a new era in politics: policymakers do not pay sufficient respect to expertise or attention to good quality evidence.

It’s not my story, but I think it’s important to respect my audience members enough to (a) try to engage with their question, before (b) inviting them to think differently about how to ask it, and (c) provide different types of solutions according to the changing nature of the question.

Instead of a really long post for (b) and (c), I’ve made it a bit like Ceefax in which you can choose which question to ask or answer:

  • Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? (go to page 154)
  • What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Tips from the ‘how to’ literature from the science community (go to page 650)
  • What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Encourage ‘knowledge management for policy’ (go to page 568)
  • How else can we describe and seek to fill the evidence-policy gap? (go to page 400)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles (go to page 101)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas (go to page 526)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 3. Use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers (go to page 300 then scroll down to point 3)

Some of this material will appear in work with Dr Kathryn Oliver and with my co-authors on a forthcoming report for Enlightenment 2.0 

See also:

Evidence-based policymaking: political strategies for scientists living in the real world

The Science of Evidence-based Policymaking: How to Be Heard

Evidence based policymaking: 7 key themes

I also do slides, such as:

Paul Cairney FUSE May 2018 

Paul Cairney Victoria May 2018

The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking: ANZSOG talks 

Talks and blogs: ANZSOG and beyond

This is me presenting those slides in Cambridge while being very Scottish, enjoying a too-heavy cold, and sucking a lozenge. Please note that I tend to smile a lot and make many sarcastic jokes while presenting, partly to apologise indirectly for all the self-publicity.


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy

The Future of Public Bodies

Guest post by Dr Matthew Wood, Lecturer in Politics and Deputy Director of the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield


On 1st June 2018 over 30 academics and practitioners from around the world came together at the University of Sheffield to debate the future of arm’s length public bodies, specifically the key challenges they face on accountability and stakeholder engagement. Public bodies are organisations carrying out public work on behalf of the government, but are unelected. Accountability and stakeholder engagement are therefore key for public bodies as ways of assuring public trust and confidence.

The event provided an opportunity to discuss findings from Dr Wood’s three-year ESRC Future Leaders research project on public bodies, and an international survey of accountability in public bodies coordinated by Professor Thomas Schillemans. International experts on public bodies attended from Universities in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium, and Australia. The event was also attended by representatives from the OECD, UK Cabinet Office, Institute for Government, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department for Education, and practitioners from Dutch public bodies, among others.

Prior to the event, Dr Wood asked academics and practitioners to send through what they thought were the key issues facing public bodies, and made these the subject of debate and discussion over the two hours. This blog summarises the key points of debate, criticism and themes for future research co-produced between all the attendees.


What are the emerging challenges for accountability and public confidence in public bodies?

 Brexit was identified as a key challenge for public bodies in the UK, given there will be a large number of regulatory responsibilities transferred from the European level in March 2019, which public bodies are likely to be required to implement. Public bodies are therefore likely to take on a range of tasks previously performed by EU decentralised agencies and the European Commission.

In this context, participants noted an increasing problem related to time pressures and lack of resources to ensure stakeholders are able to hold public bodies properly accountable. For example, the legislative timetable in Parliament is so crowded that there is very little time to fully scrutinise work plans and accounts, with potentially significant implications for public confidence. One emergent theme was therefore the question of how to manage time in a context of constrained resources.

 How do accountability relationships shape decision making in public bodies?

Decision making is shaped by formal requirements for information provision, and informal relationships between public bodies, their Boards and parent departments. The international survey findings point to the potential that stronger disciplining powers for departments to sanction public bodies could have a significant positive impact on working relationships by providing clarity and coherence to relationships.

How are conflicts resolved when public bodies have competing accountabilities in two different directions?

 Public bodies are committed to presenting information in a timely and efficient manner, but often they have competing organisations they have to give account to. For example, public bodies may be asked to report to parliamentary select committees, audit offices, and central departments simultaneously on similar issues. This can create confusion about which relationships to prioritise.

One proposed solution to this problem was to refer back to official rules about which organisations are the main ‘principals’ of the public bodies in question. Public bodies have formal arrangements governing which forums they should engage with first and foremost (often departments) and these ought to be a ‘go to’ source of advice in the event of confusion about lines of reporting.

How can public bodies effectively manage public expectations around taking immediate action to assure accountability during crises, and manage their own approach to adverse social media coverage?

 This part of the discussion centred on the need for departments and public bodies to cooperate in managing public expectations. Rather than participating in ‘blame games’, departments and the staff of public bodies should talk to each other in the event of a crisis and share staff time to develop management strategies. Often, there are no clear ‘effective solutions’, because crises are unpredictable and complex, but focusing on common lines to take and coordinating media responses.

Another key point was that accountability has important temporal dimensions. In essence, there are more pressures for accountability to ‘work’ in the aftermath of emergencies and scandals, so flexibility is important and communicating clearly between relevant operational teams and points of contact in public bodies and governments is crucial.

 How do public managers deal with “information overload” and what are its implications for democracy and accountability within arm’s length agencies?

Information overload is a key issue for public bodies, and across the public sector. This part of the discussion made clear that often public bodies provide large amounts of information to meet accountability demands that overwhelms departments and might be seen as unnecessary. However, there was an appreciation that the demands for public bodies to make sure they are covering all the bases means they often feel encouraged to provide extensive information and justification. One suggestion for resolving this tension was to refer back to guidelines on what needs to be provided and for what purpose.

Stakeholder Engagement

How do public bodies and other expert agencies engage with stakeholders within and outside government?

 Dr Wood’s work suggests that agencies can effectively engage with stakeholders through ‘entrepreneurship’ – going beyond formal organisational responsibilities to be proactive in seeking out opportunities to engage stakeholders. They do this through:

  1. Improving website accessibility/readability;
  2. Pro-actively seeking coverage from traditional and non-traditional media outlets;
  3. Face-to-face events with stakeholders;
  4. Close collaboration with stakeholders through informal working groups;
  5. Training exercises with professional audiences and service users;
  6. Internal learning and reform exercises.

Dr Wood presented a typology of ‘entrepreneurship’ strategies developed by his ESRC-funded research, covering ‘technical’ and ‘insulating’ public bodies that cover less of the six criteria, and ‘networking’ and ‘politicised’ public bodies covering more of them. He presented data suggesting ‘politicised’ public bodies are more likely to be viewed as legitimate within parliamentary debates.

One response to this was that ‘entrepreneurship’ might be more relevant for public bodies with more resources available to them. Another critical view was that entrepreneurial strategies cannot be a substitute or ‘smokescreen’ for formal and legal responsibilities, and public bodies need to be wary of straying too far from their legal remit.

What kinds of stakeholder engagement practices do public bodies create? Which are most effective?

 One key example of good practice for stakeholder engagement was the Electoral Commission. The Commission is good at providing very clear explanations of electoral law, its relevance, and why what it does matters for the public good. It presents information in an accessible but authoritative way, in a similar way to the ‘insulating’ approach presented in Dr Wood’s typology. This suggests that a more constrained strategy, focusing on elements of ‘entrepreneurship’ that are specifically relevant to individual public bodies, could be better for securing legitimacy, than one focused on reaching out to various diverse stakeholders.

How do and with which consequences do agencies balance political responsiveness and agency credibility and reputation?

 The discussion highlighted how public bodies need to provide objective and clear information and have a well-defined approach to communicating their remit, responsibilities, and why their work has public benefit, to key audiences. The reputation of public bodies is forged through a strong sense of public purpose and commitment to serving diverse communities. This challenge is particularly relevant internationally, where the discussion highlighted how international public bodies find communicating their expertise and role more difficult.

 How can governments design ALBs to allow them capacity to manage stakeholder engagement in ways that promote collective public good, and address power inequities and representativeness of affected audiences?

 A key theme running through the final discussion was that public bodies should be confident that, despite being unelected, they carry out and advise on crucial political decisions that require extensive consultation and scrutiny. Since government departments often do not have the time or resources to carry out such detailed work, public bodies provide a key function. A key point was to refer back to official guidance about public bodies’ mission and purpose, and to communicate this in an efficient and effective manner.

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Paul Cairney reviews Graham Room’s book on Agile Actors on Complex Terrains (2016)

It’s true. I do.

Policy & Politics Journal Blog

Paul CairneyPaul Cairney

Paul Cairney reviews Graham Room’s Agile Actors on Complex Terrains (Routledge, 2016). Paul is guest editor of our 2018 special issue: Practical Lessons on Policy Theories

Some background context on complexity theory

If used wisely, complexity theory has the potential to make a great contribution to the study of politics and policymaking. It offers a way to think about, and visualise, the interaction between many actors, following many rules, to produce outcomes that we can relate to the properties of complex systems. 

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MPP webinar

I’m doing a webinar today to answer questions about the University of Stirling’s MPP. The subject of the Scottish weather is bound to come up, so here is a picture of typical* Scottish weather near me.

2018-07-01 13.17.48



*there is some debate about the meaning and accuracy of this claim.

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