Most policy theories in this series begin with reference to bounded rationality. Policymakers and influencers can only process a tiny proportion of all policy relevant information. They must find ways to limit their attention, to make choices under political and time pressures. They combine cognition and emotion, or rational and irrational shortcuts. Actors also exercise power to frame issues, to focus the attention of their audience to specific information and ways to interpret issues.
Narrative can be an effective means to that end, but the stories that we tell people compete with the stories they tell to themselves. The same story can motivate some audiences, if it chimes with their beliefs or pulls their heartstrings, but backfire in others, if it grates with their view of the world.
In that context, the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) identifies the narrative strategies of actors seeking to exploit other actors’ cognitive biases. A narrative contains four elements:
Characters. It contains at least one actor, such as a hero or villain.
Plot. Common story arcs include: heroes going on a journey or facing and overcoming adversity, often relating to villains causing trouble and victims suffering tragedy.
Moral. A story’s take-home point describes the cause of, and solution to, the policy problem.
Empirical NPF studies suggest that narrators are effective when they:
use an audience’s fundamental beliefs to influence their more malleable beliefs
tie their story to a hero rather than villain
help the audience imagine a concrete, not abstract, problem, and
connect individual stories to a well understood ‘grand narrative’.
They also compete with others, using stories to: ‘socialise’ or ‘privatise’ issues, romanticize their own coalition’s aim while demonizing others, or encourage governments to distribute benefits to heroic target populations and punishments to villains.
However, narrator success also depends on the audience and context. Particular narratives may only be influential during a window of opportunity in which the audience is receptive to the story, or when the story fits with the audience’s beliefs (think of the same message to left and right wing populations). Indeed, NPF studies suggest that the stories with the biggest short-term impact were on the audiences predisposed to accept them.
It may not seem important that stories have most impact when telling people what they already think, but it could make the difference between thought and action, such as when people turn out to vote or prioritise one problem at the expense of the rest. We may struggle to persuade people to change their minds, but we can encourage them to act by focusing their attention to one belief over another.
Follow up reading
As described, the NPF does not seem too controversial: people tell stories to themselves and each other, and persuasive stories really matter to policymaking. However, note the wider debate about the implications of the NPF’s ‘positivist’ approach in a field often characterised as ‘post-positivist’. This debate – for example in Critical Policy Studies – is a great way into some profound academic differences about (a) the nature of the world, (b) how we can gather knowledge of it, and (c) the methods we should use.
Classic studies suggest that the most profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe. We often witness highly visible political battles and can use pluralist methods to identify who has material resources, how they use them, and who wins. However, key forms of power ensure that many such battles do not take place. Actors often use their resources to reinforce social attitudes and policymakers’ beliefs, to establish which issues are policy problems worthy of attention and which populations deserve government support or punishment. Key battles may not arise because not enough people think they are worthy of debate. Attention and support for debate may rise, only to be crowded out of a political agenda in which policymakers can only debate a small number of issues.
Studies of power relate these processes to the manipulation of ideas or shared beliefs under conditions of bounded rationality (see for example the NPF). Manipulation might describe some people getting other people to do things they would not otherwise do. They exploit the beliefs of people who do not know enough about the world, or themselves, to know how to identify and pursue their best interests. Or, they encourage social norms – in which we describe some behaviour as acceptable and some as deviant – which are enforced by the state (for example, via criminal justice and mental health policy), but also social groups and individuals who govern their own behaviour with reference to what they feel is expected of them (and the consequences of not living up to expectations).
Such beliefs, norms, and rules are profoundly important because they often remain unspoken and taken for granted. Indeed, some studies equate them with the social structures that appear to close off some action. If so, we may not need to identify manipulation to find unequal power relationships: strong and enduring social practices help some people win at the expense of others, by luck or design.
In practice, these more-or-less-observable forms of power co-exist and often reinforce each other:
Example 1. The control of elected office is highly skewed towards men. Male incumbency, combined with social norms about who should engage in politics and public life, signal to women that their efforts may be relatively unrewarded and routinely punished – for example, in electoral campaigns in which women face verbal and physical misogyny – and the oversupply of men in powerful positions tends to limit debates on feminist issues.
Example 2. ‘Epistemic violence’ describes the act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge. Specific discussions include: (a) the colonial West’s subjugation of colonized populations, diminishing the voice of the subaltern; (b) privileging scientific knowledge and dismissing knowledge claims via personal or shared experience; and (c) erasing the voices of women of colour from the history of women’s activism and intellectual history.
It is in this context that we can understand ‘critical’ research designed to ‘produce social change that will empower, enlighten, and emancipate’ (p51). Powerlessness can relate to the visible lack of economic material resources and factors such as the lack of opportunity to mobilise and be heard.
I’m working on a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach, leaving some of the story open to interpretation. As a result, much of the meaning of this story – and, in particular, the focus on limiting participation – depends on the audience.
For example, consider the impact of the same story on audiences primarily focused on (a) scientific evidence and policy, or (b) participation and power.
Normally, when I talk about evidence and policy, my audience is mostly people with scientific or public health backgrounds asking why do policymakers ignore scientific evidence? I am usually invited to ruffle feathers, mostly by challenging a – remarkably prevalent – narrative that goes like this:
We know what the best evidence is, since we have produced it with the best research methods (the ‘hierarchy of evidence’ argument).
We have evidence on the nature of the problem and the most effective solutions (the ‘what works’ argument).
Policymakers seems to be ignoring our evidence or failing to act proportionately (the ‘evidence-policy barriers’ argument).
Or, they cherry-pick evidence to suit their agenda (the ‘policy based evidence’ argument).
In that context, Isuggest that there are many claims to policy-relevant knowledge, policymakers have to ignore most information before making choices, and they are not in control of the policy process for which they are ostensibly in charge.
Limiting participation as a strategic aim
Then, I say to my audience that – if they are truly committed to maximising the use of scientific evidence in policy – they will need to consider how far they will go to get what they want. I use the metaphor of an ethical ladder in which each rung offers more influence in exchange for dirtier hands: tell stories and wait for opportunities, or demonise your opponents, limit participation, and humour politicians when they cherry-pick to reinforce emotional choices.
It’s ‘show don’t tell’ but I hope that the take-home point for most of the audience is that they shouldn’t focus so much on one aim – maximising the use of scientific evidence – to the detriment of other important aims, such as wider participation in politics beyond a reliance on a small number of experts. I say ‘keep your eyes on the prize’ but invite the audience to reflect on which prizes they should seek, and the trade-offs between them.
Limited participation – and ‘windows of opportunity’ – as an empirical finding
I did suggest that most policymaking happens away from the sphere of ‘exciting’ and ‘unruly’ politics. Put simply, people have to ignore almost every issue almost all of the time. Each time they focus their attention on one major issue, they must – by necessity – ignore almost all of the others.
For me, the political science story is largely about the pervasiveness of policy communities and policymaking out of the public spotlight.
The logic is as follows. Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities. They delegate the rest to bureaucrats at lower levels of government. Bureaucrats lack specialist knowledge, and rely on other actors for information and advice. Those actors trade information for access. In many cases, they develop effective relationships based on trust and a shared understanding of the policy problem.
Trust often comes from a sense that everyone has proven to be reliable. For example, they follow norms or the ‘rules of the game’. One classic rule is to contain disputes within the policy community when actors don’t get what they want: if you complain in public, you draw external attention and internal disapproval; if not, you are more likely to get what you want next time.
For me, this is key context in which to describe common strategic concerns:
Should you wait for a ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change? Maybe. Or, maybe it will never come because policymaking is largely insulated from view and very few issues reach the top of the policy agenda.
Should you juggle insider and outsider strategies? Yes, some groups seem to do it well and it is possible for governments and groups to be in a major standoff in one field but close contact in another. However, each group must consider why they would do so, and the trade-offs between each strategy. For example, groups excluded from one venue may engage (perhaps successfully) in ‘venue shopping’ to get attention from another. Or, they become discredited within many venues if seen as too zealous and unwilling to compromise. Insider/outsider may seem like a false dichotomy to experienced and well-resourced groups, who engage continuously, and are able to experiment with many approaches and use trial-and-error learning. It is a more pressing choice for actors who may have only one chance to get it right and do not know what to expect.
Where is the power analysis in all of this?
I rarely use the word power directly, partly because – like ‘politics’ or ‘democracy’ – it is an ambiguous term with many interpretations (see Box 3.1). People often use it without agreeing its meaning and, if it means everything, maybe it means nothing.
However, you can find many aspects of power within our discussion. For example, insider and outsider strategies relate closely to Schattschneider’s classic discussion in which powerful groups try to ‘privatise’ issues and less powerful groups try to ‘socialise’ them. Agenda setting is about using resources to make sure issues do, or do not, reach the top of the policy agenda, and most do not.
These aspects of power sometimes play out in public, when:
Actors engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form coalitions with actors who share their beliefs, and often romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.
Actors mobilise their resources to encourage policymakers to prioritise some forms of knowledge or evidence over others (such as by valuing scientific evidence over experiential knowledge).
They compete to identify the issues most worthy of our attention, telling stories to frame or define policy problems in ways that generate demand for their evidence.
However, they are no less important when they play out routinely:
Governments have standard operating procedures – or institutions – to prioritise some forms of evidence and some issues routinely.
Certain ideas, or ways of understanding the world and the nature of policy problems within it, becomes so dominant that they are unspoken and taken for granted as deeply held beliefs. Still, they constrain or facilitate the success of new ‘evidence based’ policy solutions.
In other words, the word ‘power’ is often hidden because the most profound forms of power often seem to be hidden.
In the context of our discussion, power comes from the ability to define some evidence as essential and other evidence as low quality or irrelevant, and therefore define some people as essential or irrelevant. It comes from defining some issues as exciting and worthy of our attention, or humdrum, specialist and only relevant to experts. It is about the subtle, unseen, and sometimes thoughtless ways in which we exercise power to harness people’s existing beliefs and dominate their attention as much as the transparent ways in which we mobilise resources to publicise issues. Therefore, to ‘maximise the use of evidence’ sounds like an innocuous collective endeavour, but it is a highly political and often hidden use of power.
Many theories in this 1000 words series describe multiple policymaking venues. They encourage us to give up on the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful national central government. Instead, there are many venues in which to make authoritative choices, each contributing to what we call policy.
The word ‘multi-centric’ (coined by Professor Tanya Heikkila, with me and Dr Matt Wood) does not suggest that every venue is of equal importance or power. Rather, it prompts us not to miss something important by focusing too narrowly on one single (alleged) centre of authority.
To some extent, multi-centric policymaking results from choice. Many federal political systems have constitutions that divide power between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, or give some protection to subnational governments. Many others have become ‘quasi-federal’ more organically, by sharing responsibilities with supranational and subnational governments. In such cases, there is explicit choice to distribute power and share responsibility for making policy (albeit with some competition to assert power or shuffle-off responsibility).
However, for the most part, this series helps explain the necessity of multi-centric policymaking with reference to two concepts:
Bounded rationality. Policymakers are only able to pay attention to – and therefore understand and seek to control – a tiny proportion of their responsibilities.
Both factors combine to provide major limits to single central government control. Elected policymakers deal with bounded rationality by prioritising some issues and, necessarily, delegating responsibility for the rest. Delegation may be inside or outside of central government.
1000 Words theories describing multi-centric governmentdirectly
Multi-level governance describes the sharing of power vertically, between many levels of government, and horizontally, between many governmental, quasi-non-governmental and non-governmental organisations. Many studies focus on the diffusion of power within specific areas like the European Union – highlighting choice – but the term ‘governance’ has a wider connection to the necessity of MLG.
For example, part of MLG’s origin story is previous work to help explain the pervasiveness of policy networks:
Policymakers at the ‘top’ ask bureaucrats to research and process policy on their behalf
Civil servants seek information and advice from actors outside of government
They often form enduring relationships built on factors such as trust.
Such policymaking takes place away from a notional centre – or at least a small core executive – and with limited central attention.
Polycentricity describes (a) ‘many decision centers’ with their own separate authority, (b) ‘operating under an overarching set of rules’, but with (c) a sense of ‘spontaneous order’ in which no single centre controls the rules or outcomes. Polycentric governance describes ‘policymaking centres with overlapping authority; they often work together to make decisions, but may also engage in competition or conflict’.
This work on polycentric governance comes primarily from the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework that helps compare the effectiveness of institutions designed to foster collective action. For example, Ostrom identifies the conditions under which non-governmental institutions can help manage ‘common pool resources’ effectively, while IAD-inspired studies of municipal governance examine how many ‘centres’ can cooperate as or more effectively than a single central government.
Complexity theory has a less clear origin story, but we can identify key elements of complex systems:
They are greater than the sum of their parts
They amplify or dampen policymaking activity, so the same action can have a maximal or no impact
Small initial choices can produce major long term momentum
There are regularities of behaviour despite the ever-present potential for instability
They exhibit ‘emergence’. Local outcomes seem to defy central direction.
Systems contain many actors interacting with many other actors. They follow and reproduce rules, which help explain long periods of regular behaviour. Or, many actors and rules collide when they interact, producing the potential for many bursts of instability. In each case, the system is too large and unpredictable to be subject to central control.
1000 Words theories describing multi-centric government indirectly
Many other theories in this series describe multi-centric policymaking – or aspects of it – without using this term directly. Examples include:
Punctuated equilibrium theory suggests that (a) policymakers at the ‘centre’ of government could pay attention to, and influence, most issues, but (b) they can only focus on a small number and must ignore the rest. Very few issues reach the ‘macropolitical’ agenda. Multiple policymaking organisations process the rest out of the public spotlight.
Multiple streams analysis turns the notion of a policy cycle on its head, and emphasises serendipity over control. Policy does not change until three things come together at the right ‘window of opportunity’: attention to a problem rises, a feasible solution exists, and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to act. Modern MSA studies show that such windows exist at multiple levels of government.
The advocacy coalition framework describes the interaction between many policymakers and influencers. Coalitions contain actors from many levels and types of government, cooperating and competing within subsystems (see networks). They are surrounded by a wider context – over which no single actor has direct control – that provides the impetus for ‘shocks’ to each coalition.
In such accounts, the emphasis is on high levels of complexity, the potential for instability, and the lack of central control over policymaking and policy outcomes. The policy process is not well described with reference to a small group of policymakers at the heart of government.
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.