Taking lessons from policy theory into practice: 3 examples

Notes for ANZSOG/ ANU Crawford School/ UNSW Canberra workshop. Powerpoint here. The recording of the lecture (skip to 2m30) and Q&A is here (right click to download mp3 or dropbox link):

The context for this workshop is the idea that policy theories could be more helpful to policymakers/ practitioners if we could all communicate more effectively with each other. Academics draw general and relatively abstract conclusions from multiple cases. Practitioners draw very similar conclusions from rich descriptions of direct experience in a smaller number of cases. How can we bring together their insights and use a language that we all understand? Or, more ambitiously, how can we use policy theory-based insights to inform the early career development training that civil servants and researchers receive?

The first step is to translate policy theories into a non-technical language by trying to speak with an audience beyond our immediate peers (see for example Practical Lessons from Policy Theories).

However, translation is not enough. A second crucial step is to consider how policymakers and practitioners are likely to make sense of theoretical insights when they apply them to particular aims or responsibilities. For example:

  1. Central government policymakers may accept the descriptive accuracy of policy theories emphasising limited central control, but not the recommendation that they should let go, share power, and describe their limits to the public.
  2. Scientists may accept key limitations to ‘evidence based policymaking’ but reject the idea that they should respond by becoming better storytellers or more manipulative operators.
  3. Researchers and practitioners struggle to resolve hard choices when combining evidence and ‘coproduction’ while ‘scaling up’ policy interventions. Evidence choice is political choice. Can we do more than merely encourage people to accept this point?

I discuss these examples below because they are closest to my heart (especially example 1). Note throughout that I am presenting one interpretation about: (1) the most promising insights, and (2) their implications for practice. Other interpretations of the literature and its implications are available. They are just a bit harder to find.

Example 1: the policy cycle endures despite its descriptive inaccuracy

cycle

The policy cycle does not describe and explain the policy process well:

  • If we insist on keeping the cycle metaphor, it is more accurate to see the process as a huge set of policy cycles that connect with each other in messy and unpredictable ways.
  • The cycle approach also links strongly to the idea of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which a small group of policymakers and analysts are in full possession of the facts and full control of the policy process. They carry out their aims through a series of stages.

Policy theories provide more descriptive and explanatory usefulness. Their insights include:

  • Limited choice. Policymakers inherit organisations, rules, and choices. Most ‘new’ choice is a revision of the old.
  • Limited attention. Policymakers must ignore almost all of the policy problems for which they are formally responsible. They pay attention to some, and delegate most responsibility to civil servants. Bureaucrats rely on other actors for information and advice, and they build relationships on trust and information exchange.
  • Limited central control. Policy may appear to be made at the ‘top’ or in the ‘centre’, but in practice policymaking responsibility is spread across many levels and types of government (many ‘centres’). ‘Street level’ actors make policy as they deliver. Policy outcomes appear to ‘emerge’ locally despite central government attempts to control their fate.
  • Limited policy change. Most policy change is minor, made and influenced by actors who interpret new evidence through the lens of their beliefs. Well-established beliefs limit the opportunities of new solutions. Governments tend to rely on trial-and-error, based on previous agreements, rather than radical policy change based on a new agenda. New solutions succeed only during brief and infrequent windows of opportunity.

However, the cycle metaphor endures because:

  • It provides a simple model of policymaking with stages that map onto important policymaking functions.
  • It provides a way to project policymaking to the public. You know how we make policy, and that we are in charge, so you know who to hold to account.

In that context, we may want to be pragmatic about our advice:

  1. One option is via complexity theory, in which scholars generally encourage policymakers to accept and describe their limits:
  • Accept routine error, reduce short-term performance management, engage more in trial and error, and ‘let go’ to allow local actors the flexibility to adapt and respond to their context.
  • However, would a government in the Westminster tradition really embrace this advice? No. They need to balance (a) pragmatic policymaking, and (b) an image of governing competence.
  1. Another option is to try to help improve an existing approach.

Further reading (blog posts):

The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

Making Sense of Policymaking: why it’s always someone else’s fault and nothing ever changes

Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government

Example 2: how to deal with a lack of ‘evidence based policymaking’

I used to read many papers on tobacco policy, with the same basic message: we have the evidence of tobacco harm, and evidence of which solutions work, but there is an evidence-policy gap caused by too-powerful tobacco companies, low political will, and pathological policymaking. These accounts are not informed by theories of policymaking.

I then read Oliver et al’s paper on the lack of policy theory in health/ environmental scholarship on the ‘barriers’ to the use of evidence in policy. Very few articles rely on policy concepts, and most of the few rely on the policy cycle. This lack of policy theory is clear in their description of possible solutions – better communication, networking, timing, and more science literacy in government – which does not describe well the need to respond to policymaker psychology and a complex policymaking environment.

So, I wrote The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking and one zillion blog posts to help identify the ways in which policy theories could help explain the relationship between evidence and policy.

Since then, the highest demand to speak about the book has come from government/ public servant, NGO, and scientific audiences outside my discipline. The feedback is generally that: (a) the book’s description sums up their experience of engagement with the policy process, and (b) maybe it opens up discussion about how to engage more effectively.

But how exactly do we turn empirical descriptions of policymaking into practical advice?

For example, scientist/ researcher audiences want to know the answer to a question like: Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? and so I focus on three conversation starters:

  1. they have a broader view on what counts as good evidence (see ANZSOG description)
  2. they have to ignore almost all information (a nice way into bounded rationality and policymaker psychology)
  3. they do not understand or control the process in which they seek to use evidence (a way into ‘the policy process’)

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

We can then consider many possible responses in the sequel What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?

Examples include:

  • ‘How to do it’ advice. I compare tips for individuals (from experienced practitioners) with tips based on policy concepts. They are quite similar-looking tips – e.g. find out where the action is, learn the rules, tell good stories, engage allies, seek windows of opportunity – but I describe mine as 5 impossible tasks!
  • Organisational reform. I describe work with the European Commission Joint Research Centre to identify 8 skills or functions of an organisation bringing together the supply/demand of knowledge.
  • Ethical dilemmas. I use key policy theories to ask people how far they want to go to privilege evidence in policy. It’s fun to talk about these things with the type of scientist who sees any form of storytelling as manipulation.

Further reading:

Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking?

A 5-step strategy to make evidence count

Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice?

Principles of science advice to government: key problems and feasible solutions

Example 3: how to encourage realistic evidence-informed policy transfer

This focus on EBPM is useful context for discussions of ‘policy learning’ and ‘policy transfer’, and it was the focus of my ANZOG talk entitled (rather ambitiously) ‘teaching evidence-based policy to fly’.

I’ve taken a personal interest in this one because I’m part of a project – called IMAJINE – in which we have to combine academic theory and practical responses. We are trying to share policy solutions across Europe rather than explain why few people share them!

For me, the context is potentially overwhelming:

So, when we start to focus on sharing lessons, we will have three things to discover:

  1. What is the evidence for success, and from where does it come? Governments often project success without backing it up.
  2. What story do policymakers tell about the problem they are trying to solve, the solutions they produced, and why? Two different governments may be framing and trying to solve the same problem in very different ways.
  3. Was the policy introduced in a comparable policymaking system? People tend to focus on political system comparability (e.g. is it unitary or federal?), but I think the key is in policymaking system comparability (e.g. what are the rules and dominant ideas?).

To be honest, when one of our external assessors asked me how well I thought I would do, we both smiled because the answer may be ‘not very’. In other words, the most practical lesson may be the hardest to take, although I find it comforting: the literature suggests that policymakers might ignore you for 20 years then suddenly become very (but briefly) interested in your work.

 

The slides are a bit wonky because I combined my old ppt to the Scottish Government with a new one for UNSW Paul Cairney ANU Policy practical 22 October 2018

I wanted to compare how I describe things to (1) civil servants (2) practitioners/ researcher (3) me, but who has the time/ desire to listen to 3 powerpoints in one go? If the answer is you, let me know and we’ll set up a Zoom call.

2 Comments

Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), IMAJINE, Policy learning and transfer

2 responses to “Taking lessons from policy theory into practice: 3 examples

  1. Pingback: Talks and blogs: ANZSOG trip | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Theory and Practice: How to Communicate Policy Research beyond the Academy | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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